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Monday, September 09, 2013

What Is "Science" According to George Orwell?

I'm about to start teaching my course on "Scientific Misconceptions" and one of the most important issues is defining science and dealing with the demarcation problem. Vincent Joseph Torley is also interested in this question—for a different reason—and he discovered an 1945 essay by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)).

It's worth quoting the relevant passages.
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously and accepting both of them.

George Orwell
In last week’s Tribune, there was an interesting letter from Mr. J. Stewart Cook, in which he suggested that the best way of avoiding the danger of a “scientific hierarchy” would be to see to it that every member of the general public was, as far as possible, scientifically educated. At the same time, scientists should be brought out of their isolation and encouraged to take a greater part in politics and administration.

As a general statement, I think most of us would agree with this, but I notice that, as usual, Mr. Cook does not define Science, and merely implies in passing that it means certain exact sciences whose experiments can be made under laboratory conditions. Thus, adult education tends “to neglect scientific studies in favour of literary, economic and social subjects”, economics and sociology not being regarded as branches of Science, apparently. This point is of great importance. For the word Science is at present used in at least two meanings, and the whole question of scientific education is obscured by the current tendency to dodge from one meaning to the other.

Science is generally taken as meaning either (a) the exact sciences, such as chemistry, physics, etc., or (b) a method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact.

If you ask any scientist, or indeed almost any educated person, “What is Science?” you are likely to get an answer approximating to (b). In everyday life, however, both in speaking and in writing, when people say “Science” they mean (a). Science means something that happens in a laboratory: the very word calls up a picture of graphs, test-tubes, balances, Bunsen burners, microscopes. A biologist, and astronomer, perhaps a psychologist or a mathematician is described as a “man of Science”: no one would think of applying this term to a statesman, a poet, a journalist or even a philosopher. And those who tell us that the young must be scientifically educated mean, almost invariably, that they should be taught more about radioactivity, or the stars, or the physiology or their own bodies, rather than that they should be taught to think more exactly.
Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.

George Orwell
I agree with Orwell when he prefers the broad definition of science. I see it as a way of knowing that can be applied to any discipline. I think that everyone should become more scientifically literate but by that I don't mean they should lean more about metabolic pathways or quantum chromodynamics. I mean that they should become more familiar with the scientific approach to acquiring knowledge. That's the fundamental skill that we need to learn.
Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method – a method that can be used on any problem that one meets – and not simply piling up a lot of facts. Put it in those words, and the apologist of scientific education will usually agree. Press him further, ask him to particularise, and somehow it always turns out that scientific education means more attention to the sciences, in other words – more facts. The idea that Science means a way of looking at the world, and not simply a body of knowledge, is in practice strongly resisted. I think sheer professional jealousy is part of the reason for this. For if Science is simply a method or an attitude, so that anyone whose thought-processes are sufficiently rational can in some sense be described as a scientist – what then becomes of the enormous prestige now enjoyed by the chemist, the physicist, etc. and his claim to be somehow wiser than the rest of us?

A hundred years ago, Charles Kingsley described Science as “making nasty smells in a laboratory”. A year or two ago a young industrial chemist informed me, smugly, that he “could not see what was the use of poetry”. So the pendulum swings to and fro, but it does not seem to me that one attitude is any better than the other. At the moment, Science is on the upgrade, and so we hear, quite rightly, the claim that the masses should be scientifically educated: we do not hear, as we ought, the counter-claim that the scientists themselves would benefit by a little education. Just before writing this, I saw in an American magazine the statement that a number of British and American physicists refused from the start to do research on the atomic bomb, well knowing what use would be made of it. Here you have a group of sane men in the middle of a world of lunatics. And though no names were published, I think it would be a safe guess that all of them were people with some kind of general cultural background, some acquaintance with history or literature or the arts – in short, people whose interests were not, in the current sense of the word, purely scientific.
Where did the George Orwells of this world go? Why don't we have more people like him today? Have they just been drowned out by idiots with access to a microphone?


Diogenes said...

The demarcation problem is not a hard problem.

