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Less Pseudo, More Science, Please

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Cardiff University philosopher Orestis Palermos was at the center of a stir last week for a claim he made, in an online lecture, that evolutionary biology is as much of a pseudoscience as creationism, because it relies very heavily on ad hoc explanations for data after they have been discovered, rather than making bold universal predictions beforehand that hold up. Critics have been saying this for decades, and it’s encouraging to know that others can see it too.

When this happens it is always entertaining to watch the consternation of our fundamentalist Darwinist friends. In response they have, of course, flexed their muscles to shut him up, or at least hide the intro video. It has also been taken down from YouTube. That really demonstrates how evolutionism is sustained by cultural pressure, not by open debate. They say it is incontrovertible science, but why would a science need to be protected by censors and inquisitors?

The meat of his claims are still up in another video, and you will see that although the taster was a little bit simplistic, what he has to say is really quite reasonable. I want to talk about that.

You see, creationists are extremely good at inventing explanations to explain new or unexpected data; much better than a lot of people realize. It never ceases to amaze me how they are able to find ways to explain anything. I don’t even mean that in a disparaging way, though I have heard the similar things said by ex-Mormons or ex-Muslims, or indeed ex-evolutionists. It is merely an observation.

The point is, evolutionary biology can be like that too. There have been many false predictions, and there are some enormous holes that we love to point out here at Evolution News. For example, evolutionary biology used to predict a clear branching tree of life. Now both genetic and fossil evidence tell us that isn’t the case, so explanations have been developed for that. It used to predict that morphological change was continuous and gradual. Now the fossil record tells us that is unlikely, so now there is punk-eek. It can explain and even sometimes predict micro-evolutionary changes quite well, suggesting that it is more solid in that area, but it doesn’t know how to say anything general about how large-scale morphological changes occur. There are lots of speculative theories, such as evo-devo, but they don’t seem to have a lot of meat or evidential basis as of yet. In particular it is widely acknowledged that there is still no naturalistic explanation for the origin of life (and that is putting it very mildly).

Even intelligent design is not immune from the criticism. Critics argue that it doesn’t make testable predictions, but only explains things after the fact. I don’t think that is totally fair; for one random example, intelligent design makes a general prediction that the design of life should be rational not accidental, and this prediction was beautifully vindicated in the case of the inverted retina. But everyone makes wrong predictions sometimes.

So what do we do? Should we throw up our postmodern hands in the air and wail that all of us are pseudoscientists each stuck in a different narrative, and there is no Truth? No, that is not the point. Palermos offers a solution with his critique. The video is here.

The problem is that evolutionary biology has not been able to make general predictions that can always be relied upon. Naïve persons not familiar with the debate sometimes question why one would doubt evolution when it is just as well established as gravity. But you can test gravity for yourself, with your own apple. More than that, physicists have made very precise predictions based on the theory, and then made very precise measurements that agree. But evolutionary biology is not at all like that. Not only is it outside the experience of ordinary people, even if it were completely accurate, biology is far too complex to make universal predictions. There are few examples where evo-bio can confidently say, “B is always true.”

Maybe, says Palermos, evo-bio is trying to make claims that are too big. Maybe it can do better by making smaller claims: “When A is true, then B is always true.” This way, you don’t have to prove that B is always true. You don’t even have to prove that A is ever true. All you have to do is prove a single relation. The disadvantage is that it does not give you the absolute and final Truth about some question of life’s history (the thing we all crave). But the advantage of this smaller piece of knowledge is that it is more likely to be certain, provable, demonstrable. It is more likely to be truly scientific, like a physical law, rather than ad hoc theorizing or a just-so narrative. And as a consequence, not even a creationist, and not even we ID folk, will want to deny it. Plus, if you can establish it firmly, it allows you to clear your head of one question and move on to the question of when or whether A is true.

The funny thing is, Palermos presents this as if it is something only evolutionary biologists could do, but of course everyone could benefit from exactly the same advice. It is not only evolutionary biology that could be made more scientific in this sense; more like math or physics. So could intelligent design theories. So could creationism, for that matter! If we were all willing to work on smaller, “What if?” questions as well as on the big picture, it might be possible to find a lot of common ground, and a lot of fruitful dialogue. Some people criticize the intelligent design movement for being minimalist; for not identifying the designer, or for not committing to a particular detailed history of life. But in view of Palermos’s advice, I think that is actually a strength not a weakness, and it makes it more scientific, not less.

Photo: Orestis Palermos, screen shot via Coursera.