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Science, and antiscience, in action

December 28th, 2007

It’s a familiar story. A striking, though minor, scientific finding, is used to illustrate a well-established scientific theory, and becomes the target of those opposed to the theory, and to science in general, for political or religious reasons. Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole. Distorted versions of the whole story circulate around the parallel universe of antiscientific thinktanks, blogs and commentators, rapidly being taken as established fact.

This time, the story looks set to have a happy ending. The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth was long used as a textbook example of evolution (I remember it from high school). Before the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth was mostly found in a light gray form with little black speckled spots. The light-bodied moths were able to blend in with the light-colored lichens and tree bark, and the less common black moth was more likely to be eaten by birds. As industrial pollution increased, blackening trees, black forms became more prevalent. With more recent declines in pollution, the process is set to be reversed.

But in the late 90s, it turned out that some of the experimental work used to establish the bird predation hypothesis had been unacceptably sloppy, at least by modern standards. Under ferocious attack from creationists, some textbooks stopped mentioning the peppered moth. Claims of fraud proliferated, and the creationists celebrated a famous victory.

Now for the happy ending (which I found via New Scientist (unfortunately paywalled).

Over the last seven years, Michael Majerus has painstakingly rerun the experiments on bird predation of peppered moths, producing results which he describes as a complete vindication of the peppered moth story, and saying “If the rise and fall of the peppered moth is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action, it should be taught. It provides after all the proof of evolution.”

Of course, this won’t stop the creationists or their tame journalists and politicians. But as the New Scientist says, this kind of episode shows science at its best, and its enemies at their worst.

Update While I’m at it, a nice piece on skepticism and scientific consensus.

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  1. Katz
    January 1st, 2008 at 17:29 | #1

    Those folks bloviating about Gaia ought to expain what they think they are talking about.

    James Lovelock, the propounder of the hypothesis, is now a major proponent of nuclear power. If nothing else, that fact should cause said bloviators to gulp a few times before engaging their keyboards with their prejudices.

    In its primary form, the Gaia Hypothesis states that it is very difficult to upset the equilibrium of the earth’s systems to the point where life becomes impossible on the planet.

    Now, you can agree or disagree with that hypothesis, but I think it should be acknowledged that it is the opposite of what committed environmentalists assert about the earth’s processes: viz., they are being derailed and terminated by human activity.

  2. John Greenfield
    January 1st, 2008 at 20:07 | #2

    Katz

    When it comes to ancient Greek and Near Eastern religion, you’d best shut your pipe-hole and stick to your Luvvie-knitting. My patience with Luvvie ignoramus ponces was exhausted last year. 2008 will be the year of No Prisoners.

  3. Donald Oats
    January 2nd, 2008 at 01:20 | #3

    Actually mugwump [49], I am quite aware of the moral assumptions in the three examples in my post [48]. That was the point. We both agree that environmentalism is about moral values, as I made clear when defining it in my first sentence.
    However, in [45], your last sentence defines it thus:
    “Environmentalism is fundamentally a value system that puts nature ahead of humanity, and in that sense it is a religion.”
    I disagree with you here; while it is a value system, environmentalism makes no moral claim to put nature ahead of humanity; merely that protection of nature is a moral concern. My three examples in [48] are about different assignments of priorities between nature and people, and how all three assignments are within the terms of definition of environmentalism. Only the first example, ie “protection of nature *at all costs”, comes close to your definition, and as I explained in [48], I fail to see any essential relationship between religion and environmentalism as I have defined it (my definition is a common one, eg see Dictionary of Philosophy, Thomas Mautner, 2005).

  4. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 01:48 | #4

    I disagree with you here; while it is a value system, environmentalism makes no moral claim to put nature ahead of humanity; merely that protection of nature is a moral concern.

    We’re obviously not talking to the same environmentalists. The overwhelming message in the media, in the blogosphere, from the leaders of environmental organizations and green political parties, is one of nature over humanity (nature over nurture?).

