Monday, June 18, 2007

Wimsey on Theories

According to Dorothy Sayers' fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, it is "most damnably dangerous to have a theory." Here's a bit of dialogue (between Wimsey and his valet Bunter) from the short story "The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps That Ran"...
'Bunter,' said Lord Peter, as the kitchen door closed behind them, 'do you know why I am doubtful about the success of those rat experiments?'
'Meaning Dr. Hartman's, my lord?'
'Yes. Dr. Hartman has a theory. In any investigations, my Bunter, it is most damnably dangerous to have a theory.'
'I have heard you say so, my lord.'
'Confound you--you know it as well as I do! What is wrong with the doctor's theories, Bunter?'
'You wish me to reply, my lord, that he only sees the facts which fit in with the theory.'
'Thought-reader!' exclaimed Lord Peter bitterly.
Of course, Sherlock Holmes felt the same way, and sought to ascertain all the facts in need of explaining before attempting that explanation. This problem--of only seeing the facts that seem to fit the theory--is certainly one common to many evolutionists. But today and tomorrow I want to identify two related problems.

The first is this...appealing to the theory when it is irrelevant to the issue at hand. An example of this comes from a front-page article in today's Bend (Oregon) Bulletin, titled "Why do we love tanning? Evolution, researchers say." The by-line is John Fauber (of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and, in his defense, I need to make clear that the article proper doesn't make any mention of evolution. The thinking error here can be traced most clearly to the headline writer, whoever that was. In addition, though, the sidebar to the article asks the question, "why would people evolve to produce endorphins when they were exposed to sunlight?" Some of my readers might recognize this as an example of the logical fallacy known as the complex question. It really is two questions in one, and these two should both be expressed (rather than the one--"did this trait evolve?"--being assumed and implicitly answered in the affirmative). But I'm already ahead of the story...

The article summarizes several research studies that together lead to the following conclusions. Some people seem to be addicted to tanning. This addiction seems to have a physiological basis, in that exposure to sunlight produces endorphins that make a person feel better. Some of the researchers postulate that in past human history--before there were nutritional and pharmaceutical alternatives--this physiological mechanism may have been important in motivating people to get more sunlight in order to ensure adequate intake of vitamin D.

Now, I might quibble with some of the minor problems with aspects of one or more of the studies. One study, for example, tested people who were already addicted to tanning. To draw broad conclusions (about humans in general) from such a biased sample is problematic. Nonetheless, I am willing to accept the conclusions outlined above.

So what's the problem? Just this... The research has everything to do with physiology and nothing to do with evolution. The finding that humans are physiologically adapted in a way that encourages them to obtain adequate vitamin D through sunlight neither provides any support for evolutionary theory nor depends upon evolution being true. Other ideas about human origins (special creation, intelligent design) accomodate this finding equally (or, indeed, better).

This problem in thinking is far worse, of course, when it is published in college or graduate textbooks. In his book, Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe relates that many graduate level biochemistry textbooks pay lip servive to evolution in the introduction. But then evolution doesn't appear anywhere else in the book, and that for two reasons: 1) the relatively new field of biochemistry provides absolutely no evidential support for the theory of evolution (quite the opposite is the case, and that's the thesis of Behe's book), and 2) evolutionary theory doesn't offer any help in understanding biochemistry--one can understand graduate level biochemistry without any foundation in evolutionary theory.

We live in a culture and age where making an appeal (no matter how irrelevant) to "evolution" lends one (whether reporter, headline writer, or academician) a superficial veneer of sophistication or credibility that simply telling the facts would not. The situation would seem to be an eerie parallel to that of the folks in "The Emperor's New Clothes" who praised the monarch's suit even though he hadn't anything on.

So next time you read of an appeal to evolution, check closely. You're likely to find that the appeal is mere rhetoric, and that the evidence being discussed neither depends upon evolution's being true nor provides any unambiguous support for this uncritically popular theory.

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