Tuesday, 17 March 2009

New Scientist "lost article"


There's much fretting (to which I was alerted via the New Humanist) over the disappearance of an article by Amanda Gefter from the online version of New Scientist magazine. The piece in question, entitled How to Spot a Hidden Religious Agenda, gives some insight into the stratagems resorted to by the more subtle purveyors of pseudoscience - the ones who don't illustrate their books with pictures of human beings sharing their lunch with friendly brontosauri. She writes:


I have learned to recognise clues that the author is pushing a religious agenda. As creationists in the US continue to lose court battles over attempts to have intelligent design taught as science in federally funded schools, their strategy has been forced to... well, evolve. That means ensuring that references to pseudoscientific concepts like ID are more heavily veiled. So I thought I'd share a few tips for spotting what may be religion in science's clothing.


Why has the article been removed? Apparently because the New Scientist received a "legal complaint" about it. That usually means that someone feels that they have been libelled. But when one actually looks at the piece, which is available in samizdat form on Wikileaks, it's hard to see anything particularly libellous about it. Gefter does, it is true, describe as "silly" a remark by "creationist blogger Denyse O'Leary". But on her own blog O'Leary denies that she had anything to do with the article's disappearance.

I presume that Gefter is annoyed with me for accurately describing New Scientist as the National Enquirer of pop science mags...

For the record, I was not the one who complained, although I am not in fact a creationist in any meaningful sense of the word. People like Gefter typically just say whatever they want anyway; it's better not to get into it with them. I am pretty sure that, in any event, the blogosphere isn't really awash with a tsunami of news about this. These people all take themselves way too seriously.


That leaves Dr James Le Fanu, the only other person referred to by name in the article. Gefter doesn't say anything defamatory about him either: she does, however, quote a couple of his statements. Perhaps he objects to being bracketed (even by implication) with creationists, but any case he might have strikes me as very weak. I tried contacting his agent, but she's out all week; so I can't confirm that he is the source of the complaint. Hard to see who else it could be, though.

The disappearance of the article from the New Scientist site has at least assured it rather more attention than it might otherwise have had. No doubt it will be back up, perhaps (though I hope not) amended, before too long; in the meantime it has been preserved elsewhere, for example on Wikileaks where I found it. You can also read it here, together with my annotations. Here goes:

Red flag number one: the term "scientific materialism". "Materialism" is most often used in contrast to something else - something non-material, or supernatural. Proponents of ID frequently lament the scientific claim that humans are the product of purely material forces. At the same time, they never define how non-material forces might work. I have yet to find a definition that characterises non-materialism by what it is, rather than by what it is not.

The invocation of Cartesian dualism - where the brain and mind are viewed as two distinct entities, one material and the other immaterial - is also a red flag. And if an author describes the mind, or any biological system for that matter, as "irreducibly complex", let the alarm bells ring.

Misguided interpretations of quantum physics are a classic hallmark of pseudoscience, usually of the New Age variety, but some religious groups are now appealing to aspects of quantum weirdness to account for free will. Beware: this is nonsense.

The appeal to quantum "weirdness" is an easy game to play: most people haven't the faintest idea what quantum mechanics really is or how it works, and so are quite happy to be told that the scientists don't really "get it" either. The phenomena glimpsed at the quantum level are indeed a very bad fit with our common sense expectations about how a rational universe ought to function. Just because quantum mechanics sounds weird, however, doesn't mean that there's anything "mystical" about it, or that it necessitates a God to explain how it all works.

Coincidentally, the view that quantum physics leaves room for God has just received a boost with the announcement that an elderly French physicist and philosopher of science, Bernard d'Espagnat, has been awarded the million pound Templeton Prize for bridge-building between sceince and religion. Which is very nice for him, of course, though I can't help recalling Richard Dawkins' barbed comment that the money is usually given "to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion".

If you want to see someone hopelessly tying themselves up in knots over the meaning of quantum physics, here's Mark Vernon over on CIF attempting to explain d'Espagnat's ideas. At one point he claims "that the laws of nature presumably exist outside of space and time too, since they themselves determine the nature of space and time". That's a bit like saying my zipper exists outside my trousers, otherwise how could I do my trousers up? I have some sympathy with Vernon, though, because I don't understand the first thing about quantum physics either. Amanda Gefter has her own take on the Templeton here.

Back to her pulled article:

When you come across the terms "Darwinism" or "Darwinists", take heed. True scientists rarely use these terms, and instead opt for "evolution" and "biologists", respectively. When evolution is described as a "blind, random, undirected process", be warned. While genetic mutations may be random, natural selection is not. When cells are described as "astonishingly complex molecular machines", it is generally by breathless supporters of ID who take the metaphor literally and assume that such a "machine" requires an "engineer". If an author wishes for "academic freedom", it is usually ID code for "the acceptance of creationism".


