Sunday, December 12, 2010

Darwinism and Authority

American critics of evolutionary theory often prefer to use the term "Darwinism". In doing so they reveal the philosophical, psychological, and theological underpinnings of their world-view: the argument from authority
Appeal to authority is a fallacy of defective induction, where it is argued that a statement is correct because the statement is made by a person or source that is commonly regarded as authoritative.
Scientists don't believe the theory of evolution is correct because it was originally formulated by Charles Darwin, or because it was presented in his book "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection".

Scientific presentations of new theories consist of two parts: the theory itself, and the gathered data which this theory explains. The availability of the gathered data means other scientists can check its validity and see whether it actually supports the proposed theory, or matches some other theory better. For example, the finches Darwin gathered in the Galapagos islands are actually still stored in the bird collection of the British Natural History Museum. Additionally, future scientists can gather additional data and perform new experiments to confirm, expand on, or refute Darwin's original theories. So far new gathered data has confirmed Darwin's basic theories, and vastly expanded on them (understandable, since Darwin was not even aware of Mendelian genetics, let alone DNA). But this new research is not being done to defend Darwin's legacy. Young scientists would be overjoyed to discover a radical new experimental finding or theory which overturns Darwin, and are feverishly looking for this. This very possibility of being wrong is what makes evolution a scientific theory.

An earlier post quoted Dawkins on how children are natural essentialists. I argue children are also, both by nature and nurture, believers in the argument from authority. Children want all statements to have invariant mappings to the categories "true" or "false". The vague category "as best we can tell right now, pending future information" is confusing and upsetting. Teachers and parents are also natural authority figures, and don't have the time (and often background) to explain the rationale behind all their instructions. Elementary memorization is useful, and a child which questioned everything would be impossible to teach. But for many students this attitude continues to their study of science, so Newton, and Einstein, and Darwin become unquestioned authority figures. They don't go back to see that these scientist's work consisted of the same type of presentation discussed above: theories with supporting evidence.

Critics of "Darwinism" are often actually modeling their critique on their early childhood religious upbringing. Early authority figures in their life (their parents) presented additional authority figures (church leaders) whose authority is ultimately derived from an unquestionable final authority figure (the religion's founder(s)). The founders words are contained in unquestionable texts (the revealed sacred documents), and all necessary truths can be obtained through detailed study of those texts. This technique of finding truths through interpretation of texts written by founders (and later texts written about texts written by founders) can arguably be useful in some fields such as law. But it is of only historical interest in science. The correctness of modern evolutionary theory is not bound up in the life of Darwin or the text of "The Origin of Species."

An amusing collision between intelligent design "science" and argument from religious authority is here. Dembski is at risk of being "Expelled"...


Gemfinder said...

This is both insightful and the world's longest ad hominem. Not undeservedly. :-)

Gemfinder said...

On a more serious note, the point that children inherently believe in argument from authority rings true, though inborn bias in that direction varies hugely.

My own children are an unintentional experiment into nature vs nurture in authority-based reasoning. Half their grandparents are purely empirical, the other half purely authority-based. Before having children, I presumed this was entirely nurture.

Yet, despite intense promotion of empiricism from birth, half our children are strongly empirical, the other half strongly authority-based. In each case, bias appeared from the very beginning, and is strongly resistant to nurture.

Testing this more formally could yield a real bombshell for everything from sociology to economics.

Eric Rollins said...

I think every boy wants to believe his father is the smartest and toughest, and his mother is prettiest and most caring. This is probably as deeply embedded as the programming in infants to smile at faces.

The belief in the correctness of ancestors extends back many generations, and leads to our current ethnic conflicts. Few see the fallacies in insisting that their ancestors religious, etc. beliefs were correct, while everyone else's ancestors were mistaken.

Gemfinder said...

Agreed. I'm just observing that the magnitude of that want, and its resistance to nurture, vary widely.

Here, both grandfathers are empirical, while both grandmothers are authority-based. But this does not necessarily imply a gender effect: the empiricism-resistant children include one male and one female.

So again, it would be very interesting to collect a big pile of data on the heritability of this tendency.

Eric Rollins said...

proof by citation:

"A classic example of argument from unqualified authority is a reference to a celebrity or religious leader for their opinion on a matter of science or public policy, when that celebrity or cleric has never adequately studied the subject. A standard argument from authority is often used by evolutionists. A notable scientist claims that evolution is true, and based on that the average person is expected to believe in it as well. This becomes fallacious if the "notable scientist" has never considered alternatives which also provide the answers to the asked questions."