Here's the definition of science: FIRST: the use of the scientific method to select testable hypotheses (theories) about general or universal phenomena, theories which compete against each other on the basis of the accuracy of the predictions they make about observable quantities, how specific those predictions are, how precisely they match observations, and how simple the theories are, in the algorithmic sense; and SECOND: generalized induction; i.e. the application of the general principles/laws thus obtained to general or universal phenomena.

Everyone may use the scientific method, or induction, but they're not scientists if they apply induction or the scientific method to particular cases, not universal or general ones; e.g. medical doctors may use the scientific method to diagnose an illness in a particular patient, but are not scientists if they are applying it to one particular patient, and not to a general phenomena. If they guess incorrectly why Mrs. Johnson is sick, doctors in France don't care.

Plumbers may use the scientific method to locate a leak in a pipe, but are not scientists if they are applying it one particular pipe, and not to a general phenomena. If they guess incorrectly why the roof is caving in, plumbers in Australia don't laugh at them, or hear about it at all.

Science applies the scientific method and induction to GENERAL phenomena. If you say that some bacteria species uses arsenic in its DNA backbone, every biologist in the world hears about it, and laughs at you.

Diogenes said...

As for the demarcation between good science, bad science and pseudoscience, it's easy.

Good science consists of theories that honestly make predictions that are specific and that precisely match observations.

Bad science consists of theories that honestly make predictions but that do NOT match observations.

Pseudoscience consists of theories that are dishonest about the predictions that they claim to emit. The predictions-- let's call them "fraudictions"-- are dishonest in the following ways:

1. Non-sequi-diction: The prediction does not logically follow from the hypothesis. (e.g. "Intelligent design predicts there will be no Junk DNA.")

2. Equivo-diction: The prediction dishonestly creates the impression that it makes a specific statement, when in fact multiple interpretations exist, so that the predictions are actually far more vague or non-falsifiable then they appear. Here the fraudiction must be deconstructed as a text: it contains one or more words with multiple definitions which may be equivocated in order to evade falsifiability. e.g. "No natural process can create information."

3. Garbage-diction: the prediction is fitted to fake data. e.g. "Creationism predicts there should be no transitional fossils, and there aren't any."

As an exercise for the reader: see if you can list some other types of fraudictions.

Bjørn Østman said...

"Where did the George Orwells of this world go? Why don't we have more people like him today? Have they just been drowned out by idiots with access to a microphone? "


Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

There are also fraudian slips, accidentally revealing their real agenda (classic example: cdesign proponentsists)

Anonymous said...


Jerry Coyne is touring Poland with his old and new comedy act...Do you know about that? I'm going to be in Crakov to face him personally. Are you going to be there? I need an interpreter...

Jonathan Badger said...

I like his sentiment in the beginning, but I absolutely disagree with his ending comments that arts and literary interests have anything to do with morality. Plenty of literary types supported Fascism-not only in Germany but also people like the great Anglo-American poet Erza Pound

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Judging from his blog reports, Jerry seems to be having a great time in Poland. There are relative few IDiots in these parts, so who knows, the appearance of a live one in Cracow might make his day.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

... relatively...

Anonymous said...

So, you are a chicken...?
According to you and such, I have no case... Why would you chicken out?

Anonymous said...

All I want is what all the experts on this blog like Nick Mitzke and others can't answer. I have been seeking the truth for such a long time and Jerry Coyne seems to be my only hope. Remember the details?

Unknown said...

I think the first problem is to define what morality is. Is it simply avoiding to cause pain and do harm?
I think that the claim by (some people) involved in fine arts of possessing a more refined sense of morality is based on claims along the following lines:

"Literature train you to take different view points, seeing things from the perspective of other people. This develops a persons empathy, which in turn leads to morality."

"Art trains you in seeing the beauty in the world, once you can appreciate the beauty you're less likely to destroy it, i.e. you will act more morally.

I don't necessarily agree with this in full, but there may be some truth to the claim. On the other hand, just as you mentioned I have also seen plenty of examples attesting to the contrary.

Michael5MacKay said...

Orwell's analysis is reminiscent of his contemporary, C.P. Snow's, whole "Two Culture's thing; although I do think that Orwell's two types of science is a good point.