I would locate the difficulty with the term "Darwinism" somewhere slightly different. A phrase such as "Darwinian natural selection" is a useful one, and I doubt many evolutionists would be much offended were you to call them "Darwinists". But Charles Darwin was only the originator of the idea of natural selection - its founding father, if you like - and his personality and writings are irrelevant to the truth or success of the theory, which in any case has been revolutionised since cracking of the genetic code. Darwinists are not Darwinists in the sense that Marxists are Marxists or Freudians are Freudians. Some creationists and others appear to believe that by criticising some passage in the Origin of Species they are thereby dealing a fatal blow to modern biology. Yet the fact that Darwin personally got many details wrong is not a point against Darwinism, any more than the fact that Britain has not been renamed Airstrip One makes New Labour's love of surveillance any less Orwellian.

Some general sentiments are also red flags. Authors with religious motives make shameless appeals to common sense, from the staid - "There is nothing we can be more certain of than the reality of our sense of self" (James Le Fanu in Why Us?) - to the silly - "Yer granny was an ape!" (creationist blogger Denyse O'Leary). If common sense were a reliable guide, we wouldn't need science in the first place.


Here there's an interesting contrast with the invocations of quantum mechanics mentioned earlier. Mystery-mongers are happy to point out the non-"common-sense" world of subatomic particles when it suits their agenda. Somehow the counterintuitive findings of physics are held to prove its truth as a description of ultimate reality, while the counterintuitive findings of biologists are supposed to disprove biology. Strange. My guess is that people don't expect quantum physics to make sense, whereas they imagine that biology ought to be graspable by pre-schoolers. Perhaps we should blame Dawkins for being such a damn clear writer.

Is Dr LeFanu a "religiously motivated writer"? He certainly appears to side with the creationists if this Telegraph article from 1994, reproduced on his website, accurately represents his current views:

Evolution by natural selection may, in some instances, have contributed to the diversity of the natural world, but it does not begin to explain even the simplest aspects of human physiology.

The hairiness of our ape-like "cousins", for example, protects them against cold nights and sudden chills in wet weather. When, for some reason, this protective coat is lost, they die, as they are unable to maintain their core temperature. What evolutionary advantage could there possibly have been in man becoming progressively less hairy to the point where hair effectively still functions – whether on our heads, in our armpits or groins – as a social adornment.

Darwin did acknowledge that man’s progressive denudation was difficult to reconcile with natural selection, and so proposed an alternative hypothesis: men and women, he argued, choose their partners on the basis of physical attractiveness, and, as the less hairy would have the advantage of superior beauty, they would be the most successful in mating.

It is difficult to understand how anybody can take seriously this sort of speculative conjecture, let alone credit it with the status of a scientific theory.


Oh dear. Several of Gefter's red flags in those few sentences alone.

The suppressed article continues:

Religiously motivated authors also have a bad habit of linking the cultural implications of a theory to the truth-value of that theory. The ID crowd, for instance, loves to draw a line from Darwin to the Holocaust, as they did in the "documentary" film Expelled: No intelligence allowed. Even if such an absurd link were justified, it would have zero relevance to the question of whether or not the theory of evolution is correct. Similarly, when Le Fanu writes that Darwin's On the Origin of Species "articulated the desire of many scientists for an exclusively materialist explanation of natural history that would liberate it from the sticky fingers of the theological inference that the beauty and wonder of the natural world was direct evidence for 'A Designer'", his statement has no bearing on the scientific merits of evolution.


Such arguments from social effect have been with us since Darwin's day, like the apocryphal story of the bishop's wife who is said to have muttered, "Let us pray that it is not true - but if it is, let us pray that it does not become generally known". But it's not just creationists who fall victim to this way of thinking. One thinks of the reaction of left-wing scientists whenever any link is claimed between genes and IQ or, more generally, fears surrounding cloning, genetic screening or "designer babies".

As for Le Fanu's point, which may be the subject of the complaint, that is a statement about the intellectual world of Darwin's day that is worth debating. It's undoubtedly the case that for some scientists of the time, such as TH Huxley (though probably not Darwin himself) the Origin did indeed provide them with ammunition in a wider cultural "war" with the church. Of course it has no bearing on the scientific validity of evolution - unlike Le Fanu's comments about hairy chimps, which rather speak for themselves.

"It is crucial to the public's intellectual health" concludes Gefter, "to know when science really is science. Those with a religious agenda will continue to disguise their true views in their effort to win supporters, so please read between the lines." Can't argue with that.

13 comments:

valdemar squelch said...

I get the boring old print edition of New Scientist every week. I thought it was quite a good article, as I've seen these wingnut red flags over and over again.

