Demagogues and Science

Posted on September 20, 2011 by

Our Favorite Demagogue
Now to write about something that unfortunately affects the public discourse. This is the combination of demagoguery and science, a brew often mixed up by politicians, political analysts, religious people of all stripes, hucksters, and sometimes even a very few scientists themselves. This is not the exclusive domain of either side of the political spectrum. Our offender here is Ann Coulter, a widely syndicated conservative columnist who has had several books on the New York Times best-seller list and has been featured on major news and political channels for the past 15 years. Ann Coulter, keep in mind has a J.D in Law. The column is entitled “Liberals’ view of Darwin unable to evolve “ and is available on World Net Daily, a conservative website. While I will ignore parts of her column that consist only of insults, I will for the most part be picking the column apart. And at the end, I will make some suggestions to avoid being taken in by scientific demagogues in general.

Quoting: “Darwin’s theory was that a process of random mutation, sex and death, allowing the “fittest” to survive and reproduce, and the less fit to die without reproducing, would, over the course of billions of years, produce millions of species out of inert, primordial goo. “

For the most part one can accept this as a decent summary, though of course there’s the confusion of abiogenesis as being a necessary part of evolution and of course she only mentions one source of variation.

“The vast majority of mutations are deleterious to the organism, so if the mutations were really random, then for every mutation that was desirable, there ought to be a staggering number that are undesirable. “

About mutations, since this claim comes up again and again:
1. Most mutations are actually neutral. A redundant or non-coding very small portion of DNA gets changed or snipped. A single base substitution rarely causes extensive changes for good or bad in an organism.
2. There are more beneficial mutations than commonly thought. Some sources place them as high as one in ten.
3. Environment helps determine whether mutations are beneficial, neutral, or harmful.

“Otherwise, the mutations aren’t random, they are deliberate – and then you get into all the hocus-pocus about “intelligent design” and will probably start speaking in tongues and going to NASCAR races “

Well, since we are temporarily on the topic of Intelligent Design the biggest and most intractable problem with it, and why it has not risen to the status of a scientific theory is that no one has demonstrated a way to determine if a living object was designed.. In other words, since God isn’t signing His name on His creations, how can you tell they were designed? For a more thorough critique of this subject: from an evolutionary biologist

But that’s not what the fossil record shows. We don’t have fossils for any intermediate creatures in the process of evolving into something better. This is why the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard referred to the absence of transitional fossils as the “trade secret” of paleontology. (Lots of real scientific theories have “secrets.”)”

Given that she dishonestly took his quote out of context, I’m surprised Ms. Coulter spelled his name right :
quote mining . Section 3.2 for this particular quote.
That Gould was (in his personal life) an avowed Marxist who apparently didn’t hesitate to misrepresent skull sizes in his book “The Mismeasure of Man” as part of an attack on human biodiversity, doesn’t excuse Ms. Coulter. Unlike Mr. Gould, who loudly proclaimed his atheism, Ms. Coulter makes public claim to be a Christian.

I’m now skipping over 3 sentences and 2 paragraphs. If you really want to deal with the balderdash about their not being any transitional fossils you could click on the link below.

I was tempted to make a remark on the “lying teachers” comment, but let it slide.

The scant fossil record in Darwin’s time had simply been arranged to show a Darwinian progression, but as more fossils were discovered, the true sequence turned out not to be Darwinian at all. “

I’m not sure what she means here, but if she means the fossil record showed men in the Cambrian she should stop doing drugs before writing her columns.

To explain away the explosion of plants and animals during the Cambrian Period more than 500 million years ago, Darwiniacs asserted – without evidence – that there must have been soft-bodied creatures evolving like mad before then, but left nofossil record because of their squishy little microscopic bodies.
Then in 1984, “the dog ate our fossils” excuse collapsed, too. In a discovery the New York Times called “among the most spectacular in this century,” Chinese paleontologists discovered fossils just preceding the Cambrian era.

Despite being soft-bodied microscopic creatures – precisely the sort of animal the evolution cult claimed wouldn’t fossilize and therefore deprived them of crucial evidence – it turned out fossilization was not merely possible in the pre-Cambrian era, but positively ideal.
And yet the only thing paleontologists found there were a few worms. For 3 billion years, nothing but bacteria and worms, and then suddenly nearly all the phyla of animal life appeared within a narrow band of 5 million to 10 million years.”
Normally, I’d be hesitant to link to a non-scientist, but I’ve checked this guys research and he explains the issue very plainly:
Cambrian “explosion”
The remaining six sentences consist of one mere assertion based on a misunderstanding (about the eye) and personal attacks on biologists, paleontologists, geologists..well, basically any scientist who accepts that evolution is the process by which variation happens in our world.
This is a pretty long post, yet most of my rebuttals are links. Imagine if I had to do all that writing myself? And all to rebut a person who does nothing but spew rhetoric (“Darwiniacs”? I kept thinking animaniacs ) about a subject she has no training in whatsoever.
In any case here are some suggestions in order to avoid being demagogued about science in the future:
1. People with degrees in science or who hold jobs that require some such training (.e.g professional science writer or technical writer) are more trustworthy sources than people that lack such training. Generally, also , someone with a degree in science that is relevant to the subject being talked about is more likely to be correct than someone with a degree in an unrelated scientific field. Stephen J. Hawking is an authority on physics, for example. He is very smart, and more highly trained than most people relative to other branches of science, but he is not an authority on Paleontology. That being said, I would still trust Hawking over Ann Coulter on any scientific subject. Including Ms. Coulter’s, I am aware of at least 3 books about evolution composed by people with legal training, and none of them has gotten good reviews in the scientific press.
2. The larger the claim, the more proof needed. Note how Ann makes vast claims about how evolution is wrong, but backs up pretty much nothing of what she says with any actual facts. Indeed, she dishonestly quotes some of her sources.
3. Science is interrelated and fields are never entirely separate from each other. People who accuse biologists of being dunces or of being involved in some vast evolutionary conspiracy inevitably, whether they know it or not, end up implicating scientists in other fields. Evolutionary biologists have worked with mathematicians, physicists, geologists, and chemists on papers dealing evolution as any search of the literature would show.
4. Whenever possible, check with the source. This is much easier these days as not only is much of the popular and professional scientific press on the web, but email addresses and other forms of contact for scientists are widely available. Quotes are often easily looked up on google or other search engines.

Ms. Coulter has a way with words. She shouldn’t be allowed to have her way with science.