With Friends Like These . . .

Dumb Remarks by Scientists that Pseudoscientists Love

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Read any site espousing some crank idea, whether creationism, geocentrism, or conspiracy theories, and you have a good chance of seeing some quote from a famous scientist. Lots of times the quotes are taken out of context, but in many other cases it's undeniable that the quote is just plain dumb. In some cases the scientists are blissfully unaware there are charlatans looking for scientific quotes to lend authority to their ideas; in other cases they seem to fancy themselves deep thinkers and unsung philosophers.

D. M. S. Watson

Probably no passages in all of science have been as widely quoted by creationists as these by British zoologist D. M. S. Watson in the August 10, 1929 issue of Nature (p.231 - 234).

the theory of evolution itself, a theory universally accepted not because it be can proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.

Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of taxonomy, of paleontology, and geographical distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.

Watson deserves a posthumous Ig Nobel Prize for doing more than any other mainstream scientist to advance creationism. Even allowing for the fact that this was written in 1929, it's scientifically illiterate. Even by 1929, evolution was supported by "logically coherent arguments" like the fossil record, the existence of a number of intermediate forms between major groups, and cases of natural selection being observed in nature. Special creation, on the other hand, has never been observed, and fails to account for why organisms increase in complexity through geologic time, or why bats' wings, dolphins' flippers, and human hands are all variations on a common structural plan. Furthermore, if special creation were the case, we might expect to find creatures with structures utterly unrelated to any other organism. Why don't some butterflies have metal or plastic wings? Why are there no organisms with wheels? Why don't we have organisms that can live actively (as opposed to surviving as spores) in space? Why are there no silicon-based life forms? Why are there any fossil organisms different from existing ones? Indeed, why did any organisms ever go extinct - if the world was created not long ago, why aren't all originally created life forms still here? So not only is evolution supported by observation, but special creation is never observed, and furthermore, we fail to find evidence that could reasonably be expected if special creation had happened.

What in the world was Watson thinking when he wrote this article, even by the standards of 1929? We get an inkling from this passage:

Thus the present position of zoology is unsatisfactory. We know as surely as we shall that evolution has occurred; [a passage that seems mysteriously not to get quoted by people who like to cite Watson] but we do not know how this evolution has been brought about. The data which we have accumulated are inadequate, not in quantity but in their character, to allow us to determine which, if any, of the proposed explanations is a vera causa. But it appears that the experimental method rightly used will in the end give us, if not the solution of our problem, at least the power of analysing it and isolating the various factors which enter into it.

Watson was primarily concerned with explaining specifically how evolution took place. His point was that, although we know that evolution took place, we don't have direct physical evidence of specifically how. For example Watson pointed out that we have no real physical evidence that an alleged maladaption was ever the specific cause of death of an organism. While true, it's also an unrealistic expectation. First of all, slight differences in adaptation would probably only show up statistically as slight differences in survival or reproductive success. Second, I can give you the cause of death of just about every organism: predation. Cause of death is irrelevant if the successful adaptation has led to increased reproduction. Regardless how successful the organism is, sooner or later age or injury will make it just as vulnerable to predation as a less successful one. Predation only counts if it happens before the organism has a chance to reproduce, and even well adapted organisms will occasionally be very unlucky. Finally, an organism who fell prey to predation would be quite unlikely to leave physical evidence.

Unfortunately, Watson chose language that has been immensely useful to people who want to demolish science. Watson's central fallacy is one that has also been immensely useful to creationists: limiting the concept of "proof" in science to "experiment." Experimentation works fine in laboratory sciences but overgeneralizing it to all of science gives carte blanche to people who want to attack historical or field sciences.

Science and Truth

NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), a British organization, polled 250 prominent scientists and science writers on the one thing about science they would most like people to know. Paul Davies, an Australian scientist, replied:

The essence of the scientific method is that there is an actually existing world out there, which is ordered in an intelligible way. The job of the scientist is to describe that order, in the best possible manner.

Hear, hear! as the British like to say. But alas, Davies goes on to say:

Science is not about right and wrong, about truth, or even about reality. It is about providing reliable descriptions of the world that enable us to make new discoveries.

