Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wrong on the Internet

So... the latest bit of "point-and-laugh" to make the rounds of the internet is a 30-minute video of a woman named Megan Fox (although not that Megan Fox) "auditing" the Field Museum of Natural History for "liberal bias."

One of the things that she says, and something that I've heard before from other creationists, is: "Darwin once said 'If the single cell is more complex than I think it is, then all of my theories -- I'm gonna have to start all over again'." This is a badly mangled reference to a line from Chapter Six of "The Origin of Species," in the section named: "Modes of Transition." The section opens with: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." (Note that Darwin continues with: "But I can find out no such case.") Many creationists claim that advances in our understanding of cellular biology over the past 150 years have demonstrated that cell organelles are "irreducibly complex," that is they are complex systems made up of subsystems in such a way that the absence of any given subsystem renders the whole inoperable.

A common example of "irreducible complexity" is the mousetrap. A typical mousetrap has a number of individual subsystems that work together to catch mice. Remove one, such as the holding bar, and the trap fails to catch any mice.

Now, note what this implies: an irreducibly complex system cannot come about in a gradual manner. One cannot begin with a wooden platform and catch a few mice, then add a spring, catching a few more mice than before, etc. No, all the components must be in place before it functions at all. A step-by-step approach to constructing such a system will result in a useless system until all the components have been added. The system requires all the components to be added at the same time, in the right configuration, before it works at all.
Irreducible Complexity: The Challenge to the Darwinian Evolutionary Explanations of many Biochemical Structures
Okay, fine. There's only one problem. That's not how Evolution by Natural Selection works. Organisms don't come together by the random agglomeration of fully-formed parts in the way machines do. And perhaps more importantly, even machines don't really operate in this way. It's likely possible to find an old-school version of a mousetrap that we would recognize as a cruder version of the ones we have today. Then you could trace the refinement of the system through the alterations that were made to the individual systems.

The rest of video continues on in this vein. Fox, as she moves through museum, makes a number of snide comments. She becomes especially animated when she finds "inconsistencies" the museum exhibits or items that strike her as too precise for the evidence at hand. (Interestingly, while she constantly argues that without video evidence of the distant past, scientists simply cannot know certain things, she herself exhibits certainty that, for instance "horsetails have always been horsetails.") And as you listen to her comments (some of which are screamingly incorrect), it becomes clear that not only does she not believe in natural selection, but she doesn't really understand how the process would work, were you to observe it in action. And for this, she has become something of a laughingstock in atheist and skeptic circles.


Okay, so Megan Fox is woefully uninformed about the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and regards other people who believe it as dupes. What difference does it make? Who cares that Fox believes in an intelligent designer, and thinks that if children want to believe that dragons were real that scientists shouldn't dash their hopes? If Fox believes in cave paintings of dinosaurs, why is that of any importance to the rest of us?

Part of it, I think, goes back to the idea that the less-sophisticated must be protected from believing Wrong Things. Because despite the fact that there have been thousands of years of human technological advancement alongside superstition and accepting things that we now know to be untrue, all that will suddenly grind to a halt if not enough people believe the Right Things. Or will it? Innovation and technology don't depend on having an understanding of things outside of one's chosen field. Putting a man on the moon is rocket science to be sure, but it isn't paleontology. If you think that the skull of a pachycephalosaur is actually a dragon skull and that this proves that humans actually saw living dinosaurs as late as the middle ages, that alone isn't going to make you bad at your job, or prevent you from making new breakthroughs in it.

It's easy to believe, I think, that the Flavor-Aid that people we disagree with are serving has been poisoned and that the people who are drinking must be saved from themselves before they are irreparably harmed. But the fact that something may be false doesn't also make it harmful. For many self-described Christians, a lack of believe in the dogmas that they hold to be true marks one as amoral at best, and dangerous at worst. And it might sting to be held as an inferior intellect for holding a different understanding of the world. But there's little point in returning the favor.

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