Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Evolution and Climate Change - the problem of evidence

This is a guest post by Keith Gilmour

Last month's Glasgow Skeptics talk was"Evolution and Global Warming Denial: How the Public is Misled", by NCSE (National Centre for Science Education) Executive Director Dr Eugenie Scott. (Video here). In response, ID proponent Dr Alastair Noble has used his website, The Centre For Intelligent Design, to take issue with Dr Scott's contention that "there is no contrary evidence to evolution" - and to criticise her decision to highlight "parallels between the denial of evolution and the denial of global warming."

On the first point, Dr Scott was, of course, just stating a fact. "There isn't scientific evidence against evolution. That all comes from the creationist literature and it's of the quality of those xenoliths that I mentioned and the lava flows." It shouldn't have to be pointed out that good scientists are always on the lookout for "contrary evidence" and if Dr Noble has, or knows where to find, some evidence against evolution (anatomical, geological, bio-geographical, genetic – anything!), he should silence his foes and critics by producing it. Instead, though, he refers us to the joke of "irreducible complexity" as if this, in any way, constituted evidence.

Dr Noble even has the nerve to lump this "evidence" in with the (at least respectable) 'fine-tuning' argument for the existence of God, gods or aliens - an addendum, by the way, to his favourite update on William Paley's 'watchmaker' argument of 1802 (which now has him quoting philanthropic atheist Bill Gates on the complexity of DNA), the objections to which are well-known.

On the second point, Dr Scott's comparison is a compliment evolution deniers do not deserve. Global warming/climate change deniers are certainly cranks (and many are clearly guilty of the sins highlighted in Dr Scott's lecture) but the same cannot be said of sceptics honestly querying the extent to which the climate is changing, the degree to which human activity has contributed towards changes in temperature, the role of CO2, the influence of solar activity, and so on. These sceptics do not face overwhelming evidence that has settled the matter and, unlike creationists and the ID crowd, are at least searching for natural explanations. In contradistinction to evolution, in other words, 'It's all our fault' is not "the only game in town."

In the Q&A that followed her talk, Dr Scott defined "anthropogenic global warming" as "the planet is getting warmer and people have something to do with it". But in her preceding lecture she had used a 'Global Warming Denial' slide to divide sceptics/deniers into just three categories: "It's not getting warmer", "It's getting warmer, but humans aren't responsible" and "It's getting warmer, we're responsible, but there isn't anything we can do about it." Unfortunately this omits those who only question the extent and predictability of the warming, the degree to which human beings are to blame and the most appropriate response. (My own view, incidentally, is that we should be aiming to clean up the planet irrespective of the AGW evidence and alarmism.)

Alastair Noble objects to Dr Scott's comparison on the grounds that confusion may result and insists that evolution, global warming, etc must be treated "separately" and the evidence "judged on its own merits." As evolution and global warming 'are' treated separately and the evidence 'is' judged on its own merits 99.9% of the time, this is an extremely odd point to make but what reasons are we being offered to dismiss as illegitimate efforts to highlight similarities in approach, thinking, attitude, tactics, etc?

If Dr Noble had paid attention to my question, he would know that I was not trying, for the sake of it, to "lump in 'Holocaust denial' as well." Instead, I made the straightforward point that evolution deniers have more in common with holocaust deniers than they do with climate change deniers. (See my essay/report Creationism, Holocaust Denial and The ID Crowd). Would Dr Noble object to a book entitled 'Conspiracy Theories' on the grounds that each must be treated separately and judged in isolation? "Academic scientists" do not waste their time debating with evolution deniers for the same reasons historians do not waste their time debating with holocaust deniers: to wit, both denialism groups reject overwhelming existing evidence, offer no real evidence to the contrary, dishonestly quote experts out of context, mischaracterise scholarly debate, and take comfort in paranoid conspiracy theories.

My question to Eugenie Scott (which she claimed not to have detected) was precisely as follows: "Don't evolution deniers have more in common with holocaust deniers?" To be honest, I was rather taken aback by Dr Scott's response. I first read about the similarities in Michael Shermer's excellent 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and came across it again most recently in Richard Dawkins' equally excellent 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Like them, I do not think it particularly "offensive" to point out the obvious and nor would I consider 'reluctance to cause offence' a good reason for keeping quiet about parallels. Comparing a historical fact supported by overwhelming evidence (the Holocaust) with a scientific fact (evolution) supported by equally overwhelming evidence is not, after all, to just "bring up the Nazis."

If Dr Scott had been determined to avoid causing offence, she would not have used the terms "denier" or "denial" at all (even if they were occasionally replaced with "anti-global-warming-ist"). Instead, she would have employed the word sceptic throughout - in all honesty, a more accurate description of people who aren't, after all, claiming that nothing has ever evolved anywhere/no-one was gassed/climate doesn’t change. If Dr Scott genuinely would, as she asserted in the Q&A, "rather persuade" people, why did she use these loaded words? And why use the term 'ID-Creationism' when it is virtually guaranteed to infuriate ID proponents such as Dr Noble? Why tell one questioner that, "This is really not a matter of discussion" and "We're just not gonna argue about that" - or another, after the Q&A, that it would be pointless to debate ID with him? I too would "rather persuade" my opponents but when someone shows absolutely no interest in being persuaded and consistently goes around peddling tripe to anyone who will listen, I think we have a responsibility to expose that person, their allies, and their pseudoscientific agenda.

The question of offensiveness to one side, Dr Scott's reference to "Intelligent Design Creationism" probably wasn't "the old guilt by association trick" (AN) but instead just a reference to the common ancestry and close working relationship of creationists and ID proponents - and I would remind Dr Noble that it was his choice to compare creationists and ID proponents to "Sinn Fein-IRA" (though I'm still not sure which is supposed to be which)! In addition, his suggested reading list for Dr Scott does not constitute "a substantial body of contrary evidence" any more than the writings of Arthur Butz, Paul Rassinier or Robert Faurisson constitute "evidence" against the holocaust. In truth, neither group have 'anything' to compare with Martin Durkin's (flawed but fascinating) 2007 documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle or Nigel Lawson’s 2008 book An Appeal To Reason: A Cool Look At Global Warming. And there is a reason Channel 4 can justify 78 minutes of primetime for Mr Durkin's contentious and controversial film whilst poor Dr Noble has to settle for 108 seconds via 4thought.tv!

Finally, the word evolution is not, as Dr Noble contends (and would prefer), a "slippery" one. Common ancestry is simply the logical conclusion that comes from all that we have discovered - as well as from the absence of evidence to the contrary. Noble embarrasses himself by pushing the idea that, yes, this branch is obviously related to/descended from that branch but please don't go thinking they might both be from the same actual tree! Oh, and by the way, since we don't have every piece of the jigsaw (and never will), an interventionist must therefore come along, every now and again, with "new genetic information" and "body plans" (AN).

Unfortunately for creationists and the ID crowd, educated and open-minded theists do not need the farce of "Intelligent Design" to challenge the proposition that "the origin and development of life is a blind and purposeless process" (AN). A god or gods (or aliens) may well have sparked the Big Bang, planted the seeds of life, implanted souls into hominids, and so on, but I'm afraid this would still give us zero reason to be led astray, in our scientific and philosophical quests for answers, by the conspiracy theory denialism of attention-seeking kooks.

Keith Gilmour runs the anti-Creationist website The Centre for Unintelligent Design