    When was the last time you heard Bob Brown talk about the spectacular advances in global welfare made possible by cheap (and CO2-emitting) energy? Or Al Gore discuss the plight of the Chinese and Indian peasants condemned to continued poverty by his proposed massive CO2 cuts? Or the leaders of Greenpeace admit that Japanese eating abundant whale species is no different from Australians consuming cow?

    When every aspect of their public message places nature ahead of human interests, the only logical conclusion is that “Environmentalism is fundamentally a value system that puts nature ahead of humanity, and in that sense it is a religion.�

  5. Katz
    January 2nd, 2008 at 06:29 | #5

    Putting one set of interests ahead of another set of interests is in no way a marker of religiosity.

    Otherwise a person who espouses business interests over employee interests would also have to be called “religious”.

    That’s a nonsensical extension of the concept.

    One may have a value system that inspires one to act with absolute consistency in accordance with that value system without that value system being in the least “religious” in any spiritual sense.

    To be called “religious” in the spiritual sense one would have to be deemed to be inspired to a greater degree than consensually normal by faith in some larger than human intelligence. And probably one would have to believe in the power of that larger than human force to transform the mundane.

    If Bob Brown and Al Gore are going to stand as representative of the supposed religious impulse of enviromentalists, a moment’s intelligent reflection on their careers and their utterances will demonstrate that they exhibit none of the tendencies I discussed.

    In short, both of Brown and Gore appeal explicitly and exclusively to human effort. There is no extra-human intelligence to be found in any of their utterances, beyond at least the conventional religiosity of the Mid-South in the case of Gore.

    In relation to their discussion of the relationship between nature and humanity, it isn’t “nature over humanity”, it is “nature for humanity”. Clearly they believe that the natural parameters for human life are narrower than those espoused by Mugwump.

    So the question devolves down to what are the natural parameters for human life. Narrower or wider?

    And who is to say that Mugwump’s answer to that question is any less “religious” than Gore’s or Brown’s?

  6. January 2nd, 2008 at 09:09 | #6

    Or the leaders of Greenpeace admit that Japanese eating abundant whale species is no different from Australians consuming cow?

    Actually the following from Tim Flannery on this topic pleasantly surprised me:-

    “In terms of sustainability, you can’t be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable,” Professor Flannery told The Daily Telegraph. “It’s hard to imagine that the whaling would lead to a new decline in population.”

    http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,22987914-5001021,00.html

  7. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 10:21 | #7

    To be called “religious� in the spiritual sense one would have to be deemed to be inspired to a greater degree than consensually normal by faith in some larger than human intelligence.

    No, by religion I mean taking things on faith rather than applying rational enquiry.

    So the question devolves down to what are the natural parameters for human life. Narrower or wider?

    And who is to say that Mugwump’s answer to that question is any less “religious� than Gore’s or Brown’s?

    I ask only that you approach the question rationally. Neither Gore not Brown do. Had environmentalism existed 200 years ago, they would no doubt have foretold of the disaster awaiting a humanity that continued to industrialize and expand agricultural land use. Yet, here we are and the sky has not fallen.

    In fact things are far far better than they could possibly have been with people like Gore and Brown in control.

  8. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 10:23 | #8

    “In terms of sustainability, you can’t be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable,�

    He’d make a good politician. Obviously he thinks whaling is entirely sustainable, but he has to couch it in weasel words to appease his evangelical base.

  9. Katz
    January 2nd, 2008 at 10:41 | #9

    Had environmentalism existed 200 years ago, they would no doubt have foretold of the disaster awaiting a humanity that continued to industrialize and expand agricultural land use. Yet, here we are and the sky has not fallen.

    But we both agree that environmentalism didn’t exist 200 years ago.

    Perhaps therefore it can be argued that environmetalism exists today not because of a change in spiritual attitude of folks but because of a change in material conditions.

