Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Do these quotes apply to Darwinism?

Some choice quotes from a well known writer on science:

'Spurious accounts that snare the gullible are readily available. Sceptical treatments are much harder to find. Scepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about [] is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment... all instances of pseudoscience... purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature - often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility. With the uninformed cooperation (and often the cynical connivance) of newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio, television, movie producers and the like, such ideas are easily and widely available... Science thrives on erros, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved... Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scruitny is opposed... Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don't conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fits the facts. It urges us on a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything - new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change... every time we excercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confusde hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition... There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths...'

If I told you that the author is criticizing the way in which the theory of evolution is treated by some in the scientific and so-called 'sceptical' communities, I would be lying, but I think I would be lying rather plausibly!

So, who is the author of this tirade against pseudoscience? Karl Popper perhaps? No. Phillip E. Johnson, author of 'Darwin on Trial'? Again, no. In actual fact, it is secular humanist Carl Sagan in his last book The Demon Haunted World (Headline, 1996).

Of course, to apply Sagan's words to Darwinism is to quote him totally out of context. Sagan assumes the truth of evolution. However, asking whether Sagan's words apply to Darwinism, at least as held in certain quarters, makes for an interesting exersize.

Readers may like to take particular note of the effects on the falsifiability of 'core darwinism' of adopting 'methodological naturalism' as a necessary condition of science. Other points of application spring to mind in relation to current debates about allowing even criticism of evolution to be considered by students in schools, let alone alternative hypotheses. And so on.

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