By the way, I don't know who Quest is, but I do know he's an IDiot troll.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

When you say "seeking the truth", what you really mean is that you've been discarding what doesn't fit with your religious presuppositions. You gave away as much in the previous thread with your question-begging questions about "who controls this world?".

Schenck said...

What about all the instances where each of your terms are poorly defined and/or fuzzy? Or do you have it as making things 'general' enough so it eliminates any occasion where the poorly defined, fuzzy boundary issues dissapears?

Schenck said...

You noted that generality is part of the what separates science from non-science, but here generality doesn't separate science from pseudo-science. You're setting up pseudo-science in terms of it's predictive tendencies.

JimV said...

It does seem amazing how wise certain people of that era were: Orwell and John Maynard Keyes being two examples. However, in another 50 years (assuming civilization survives) I expect there some voices that are among us today who are ignored or disputed who will be recognized similarly.

I differ slightly from Orwell's view (so I am probably wrong) as to the importance of facts to science and education. I attribute many of the world's problems (especially in the USA) to the public and the decision-makers not having the correct facts. However, Orwell might say that once you have learned how to think scientifically you can find the facts for yourself, and that is much truer now with the Internet as a source (provided you can separate the wheat from the chaff).

Diogenes said...

@Robert: "You noted that generality is part of the what separates science from non-science, but here generality doesn't separate science from pseudo-science."


"You're setting up pseudo-science in terms of it's predictive tendencies."

Predictive tendencies? More like cultural tendencies.

I am NOT asserting that a pseudoscientific hypothesis does not logically emit predictions, and is necessarily non-falsifiable. Some pseudoscientific theories are falsifiable and some aren't. "All living species were created by magic at unspecified times and unspecified places by an unspecified mechanism" cannot be falsified. Other types of pseudoscience can be falsified, e.g. "There was a global flood 6,000 years ago". So my criterion is not falsification per se.

Rather, I assert that pseudoscience is both a hypothesis (which may or may not be falsifiable) and a subculture, with a set of authorities-- the authorities emit the predictions, but they don't logically follow from the hypothesis: thus I call them FRAUDICTIONS. In the case of ID, the authorities are the Discovery Institute and Uncommon Descent and a few scattered crackpots.

The fraudictions emitted by the authorities may be:

1. Falsifiable, but do not logically follow from the hypothesis (e.g. "If life is intelligently designed, there should be little or no junk DNA.") [Non-sequi-diction]

2. Non-falsifiable, due to equivocation in terms, by which the authorities flip between definitions of words to evade falsifiability (e.g. "no natural process can create specified complexity"; "no natural process can build a system that is irreducibly complex") [Equivodiction]

3. Falsifiable, but claimed to match fake data (e.g. "Creationism predicts there would be no transitional fossils, and there are none") [Stupidiction]

I have studied creationism and ID in depth, and I have compiled lists of the fraudictions asserted by the authorities of ID and creationism in their books (Stephen Meyer, Casey Luskin, Henry Morris, etc. etc.)

My definition takes into account not just the text of the claimed predictions themselves, but it also considers the counter-arguments advanced by creationists when their claims are falsified. For example: Dembski says that no non-intelligent process can create specified complexity-- but computer simulations of NS do-- thus in Dembski's counter-argument, he equivocates and changes the definition of 1 or 2 words in his definition of "specified complexity." There are many similar examples of this, also for irreducible complexity.

Thus I can state with confidence that all of their predictions are fraudictions, although there are a few other categories I've identified, like cherrypicktion and circle-diction and duh!-diction. I can back up my assertions with many specific examples from the creationist literature.

Diogenes said...

@Robert: "What about all the instances where each of your terms are poorly defined and/or fuzzy?"

I don't think any of my terms are poorly defined or fuzzy, with the exception of "general/universal." Admittedly I don't have a perfect definition of that.

But here's an example: if a veterinarian finds a salamander with a broken leg, that's a particular case, and not science.

if a veterinarian finds that a salamander SPECIES has the ability to change its color, that's a general case, thus science. Every biologist in the world ought to care.

