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.