Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why pundits should stick to politics.

I didn't think it was possible that I could lose any more respect for Ann Coulter. How does one reduce an absolute value below zero? I don't agree with her on a single thing, but now I've heard her views on evolution. Trick question. It raised, just a smidge, when she said, "Evolution is compatible with my religion." I actually thought, in my sleep deprived brain, "I might actually agree with Ann Coulter on something!" Then she said, "but it isn't true." This is an excerpt from a debate between she and Bill Maher. The quality is pretty bad, and granted, neither one is particularly qualified to debate THIS topic, but it bled over from some political things they talked about. And got my blood boiling at 3 in the morning. Then it got me thinking.
To sum up the clip (the interesting bits, [except for Ann's gaff about the earth being 500 billion years old] start around 2:15 or so and continue almost to the end), Bill Maher is grilling her on the differences between voodoo and Genesis. He mentions evolution, and after being given the go ahead by the mediator, they begin the talk. She wrote a book (Godless: The Church of Liberalism) that talked a lot about evolution, and so was glad to tackle this topic with Bill.
Here are the claims that she got wrong, in approximately the order they occurred.
1) The Cambrian period, where there are all sorts of fossils which don't seem to have good origins from before. A fair point, but see my next blog for a detailed examination of this topic.
2) She claims the fossil record disproves evolution, that paleontologists are the most vociferous opponents of 2b)what she continually refers to as "Darwinism".
3) She keeps claiming that Darwin's evolution cannot be disproved.
4) She claims that the death of one type of organism is not an example of evolution.
5) She cites Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, which refers to Irreducible Complexity.
Maher gets one wrong too, to be fair, though she did most of the talking.
6) Survival of the fittest = strong survive, weak die.
But back to Coulter,
7) Evolution is based on faith.

Fortunately, she's a very educated person, and she actually has at least a working knowledge of evolution. I'm putting her gaffs down to the point that her education is focused on art and law, and that she's probably not particularly interested in the natural sciences anyway. Medicine isn't that interesting to me, either. Bill Maher gave her an out, but she wouldn't take it, so we have to assume she has never heard of Punctuated Equilibrium. In spite of writing a book which dealt heavily with evolution, and having read at least one book about it, she is unaware of the mountain of evidence for evolution.

Points 1 and 6 will be dealt with heavily in my next blog post. There's a great deal there.
2) The fossil record was a problem, for Darwin, because there hadn't been thousands of scientists digging all over the world to find it. But now, the fossil record is actually one of the best proofs of evolution- it predicts transitional fossils, long before they were found. One of the things that makes or breaks a theory is it's predictive power- the ability to add new things to scientific knowledge. If a theory explains everything and predicts nothing, it is not a theory.
2b) This is a common claim by people trying to discredit evolution, but I wonder if it's not simply because they really think evolution hasn't changed since Darwin's day?
3)Now? Well, it seems increasingly unlikely. But, in the first 50 years or so, when lots of things were questionable? Sure. A dinosaur fossil in the Precambrian fossil record. A bat giving birth to a tomato. Poorly adapted organisms flourishing to the detriment of well adapted competing organisms. Any of these would disprove evolution, though the last would be the most shocking. As for the first, there are isolated instances where the layers of sediment may actually be jumbled up, due to some kind of cataclysm. If there were no evidence of that, just a fossil of, say, a leopluradon being eaten by trilobites, then sure. Evolution is bogus- or it has a LOT of explaining to do! The thing is, scientists flourish on disproving well established theories. The fastest way to become a rock star is publish something that flies in the face of an old theory. (2b) Because of this, evolution has already been modified, refined, and perfected over the years, as thousands of contributing scientists add to the global body of human knowledge.
4) She says that if we developed an antibiotic, that kills non-bald people, we wouldn't be evolving bald people. Obviously, a trivial and far fetched example, but lets set aside the details. No, we wouldn't. But, if we exposed this antibiotic to ALL humans, the humans who were resistant (ie., bald) would survive and reproduce. That's how evolution works, and she doesn't seem to get that. Killing a bunch of people with hair is not evolution. Killing ALL people with hair could be.
5) Irreducible complexity is, well, ignorant. It doesn't take into account how brilliant nature is at co-opting. The classic example is half an eye. Totally useless. But what about an eye that sees in black and white versus one that sees in low resolution? Or one that only detects light or darkness, without an image at all? And all of these would be preferable to no eyes at all.
7) Of course it is! In the same way that typing on a computer is based on faith, that turning on a light is based on faith, and that starting your car and hurtling down the highway at 75 mph is based on faith. In each instance, there are reinforcing experiences to give you a reason to believe that your reactions will be consistent in the future. The first time you get in a car to drive, you should probably be at least a bit nervous about getting on the highway with 2 tons of steel death surrounding you- but after practice and experience, it gets easier. If we didn't see lights come on every time we hit the switch, we probably wouldn't get annoyed when it doesn't work. If that's what she means by faith, then I agree. Of course, it isn't, and I don't. She means evolution is a religion. But at what point does it become more rational to not only believe in but expect miracles, which are, by definition, supposed to be extremely rare? It is not rational to believe that we will win the lottery if we by a single ticket. In the same way, belief in miracles can not be rational. It requires emotional support, in the lottery ticket's case, desperation. In religions case, faith. In evolution's case, neither- it is through the sweat and sacrifice of scientists, exhuming the evidence from long lost graves.
Finally, I ask you, Ann Coulter, if evolution is a religion, how is it compatible with yours?

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