My working definition of "universal" is: Would EVERYONE in your field, everyone on Earth (or Mars if we colonize Mars), care about your error if you got it wrong? Or would only your local competitors care?

Medical doctors and plumbers compete against people in their field just in their local community, usually. If a medical doctor misdiagnoses a patient's disease, doctors in France don't hear about it, and don't laugh at her. Similarly for plumbers and leaks.

There are some fuzzy areas. The first time you find a human baby with a functional tail, it's science, because no one knew the human species had the ability to construct a tail. The tenth time you find a human baby with a functional tail, it's medicine.

I think "general/universal" is the only fuzzy area in my definition, so my definition is better than anyone else's, and I can defend it.

Jonathan MS Pearce said...

Incidentally,I have been running a series of why Vincent is a Christian (he wrote me a tome). I am up to Part 4 in the skeptical series.

it might be of interest.

Robert Byers said...

I don't agree there is anything such thing as science. its just people thinking about things and saying/thinking their subject is more complicated/so smarter then others.

Its about the pursuit of accuracy.
The best they can say, and they can't, is SCIENCE is a high standard of investigation that can demand confidence in its conclusions.
Thats the rub in origin matters.
Conclusions being demanded to be trusted that we disagree with.
So we either return with our OWN scientific conclusions or say origin matters are not open to scientific methodology.
I think the latter.
Science is just a framework. Discovery or invention is from insights not clearly flowing from mere framework/methodology.
Science doesn't exist. A old word tying to segregate graduations of knowledge.

Rkt said...

How to contribute zilch, in 13 lines.
Interesting (and sad) usage of the word disagree too - meaning
you despise knowledge, so you can hold on to traditions/myths which were long ago drummed into you.

It is equally tragic your elders did not have thoughts like these:

I don't think you've been asked this previously Robert. What are your views on homeschooling? It's benefits and its disadvantages?

The Rat said...

Seeking the truth? Then don't bother with science. In fact, don't bother with anything. For years Newtonian physics was 'truth', and then it started to unravel, and after a few years of investigation Einstein knocked him into a cocked hat. Science cannot discover 'truth', whatever the hell that is, it can only discover what works within our current state of knowledge. We sent people to the Moon using little more than Newtonian physics and math (and a lot of it done with slide rules and a pen and paper), but he was still wrong. He is just right enough that we can still use it for everyday things. Truth is ever elusive, and science should not claim to be its discoverer. Nor should anything else, especially religion. We can say in everyday conversation that something is true, but in the grander view of the universe it's probably a fool's errand. "No discourse whatsoever, can end in absolute knowledge of fact, past or to come." - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Larry Moran said...

I think his point was that science is a way of looking at the world and that means all parts of the world, not just what's in a laboratory. He is criticizing the narrow view of science that describes it as just “making nasty smells in a laboratory”.

He is praising scientists who are knowledgeable about things outside of the traditional science fields like physics and chemistry.

He is correct to do so.

Faizal Ali said...

We can say in everyday conversation that something is true, but in the grander view of the universe it's probably a fool's errand. "No discourse whatsoever, can end in absolute knowledge of fact, past or to come." - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

This presupposes a particular meaning of "truth", the one used in philosophy, specifically in metaphysics. By that definition, nothing can be said to be "true" unless there is no conceivable refutation that is so much as logically possible, no matter how improbable it might be. For instance, I cannot say that it is "true" that the earth orbits the sun, unless I can rule out the possibility that the entire universe is only a hallucination I am experiencing. As Hobbes' quote seems to imply, such a use of the word "true" is practically useless, since nothing can ever meet that criteria. Yet this is the definition that many opponents of "scientism" insist on using. They never seem to question why they have the right to impose their peculiar idea of "truth" on all forms of discourse while decrying the influence of "scientism". There seems to be no analogous term like "philosophism" or "metaphysicism". But there should be.

Newbie said...

What is science? Why don't you ask what "science is not" ? For example: Is abiogenesis science? Or is macroevolution science?

BTW: It may be useful to define "faith" before asking questions like that.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Why don't you ask what "science is not" ? For example: Is abiogenesis science? Or is macroevolution science?