How can science be about describing an "actually existing world" that is "ordered in an intelligible way," and not be about right and wrong, truth, or reality? Davies isn't being singled out for special scorn here, he's quoted because he provides a succinct statement, but alas, the philosophy of scientists (as opposed to philosophy of science, which is mostly the work of scientifically illiterate philosophers) is filled with this sort of psychobabble. Fortunately, not all scientists buy it. Geneticist Sir John E Sulston said in the same poll:

I should teach the world about evolution - as truth, insofar as we can comprehend it at the moment;

Science writer Tracey Brown said:

I should teach the world that science is driven by truth, and is accountable to reality. Quite simply, if you try to build a machine based upon a faulty premise, it does not work.

At a time when scientific endeavour is often treated to the same suspicion and scorn as politics and commerce, we should recognise that scientists expose themselves to this ultimate accountability. They are prepared to be knocked back, by the hard realities of how the natural world works, and by new ideas and insights. Isn't that something to be celebrated?

Science writing is rife with the "science doesn't find truth" canard. Some writers reserve "truth" for ideas that are certain in an absolute sense. This usage reserves a commonplace word for something that can never be achieved in practice while simultaneously depriving us of a word for ideas that are so well founded that, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, "that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." Furthermore, this usage has played straight into the hands of pseudoscientists and cranks of every kind. I have not seen the slightest evidence it has improved scientific literacy, and a great deal of evidence that it erodes scientific literacy.

The Richard Dawkins Wing

If we ever build a museum to the "warfare model" of science and religion, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins merits an entire wing. I doubt if any single person in science has done more to alienate religious believers from science. Dawkins answered the NESTA poll above with:

The scientific principle that I wish everyone understood is Darwinian natural selection, and its enormous explanatory power, as the only known explanation of 'design'.

The world is divided into things that look designed, like birds and airliners; and things that do not look designed, like rocks and mountains. Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed, like submarines and tin openers; and those that are not really designed, like sharks and hedgehogs. The diagnostic feature of things that look designed is that they are statistically improbable in the functional direction. They do something useful - for instance, they fly. Darwinian natural selection, although it involves no true design at all, can produce an uncanny simulacrum of true design. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant.

Note here the grand circularity: Dawkins asserts by fiat that sharks and hedgehogs are not designed, and since there is no design in nature, therefore natural selection is not a design process.

Not only can natural selection mimic design; it is the only known natural process that can mimic design. And now, here is the most difficult thing that I wish people understood. True design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything, because the designer himself is left unexplained. Designers are statistically improbable things, and trying to explain them as made by prior designers is ultimately futile, because it leads to an infinite regress.

For openers, so what if there's an infinite regress? If you explain each designer by a higher order designer, so what? Why can't the universe be organized this way? What proof do we have, anywhere, that an infinite regress is not possible?

More to the point, science accounts for observations by laws, and accounts for those laws by higher laws. Magnets have poles, like poles repel and unlike poles attract. We account for magnetism through Maxwell's Equations, which tie electricity and magnetism together. More recently electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force have been successfully interpreted in terms of a more complex law.

There are only two possible end states of this process. We either keep on finding higher level laws in an infinite regress, or the process stops someplace. When (if) that happens, we will have laws that exist for their own sake, that have no explanation other than themselves. The multiverse, the hypothesis that the universe consists of an infinite number of universes all with their own physical laws, confronts us with both problems. We will end up saying that our universe just happened to get laws that enable life to evolve (the laws just exist with no higher justification), and then we will still have the problem of explaining why other universes keep getting spawned. Again, we'll either end up with an infinite regress, or things that just are with no higher explanation. If we try to evade the issue by postulating a network or ring of interlocking laws at the base of everything, we will still have to explain why that network of those laws. Either there are higher explanations, or something that just is.

Effectively Dawkins postulates that natural selection just is, without having any deeper cause. Why should natural selection work? Why should it mimic design? Why should it produce order at all? How can any natural random mechanism favor statistical improbability? Why didn't selection result in organisms capable of resisting selection? Why didn't it (shades of Lamarck) produce organisms capable of changing their own genes in response to change? Since most religions postulate deities that are self-explaining, that is, they just are, Dawkins really doesn't come up with any logical improvement. Instead of a deity that just is, Dawkins invokes natural selection that just is.

Dawkins appears to take pride in a total ignorance of theology. At least the late Carl Sagan thought of this issue.

If we say that God has always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed? (Cosmos, Ch. 10)

I have never followed the logic of theologians who say the universe could not be infinitely old. I don't see the slightest reason why any creator couldn't have created the universe infinitely long ago (obviously our piece of it began expanding about 13 b.y. ago). But Sagan's argument implies that things exist for their utility in supporting theories. Things exist because they are; theories exist because of their utility in explaining things. In theology, God doesn't exist to explain observations, he simply exists.

