Darwin’s theory – or “Finding Nemo”

“Science is like a good friend.” Why? Because “sometimes it tells you things you don’t want to hear.”

That’s the message Charlie Brooker gives in a hard hitting introduction to a documentary The Genius Of Darwin currently showing on British TV. The documentary kicks off a series of TV and radio programmes the BBC is running to commemorate anniversaries of the Birth of Charles Darwin (200th) and publication of his work The Origin of Species (150th). (See The BBC announces a major season marking the life and work of Charles Darwin – I just hope we get some of these documentaries in New Zealand).

Brooker’s comments are very relevant – not just because of these anniversaries. But also because there is a widespread suspicion of science, if not outright hostility towards science. The issue seems to be not just evolutionary science – but science in general.

Here are some of Brooker’s comments:

Must be frustrating being a scientist. There you are, incrementally discovering how the universe works via a series of complex tests and experiments, for the benefit of all mankind – and what thanks do you get?

Scientists are mistrusted by huge swathes of the general public, who see them as emotionless lab-coated meddlers-with-nature rather than, say, fellow human beings who’ve actually bothered getting off their arses to work this shit out. The wariness stems from three popular misconceptions: 1) Scientists want to fill our world with chemicals and killer robots; 2) They don’t appreciate the raw beauty of nature, maaan; and 3) They’re always spoiling our fun, pointing out homeopathy doesn’t work or ghosts don’t exist EVEN THOUGH they KNOW we REALLY, REALLY want to believe in them. That last delusion is the most insidious. Science is like a good friend: sometimes it tells you things you don’t want to hear. It tells you the truth. And we all know how much that can hurt, don’t we, fatso? Many people find bald, unvarnished truths so disturbing, they prefer to ram their heads in the sand and start dreaming at the first sign of scientific reality. The more contrary evidence mounts up, the harder they’ll ignore it. And even the greatest, most widely-admired scientists can provoke this reaction. Take Darwin.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it’s been under attack since day one.

The evidence confirming [Darwin’s] discovery has piled up and up and up, many thousand feet above the point of dispute. And yet heroically, many still dispute it. They’re like couch potatoes watching Finding Nemo on DVD who’ve suffered some kind of brain haemorrhage which has led them to believe the story they’re watching is real, that their screen is filled with water and talking fish, and that that’s all there is to reality – just them and that screen and Nemo – and when you run into the room and point out the DVD player and the cables connecting it to the screen, and you open the windows and point outside and describe how overwhelming the real world is – when you do all that, it only spooks them. So they go on believing in Nemo, with gritted teeth if necessary.

What was it that spooked them so?

See also: – clips from first episode of The Genius Of Darwin.
Beach Treasure
The Unteachables

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19 responses to “Darwin’s theory – or “Finding Nemo”

  1. And yet heroically, many still dispute it

    Yes, as they should. “Goo to you evolution” is a philosphical premise. It can only be called science if you firmly prepend pseudo to it.

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  2. um, OK, I’ll bite…

    Ross, science works through observation, generation & testing of hypotheses, developing explanatory theories that are capable of testing, predicting, being falsified. The theory of evolution is probably the most stringently tested of all scientific theories. It fits firmly within the world of science. Pseudoscience (eg homeopathy, iridology, ear candling, & supernatural explanations for the diversity of life) does not. Not least because of its sad tendency to shift the goalposts…

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  3. Interesting Ross. You also commented in a similar way on climate change (Climate change and New Zealand). I followed up your ‘evidence’ in Spreading doubt on climate change.

    You seem to want to spread misinformation rather than to discuss issues.

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  4. Ken quoted Brooker,

    Darwin’s theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it’s been under attack since day one.

    Why, OH WHY, must we continue to pretend that ‘science’ (in general) or evolutionary theory (in particular) is the enemy of (or ‘contradicts’ religion!!?? …

    (by the way Ken, the way you’ve worded things, it could lead someone to think that Brooker’s words are actually a part of the ‘introduction to’ the doco. In reality he’s just commenting on it. Picky, I know, sorry)

    Brooker seems to be using inflammatory language (no doubt to get readers).

    Alison,
    What do you mean about pseudoscience shifting the goalposts? Is it not contradictory and/or circular to a) say that something isn’t scientific and then b) complain that it shifts the (scientific) goalposts?
    Is this not somewhat like a) saying that sewing isn’t cooking and then b) complaining that it (sewing) has a ‘sad tendency’ to shift the ingredients?
    Mind you, I’m in agreement that things like ‘ID’ are not testable science. And further, I’m not into things like ear candling either, but it just seemed like you were making a category mistake in your critique? Cheers,
    -d-

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  5. Hi Dale

    I posted in a rush; might explain my ambiguity. I was actually thinking of some of the arguments of the creationist camp e.g if a biologist finds what looks like a transitional fossil, they’re then told that now there are TWO gaps to fill. Likewise the ID idea of ‘irreducible complexity’ – demonstrate that the bacterial flagellum is NOT irreducibly complex & the response is, one of its sub-components is. Or the idea that spoon-bending (let’s say) works perfectly well – until a scientist comes along & their skepticism derails things. (Although I should probably say, a magician like Randi; scientists seem to be quite gullible in that arena…)

    (I hope that’s a bit clearer; my brain is mush at the moment!)