Examples don't match your template -- a nice illustration of the inability of the creationist mind to muster enough focus to produce a coherent utterance.

JimV said...

Based on Orwell's definition (a method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact) (which I like), research into both abiogenesis and macroevolution is science. Research into "intelligent design" could be science but so far has obtained no verifiable results because it has demonstrated no understanding of either intelligence or design.

Macroevolution itself is a fact. I expect abiogenesis will be shown to be a fact also but don't know the exact mechanisms.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (i.e., the evidence of things of which there is no evidence) and as such is useless in a discussion of science (or in a court of law).

Hey, ask vague and general questions which have already been answered numerous times and you should expect to get general answers. Especially on a science blog where most readers will not share your evident disdain for science; science that gives you shelter, food, medical care, and the ability to comment on the Internet.

Larry Moran said...

Research into "intelligent design" could be science but so far has obtained no verifiable results because it has demonstrated no understanding of either intelligence or design.

Most of Intelligent Design Creationism qualifies as science. It's just bad science.

Diogenes said...

I don't agree. In bad science, the predictions follow logically from the hypothesis, but are falsified by observation.

In pseudoscience, the predictions either

1. do not follow logically from the hypothesis, or

2. they are texts shot through with equivocation and weasel words, which allow the IDiots to evade falsification by switching to definition #53-J-alpha, or

3. are prediction fitted to fake data, e.g. we have found no transitional fossils.

Example: In Behe's definition of Irreducible Complexity, at least four words are subject to equivocation, to evade falsification. The words in bold font below are subject to equivocation and thus, the statement "no natural process can create an IC system" is de facto non-falsifiable:

Behe: "By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition non-functional." [Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box, 1996, p.39]

Or course counter-examples can be cited in which natural processes produce IC systems. But the statement cannot be falsified, because the IDiot authorities flip the definitions of four, yes FOUR, words:

1. Part: What's a part? Is it big or little? Look at a natural bridge, e.g. at Arches NP in Utah. If part = a stone, it's not IC. If part = a big chunk, it is IC. If IC refers to a big part of a biological system (e.g. whole protein) then you might prove it exists, but it's irrelevant to disproving evolution, because evolution can add proteins to interacting systems. If IC refers to a small part, e.g. a single amino acid, it might be relevant to evolution, but you can't prove it exists, because you can't mutate all 1,000 (or whatever) amino acids in an interacting complex. Michael Behe has in fact equivocated, flipping back and forth on just this point: he has in fact sometimes equated part = amino acid (for disulfide bridges-- note the analogy to natural bridges), but then you can't prove any system is IC. And other times he has equated part = whole proteins or even to massive complexes of many proteins-- but we have observed proteins evolve binding sites and new interactions and get added to systems.

2. Function: As we all know, evolutionary theory says complex structures evolve by co-opting previous structures and flipping them from an old function to a new function, by small structural changes. Thus if "basic function" = "the original function", IC might be proven to exist, but would be irrelevant to disproving evolution. But if "basic function" = "any function", IC might be relevant to disproving evolution, but can't be proven to exist in any biological structure. (Behe's definition is "the original function", but Dembski's and other's definition is "any function.")

3. Several: Yes, Behe has equivocated this. Behe says "several" means just 2 parts when he says disulfide bridges are IC. But when scientists point to a system evolving with, say, three parts, Behe says three is less than "several." So "several" >= 2 if we observe a biological or man-made structure with 2 parts; but if we see natural processes producing a structure with 3 (or X) parts, then suddenly "several" >= 3 or X.

To be continued: (I'm saving the best for last.)

Diogenes said...

I said I was saving the best for last. Here is Part 4 of my argument on equivo-diction.

4. Remove: You might think a simple verb like "to remove" or "to lack" can't be equivocated, but that's exactly what the IDiots do. We here all know that several proteins in the supposedly IC blood clotting cascade are missing from other species, e.g. whales, bony fish, jawless fish, amphioxus, sea squirts etc. (and note that in Darwin's Black Box, Behe called the entire blood clotting cascade IC, but then under oath at Dover in 2005 he changed his story and claimed he had actually written that only the stuff after the fork was IC-- totally false testimony under oath.) So nature did the experiment for us, and removed several proteins from the blood clotting cascade. Certainly something removed removed Hageman factor from the whale clotting cascade.

