Science, and antiscience, in action

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.

90 thoughts on “Science, and antiscience, in action

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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


    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.


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


    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)).

  7. 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.)

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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?

  11. 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.

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

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