    You are basing your conclusions on faith that the conditions that pertained 20 years ago aren’t materially different from those that pertain today.

    To turn this from a statement of faith into a statement of fact you need to produce evidence that such is the case, or at least you need to produce evidence that all arguments to the contrary are not the case.

    For example, it is unarguable that there have been mass extinctions of economially important species during the last 200 years. It is up to you to explain how these extinctions bear no relation at all to the survivability of a growing human population on earth.

    Presumably, also, you would agree that there is a maximum number of humans that the earth can sustain. If you do, then you agree that there is an upper limit to growth.

  10. January 2nd, 2008 at 10:49 | #10

    Actually that phrase seems to suggest a repudiation of the pre-cautionary principle but I doubt that this was his intent. Anyway good for Tim taking on the sacred cow of whaling. The irony is that the international whaling body that restricts whaling was originally set up to protect the industry.

    Have you seen the news that the Rudd surveilance of Japanese whaling will be covert? In other words it might be happening or it might not be happening.

  11. silkworm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 11:54 | #11

    Environmentalism is not a faith. Neither is anti-environmentalism. However, anti-environmentalism is often an ideological stand taken by conservative Christians who hide their own faith. Conservative Christians see environmentalists as a threat to both their conservatism and their Christianity.

    The fact that Christian conservatives will hide their faith was made apparent in the Dover School ID vs evolution court case in the States. Judge Jones said that not only were the attacks on evolution religiously motivated, but that the proponents of ID were lying when they said their attacks weren’t religiously motivated.

    So it is with attacks on environmentalists and environmentalism. These attacks are religiously motivated, and the charge that environmentalism is a religion is simply a projection of the attacker’s own faith.

    Now watch the attackers lie about their faith.

  12. January 2nd, 2008 at 12:19 | #12

    Whilst I don’t think concern for the environment is without merit I do spend a fair bit of time digging around at the foundations and laughing at some of the more silly aspects of environmentalism. For example who can’t find amusement in the “The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement”?

    http://www.vhemt.org/

    So it is with attacks on environmentalists and environmentalism. These attacks are religiously motivated, and the charge that environmentalism is a religion is simply a projection of the attacker’s own faith.

    Poppy cock. Some are and many are not. I’m not sure if my views on environmentalism consitutute an attack however I’m an athiest (in the proper sense of the word) so if I am on the offensive it is not because of some desire to uphold Christianity or some other proxy for theism. Unless of course I’m a liar who seeks to uphold God and the Bible by deceptively denying their veracity. You’re playing a silly game in reflexively impuning that everyone who fails to become an environmentalist and denies religious inclinations must therefore be a liar.

  13. January 2nd, 2008 at 12:31 | #13

    Penn & Teller are long term commited athiests (and libertarians besides) but it doesn’t stop them have fun at the expense of enviromentalism. This one is amusing:-

    http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=yi3erdgVVTw
    :-)

  14. silkworm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 12:40 | #14

    Almost all attacks on evolution come from creationists, but attacks on environmentalists come from two quarters, who operate in a strange alliance – conservative Christians and libertarians, who adopt an ideology that borders on religious. Perhaps the epitome of the Christian conservative libertarian fusion can be found in Lyndon Larouche. Perhaps the epitome of the atheist libertarian anti-environmentalism is Ayn Rand. In both cases, these anti-environmentalists play into the hands of the big corporations.

  15. Donald Oats
    January 2nd, 2008 at 13:05 | #15

    silkworm [61] and Katz [55] have homed in on what I was trying to get at in the first part of my post [48]; that narrowing the definition of environmentalism to a restricted subset, and then using that restriction to characterise the original definition of environmentalism as religious, is a classical rhetorical method. Having in effect redefined environmentalism to be a religion (as mugwump does in [45],[49], etc), the debater is now free to attack any environmentalist as religious, and by tacit extension, as someone incapable of rational argument. But such techniques shed no light on the merits or otherwise of the topic under debate.

