March 20, 2005

Nitpicking Extravaganza

The Armchair Philosopher nit picks my nit picking of The Angry Economist's opposition to some creationists' use of Borel's law.

To make clear at the beginning (because I suspect that TAP might not have quite understood) all three of us believe that Borel's law does not work (if it works at all) in quite the way that the creationists who use it want it to. Thus we're all three in agreement that Borel's law is not properly invoked in explaining past events like this. The argument is over how to get to this mutually agreed on position.

The Angry Philosopher delves into nit picking by insisting that straw man technique is not a logical fallacy. Approximately 75,000 Google hits say he's wrong but what do we know? That last link reveals that there are some logic textbooks that consider it a form of misrepresented argument and not an actual fallacy.

In the end arguing whether a straw man is an actual fallacy or merely some other form of cheap trick is like arguing whether it's the third mix of land, capital and labor is properly labor or labour. It's a side tracking device that draws away from the central reality that the straw man shouldn't have been there. Either way you categorize it, straw men are a way to unfairly characterize the other side's argument and shouldn't be used in a straight up debunking that stands well on its own merits.

Moving on, we get to an interesting discourse on the nature of facts versus evidence which in principle, I'm entirely in agreement with.

Facts are just facts; they aren’t necessarily evidence for anything. The fact that “the room is filled with smoke” is not in and of itself evidence for the fact that “the house is on fire”. In order to get from “the room is filled with smoke” to “the house is on fire”, we have to apply a causal model: the most probable cause of the room being filled with smoke is that the house is on fire. Therefore, the room being filled with smoke is evidence that the house is on fire. Our causal models are the key part of what makes some facts “evidence” and some facts “not evidence”.

It's not a perfect example because there are forms of smoke (from dry ice, from smoke machines) that would lead you to believe that the house was not on fire even though you saw and smelled "smoke". It generally gets the point across though and would be greatly improved by using wood smoke in place of smoke in general.

As applied, it doesn't work at all. You can construct causal models that take out testimony as satisfactory evidence (as The Armchair Philosopher seems to want to do) but I sure wouldn't want to run a criminal justice system without witnesses. It would sort of like trying to run a national intelligence system just with objective satellites and without all those messy, subjective, fallible human spies. That last experiment was actually tried in the US to a great extent for the past few decades. The results were not favorable.

Science, when not replicated (and the MBH/MM global warming "hockey stick" controversy shows how a lot of science is not replicated but merely accepted), is indistinguishable from testimony. It is the ready replicability of science that distinguishes it. Replicability with an omnipotent being is just out of the question. One can hardly put Him in an experimental trial and see if he reliably creates universes. This says nothing about whether He exists at all, just that if He did, it would not be science that proved it. Limiting yourself to scientific proofs may very well limit your ability to actually describe and understand the Universe as it truly exists. There is a proper place for testimony in understanding the world and who and what we are.

Moving on to the Big Bang, the point of my using that story was that Fred Hoyle was a noted astronomer, a real scientist and not some crank without real accomplishment. He descended into crankdom on the Big Bang because he thought that the theory came too close to christian cosmology and rejected it because of that. That rejection was unscientific and any scientist worthy of the name should condemn him for it. That doesn't take away from his other work which was scientific.

You shouldn't be able to twist the evidence just to strike at your religious enemies and not pay a price among scientists. I know that there are plenty of people who are atheists who believe in the Big Bang theory and they should believe in it. It's the best science we've got. There are literal creationists who do not believe in Big Bang because they believe in a literal 144 hour Creation cycle and a 6000 year old Earth. That's a different sort of twisting of evidence that goes on there.

The relevance of the Big Bang to Russ Nelson's debunking of Borel's law creationists is in Fred Hoyle's rejection of the Big Bang, not in the theory itself. The Angry Economist is unhappy with God in the picture and he showed a willingness to stretch and twist the actual evidence a la Fred Hoyle to draw conclusions unwarranted by the evidence. In doing so, it strikes at science by being insufficiently unwilling to say "we just don't know scientifically" about the ultimate existence of God.

Mainstream christianity and science mostly get into fights when christians perceive that scientists aren't minding their own business of discovering and understanding the rules of the physical world and instead delve into theology. Galileo's true sin was in insisting that the Catholic Church must recognize heliocentrism in advance of actual scientific proof instead of simply arranging Church doctrines so that either system would work just fine. The fact that he was personally insufferable didn't help either and his religious judges' deplorable willingness to let that personal abrasiveness influence their judgment is why the Catholic Church eventually apologized over the affair.

The last point in TAP's article is an attempt to differentiate "rewriting history" from "rewriting causal models". As I used the term, and as it is commonly used, historical revisionism lacks any moral context or particular truth value. There's a theory to explain an event in history, let's call it X. That's the accepted model and the historical revisionists come along and say "no, what really happened was not X but Y". Either model may be right or wrong but to reverse the order of model creation is just not accurate and was the nub of my own nit pick.

Science has an obligation to stick to the facts, to discipline its own practitioners when they twist facts in order to win points in religious fights. Too often it doesn't happen and science eventually suffers for it as science loses the position it should have, objective arbiter of the physical world, and becomes just another ideologically interested group in the scrum of ideas.

Posted by TMLutas at March 20, 2005 06:46 PM