Selling Confabulation as Science
Science is supposed to be all about demonstrable proof through experiment. Should some scientists get away with confabulation – mere storytelling? Look at these recent headlines published on science news sites and consider whether some serious housecleaning is in order.
1. Baby apes’ arm waving hints at origins of language: New Scientist had no problem with the suggestion that arm waving by chimpanzees led to the Sermon on the Mount and every other great work of moral or conceptual communication. “Actions speak louder than words,” wrote Nora Schultz cheerfully, as if that justifies scientifically what she is about to say. “Baby chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans – our four closest living relatives – quickly learn to use visual gestures to get their message across, providing the latest evidence that hand waving may have been a vital first step in the development of human language.” Then why did apes get stuck at such a simplistic vocabulary? Michael Corballis (U of Auckland) came to the rescue with this confabulation: “I suspect apes have evolved their own idiosyncratic gestures since they diverged from hominins.”
2. Whiskers marked milestone in evolution of mammals from reptiles: With no evidence of a bewhiskered reptile anywhere, PhysOrg published notions coming from “research” at the University of Sheffield that whiskers led to an explosion of possibilities in the mammal world. On what evidence is this based? Merely that a grey short-tailed opossum “has many similarities to an early mammal that would have lived more than 125 million years ago; that is, around the same time that the evolutionary lines leading to modern rodents and marsupials diverged.” No such mammal is found in the fossil record. But wait: aren’t marsupials and rodents both mammals? Where are the reptiles claimed in the headline? “This evidence suggests that some of the first mammals may also have whisked like a modern mouse or rat, and that the appearance of moveable whiskers was pivotal in the evolution of mammals from reptiles.” In other words, no evidence for transitional forms was presented at all – just the assumption that mammals evolved from reptiles. And that’s not all: a “professor” piled on additional miracles: “This latest research suggests that alongside becoming warm-blooded, giving birth to live young, and having an enlarged brain, the emergence of a new tactile sense based on moveable facial whiskers was an important step along the evolutionary path to modern mammals,” said Tony Prescott. “Although humans no longer have moveable whiskers they were a critical feature of our early mammalian ancestors.” According to this confabulation, bearded men can only regret that they are devolved remnants of some imaginary power-whiskered reptile with a great future ahead.
3. Seeking Alien Artifacts in the Solar System: Astrobiology Magazine, funded by NASA, posted an interesting press release that suggests that, possibly, conceivably, there might be not not aliens (double negative intended). That is, just because we haven’t found any alien artifacts orbiting the sun yet doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist. Scientists at Penn State have concocted some kind of equation that is supposed to let them know whether we’ve looked hard enough yet. The conclusion at this point is, “The researchers found that it is, at this point, difficult to say that there are not nonterrestrial objects in our solar system.” Presumably it is, at this point, difficult to say that there are not angels in our solar system (insert any unknown you wish).
4. Welcome to the multiverse: Discover Magazine gave sprightly coverage to Caltech prof Sean Carroll, giving him free rein to describe his conversion to the multiverse religion. “Could our universe be just one of a multitude, each with its own reality?” he asked. “It may sound like fiction, but there is hard science behind this outlandish idea.” The reader hunts for said hard science as he is dragged through another retelling of one of science’s favorite martyr tales, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno,1 as if this will provide insurance against a similar fate for Carroll for what he is about to say. Safely inoculated against taking heat, he continues: “These days, cosmologists like me may be safer, but our ideas have grown only more radical…. Also like Bruno, cosmologists are reaching far beyond what observational evidence can tell them.” Looking still for the “hard science” he promised, we get this line: “It is not that cosmologists are so fond of all those universes; it’s that we are fond of inflation, because inflation explains the observed properties of the cosmos with great precision. But many versions of inflation theory also predict an infinite number of universes, like it or not.”2 Adding string theory to the mix doesn’t help his case much, since both theories have no observational support. Carroll knows this: “Even if such a theory were true, the worry goes, how would we ever know? Is it scientific to even talk about it?” We’re like tribesmen on a cloudy planet who can’t see the stars, he explains, only our cloud is the big bang. Imagine if everyone took his final advice: “Right now we don’t know, and that’s fine. That’s how science works; the fun questions are the ones we can’t yet answer. The proper scientific approach is to take every reasonable possibility seriously, no matter how heretical it may seem, and to work as hard as we can to match our theoretical speculations to the cold data of our experiments.” That’s odd. This was his first and only mention of “experiments.”
