What makes a crank a crank?
It is not my intent to pile on and add another point-by-poing blog slapdown of Mr. Birdnow to those of PZ. There's really no need, as Mr. Birdnow has dug himself into a deep hole and made an utter fool of himself flaunting his amazing ignorance of biology and then, when all his errors were pointed out to him, claiming that his errors didn't make his arguments less valid. (Besides, I can't come close to PZ when it comes to giving creationists like Birdnow the blog slapdowns they beg for.) When faced with legitimate (albeit somewhat rough) criticisms of the blatant errors in his presentation and his arrogance in refusing to recognize how much he does not know, Birdnow went running to Dembski, making him hardly worth bothering with as much as I have. Rather, what caught my eye was an interesting exchange in the comments of his post that summed up quite well what makes creationists cranks. Indeed, it summed up a characteristic of cranks in general, which is why I wanted to make it my launching point.
A commenter going by the 'nym of StaticNoise said:
Without the complete taxonomic relationship of organisms we can't possibly guess at ancestral relationships and declare evolutionary theory completely settled. There has been a persistent campaign by evolutionists to bully the lay public, as evidenced in this thread, into accepting that the debate is over.
Hurd nailed it right on the head! And succinctly, too! In fact, I wondered as I read his comment whether he had had some experience dealing with Holocaust deniers. Why? Because one of the key claims of some Holocaust deniers is that there could not have been nearly as many Jews killed in the Holocaust because, as they like to demand, "Where are the bodies and ashes?" Or, alternatively, they like to ask they like to make the fallacious claim that there is no forensic evidence that victims were gassed. As creationists do about mainstream scientists, they make claims that "mainstream" historians try to "bully" the public that the "debate is over" while implying that, if historians can't come up with a Holocaust death toll that accounts for every single Jew, Gypsy, Slav, and others who died at the hands of the Nazis, this somehow casts grave doubt on the very historicity of the entire Holocaust. (Oddly enough, they never ask the same questions or raise the same doubts about the Dresden firestorm or the Hamburg bombing, instead accepting without question even the most obviously inflated death tolls--a point I and others often throw back in their face, asking the same question, "Where are all the bodies?") In any case, in their their zeal to deny the Holocaust, Holocaust "revisionists" magnify uncertainties in estimates of the death toll or minor controversies over various aspects of the Holocaust, selectively disregarding the massive quantities of other documentary, physical, and forensic evidence supporting the contention that the Nazis intentionally developed a campaign of mass murder designed to eliminate European Jewry and any others that they saw as inferior or potential enemies of the state.Can you tell me the exact trajectory of every round of every rifle fired in the Second world War? Can you tell me the names of every person, civilian or military, who died on Nov. 17th, 1943 as a result, direct or indirect, of the Second World War?
Obviously, your failure to do so "proves" that the "theory of the Second World War" is a total fabrication used by historians to "bully the lay public, as evidenced in this thread, into accepting that the Second World War is over."
[DISCLAIMER: I do not mean to imply that creationists are anti-Semitic, as virtually all Holocaust deniers are, or Nazi apologists, as some Holocaust deniers are. I doubt that you would find a larger percentage of anti-Semites or neo-Nazis among creationists than you would in the general population. As I have pointed out before, I use this example to illustrate similarities in the fallacious reasoning the two groups use. I realize that such comparisons need to be used with care, hence this disclaimer.]
This sort of selectivity in attacking flaws in a theory or history is not limited to pseudohistorians like Holocaust "revisionists," of course, as "Dr. G. Hurd" pointed out by using his obviously absurd example. Creationists, including those of the "intelligent design" variety, like to pull a similar fast one, implying that, because we do not understand everything about how evolution occurred, because there are gaps in the taxonomy, because we do not entirely understand every step, because we haven't found each and every transitional fossil, this must imply that evolutionary theory is somehow fatally flawed and untrue. They ignore how much we do understand about evolution (which is a lot) and focus on every "flaw" in evolutionary theory, real or perceived, and every area where our understanding is incomplete, trying to magnify them in order to cast doubt on the theory of evolution. (Of course, they are also happy to overlook the fact that there is zero scientific evidence for "intelligent design.") The second implication, if you buy their claims that evolutionary theory is fatally flawed, is that their pet idea of "intelligent design" must be correct (or at least better). They seem to think that, by attacking evolution by hook or by crook, they "prove" that "intelligent design" is a reasonable alternative, all, conveniently enough, without having to produce any actual positive evidence for their alternative idea. (I won't dignify it by calling it a "theory.")
Indeed, this sort of behavior is almost a sine qua non of every variety of crank and pseudoscientist, be they "intelligent design" creationist or altie. Cranks tend to crave certainty, and, usually unintentionally, they often misinterpret weaknesses in current theory as fatal flaws that completely negate the theory. To them, if every hole isn't filled in, if every doubt isn't addressed, if every detail isn't understood, then theory must be invalidated, and, by implication, theirs must be a reasonable alternative. Science doesn't work that way, though, nor does history. For such disciplines, there will always be areas we do not understand in as much detail as we would like, and there will always be areas that current understanding doesn't adequately explain. However, these areas must be examined in light of what we do understand. For example, for evolution we understand a lot. There is an enormous amount of observational and experimental evidence from many disciplines that support current theory.
Unfortunately, science will always be susceptible to this sort of attack, at least in the eyes of nonscientists, because it is the very nature of science that no theory is ever final. Although to become elevated to the level of a "theory," a set of scientific postulates must have an enormouse amount of evidence supporting them, making them the best current understanding of a natural phenomenon that we have, no theory is ever considered to be the final word; every theory is subject to revision (most common) or replacement with a better theory (much less common) when new evidence and experimental results warrant it. To me and most scientists, science would be a boring and unrewarding field indeed if it were otherwise, because we would have very little to study. Much of the excitement of doing science comes from the possibility of discovering something new and unexpected that adds to our understanding of nature. Indeed, contrary to what cranks seem to think, the greatest glory in science is not confirming current theory but modifying it or even overturning it for something new. Unlike scientists, however, cranks don't understand that only pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in current theory is enough. They conveniently forget the part about having to produce strong evidence that supports their ideas, evidence strong enough to convince the vast majority of scientists.