Tuesday, May 17, 2005

a very powerful tactic for arguing against creationists

I've found myself arguing against a couple people, usually just playing devil's advocate, who claim that evolution is no good. I argue that really, evolutionary biologists use the same methods of inference that people use in everyday life. They are just more rigorous and exacting and repeated, many many times.

Here's an excerpt from a great blog post:

"Well," John will answer, in his well-rehearsed manner, "that's not the same thing. You see, if you want to call that evidence, you could only call that indirect evidence. It's there but, as I said, no one actually saw how it got there. Without actual eyewitnesses, without someone directly observing it, then it just isn't science, it's faith." At which point, the student will nod and slowly sit down, but perhaps with just a hint of hesitation, as if there's something about that explanation that bothers him, he just can't put his finger on it.

And John will take a few more questions, thank his audience, accept their applause and accolades and head out, feeling quite pleased with himself for another successful talk. But this time, it's going to be different. This time, John's life is about to get bent in an ugly new direction.

It's a Saturday night and John's just finished another creationist gig at the local community college. It's been a long day and he's just turning down the alley behind his house, driving up to his rear driveway, turning in and ... John notices immediately that his back door is open. That's odd -- he's pretty sure he locked it before he left.

As he pulls in completely, the awful truth becomes obvious. One of the lower window panes in the open door is smashed in. Before his car has even come to a full stop, John is out and running up the back walk, fearing the worst. And the worst is exactly what he finds.

As he pushes the door open further to enter the kitchen, he can see the damage. His microwave is missing. As is his cappuccino machine -- his new cappuccino machine that was on back-order for three months. His heart sinking by the second, John stumbles through the kitchen into the living room to find more of the same.

Stereo system: gone. His beautiful, new plasma screen TV: gone. As are all of his CDs and DVDs, camera equipment, ... all gone. Going from room to room, John can only resign himself to the obvious. He ends up in his bedroom and, in a state of shock, calls the police.

"Hello," he hears, "police department. Sergeant York speaking."

"Hi," mumbles John, "I'd like to report a burglary. My TV, my stereo, all kinds of stuff ... gone. Everything. Can you get someone out here right away?"

"Whoa, slow down," says the good sergeant, "back up a bit. How do you know you've been burglarized? Let's not jump to any conclusions here."

"Well," says John, collecting himself and feeling just a bit irked by the officer's tone of skepticism, "I just got home, the back door was open, the window pane was smashed, and lots of my stuff is missing! So can you send someone out? Maybe they can find some clues as to who did this."

"Well," says the sergeant off-handedly, "did anyone actually see this happen? I mean, do you have any actual eyewitnesses?"

"What?!", yells John. "What do you mean, did anyone actually see this? Of course not! I just got home, my door was smashed in and most of my stuff is gone! No, there were no witnesses! What the hell kind of question is that?!" bellows John in a decidedly un-Christian tone of voice.

"Now, calm down," says the sergeant, "it's like this. Used to be, when we got a call like this, we'd be right out, do stuff like take pictures, dust for fingerprints and all that; scientifically, you know. But -- and here's the funny thing -- turns out that's not science at all. Turns out that, unless you have an eyewitness -- you know, someone who actually saw all this happen -- it's not really science. So, sorry to say, we can't help you out there. I mean, we could come out and poke around but, it not being science and all, it wouldn't really do a whole lot of good."

"Are you serious?!?!" screams John into the phone. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard! There's piles of evidence all over the place! Hell, I'm standing in my bedroom and I can see a fingerprint on my dresser from here! Are you telling me there's nothing you can do with that?!"

"Well," says the sergeant, "sure, that's evidence. But seeing as no one actually saw how it got there, it's only what you'd call "indirect" evidence. So it doesn't really help."

"You're crazy!" John is now seriously losing it, and he can't believe he's having this conversation. "Where in God's name did you get these idiotic ideas?!"

"Oh, my son explained this whole science thing to me. Turns out that, a couple weeks ago, he went to see this local religion creationist guy at his church, and this guy was a right smart fellow -- explained how science works and that how, unless you have a direct witness observation and like that, well, it just isn't science anymore. Once I figured that out, heck, it sure eased up my workload. So, make a long story short, we'd like to help but, science being what it is and all, it would be kind of irresponsible to be passing judgement without any eyewitnesses. I hope you understand."

I usually find myself arguing against the slightly more sophisticated claim that because we can't explain some phenomena naturalistically, we have the right to explain it supernaturally. Of course there is the issue of the designer being some alien or something, but then you run into the problem of what designed the alien etc...ultimately you run into god...let's be honest. Anyway, I say, when you lose your car keys, you really have no idea where they went, you look everywhere, you try to explain it with every 'naturalistic' method you can, but you still can't find them so you go about getting a new set of keys, you don't say, damn, those key stealing gremlins that live in a parallel universe jumped planes of existence and stole my keys. NO. I think this is tantamount to what modern day ID proponents are doing.

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