Missing the Point at the Wall Street Journal

I’m guessing from the blithe and condescending tone of James Taranto’s piece in the Wall Street Journal that he is supposed to be in the class of “pundit”. Usually, it helps if a pundit can actually read for comprehension before launching into a screed. Here’s the section of interest:

True Believers?

Our lead item yesterday on science and journalism prompted several responses along the lines of this one, from reader John Steele Gordon:

Isn’t “believe in evolution” just shorthand for “accept evolution by natural selection as the explanation for the diversity of life through time”? Biologists are more than happy to explain the argument and the evidence to those who seek an explanation and evidence.

There is plenty of scientific skepticism regarding climate change, but there is none whatever regarding evolution by natural selection. The skeptics either believe in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis or in an “intelligent designer” that helped things along but, somehow, isn’t to be considered God. Neither is, even remotely, a scientific alternative theory (they are untestable and fail to explain many things that evolution explains easily). And the adherents of both are unwilling to consider rational argument and evidence. They are the ones with a belief system. Their whole “argument” consists of trying–unsuccessfully and usually tendentiously–to poke holes in Darwinian theory with the ludicrous idea that if it can’t explain everything then it explains nothing and is therefore false.

We certainly agree that neither Biblical creation nor “intelligent design” is worth taking seriously as an empirical proposition. Nonetheless, we stand behind our criticism of those who scoff at others for failing to “believe in evolution.” Just as it is an error to put forward a religious doctrine as if it were a scientific theory, it is an error to speak of a scientific theory as if it were a religious doctrine–i.e., something to “believe in.”

Gordon’s point in the quote, though, if only Taranto had paused a moment to reflect, was that it was the religious anti-evolutionists who falsely attempt to categorize acceptance of modern science’s findings on living systems as merely another belief system. It’s nice that Taranto took a moment to state agreement with Gordon’s position, but it would have been even better if Taranto had recognized that he was actually agreeing rather than disagreeing.

Update: I see John Pieret got there first. Taranto’s original claim that he said that he stood by when responding to Gordon was this:

But the reason “science” no longer “wins” is that what often poses as science today is different from the real thing. To take an easy example, supposedly science-minded people often scoff at those who do not “believe in evolution.” The problem with this is not that they are wrong to defend evolution, but that they mistake evolution, a scientific theory, for a belief system. When you demand adherence to a set of beliefs, you are no longer doing science but something that has the form, if not the substance, of religion.

This is even more egregious than Taranto’s miscomprehension of Gordon’s comment. Can Taranto substantiate his claim that (1) what he claims happens, happens “often” and (2) that those “often” doing this really and truly have mistakenly put their backing behind a belief system rather than simply being imprecise in their arguments? That still doesn’t help his prior claim of the first sentence, that this represents an instance of something that “poses” as science rather than being science.

As Pieret notes, scientists sometimes do use the words “believe in evolution”. Though I’d say that the odds are that they are not formally stating their own views (i.e., taking evolution to be a belief system), and are responding to the formulation that the religious antievolutionists use, which assumes evolutionary science is a belief system. To take just the most prominent example of the words being used, let’s visit Richard Dawkins’ famous bromide in his review of Blueprints:

So to the book’s provocation, the statement that nearly half the people in the United States don’t believe in evolution. Not just any people but powerful people, people who should know better, people with too much influence over educational policy. We are not talking about Darwin’s particular theory of natural selection. It is still (just) possible for a biologist to doubt its importance, and a few claim to. No, we are here talking about the fact of evolution itself, a fact that is proved utterly beyond reasonable doubt. To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for the flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

But neither Dawkins nor the authors of Blueprints ask for people to believe in the sense required to support Taranto’s argument. Just a bit further on from the above, Dawkins also wrote the following:

If you feel even vaguely in the mood to stand up and be counted, evolution is a pretty good issue on which to take your stand. It is an excellent standard-bearer for reason and the gentle virtues of civilization. This is because the more you read, quietly and soberly, the evidence for evolution, the more powerful will you discover that evidence to be. You are as safe taking your stand on the fact of evolution as you would be on the fact that the earth goes round the sun. But the latter is not — any longer — at stake in the war against fundamentalism. Evolution is on the front line because it is an important issue disputed by fundamentalists, and you can be completely confident that you can easily prove them wrong.

Emphasis added. Dawkins doesn’t expect people to switch allegiance between belief systems like fans switch between rooting for sports teams. Dawkins is not treating evolutionary science as something that is “posing” for science — he quite well understands that what makes evolutionary science worthwhile is the evidence that underlies it. I could wish that Dawkins also explicitly noted in his review the simple fact that religious antievolutionists want this cast as belief systems all around, and that the sciences aren’t like that, but nobody’s perfect.

So I’m still waiting, just as Pieret is, for Taranto to give us a specific example of what he claims happens “often”. I somehow doubt Taranto will be providing that.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.