Friday, June 03, 2005

Paul Nelson on the epistemic status of negation...more tricky rhetoric from religious nutjobs

Paul Nelson, fellow at the Discovery Institute, posted a short piece about the Smithsonian hoopla over showing some movie about how the galaxy of the universe or some such thing, is designed by 'The Big Guy'. Well, I usually like to pick on Billy Dembski, and I know I said I wasn't going to deal with the IDers arguments, but I have to deal with this one. Since I'm in the middle of a two semester stint teaching a 'Scientific Reasoning' course, I just couldn't let his comments go by.

He claims that the following is ridiculous: "two propositions, distinguished only by a negation sign, differ fundamentally in their epistemic status." He claims that the little old negation sign can't have any epistemic import.

It seems as if his tactic is to show that the only difference between a religious statement and a scientific one is a tilde, or a negation sign. He writes that when someone says 'The universe was designed by an intelligence', it's religion, but when someone throws in this silly little seemingly inconsequential negation sign, yielding this statement: 'The universe was NOT designed by an intelligence', voila, it's science!! He wants to say isn't this silly. That little old negation sign can't make that much of a difference.

Now I'm not going to take his comments out of context, as is typically their tactic. So I need to be careful here. I think my problem with his comment is not about whether or not the negated and the non-negated sentence differ in their epistemic status. They are both pretty broad, vague statements. I'd need to think about them a lot more if I were to make some sort of claim about this specific example.

The problem I have with his comments is that he is trying to make negation seem inconsequential...oh no, it's only a little tilde, it's only a little tiny mark on the page, look at all the letters and meaning that come after it, those clearly out weigh the meaning of the little tilde.

Well, actually negation has some very serious epistemic import, namely related to the problem of induction. If Paul Nelson would have ever learned the most basic philosophy of science, or if he were being honest about the philosophy of science he may very well have learned, he would have read about this little old philosopher of science named Karl Popper, who had some pretty important things to say about negation. Namely, that only disconfirmations are of any consequence for scientific theories. You can confirm a theory all damn day long, even the most trivial theory, but Popper figured that only theories that took the chance of being wrong, that were falsifiable, should be considered scientific. Because only disconfirmation can tell you anything about a theory for sure, namely it tells you that something, somewhere is wrong in the theory.

Now exactly how this relates to the two statements Nelson discusses I'm not sure. But I just can't stand when people use snappy, oh-so-obvious rhetoric to make an important's just a little mark on the page my ass.

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