Some time ago I related a frustrating conversation I had with one of my relatives, an intelligent and educated person, who however holds onto what I consider hardly rational views not just in politics (where there is usually ample room for disagreement), but also about conspiracy theories, and more broadly the nature of the world. Recently, I’ve done it again. This time spending days on and off having a conversation via social media with a person I’ve never met and will never likely meet. Let me tell you what I learned from it.
First, a disclaimer: I usually do not engage in any one-on-one debates, either via email or on social media, simply because not only they tend to be fruitless, but they are also incredibly time consuming. And the older I get, the more I’m jealous of my time. This story, therefore, is to be considered as a rare exception, and not as an encouragement to send me private messages to try to repeat the experience. That’s why I have two blogs (this one and howtobeastoic.org), so that we can have fruitful public discussions that may benefit a number of people.
The range of topics of this new episode was much narrower than the preceding one, and also far more close to my own areas of expertise: evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. I felt, therefore, like I really knew what I was talking about, providing not just a reasonably intelligent and somewhat informed opinion (as, say, during informal discussions on economics, or politics), but an expert one, based on 35 years (shit!) of studying the subject matter at a professional level.
It didn’t help. Not in the least. My interlocutor — let’s call her Curiosa — is an intelligent woman who has read a lot of stuff on evolution in particular, and science more generally. She has also read several of my blog posts, watched some of my debates, and even bought one of my books on evolution. She discovered me by way of reading Michel Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which cites me several times as a reluctant critic of evolutionary theory, i.e., one of those people who know that there is something seriously wrong with “Darwinism,” and yet somehow can’t let go of the orthodoxy and embrace the revolution.
My actual position is easy to check online, in several places. For instance in these two recent blog posts for the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis initiative. In a nutshell: evolutionary theory has evolved by way of several episodes beginning from 1859 (original Darwinism) to the 1930s and ’40s (the Evolutionary Synthesis) through current times (the Extended Synthesis), and it will likely continue to do so. There is nothing wrong with Darwin’s original twin ideas of natural selection and common descent, but we have added a number of other areas of inquiry, explanatory concepts, and of course empirical results over the intervening century and a half. End of story.
Not according to Curiosa. She explained to me that Darwinism is a “reductionist” theory, apparently meaning something really bad by that term. I explained that reductionism is a successful strategy throughout the sciences, and that when it is well done (i.e., it’s not what Dan Dennett characterized as “greedy” reductionism), it is pretty much the only game in town to advance our knowledge of the world.
But, countered Curiosa, how do you then explain the bacterial flagellum? This was obviously a reference to the infamous Darwin’s Black Box by intelligent design creationist Michael Behe. You know, Behe is a scientist! With a PhD!! Working at a legitimate university!!! How do you explain that, Prof. Pigliucci?
Simple, I said, you will always find legitimate academics who will position themselves outside of the mainstream. It actually is a healthy aspect of the social enterprise we call science. Occasionally, some of these people go way outside of the consensus opinion, into territory that is highly questionable, or even downright pseudoscientific. They may do it for a number of reasons, from the fact that they consider themselves rebels and mavericks to their tendency to put their (usually religious, but sometimes political) ideology ahead of reason and evidence. As in fact is the case for Behe, a fervent Catholic who simply can’t wrap his mind around the conclusion that life originated and differentiated by purely natural means, no gods required.
Ah!, continued Curiosa, if that’s the case, how come there is so much disagreement among scientists about evolution, and even the origin of life? Well, I replied, let’s begin by separating those two:
To begin with, there is no such thing as widespread disagreement about “Darwinism” among evolutionary biologists. Pretty much all professionals I know accept the idea, and the disagreement is over the shape of the current theory, just like physicists disagree on the cutting edge of their discipline, not about Newton, or even Einstein.
Moreover, the reason there are indeed so many theories about the origin of life, and truly no consensus, is because we just don’t have enough information left for us to zero in on one or a small subset of hypotheses. The historical traces of those events are, unfortunately, forever erased. We don’t have, and likely never will have, fossils documenting what happened at the onset of life, which means that our ideas about it will remain speculative. Indeed, even should we one day be able to recreate life from scratch in a laboratory, we will have no guarantee that the path we followed under controlled conditions was the one historically followed by nature on our planet. But so what? Science never promised to answer every question, it only promised to do its best. Sometimes its best is not good enough, and the wise thing is to accept human epistemic limitations and move on.
