Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More Darwin

'Bryan Appleyard continues to use The Sunday Times as a platform for pro-religious campaigning.' This is Gordon McCabe, the physicist I inspired to start a blog - 'How sharper than a serpent's tooth...'.  Perhaps because I am an unusual hybrid among journalists, some readers get confused about the difference between comment and reportage. In this case, my job was to survey the impact Darwin has had on the world with, certainly, a touch of my own spin, but the idea that this included 'pro-religious campaigning' is downright weird. Gordon says I quote the creationist Dr David Menton 'without reproach'. What was I supposed to say? 'says Dr David Menton, who, by the way, is completely wrong about everything.' This would make for a troublesome read. Menton represents the views of millions of people, probably many more than active, faithful Darwinians. I'm not sure writing them out of official history is quite the right way to proceed. The same may be said of the many scientists - like Steven Rose - who do not go along with the view of ultra-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins. Science is not an ideology, it does not require a continuous paranoid defence against every hint of doubt. But, by Gordon and, not long ago, by the Royal Society, this seems to have been forgotten.

18 comments:

  1. Brian,

    Conversely, Mark Vernon on his blog holds up your piece as a "rare example". Of course he's an Agnostic and so also biased against science. In yesterday's post he draws an interesting parallel between elements of the CofE who's attacks on homosexual clerics had (he claims) the opposite effect to that desired - increasing support for them - and the Dawkins brand of atheism, which may be increasing support for religions.

    Pete

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  2. Before this turns into another Dawkins v Religion fest (and here I curse that pesky bugger for leading the scientists' misconceived charge from the descriptive into the prescriptive), an interesting question which Gordon has now raised twice with, I thought, unfairly strident attacks on you, is: what is the journalist's job?

    Or rather, what are the obligations on you when it comes to the balance between reporting, provoking, and justifying every little titbit?

    I thought Gordon was way over the top on the Near-Death article, but in your Darwin piece it irritated me that you referred to Behe merely as a 'biochemist', as if that was the only important thing to mention about him.

    You are in a grey area, which gives you license to get away with a lot more than most, I suspect. But as Spiderman found out, with great power comes great responsibility...

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  3. To be honest, i always thought you were Gordon. Or that Gordon was you.

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  4. "Bryan Appleyard continues to use The Sunday Times as a platform for pro-religious campaigning."

    Thats right Bryan, you should be held to account, a Darwinian inquisition is in order.

    You should be licked to an inch of your death by friendly cats, then the Squirrels will be trained to nibble your nuts.

    If by the grace of Darwinian selection you survive you will be sent for the rest of your days to the The Large Hadron Collider at the holy Temple of Cern, where you will be made to mop the floor all the way around twice a day.

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  5. I don't think you are being entirely on the up here Bryan. The article was a bit tendentious. Your reporting of Behe's comments about 'irreducible complexity' for example rather left the impression that this was a moot point rather than something that had been utterly and repeatedly debunked. If the subject had been race science or similar, I doubt you would have repeated false claims made by the Behe types without comment, would you?

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  6. Just to make the same point a bit more forcefully, this excerpt from your article comes across very much as your opinion rather than simply reporting of a crank view, and yet you must know that this is nonsense:

    "It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation."

    Obviously, an eye does work without all its bits and pieces, just a bit less well, and there are countless primitive eyes in nature that make the point emphatically. In fact, as has been repeatedly explained, the human eye is evidently not 'designed' because nobody would have designed it upside down with the light sensitive cells turned away from the light source and a bloody great blind spot in the middle of the picture (how many camera designers mimic these details?). The only explanatioin for the rortten design is that it came a bout piecemeal, in other words, it evolved. The same kind of thorough debunking has been done for all Behe's 'black boxes' and really he should be alloweed to get away with this stuff in serious newspapers.

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  7. Well said J.Meredith.

    More wrongheadedness from Appleyard is the following.

    "Darwin divided and still divides the western world. It’s not just a division between scientists and fundamentalists. Science itself is divided." (Sunday Times)

    Appleyard gets it so wrong. Science is not "divided". That's like saying science is divided over whether the earth is round just because a few wingnuts believe the earth is flat.

    In fact, only those with a religious motive push creationism and intelligent design. The overwhelming consensus of scientists is that Darwinian evolution is a fact.

    By failing to comment on where Behe et al were coming from (i.e. the lunatic fringe) you fail properly to report the story and give the misleading impression to a lay reader that there is a genuine controvery.

    Religious motive anyone?

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  8. Menton is not a scientist and is not an expert on Darwin or evolution. He is an Anatomist. So on Newton's birthday will you be quoting a biologist on gravity?

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. All this debate seems to overlook the significant numbers of scientists who are also Christians, and have no problem reconciling the broad scientific consensus on evolution with their faith. I suspect many - perhaps the majority? - of CofE churchgoers also follow this line.

    There are also plenty of agnostic scientists who do not feel the need to challenge religion, even if they disagree with it.

    The contentious bit for me are those Creationists who spout bad science to justify their faith viewpoint. On which point, thank you to John Meredith, for your spot on comments about 'irreducible complexity'.

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  11. Menton is not a scientist and is not an expert on Darwin or evolution. He is an Anatomist. So on Newton's birthday will you be quoting a biologist on gravity?

    Well Tom P, if we promise not to, will you promise not to spoil our Christmas's anymore by quoting that insufferably pompous evolutionary biologist who shows no evidence of any familiarity with two thousand years of theology but who nonetheless is making a good living out of a book called: "The God Delusion"?

    And BTW, why do folks like Behe represent "the lunatic fringe?" Why aren't they simply wrong?

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  12. Evenin' Bryan.

    Let's take a good analogy here, and consider climate-change deniers. People such as, say, Nigel Lawson, who deny anthropogenic global warming, also represent the views of millions of people. But when you write about global warming and the environment, Bryan, whilst you might quote the opinions of such people, you also cite the reasons why they are commonly considered to be wrong. You don't seem to consider this to be a paranoid defence against every hint of doubt. And rightly so, for it is nothing more than good journalism. When your audience in largely composed of nonscientists, as indeed the readership of The Sunday Times is, failing to cite those reasons would otherwise seriously mislead your readership.

    By quoting the claims of the creationists without also explaining the reasons why those claims are commonly considered to be wrong, you fail to fully inform your readership, and seriously mislead.

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  13. Peter:

    And BTW, why do folks like Behe represent "the lunatic fringe?" Why aren't they simply wrong?


    Behe is just wrong.

    But, you see,
    if a 'biochemist' he be,
    than on the lunatic fringe
    of biochemistry
    Be he.

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  14. Well Tom P, if we promise not to, will you promise not to spoil our Christmas's anymore by quoting that insufferably pompous evolutionary biologist...

    Yes, I promise that if I write an article about Christmas services that I won't ask Richard Dawkins for his expert opinion.

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  15. Brit:

    LOL. I think a few people would say that, whatever his standing among biochemists, he put himself close to the lunatic fringe of theology. It's one weird deity that lets evolution roll through the ages but gives it a nudge through the tricky parts.

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  16. Good point, Peter.

    (Dammit, just noticed the than/then typo in above poem.)

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  17. PZ Myers has a great take down of this laughable article on his Pharyngula blog.

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