    My original purpose in [48] was simply to highlight this sort of rhetorical trick as a very effective one that is hard to guard against, because it plays upon our individual assumptions – hence my discussion in [48] on why students should be taught to recognise these techniques and how they differ from scientific discourse. Intelligent Design versus evolution is a modern example of how murky the waters may become. Anthropogenic global warming is another example, GM yet another.

    Thanks all.

  16. January 2nd, 2008 at 13:30 | #16

    Having in effect redefined environmentalism to be a religion (as mugwump does in [45],[49], etc), the debater is now free to attack any environmentalist as religious, and by tacit extension, as someone incapable of rational argument. But such techniques shed no light on the merits or otherwise of the topic under debate.

    Yes but this technique is also used to get people to crawl out from beneath the cloak of enviromentalism and moral certitude and to address the merits of the topic under debate.

  17. January 2nd, 2008 at 13:35 | #17

    So, what have we learned from this thread?

    You can’t be religious and believe in environmentalism. (Wrong.)

    You can’t be an environmentalist without being dogmatic and unreasonable. (Wrong.)

    Whaling is ‘okay’ just because Pope Flannery the first says it is. (Wrong.)

    And I thought the silly season was over. ;)

  18. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 15:36 | #18

    For example, it is unarguable that there have been mass extinctions of economially important species during the last 200 years. It is up to you to explain how these extinctions bear no relation at all to the survivability of a growing human population on earth.

    “No relation” is too strong. There may be some relation, although judging by the population growth over the last 200 years, probably very little. Obviously, avoiding extinction of important species is a morally good thing. But modern environmentalism has gone way beyond that. Eg, in my old home town of Adelaide, any tree greater than 2 meters in circumference, native or otherwise, is now sacred: up to a $30,000 fine for chopping one down.

    Presumably, also, you would agree that there is a maximum number of humans that the earth can sustain. If you do, then you agree that there is an upper limit to growth.

    An upper limit to the growth of the human population, yes. But an upper limit to all growth? No. I don’t see technology ever stopping. There may come a point when understanding leading-edge science and technology exceeds the capabilities of our own wetware but long before then we’ll have worked out how to enhance our own intellectual capacities with silicon or biological addons.

    As for human population, I have no idea what the upper limit is. 50 billion? 100 billion? It depends a lot on technology. When we have fusion power, and can manipulate biology as we please, then the limit is likely to be essentially infinite.

  19. Katz
    January 2nd, 2008 at 15:52 | #19

    But as soon as you establish an upper limit to the number of humans living on earth you become an environmentalist.

    Even if we use our hypothesised biological capabilities to miniaturise ourselves, thus allowing for more humans per cubic metre, there still comes a moment when further miniaturisation is impossible.

    The final question, therefore, is always an environmental question.

    So look at how far we have come in 200 years Mugwump. 200 years ago environmentalism was a concept impossible to grasp, and today you have recognised that it is impossible not to be an environmentalist.

    No need to thank me. I just like to make a difference.

  20. silkworm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 16:47 | #20

    At Black Sun Journal, “[c]omments bearing the tu quoque fallacy will be deleted. (In other words, stating that atheism and religion are both equally bad, two sides of the same coin, both guilty of us/them thinking, atheism is a ‘belief system,’ etc.). If that’s what you think, this site is not for you. We assert that religion is a coercive phenomenon involving scripture, group psychology, and social control. Atheism has no scripture or foundational text, and supports individual inquiry and freedom of thought, tempered by empirical observation and reason.”

  21. January 2nd, 2008 at 19:56 | #21

    I had to look up Tu Quoque. The following seems to explain it:-

    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/tuquoque.html

  22. mugwump
    January 2nd, 2008 at 23:57 | #22

    Katz, when we get close to human population limits I’ll start worrying about it. Today’s environmentalists claim we’re already well past the point.