Not at all satisfied, Curiosa shifted topic again: didn’t you hear of Roger Penrose quantum mechanical explanation of consciousness? Doesn’t that imply that consciousness is everywhere, that it is a holistic property of the universe?
Hmm, I said, with all due respect to Sir Roger, I doubt physicists have a clue about consciousness, which so far as I can see is a biological phenomenon, whose explanation is hence best left to biologists. Besides, I told her, beware of any “explanation” that invokes quantum mechanics for anything that is not quantum level phenomena, even when done by an actual credentialed physicist like Penrose. At any rate, I concluded, even if Penrose is right, what does that have to do with Darwinism and its alleged failures?
I think you get the idea, so I won’t bore you with additional examples of the many increasingly frustrating and downright useless exchanges between Curiosa and me, which continued until I politely pointed out that we were going in circles and that perhaps it was time to call it a day.
What did I learn from this exchange? A number of things, none of them boding too well for the advancement of rational discourse and public understanding of science.
First, let me remind you that Curiosa is a smart, well read, and genuinely curious person. She ain’t no country bumpkin, so to speak.
Second, precisely because she reads widely, she can’t help herself putting what I write — or what truly eminent evolutionary biologists, like Stephen Jay Gould, write — on the same level with the sort of fluff that comes out of the Behes and the Dentons of the world. She simply has no way to discriminate, since all these people have PhD’s, and they all have affiliations with reputable universities.
Third, while we always assume that knowledge is an unqualified good, it turns out that a bit of knowledge may do more harm than complete ignorance. When someone as intelligent as Curiosa thinks she understands enough to draw conclusions, she will not hesitate in doing so, rejecting expert opinion outright. When this has to do with the status of evolutionary theory, no much harm is done. But when it has to do with, say, climate change, or the safety of vaccines, that’s an altogether different, and far more dire, story.
Fourth, Curiosa has fallen for the well known technique of spreading doubt on mainstream science, enough that people cannot genuinely make up their minds about what is going on. This was the deliberate strategy of the tobacco industry in its absurd (and lethal, for many people) denial of a link between smoking and cancer, so well encapsulated in the book and documentary Merchants of Doubt. The same approach has then been used to saw doubts about climate change, vaccines, and so forth. And of course it has also been the main strategy behind the so-called intelligent design movement.
Fifth, and rather ironically, Curiosa has absorbed and internalized the vocabulary of skeptical (i.e., pro-science) organizations, accusing me and others of engaging in all sorts of logical fallacies, a convenient shortcut that saves her the trouble to actually engage with my arguments. When I pointed out — reasonably, seemed to me — that Discovery Institute Fellow Jonathan Wells is a member of the Church of Reverend Moon, and that his antipathy toward evolution is entirely ideological in nature, I of course “committed” an ad hominem. When pointed out plenty of reliable sources on evolutionary theory, I was engaging in confirmation bias. And so on.
Lastly, Curiosa’s spirited discussion with me was very clearly fueled by her pride in taking on Big Science and its Orthodoxy, in favor of open mindedness and revolution. She saw herself as David, and I was the Goliath to be slain.
There is nothing I or anyone else can do for the Curiosa of the world. If, and it’s a big if, they will ever manage to get their head clear about what is and is not legitimate science, they will have to do it on their own, painfully and slowly. The resources are out there, easily at their disposal. But they have no psychological incentive to do so.
What can, and ought to, be done instead is act at two levels: i) engage in public outreach aimed at those who are still not as far gone as Curiosa, hoping to retain them and even strengthened their resolve to support sound science; and ii) to do a far better job than we do now with the next generation. It is children that we should target — just like, not at all coincidentally — creationists write lots and lots of books for children. But there is little incentive for scientists and science popularizers to do so, because children literature is seen as somehow inferior to that aimed at adults (even though it is arguably harder to pull off), and because we won’t see the results for decades.
Science, and reason in general, thus remains — in the beautiful metaphor proposed by Carl Sagan — like a candle in the dark. Our urgent job is for it not to be snuffed out by the forces of darkness.