But Casey Luskin says these proteins were never removed from the blood clotting cascade, because our cascade is a "bicycle" but that of all other species is a "unicycle":

Casey Luskin: "Bicycles have two wheels. Unicycles... are missing an obvious component found on bicycles. Does this imply that you can remove one wheel from a bicycle and it will still function? Of course not. Try removing a wheel from a bike and you'll quickly see that it requires two wheels to function."

Duh! Evolutionists immediately posted numerous links to videos of people riding functional bicycles with one wheel. Luskin and the IDiots would not admit they were wrong. Continuing:

"The fact that a unicycle lacks certain components of a bicycle does not mean that the bicycle is therefore not irreducibly complex. [Evolutionist foe Ken] Miller assumed that since jawed-fish / dolphins lack certain components found in the intrinsic blood clotting pathway of land-dwelling vertebrates, that therefore the land-dwelling vertebrate blood-clotting cascade is NOT irreducibly complex."

Stop right there. Wrong again: some land-dwelling vertebrates also lack components of the blood clotting cascade. But Luskin says "bicycle" = "land-dwelling vertebrate."

"But Miller... never tried removing a wheel from the bike, which is the proper experiment... Miller effectively said unicycles only have one wheel, so bikes don't need both wheels" [Casey Luskin. How Kenneth Miller Used Smoke-and-Mirrors to Misrepresent (Part 2). ENV. December 30, 2008.]

Duh. I repeat: some land-dwelling vertebrates also lack certain clotting factors; but since Luskin's analogy says "bicycle" = "land-dwelling vertebrate", and "wheel" = "clotting factor" (an analogy never mentioned by Behe in any text), in fact some "bicycles" (= land-dwelling vertebrates) STILL LACK "WHEELS" AND FUNCTION ANYWAY!

When Luskin's "unicycle" cop-out was mercilessly mocked on the internet, Uncommon Descent's geniuses stepped up to insist that, video evidence of functional one-wheel bikes be damned, Luskin was right, and a bicycle with one wheel removed really can never function.

It's not their stupidity that matters here, it's the style of their argument: they argue by equivocating and playing word games with the meanings of "bicycle", "function", etc. etc. I give classic examples of this next.

Newbie said...

JimV "Macroevolution itself is a fact".

Really? What is the mechanism of macroevolution? I have been reading many science blogs like this and no two scientist can agree on what it is? Maybe you know something they don't?

"I expect abiogenesis will be shown to be a fact also but don't know the exact mechanisms"
This statement definitely sounds like science...I mean faith lol.

ID proponents also expect creation to be a fact but they don't know the exact mechanisms...
What makes your science better than theirs? Must be the verifiable results... lol

I haven't laughed like this in a long time lol

Give me some more Mr. Science lacking faith lol

Diogenes said...

Continuing: Here are some sample UD comments defending Luskin:

DonaldM @ UD: "[an evolutionist opponent wrote]: ‘Zimmer’s counter-example disproves this [Luskin’s] claim.’

No it doesn’t. First of all, Luskin didn’t specify which wheel."


"Sure, in the photo you can have a sort of makeshift unicycle... Luskin is exactly correct... remove a wheel from a BI-cycle, and you no longer have a funtioning [sic] BI-cycle."

Luskin presented his claim as EXPERIMENTAL: a bicycle with one wheel removed could not function, if you tested it. When this is falsified BY TESTING IT !!, the argument becomes DEFINITIONAL: a bicycle with one wheel removed cannot even exist, so you can't even test it, because it's conceptually impossible.

Tribune7 @ UD: "What [evolutionist foe Carl] Zimmer is using as an example is a one-wheeled human-powered vehicle or a fully (not marginally) functional unicycle"

Word games solve all problems-- just change the definitions of words. It can't be a bicycle with one wheel removed, because we know they can't even exist-- so it's now a "a one-wheeled human-powered vehicle."

Patrick @ UD: "Perhaps you can explain how a bicycle with a missing wheel is still a bicycle (or restated: able to function as a bicycle)?"