    When every tree is sacred you know the world has gone mad. After all, trees do grow on trees.

    Atheism has no scripture or foundational text, and supports individual inquiry and freedom of thought, tempered by empirical observation and reason.

    Which makes me curious as to the correlation between atheism and libertarianism. Both reject central authority.

  23. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 06:22 | #23

    But the important point Mugwump is that you have acknowledged that you are an environmentalist.

    Do you feel religious?

    If not, then there is no necessary relationship between environmentalism and religiosity.

    QED.

  24. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 07:30 | #24

    Katz, acknowledging there is an upper limit to the number of humans living on Earth no more makes me an environmentalist than acknowledging an infinite number of angels can’t dance on the head of a pin.

  25. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 09:22 | #25

    You’re in denial Mugwump.

    Is your reference to angels further evidence of your religiosity?

    For the record, I don’t believe in angels, or in the tooth fairy. I do believe that there is a limit to the carrying capacity ofthe earth.

    The central thesis of environmentalism is that there are limits to growth.

    The central thesis of liberal, pre-environmentalist thinking is to be found in John Locke who posited the notion that there is no limit to nature, that there will always be a frontier beyond which there will always be wilderness. According to this view the world is boundless.

    Locke’s idea was so incredibly pervasive that it became a truism. Not any longer.

    Surely you don’t seriously assert that the world is boundless.

    Therefore, you aren’t a Lockean.

    Therefore you are an environmentalist.

    (There is no excluded middle here.)

    QED. Again.

  26. January 3rd, 2008 at 09:47 | #26

    Which makes me curious as to the correlation between atheism and libertarianism. Both reject central authority.

    The Christians would argue that Jesus had some issues with central authority also.

  27. January 3rd, 2008 at 10:12 | #27

    The central thesis of environmentalism is that there are limits to growth.

    You should not automatically conflate economic growth with impact on carrying capacity. The earth no doubt has a limited carrying capacity but not all economic growth demands more of the land and environment.

    If Peter Garrett was to release a new song and it became wildly successful and it was sold online for download to iPods then the marginal impact on the environment would be next to zero but the contribution to economic output wouldn’t be. Likewise if I decided to drive a Porche Boxter instead of a Holden Commodore the extra physical materials required for the creation of the Porche is probably less than for the Commodore but it’s production and sale would register as a higher amount of economic output. Likewise a $100 dollar haircut registers as more economic output than a $10 haircut but the marginal increase in terms of carrying capacity requirement is negligible.

    If we increase crop yields using GM or some other technique then we need less land for cropping. And in crude land area terms if everybody on the planet moved to Queensland the area of land per person would be 50% higher than it is today in Hong Kong.

    Economic growth need not mean a correlated increase in demands on the environment.

  28. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 10:28 | #28

    You should not automatically conflate economic growth with impact on carrying capacity. The earth no doubt has a limited carrying capacity but not all economic growth demands more of the land and environment.

    Here you are confusing the absolute size of economic production with the way in which that economic production is calculated by monetary means.

    Of course, Peter Garrett can record a song and sell it, making himself rich and increasing GNP, but only by as much the next best opportunity for production. He might have written a book of poetry instead and sold very few of them.

    In the second case, the consumers would have bought something else.

    Further, what if every person on earth recorded a song. Even if they were all equally excellent, there would be very little change in consumption patterns because consumers use only dicretionary income to buy recorded music. The rest of their income they use to keep themselves alive.

    As limits to the carrying power of the earth are approached it takes a higher proportion of total income simply to live. Discretionary income shrinks, as does Peter Garrett’s market for his songs.

    I’m not suggesting that we have reached that point yet. However, the growing shortage of oil and the absence of viable alternatives for many, though not all, uses of oil is an example of how discretionary income is being squeezed by this environmental limitation upon growth.