Le Fanu's incompetence as a reasoner is summed up by that tosh about hair. Ask any eggshell blond whether head hair is a mere adornment on a hot summer's day in England, never mind the Serengeti.

Glad this is getting some attention. Censoring their critics by legal threats was not, I seem to recall, the way of Copernicus or Galileo, real thinkers to whom creationist chuckleheads love to liken themselves.

Matt said...

I read this in the paper edition too, and agreed with most of it, but not all.

Yes, the seemingly strange theories about the nature of reality that Quantum Mechanics can invoke are often touted by people trying to defend their own equally strange ideas, but that does not make it's possible implications any less strange, or the matter any more decided.

QM differs from creationism in that the gargantuan weight of physical and rigorously checked scientific evidence stacks up in favour of evolution over creationism, whereas "interpretations" of QM are just that: interpretations, theories, because the evidence is not yet available.

By implying that dualism, irreducibly complexity, free will via the quantum, and other such theories are "nonsense" - in other words, ruling things out before the evidence is in - Gefter herself deserves a "red flag" warning.

It's a shame that the blatant idiocy of the ID-brigade and the God-botherers has - in recent times at least - got otherwise logical people bending so far back the other way to defend classical materialism and reductionism that they themselves are throwing analytical logic out the window.

Yes, it was me who complained.

Just kidding ;-)

DiscoveredJoys said...

I've been subscribing to the New Scientist for many years, and buying it from newsagents before that.

However I've come close to cancelling my subscription recently because of the increasingly poor journalism of the articles and the 'Darwin was wrong' cover in particular. I don't buy NS primarily for entertainment, but for education.

My direct debit is teetering on the edge of cancellation. I'll be watching "GefterGate" with some interest...

The Heresiarch said...

Matt: with some of the further reaches of theoretical physics, it may be a question of the evidence always being unavailable, because we are confined to our boring old four dimensions. You make a good point about some science popularisers "bending over backwards to defend classical materialism and reductionism", but there's a difference, I think, between a quantum world that seems irrational and mysterious to us and one that actually is irrational and mysterious. We have evolved to expect things to behave in a certain way, and when they don't it is difficult to grasp or picture what is going on. But that's a fact about the workings of human brains rather than one about the ultimate nature of the universe. I can't see how any understanding of quantum mechanics supports Cartesian dualism, however.

On the other side, it's amazing how many people think that because quantum fluctuations leave room for some sort of divine essence, however one might define that, that therefore it becomes sustainable to believe in God as traditionally understood by religions. But religious concepts have a very different "flavour" - and history - from anything in modern science.

Matt said...

I'd agree. The behaviour of quantum systems, whether that be wave/particle duality, superposition or entanglement seems irrational simply because their rules do not follow those that we have both evolved to expect, nor have been taught to expect. This is nothing new of course, science has continually modified our expectations.

However, what we are talking about here is two contradictory explanations and sets of rules for the same object: the universe. There is not really a "classical universe" and a "quantum universe", it's only a matter of scale.

What this implies is that one, or both of our current models is wrong, perhaps in a fundamental way. It is this realization that makes way for both the scientific search for a theory of quantum gravity (string theory, M theory etc) and also for philosophical debate about where that search may lead us and the directions we should head in.

I don't suggest that QM supports dualism, Cartesian or otherwise, but there are certainly some interesting alternatives to materialism posited by the likes of Chalmers. I only threw that in as another example of Gefter overstepping the mark of what she claims to be "nonsense". We have no weight of scientific evidence to provide a full theory of mind, so to claim that any of them is nonsense is untenable.

Personally I don't believe in anything supernatural. Things are either a part of science (be it science we grasp today, or science we haven't even thought of yet), or they are impossible, as evidenced either materially or by logic. I'm just open to ideas that seem bizarre possibly winning through.

Someone once asked me if a primitive looking to the sky was to claim, as many have done, that the sun was pulled by a chariot across the sky by god, would it not be logical to discard such outlandish ideas and look for a simpler explanation. I replied that if he thought that the sun actually being an unimaginably huge burning ball of gas millions of miles away, holding us in orbit around it by an invisible force that beds the fabric of space time was a simpler solution, he must be living today. Tomorrow all explanations seem simple, and all incorrect theories seem silly and overcomplicated. We shouldn't judge ideas on what feels right or wrong, but on scientific evidence, logic, and minds open to any other possibilities.

As for any god, by definition a creator god is not a part of our universe, so if one exists we cannot know anything about it. Hence any religion claiming truth also holds an untenable position.

mmfiore said...

We are a group that is challenging the the current paradigm in physics which is Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please Help us set the physics community back on the right course and prove that Einstein was right! Visit our site The Theory of Super
Relativity: Super
Relativity

Matt said...

Looks interesting.