In the video, that's exactly what it did: function as a bicycle.

DonaldM: "it isn’t just the front wheel that’s missing from this bicycle, but the entire front wheel assmembly... its a modified unicycle... The video is virtually irrelevent... The front wheel assembly will be quite detrimental without the wheel!"

To the contrary, there are even some videos that falsify that too, showing bikes with one wheel gone AND the front wheel assembly still present-- but no evidence can falsify Casey Luskin on any point-- word games solve all problems.

Now the ID creationists call the kettle black:

DonaldM: "Darwinists are fond of ignoring arguments and using word games instead."

Patrick: [to an evolutionist]: "let the word games and distortions begin!"

This isn't even bad Science. Bad science can be honest but wrong. This is Pseudoscience.

Larry Moran said...


When the ENCODE Consortium re-defines the word "function" and declares that most of our genome is functional, is that an example of bad science or pseudoscience?

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Did they actually re-define "function" in the technical papers themselves? I don't think so. It was in the accompanying PR campaign that "function" lost all definable meaning, making equivocation possible. THAT comes dangerously close to pseudoscience.

Georgi Marinov said...

The definition was specified in the main ENCODE paper from last year. Then it was omitted from all press releases and only the word "function" remained

The technical companion papers never really touched the subject.

JimV said...

@LouiseG: as I said, that's the trouble with asking vague, general questions without giving specific examples to clarify what you mean.

The mechanisms of macroevolution are the same as for all biological evolution. Genetic change rates have been measured in the wild (e.g., Amazonian guppy populations, checked each year for many years) and in the laboratory (Dr. Lenski's E. coli experiment). The measured rates are several orders of magnitude greater than that necessary to turn a eukaryote into a mammal, base-pair by base-pair, over the course of the billions of years that eukaryotes have existed on Earth. Within historical times, wolves have evolved into dachshunds. These are facts, which support and demonstrate macroevolution.

I don't take abiogenesis seriously as a matter of faith, but as the strongest, most convincing hypothesis that is currently being studied. A bit of googling will lead you to explanations of plausible mechanisms which are supported by experiments with, yes, verifiable results.

My old friend Ron, after he became bi-polar and a creationist, threw away his eyeglasses as a matter of faith, believing that Jesus would heal his eyes. Some 20 years later, it still hasn't happened.

I don't feel any inclination to laugh at other people's inability to see things clearly. To me it is a tragedy.

Schenck said...

I was also thinking about 'scientific method' and 'testable' and the like. Obviously a person can waste time on this subject by quibbling about semantics, but I think there is some worth in it. How does a hypothesis fail or pass a test? I don't want to get all 'Duhem–Quine'y here, but it does seem like the dependence of a theory of interest on many other implied theories creates a bit of a problem. And if we fall back on 'well does it work or not', then aren't we moving out of generality and into specifics? Or on your tails example, does that make tracking the occurrence of tails in the human population a non-scientific project? If someone is unaware or essentially rediscovers a set of scientific ideas, are they not practicing sciences (because it's the 10th tail, etc).
I'm not so sure that your reasonable formulation here really does answer the demarcation problem as much as it lets us ignore it because of our 'general sense' of what science is an isn't.

Schenck said...

"My definition takes into account not just the text of the claimed predictions themselves, but it also considers the counter-arguments advanced by creationists when their claims are falsified."
This reminds me of Lakatos' /ad hoc/ ness of a research program, which, I think, isn't taken too seriously by philosophers of science but seems like a very appealing rationale to me.

Diogenes said...

@Larry asks: "When the ENCODE Consortium re-defines the word "function" and declares that most of our genome is functional, is that an example of bad science or pseudoscience?"

An excellent question. Upon reflection, I have to distinguish between pseudoscientific texts and pseudoscientific subcultures. The reason why I'm distinguishing these two things is because I'm not entirely clear as to who is to blame for bad press releases-- I don't know who writes press releases, and sometimes it's hard to prove the scientists are to blame for bad ones.