  29. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 11:44 | #29

    Katz, your false dichotomies are getting tedious. At first I thought you were just taking the piss, but apparently not. For the record, a belief in finite population limits is not the same as modern environmentalism. Nor is one either a Lockean or an environmentalist.

  30. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 11:58 | #30

    For the record, a belief in finite population limits is not the same as modern environmentalism. Nor is one either a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    1. Stop putting words in my mouth. I never said that belief in finite population limits is the same as modern environmentalism. I said that environmentalism is predicated on that observation. I hope you can see the difference.

    2. Likewise I never said that you can either be a Lockean or an environmentalist. You can be many other things, including a providentialist, wherein you believe that God will come along and save us all by changing the rules of the environmental game. What I ded say is that if you are a secular liberal who does not believe in the efficacy of interventions from beyond our world, you must either be a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    If you want to argue with straw men, then feel free. However, don’t give them my name.

  31. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 13:03 | #31

    I no longer have any idea what you are talking about.

    Katz[69]:

    But as soon as you establish an upper limit to the number of humans living on earth you become an environmentalist.

    ie, “belief in population limits” implies “environmentalist”. Poppycock.

    Katz[80]:

    I never said that you can either be a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    Katz[75]:

    Surely you don’t seriously assert that the world is boundless.

    Therefore, you aren’t a Lockean.

    Therefore you are an environmentalist.

    (There is no excluded middle here.)

    Let’s make a truth table.

    A = “Lockean”.

    B = “environmentalist”.

    You say ~A implies B. Which means (by contrapositive law – no excluded middle remember?) ~B implies A. So we have (this may not format well):

    A | B | Allowed
    ——————
    T | T | Y
    T | F | Y
    F | T | Y
    F | F | N

    Which is the truth table for the boolean function A or B.

    So, you did say one is either a Lockean or an environmentalist. (one sometimes suffixes this with “or both” but the logical “or” has the possibility being both built in. If both is not allowed then you’re talking about exclusive-or (parity)).

  32. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 13:35 | #32

    Wrong again Mugwuamp.

    I said if one were a secular liberal one would have to be a Lockean or an environmentalist.

    And as you have already stipulated, you are a secular liberal. You see, I pay you the compliment of reading your posts and carrying information forward.

    If you hadn’t already stipulated this, I’d have been forced to argue against providentialism. Fortunately, you save me the trouble. (Or so I thought.)

    (All of that table-typing for nothing. Tsk. tsk.)

  33. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 14:54 | #33

    Since you’re now spinning in very small circles, I don’t really care what you think you said. But for the record, when you first discussed Locke at [75] (the post to which I responded), you did not predicate your dichotomy on me being a secular liberal.

    However, even had you done so, your contention that “[a secular liberal] would have to be a Lockean or an environmentalist” is still poppycock.

  34. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 15:03 | #34

    How so Mugwump?

  35. mugwump
    January 3rd, 2008 at 15:20 | #35

    It only works if you define anyone who believes there are human population limits to be an environmentalist.

  36. Katz
    January 3rd, 2008 at 15:29 | #36

    Well yes.

    What is an environmentalist? Someone who asserts that the environment is not endlessly bountiful — that it has limits to its carrying capacity, and that it can be damaged, perhaps irreversibly, although not necessarily.

    What other limits are there to capacity to carry any species, including human?

  37. mugwump
    January 4th, 2008 at 00:22 | #37

    Google it. You are in the minority with that overly broad definition.

  38. Katz
    January 4th, 2008 at 06:25 | #38

    If you have an objection to my definition, instead of waving vaguely in the direction of the internet, either make specific criticisms or provide a better alternative definition, or better still, both.

    My argument is with you, not the internet.

  39. mugwump
    January 4th, 2008 at 12:17 | #39

    Suit yourself. Keep your definition. While you’re at it, define black to be white and get yourself run over on some pedestrian crossing.

  40. Katz
    January 5th, 2008 at 08:10 | #40

    Mugwump bails.

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