5. Searching for the origins of life… and our future: While presenting multiverses, why not present science as the answer to everything, past present, and future? Why not build a cathedral to whatever evidence-free notion a scientist has to say about the really big questions? Karen Weintraub saw no problems with this in her BBC News article about NASA’s Origins program. If she’s right, there is no limit to anything scientists want to say about anything. Her hero is Professor Dimitar Sasselov of Harvard, head of a project called “Origins of Life.” Even though he knows it is unlikely anyone will solve the origin of life for a century or more, he believes he is preaching science. He even prophesies: “One morning we’ll wake up with a fundamentally different view of the world and who we are.” Other players enter Hollywood-alien-decorated article as Weintraub asks, “What is life?” and other big questions, sans evidence. But evidence is not needed if you can assert something and back it up with an appeal to authority. “Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who leads the Origins Project at Arizona State University, says trying to figure out how the universe came from nothing doesn’t tread on religious ground, either – at least no more than Copernicus and Darwin did.” If some technological spinoff comes from all this “pure science” that Weintraub claims is happening thanks to taxpayer dollars, won’t it be worth it? Her last paragraph lets the cat out of the bag: “Instead of building the metaphorical buildings that most three-year scientific grants afford today, he [John Sutherland, molecular biologist] says, the Origins researchers are constructing a cathedral. It may take them a century to find answers, but what they build will still be standing in a millennium.” Yes, there will be pay day, someday, in the sweet by and by. Keep those offering plates coming.
1. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was not burned at the stake for embracing Copernicanism or positing a multiplicity of worlds, but for advocating multiple heresies against the Catholic teachings, dabbling in magic, and espousing weird beliefs such as transmigration of souls into animals. Regrettable as his execution was, the myth that Bruno was a martyr to science was first proposed in the 19th century by Andrew Dickson White, whose “warfare hypothesis” pitting science against religion has since been roundly criticized by historians of science. For example, see Maya Bohnhoff’s blog entry on Common Ground Group. Even Wikipedia downplays the notion that Bruno was a martyr to science.
2. Inflation is neither an observation nor confirmation of big-bang cosmology, but instead, was an ad hoc proposal by Alan Guth in the 1980s to overcome serious flaws in the standard big bang model. Since then, his theory-rescue device has taken on a life of its own, with other cosmologists offering even more outlandish models, each unobservable and untestable. See 9/29/2009, 2/21/2005, also 10/6/2004.
Oh, what tangled webs of belief science weaved, when Darwin first let the confabulators in to deceive (12/22/2003 commentary). The scientists in the stories above are not dumb. They had to show a pretty high level of intelligence (or parental money, or a good advisor) to get through the rigors of a PhD program. But is a PhD credential a license to say anything? There are PhD’s in other fields, too (history, philosophy, theology) who have just as much knowledge and intelligence, and who exhibit far better integrity and exercise far more rigor in their research than the storytellers above.
Out of their own mouths they condemned themselves as con artists and false prophets, offering some kind of enlightenment they can’t describe that may take a century to get here, long after current taxpayers are dead. You wouldn’t fall for a snake oil salesman making a promise like that. Why take it from a so-called scientist?
Out of their own mouths they condemned themselves as priests of a gnostic religion, divining visions of emanations from other universes, or visions of mythical transitional animals their religion requires. You wouldn’t fall for a mystery religion that taught things like that; why take it from a so-called scientist?
Out of their own mouths they condemned themselves as manipulators, taking the public as dupes and fools by associating chimpanzee arm-waving with Newton’s Principia. You wouldn’t take that kind of ridicule from anyone; why allow it from a so-called scientist? If we can take Carroll at his word, “the fun questions are the ones science can’t answer, so the only reasonable approach is to take every reasonable possibility seriously, no matter how heretical it may seem” – such as the reasonable possibility that the so-called scientists and so-called reporters above are all nuts.
This kind of unmitigated evidence-free garbage spews non-stop from the sewer pipes of science news outlets, alongside the clean, healthy fare. It’s like having a kitchen sink with knobs for hot water, cold water, and sewage, the sewage turning on by default any time you turn on the other knobs. The clean water taps represent science that is observable, testable, and repeatable – the kind of science we learned as children, the kind we were led to believe represented the practices and ideals of all who wore the proud label “scientist.” The sewage is sent across the internet pipes unfiltered, requiring the consumer to turn it off.
It’s a deplorable situation. It started with Darwin and his X-men, who were determined to (1) substitute naturalism for design, and (2) make confabulation permissible in science. If scientists were required to shut up unless they had something observable, testable and repeatable to say, the sewage pipes would shut off. Don’t count on it. There’s too much momentum and money involved. The naturalistic web of belief is now made of steel girders with battleship-heavy chains, able to absorb the shocks of any falsifying evidence. All we can do is hope that the confabulators have some conscience left, so that when publicly shamed, they might repent. Reward those researchers who stick to the classical standards for science. Train the young to appreciate real science but to deplore the deceitful interlopers. Vote wisely. Speak out. And reach your network with the truth, one soul at a time.