Natural selection escapes the infinite regress, because it starts simple, and works up gradually - step by step - to statistical improbability, and the illusion of design. Engineers and other designers are ultimately made, like all living things, by natural selection.

So distant are many people from understanding this, they seriously believe that the existence of functional improbability is evidence in favour of intelligent design - the greater the improbability, the stronger the evidence. Truly, the precise opposite is the case. I wish that more people understood this.

The Air Force likes to say "What you don't know won't hurt you, it will kill you," and Dawkins' utter ignorance of religion causes him to say things that are, bluntly, stupid from both scientific and theological perspectives. If something appears to be designed, one viable explanation is always that it was designed. Dawkins fails to distinguish between concepts of Design that see the design in the fundamental laws of nature, versus naive interpretations put forth with the covert agenda of advancing biblical literalism. He probably fails to make this distinction because he knows so little about religion he's not even aware the distinction exists.

The Fred Hoyle Wing

Fred Hoyle is a famous British astronomer, popularizer of science, and science fiction author, celebrated in science for some brilliantly astute guesses about nuclear reactions in stars. Against that record are some abysmally bad guesses, notably the Steady State Theory (Hoyle coined the term "Big Bang" in derision of the idea that the Universe expanded from a small source), panspermia, the idea that life arrived on earth from outer space, and the claim that the fossil Archaeopteryx was a fake. The latter two ideas were cheerfully adopted by creationists. Creationists have no particular love for panspermia but they found it expedient to argue that a leading astronomer agreed that abiotic evolution could not have happened on earth. In any museum of bad quotes that play straight into the hands of cranks, he also merits an entire wing.

We know that the difference between a heliocentric theory and a geocentric theory is one of relative motion only, and that such a difference has no physical significance (Hoyle, F., 1975. Astronomy and Cosmology - A Modern Course. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.)

Today we cannot say that the Copernican theory is "right" and the Ptolemaic theory "wrong" in any meaningful physical sense. (Hoyle, F., 1973, Nicolaus Copernicus, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., London.)

Modern-day geocentrists delight in these quotes. And from a physical standpoint, they're rubbish. For example, in a geocentric model, we have to explain how the sun, which is vastly larger than the earth, circles the earth. In the heliocentric model, there's a point about a million miles from earth where an object can remain fixed with respect to both bodies. It's not a theoretical abstraction - spacecraft have been placed there. They need a little fuel to maintain a stable orbit because of the gravitational effects of the moon and other planets, but beyond that, they remain in place. In a geocentric model the spacecraft just hang there, neither falling toward earth nor into the sun. Why is that? The difference does have physical significance, and the Ptolemaic theory is wrong in a "meaningful physical sense."

No Such Thing as Pseudoscience?

David Rothman, professor of history and of social medicine and director of Columbia's Center for the Study of Science and Medicine, as quoted by Robert MacDougall in Strange enthusiasms: a brief history of American pseudoscience.

It's a retrospective judgment on the losers. It renders those who pass the verdict smug.

The thing that strikes me about quotes like this is the complete absence of any indication that content matters, that the "losers" lost not because they were unlucky but simply because the facts were not on their side. Rothman used phrenology as an example of an idea once taken seriously but now dismissed as pseudoscience.

Phrenology was the idea that personal traits could be deduced from the shape of a person's skull, on the theory that certain portions of the brain would be associated with specific personality traits and the shape of the skull would reveal which portions were especially well or poorly developed.

We know now it doesn't work. Personality traits are not so highly localized in the brain. There is some localization because brain injuries to specific areas can cause predictable personality changes, but the localization is not so specific that it shows up in gross brain morphology. Also brain studies using modern imaging techniques routinely show that certain mental activities trigger responses in specific areas of the brain. But anyone who tried to revive phrenology today in its 19th century form would be a pseudoscientist. And if you don't think it has adherents today, spend a few moments browsing the Web.

But in the mid 19th century, it was not pseudoscience. In the absence of any real information on brain functions, it was not at all unreasonable to suspect that different mental traits might be localized in the brain and clues to them might be manifested in skull morphology. The three main criticisms of phrenology we can make are:

Since the heyday of phrenology, we've learned a lot more about how science should work. A theory that drew wide public interest despite being based on scanty evidence and shaky suppositions would be justly labeled pseudoscience today. The fact that phrenology wasn't pseudoscience in the 19th century wouldn't legitimize a comparably unsupported theory today.


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Created 12 October, 2005;  Last Update 30 August, 2011

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