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  6. Cheers Alison,

    I can appreciate (and agree with) your sentiments about ID.

    As a Christian, I do think ‘design’ is a reasonable philosophical (as opposed to ‘scientific’) conclusion/observation/appreciation/assumption/belief/etc., but (unlike my ID friends) I don’t feel the need to make (not to mention maintain!) ‘gaps’ in scientific discovery to support it! πŸ™‚

    Thanks for your patient reply,

    -d-

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  7. Of course, “design” itself is not a problem. Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary scientists often use the word (sometimes, but not always, as “the impression of design”). The ID people don’t have a patent on the word – they use it for their own theological and political motives.

    Yes, Dale, I said Brooker’s article was hard hitting. It’s often a useful technique for getting attention in writing. Mind you, I can also see why some people get really angry as there are so many lies being told in this area.

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  8. I can’t understand why science and religion have to be constantly juxtaposed. One starts where the other ends. I am a practising Catholic and I have a first degree in biology.
    Throughout my upbringing I have never heard a word debunking evolution from any of my educators. Evolution is a valid scientific theory that explains the origin (and mechanisms) of the biodiversity surrounding us.
    The Bible – specifically the Old Testament – does not try to explain HOW life came to be. Religion’s domain is the WHY of life, not the HOW. If you take the account of creation for instance, you will realise that the message is that humans are God’s “best” creation, because of us being made in the image of God etc etc. The Bible is not bothered with the mechanism of how humans came to be. It’s simply not its job. The job of religions is to explain their perspective of the truth. At the end of the day it’s up to the individual to whether or not to believe.
    I think that trying to interpret physical phenomena from a purely religious or biblical perspective exposes a gross misunderstanding of the function of religions and the Bible.

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  9. Reuben, I can appreciate your point. Religion and science are often juxtaposed quite inappropriately (although, of course, we must accept that individuals will have their own religious views despite the objectivity of the scientific findings).

    The problem is not caused by science – this must operate independently from any ideological imposition. I think it really comes from within religion – from some theological viewpoints. From my perspective I see some religious people attacking scientific knowledge because it conflicts with their preconceived beliefs. At the same time I see other religious people who are prepared to adjust their beliefs to accommodate well founded knowledge.

    It’s natural that science supporters will respond, and may sometimes initiate a counter attack. But if we want to solve this problem we really do have to tackle it theologically – within religion. It’s really a dispute between religious people.

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  10. Ken said,

    Religion and science are often juxtaposed quite inappropriately…

    So why feature such juxtapositions (as the comments of Brooker) on your blog? Why not set out the real workings of the issue? πŸ™‚

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  11. Dale, I guess you object to the word babblings in:

    Darwin’s theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it’s been under attack since day one.

    Perhaps babbling should really (and appropriately) better describe the version or interpretations that some adherents to these books promulgate.

    But let’s not get distracted from Brooker’s message about the mistrust of, and attacks on, science.

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  12. I’m not getting ‘distracted’, I’m just suggesting that there are many, many better ways at getting at the issue of the mis-trust of (or attack on) science, than featuring such a rant as Brooker’s…

    Why not feature the actual attacks themselves and thoughtfully critique them yourself? You’re more than capable, and it would be nice and controversial enough to get readership… I just (like Reuben above) am weary of the tired (and false) polemic between science and faith, and thought you would be too…

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  13. Ken,

    you said:

    “The problem is not caused by science – this must operate independently from any ideological imposition. I think it really comes from within religion – from some theological viewpoints.”

    The problem (I think) is rooted neither in science nor in religion. The problem is rooted in people who persist in trying to empiricise religion and in people who think that religion is enough to explain everything. I think it’s a bit like trying to put a monetary value on pleasure. Say a thing that gives me pleasure costs X euros. Is it reasonable for me to say that my pleasure therefore costs X euros? Most people would dismiss such a statement as nonsensical.

    The same goes for science and religion. Science, for example, tells us how the brain works. Can it explain why in most cultures humans feel the need to acknowledge a supreme entity? It may tell us WHERE in the brain the need arises or HOW, by describing the metabolism involved and the neurtal pathways etc etc … but WHY we feel the need is beyond science. Theological viewpoints, on the other hand, do not say anything about the validity of a scientific theory, so I don’t see how they can be used to refute (or corroborate) scientific theories or prefer one hypothesis over another. We’re talking chalk and cheese here.

    And another thing. Science can’t answer its most fundamental whys e.g. why time behaves the way it does, why quantum physics operates on these principles rather than others, why the constants of nature are what they are, etc etc. It doesn’t need to. Knowing that they just are is enough. But the point is that science stops at some point. We Catholics believe (I don’t know about other religions) that where science stops our faith begins. Admittedly, on a purely physical level you don’t need religion, and employing Ockham’s razor, if you don’t need it don’t factor it in. But that is where the choices of individuals come into play and it would be contradictory of science to rubbish anything that it cannot test.