On the other hand, why are there statements being made that are effectively saying "this is how everything works", rather than "this is how I think things might work, and here is the physical/mathematical evidence to prove it" (which is science), or "this is how I think things may work, I can't prove it, but this is why it's logically possible" (which is philosophy).

By making such bold claims without evidential or mathematical proofs, you open yourself up to justifiable claims of quasi-science and will probably be ignored by scientists and philosophers alike. And then, if you were right, no-one will ever know!

I'd advise re-toning the articles.

Will read the rest later.

mmfiore said...

To Matt,

Thank you for your very good and insightful comment. You make an excellent suggestion about the tone of the articles. I will be re-writing all of the articles and be hiring an editor to fix those types of stylistic errors.

Best Regards..
PS.
Did you read the Origin of Gravity Article?

WeepingCross said...

"Hence any religion claiming truth also holds an untenable position"

Matt, the rest of your post was excellent, but this is somewhat sixth-form debating society, isn't it? This model of things that are in our universe and things which aren't strikes me as the Ptolemaic cosmos expanded a bit. I like the Ptolemaic cosmos, think it's rather splendid, but I don't believe in it. Strange how difficult it is to shake it off. And a creator god would be sui generis, so it would be rash to draw any conclusions about it from what we already think we know, including the conclusion that it could not make known certain facts about itself in ways we could apprehend. It doesn't make it any more likely that such a being exists, of course, only that it isn't a logical impossibility.

Matt said...

mmfiore:

I haven't but I will.

WeepingCross:

Apols, the statement I made is probably misleading. It was in response to this by The Heresiarch:

"...it's amazing how many people think that because quantum fluctuations leave room for some sort of divine essence... it becomes sustainable to believe in God as traditionally understood by religions."

In support of the idea that QM provides no supporting evidence for a creator, I was trying to point out that by definition, a creator god +has+ to be (at least partly) outside of our universe, because the properties of our universe, and specifically "time" did not exist until the moment of creation (the big bang. Possibly.)

This means that +either+ god is outside of the universe (causally creating our universe from within some other "time" frame that is apart from our own), OR that no creator is necessary at all, because there is no causation to fulfill (time not existing outside of the universe).

Hmmm. I'm confusing myself now!

However, the point is that a creator god has to be something more than that which is bound by the properties and laws of our own universe, that why it's called super natural, it is beyond nature. So, to appeal to +any+ of the properties and laws of our own universe - be they seemingly strange quantum mechanical ideas or not - does not make logical sense.

A creator god does not to work within the confines of our universe's properties and rules.

Matt said...

"A creator god does not to work within the confines of our universe's properties and rules."

They'll be a "need" in there somewhere, probably between the "not" and the "to".

If I were a creator god, could I edit my comments on this blog? ;-)

The Heresiarch said...

Matt, I'm as close to being a "creator god" as this blog gets, and even I can't edit the comments. I can edit the posts though.

You write: "the point is that a creator god has to be something more than that which is bound by the properties and laws of our own universe, that why it's called super natural, it is beyond nature."

I think you are confusing two things here, a creator, and a god. A god (or God) is a supernatural being with powers in and over the universe, or a being somehow tied up with the very nature of the ultimate reality. A creator, on the other hand, merely creates (or otherwise brings into being) the universe. So a creator is in some sense prior to or beyond the universe, otherwise his creation could not be an act of will. But such a being need not be God, or in any sense supernatural. He might, for example, be a scientist living in another dimension who has access to what I like to call a Universe Creation Machine.

If, as some scientists speculate, a universe may come into being via a black hole, and if, as some scientists also speculate, it is at least theoretically possible artificially to create a black hole, then the UCM is just a matter of time.

Matt said...

That's a valid distinction, and my constant use of "creator god" was, I would admit, a directed dig at the currently popular monotheistic religions around the globe, because they mostly posit their God as our creator.

However, I think my point holds merely by the fact that god is - by definition, and as you said - "a supernatural being with powers in and over the universe". And as many a different definition of gods as there have been over human existence, that one certainly has to be the most ubiquitous.

Why would any scientific property and law of the universe, such as quantum mechanics, need to be invoked as proof for such a being? The law of the universe could be a simple binary 1 and 0, a supernatural god could still turn it into a troupe of dancing girls for a while, because said being is above and beyond such laws. No internally-sound mechanism is needed for it's existence or power.

I guess some may say that QM throws a spanner in the works of a deterministic universe, but even that (if it were true) proves nothing. The universe could be fully determined, and there still be a god, it would simply have to set the controls to the hearth of the sun, and sit back and watch.

Personally I think that serious debate - even philosophical debate - about the existence of god is although enjoyable, ultimately pointless. Not only is the jury out, but it died in that little back room and is never coming back!