Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Argue Both Sides

One of the distinguishing features of a true scientific controversy is that there are good arguments on both sides. In my class on controversies and misconceptions, I teach my students that they have to recognize a real scientific controversy and, when they do, they should be prepared to argue both sides. That's the only way to demonstrate that they understand the issues.

Unfortunately, this simple concept is not widely practiced—even among scientists. Quite often we see a case being made for one side without even acknowledging that there's plenty of evidence for the opposing view. I'm giving a talk on Monday about "Junk DNA" and that's one of the main points. The current literature is full of claims about the demise of junk DNA. The claim is based on some recent findings but nobody ever mentions the older evidence that has to be refuted. When you're advocating a new model you have to do two things: (1) present evidence in favor of our model, and (2) demonstrate that evidence against your model should be rejected.

You can't do one without the other.

This rule only applies to controversies within science. In many cases, the trick is to recognize a "real" scientific controversy from one that only appears to be a scientific controversy. Take Intelligent Design Creationism for example ....

I was thrilled to see a posting by Granville Sewell on one of the IDiot blogs. The title suggested that he was finally recognizing that science had some valid points in this non-scientific controversy [Acknowledging our opponents’ strong points]. My "thrill" rapidly turned to disgust when I read the posting ....
In any debate, it is always good strategy to acknowledge your opponent’s strongest points, thereby taking them off the table. In the debate over ID, our opponents have two very strong points:

1. We have discovered scientific explanations for so many other previously mysterious phenomena, why not evolution as well? The laws God made are very clever and fine-tuned, and probably are sufficient to explain everything in astronomy, geology, chemistry and atmospheric science, for example, so it is hardly surprising that many would insist that they must be able to explain all of biology as well.

2. There are a lot of things about the development of life that give the appearance of natural causes. “This just doesn’t look like the way God would create things,” is an argument frequently used by Darwin, and by modern day evolutionists. There are also things that don’t suggest natural causes–such as the sudden appearance of nearly all the animal phyla at the beginning of the Cambrian era–but much of the history of life admittedly does leave us with a strong impression of natural causes.

All of the “evidence” for evolution falls into one of these two categories, there is no evidence to support the idea that natural selection of random mutations or any other unintelligent process can explain the major steps of evolution. Once you have acknowledged these two strong points, our opponents have nothing.
Oh, dear. He just doesn't get it.

That's why we call them IDiots.

[Photo Credit: University of Texas El Paso]

Granville Sewell is in the Mathematics Department at the University of Texas El Paso. His major research interest is differential equations.

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