    One last thing (Promise!!). Bear in mind that what many people call Catholicism is actually a misinterpretation or an outright lie. So when we hear that the Catholic church says this or that we have to be very careful who’s saying it. If we are going to be scientific we have to be scientific through and through. I know I talk only about the Catholic church, but that’s the only religion I’m familiar with in any detail.

    I’m sorry my rants are long-ish, but I’m on a one man mission to eradicate this percieved dichotomy of science and religion.

    Cheers.

    Reuben

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  14. Reuben,
    I’m with you on the false dichotomy between science and religion; and I’m in agreement with much of the rest you say above, but the following:

    …science stops at some point. We Catholics believe … that where science stops our faith begins.

    This sounds like what is commonly called the ‘god of the gaps’ understanding. The problem with this (theologically speaking), is that if your faith begins where science stops, then the further and further science goes, the more your ‘faith’ is pushed back and back, etc.
    For me, it is not only those things that science does not understand that enriches my faith and beliefs, but also the things that science does understand…
    But yeah, I’m totally with you on the whole false dichotomy thing. I’ve been reading and blogging with Ken for a while now, and frankly I was surprised that he featured such polemic ranting, I think he knows better than that! πŸ˜€ (yes, that was a compliment, Ken!)

    -d-

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  15. Dale,

    what I said can be very easily misinterpreted.

    By “Where science stops our faith begins” I did not mean the “sum” of our understanding. As you rightly remark that is the “god of gaps” understanding. Think in terms of international borders. I meant “domain” or what Popper called the “Problem of Demarcation” (of course he wasn’t referring to science and religion, but the principle is equally appicable)

    Yours was a good point.

    Thanks.

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  16. Questions like where science or religion start and finish, whether we can scientifically investigate the origins of religion, the underlying reality behind quantum mechanics, etc., can of course be debated. In the end questions like this are resolved by the normal progress in humanity’s endeavour to understand reality.

    However, if we are concerned about a religion/science conflict we should really ask what is causing it (this goes beyond criticising any individual manifestation). I am asserting that the conflict is coming from some (not all) religious trends.

    The obvious example of this, currently, is the Wedge strategy – which comes out of a specific theology. This strategy makes direct attacks on scientific knowledge and the scientific method. It goes further to attack much of modern culture and modern Christian theology. It is a political attack (having no toehold within science itself).

    Scientists will go on happily doing their job, ignoring the Wedge strategy until it’s political success inhibits their work (echoes of Lysenko and Stalinism). But in the meantime the Wedge strategy does great damage to Christianity – both by its attacks on other Chrsitians and by making Christianity look ridiculous in the eyes of observers (when it is seen as representing all Christianity).

    Articles like Brooker’s are just a militant (angry) response by supporters of science (I personally feel that anger). But the real struggle, surely, must be within the religions themselves.

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  17. Ken,
    The contents of your last comment are basically a summary of the general content of this entire blog. Sure, it relates, of course, but we (at least I was anyway) were talking specifically about helpful ways to avoid supporting the false dichotomy between religion and science…

    Among other things, we (I) was suggesting that your featuring of Brooker’s article is not helpful in avoiding that false dichotomy…

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  18. Dale – my motive in posting extracts from Brooker had no intention of either avoiding or reinforcing a “false dichotomy” (ameliorating a science/religion conflict).

    I repeat – it was aimed at highlighting “a widespread suspicion of science, if not outright hostility towards science.” This may be true of some religious people (who should be criticised for this), but the problem is wider than that. It is something we should all be concerned with.

    As you know by now, I have worked with many people of different religious views and in no case have these views introduced a conflict into our research. On the other hand, there are clearly some religious people (generally outside the scientific community) who do wish to introduce such a conflict, who make charges against scientific endeavour and scientists themselves.

    You will probably be familiar with labels like “fool,” “moron,” “obnoxious jerk,” “unstable lunatic”, etc. used to attack scientists in comments on this blog. You will also be aware of the extremist attacks on science, and scientists, made by people like Bill Dembski and his Wedge mates. People making these sort of attacks are surely using “allegorical babblings”. I don’t think their ideas and statements have any immunity from criticism (or even ridicule) just because they call them religious.

    On the other hand – such behaviour does tend to bring religion into disrepute. It seems to me, therefore, only natural that other religious people should lead in criticism of this behaviour.

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  19. I repeat – it was aimed at highlighting β€œa widespread suspicion of science, if not outright hostility towards science.”

    Then just quote that bit of Brooker, rather than the polemical ranting… πŸ™‚
    But not only was your Brooker quote a bit long, but (and this has been my point all along) it isn’t actually that useful at framing the (valid and needed) critique of anti-science behaviour that we both despise. That’s all I’m trying to say…

    Brooker’s ranting (i.e. ‘a bunch of made up old books’ – he’s not serious, is he?) makes him sound plain silly. If I were an atheist, I’d be embarrassed by it… That all… πŸ™‚

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