Let's start with the texts: Pseudoscientific? The main ENCODE paper mentioned 80% "function" in the abstract and didn't define it-- they defined it in the body of the paper, and by that rather idiosyncratic definition, they were right, 80% of the human genome has "function" in that sense. However, at no point in the main paper did they say they had disproven the Junk DNA hypothesis-- indeed, that paper made no mention of Junk DNA at all. So the main paper can't be said to practice equivo-diction, as I define it, and is not a pseudoscientific text.

But now consider the Press Release (PR) as a text. The press release did in fact claim that they had disproven the Junk DNA hypothesis by finding 80% "function", a claim which does require equivocation.

So the ENCODE press release is certainly a pseudoscientific text. Larry often complains about increasingly bad press releases, which is a rapidly growing problem, and I think it's fair to say pseudoscientific press releases are becoming more common.

Now we move on from the problem of texts to the subculture question: is "the death of Junk DNA" a pseudoscientific subculture? Such a subculture would require a set of authorities who claim a hypothesis, but systematically issue fraudictions which don't logically follow from the hypothesis, or that depend on determined, resolute equivocation.

This brings up have the problem of determining who's to blame for terrible press releases. Deconstructionists often say that it doesn't matter who the author of the text is, it's just the text, the text, that matters. Are the scientists being promoted the ones to blame for bad press releases? Certainly they could speak out against and disavow terrible press releases-- but they usually don't. Is silence the same as authorship or approval?

Hard questions-- Larry is right to focus on the responsibility scientists have to disavow terrible press releases.

Nevertheless, I'm going to argue that the ENCODE project is not a pseudoscientific subculture. There are several reasons for that, which amount to:

1. Ewan Birney backed away from his 80% claim and repeatedly, again and again, said that perhaps just 20% or less of the genome was functional-- he said this on his blog, in the BBC interview, etc. He practiced equivocation one time, got famous, got a photo spread in Science, then backed away from equivocating.

2. Most of the scientists in the ENCODE project who addressed the Junk DNA issue, with some notable exceptions, admitted that ENCODE had not disproven Junk DNA. For example, at the REDDIT interview, I compiled several quotes from ENCODEites admitting they hadn't disproven Junk DNA.

3. The scientists who assert Junk DNA has been disproven don't have one, single hypothesis. They have a grab-bag of different hypotheses, some of which are contradictory, and they defend these by different means.

To be continued...

Diogenes said...

Continuing: I think the bulk of the evidence shows that "Death of Junk DNA" in general and the ENCODE project in particular are not pseudoscientific subcultures-- although the press releases are pseudoscientific texts.

If you look at the main defenders of "Death of Junk DNA"-- James Shapiro, John Mattick, John Stamatoyonnopoulis-- they defend their ideas by different means.

John Stamatoyonnopoulis simply uses pathological induction-- unfortunately common in both bad science and pseudoscience, so it can't prove he's a pseudoscientist.

John Mattick vastly overgeneralizes from very weak correlations between percentage of ncDNA in genomes and anatomical complexity-- his correlations may be an artifact of sequencing bias or due to cherry-picking-- again: unfortunately common in both bad science and pseudoscience, so it can't prove he's a pseudoscientist.

James Shapiro's "formatting" hypothesis is non-falsifiable. But non-falsifiability is not the same as pseudoscience (although they overlap). Some of his analogies about genomes as intelligent self-writing computer programs are hysterical, but that's pathological induction. I have to give that some more thought...

Some of these people may count as crackpots, and in a Venn diagram, "crackpot" as a class may overlap "pseudoscientist" as a class, but they're not identical.

Diogenes said...

I can't comment on what's popular now with philosophers of science, but Lakatos was quite subtle in distinguishing between ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses that were progressive vs. those that are degenerative.

I'm not sure if "degenerative", ad hoc hypotheses are necessarily pseudoscience, but all pseudoscience necessarily employs degenerative, ad hoc hypotheses sooner or later. Indeed, much of Dembski's published oeuvre, attempting to defend his "specified complexity" as NEVER produced by non-natural mechanisms, consists of degenerative, ad hoc hypotheses and equivocation, used to wave away countless counter-examples. Nobody in ID ever had any "productive" ad hoc hypotheses.