Skip to content

On fundamental misunderstandings of science

December 9, 2014
tags:

To revisit this passage from Laura Helmuth’s critique of James Watson:

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works for him to think that his expertise at one level of analysis—a molecular level—predicts anything at a higher level of analysis. The structure of DNA does not predict the workings of a cell, which does not predict the shape of a body, which does not predict the characteristics of a culture.

Helmuth is absolutely correct on this point. I only wish she had applied this analysis to her own writing on creationists. Last year Helmuth endorsed the strange idea that Virginia Heffernan’s “dedication to facts” should be questioned just because she’s a creationist. But Helmuth commits the same error she accuses Watson of: confusing different levels of analysis. It’s true that you can’t cannot make broad cultural generalizations based on a molecular analysis. But it’s equally true you cannot make broad intellectual generalizations based on an individual belief. There are at least a few levels of analysis when it comes to evolution, creationism, and creationists:

  1. What is the best scientific evidence for life on Earth?
  2. Are there any differences in cognitive ability for people who say they believe in evolution vs. those who say they do not?
  3. Does believing or not believing evolution affect your ability to perform other cognitive tasks?
  4. What is there any actual harm, either to individuals or society, if people don’t believe in evolution?
  5. And so on…

If Helmuth wants the public to understand that scientists like Watson have a limited range of expertise, that we shouldn’t blindly trust them, and that science is complicated and must be analyzed on different levels, then she should embrace that stance in her own writing. But since so few scientists (or science writers) do so, it seems harder to criticize Watson.

Advertisements
3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2014 5:42 am

    I tackle the four questions.

    “What is the best scientific evidence for life on Earth?” The best evidence is life itself.

    “Are there any differences in cognitive ability for people who say they believe in evolution vs. those who say they do not?” IMO everybody has differences in cognitive abilities, and we’re just scratching the surface regarding rigorous description of such abilities; thus the obvious answer is yes, there are such differences. However, I don’t think you were asking *that* question, but rather this one:

    “Does believing or not believing evolution affect your ability to perform other cognitive tasks?” Yes, in some circumstances. Specifically, the framework of ideas that binds biology together is no longer available to those who deny evolutionary theory, especially common descent. More generally, it hinders making sense of other forms of history, because evolutionary theory in many respects requires thinking in terms of unfolding events over long periods of time.

    “What is there any actual harm, either to individuals or society, if people don’t believe in evolution?” See above; it hinders some methods of historical understanding. Also, it opens the door to denying other facts that threaten a person’s identity, such as climate change as a potential impact on one’s lifestyle and freedom; we observe this connection in legislative attempts to question evolutionary theory. Finally, we have Creationist Michael Egnor, who’s calling for eliminating all federal funding for scientific research.

  2. Victor permalink
    December 17, 2014 8:37 am

    Good post. Though the problem with the above comment is that for some people who believe in some form of theistic creation (including theistic evolution as opposed to atheistic evolution), there is no harm and cognitive tasks are not affected. So if it is not true in every case, maybe you cannot point to beliefs in creation as the cause.

    • December 17, 2014 12:45 pm

      The question is not whether belief in Creationism is *the* cause, but rather one of several factors. We can reasonably sure that this is indeed the case, and there are numerous studies on teaching and outcomes that point to this conclusion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: