Climate change Culture Darwinist rhetorical tactics Evolution Global Warming

Similarities Between the Debates Over Evolution and Global Warming

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For years I have closely followed both the evolution debate and the global warming debate.*  There are some important differences between the two debates, which may be the subject of a subsequent post.  However, the number of similarities is striking.  Enough so that for some time I have seriously considered writing a book detailing the parallels.  I believe it would be highly instructive for many– particularly for those who accept the party line of one of the theories but not the other – to recognize the many similarities between the two debates.

Given the realities of other time commitments, however, I suspect my nascent efforts will never make it to publication before catastrophic global warming either fades with a whimper or results in our apocalyptic demise.

As a result, I offer this exceedingly more modest contribution.  A short collection of preliminary notes and observations, if you will.  If anyone wants to take these observations and turn them into a published tome, please feel free to do so.  All I ask is a simple acknowledgement and, at my treat, a chance to sit down over lunch to discuss the fruits of your labor.

One key caveat for this post:  This post is not primarily about the science.  Nor, as I mentioned above, is it about the differences.  This is primarily about the rhetorical, social, academic, and political similarities of the two debates – not the substance of detailed observations and mathematical calculations, but the underlying framework within which the debates take place.  As always, I am happy to discuss the science in detail, but that is for another thread and another time.

Some of the observations listed below may apply with slightly more force to one topic than the other, but the observation is still readily apparent in both debates, I believe.  If any of the stated observations are unclear, let me know and I will attempt to clarify.

Feel free to add additional observations of your own in the comments.

—–

Without further ado then, here is my bullet-point list of similarities between the evolution debate and the global warming debate – in some rough grouping, but in no particular order:

Approach to the Theory

  • Failure to clearly define terms and issues.  Imprecise language that shifts meaning as convenient to support the story.
  • Lack of clear, quantifiable predictions.
  • Sweeping generalizations about claimed effects, without careful analysis of detailed steps in the physical process that would be required to generate the claimed effect.
  • Contrary data ignored or re-framed as supporting “evidence” through ad hoc adjustments to the theory.
  • Heavy reliance on models, instead of real field work.  [Note: Much more problematic in the global warming context, although in the evolution context there is heavy reliance on made-up stories**.]

Behavior of Supporters

  • Repeated and vociferous claims of “consensus”.
  • Often refusal to engage in open debate.  Claim that there is no debate, or that the science is already “settled”.
  • Lack of openness regarding data, assumptions, and the source of conclusions.  [Note: The actual hiding of data and refusal to share with the broader community seems to be much more prevalent in the global warming context.]
  • Attempts to label skeptics of the theory as “deniers” and as “anti-science”.
  • Aggressive attempts to prevent opponents from being published; pressure on journal editors and reviewers.
  • Career protectionism.  Attempts to get skeptics fired, banned, or ostracized.
  • Vindictive, spiteful, personal attacks, instead of reasoned argumentation.
  • Bad acting on the part of scientists; inappropriate emails; threats; etc.  [Note: Behavior that actually rises to the level of criminal activity (e.g., stealing board materials, property damage) is more prevalent in the global warming context.]

Socio-Political Aspects

  • Attempts to protect arguments by academic institutional proclamations, by court cases, by governmental fiat.
  • Attempts to claim the “scientific” side of the debate and to assert that skeptics are motivated by religious or other non-scientific motives.
  • Small cabal of outspoken propagandists pushing an agenda, coupled with general silence by the majority of scientists in the field, in some cases due to intimidation or fear of rocking the boat.
  • High-level political and institutional support, while lacking broad grass-roots support.  This reflects a top-down, “we know best” attitude by politicians and academicians.
  • Largely the field of academics and lobbyists.  Little practical real-world relevance.  However, strong ideological relevance.
  • Extensive funding of the consensus side to the tune of many billions of dollars, versus a ragtag bunch of largely self-funded individuals and small organizations on the skeptical side.

—–

Now, skeptics of the theories are not immune to negative behavior either.  Here is a list of some similarities I have observed on the skeptical sides:

Behavior of Opponents

  • Failure to carefully parse the theory to determine which aspects are supported by the evidence and which are not; tendency to lump everything into a single bucket and dismiss the entire topic.
  • Assertions that supporters are motivated by anti-religious or cultural-political motives.
  • Knee-jerk reactions against every aspect of the theory, due to prior bad experiences or assumed motives.
  • Occasional contrary claims that, similarly, lack evidentiary support.  [Note: This tendency seems to be more prevalent in the global warming context, particularly when discussing negative impacts.]
  • Tendency to frame the debate into a larger narrative about class dominance, government oppression, or the like.

—–

The number of similarities between the two debates is indeed striking and should provide food for thought — particularly for those who may be skeptical about one of the theories and not the other.

 


Footnotes:

*  The now-popular term “climate change” is really about global warming, the underlying premise being that a rise in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will cause an increase in the global average temperature.  It is important to keep our eye on this ball when discussing the science and not get misled by the vague term “climate change.”

**  Note again for the record that we are talking about the theory of evolution, not basic biology.  There is a tremendous amount of excellent work being done in the field of biology.  Where evolutionary theory claims relevance is in trying to provide a historical explanation for how biological systems came about and, occasionally, attempting to propose a particular prediction.

15 Replies to “Similarities Between the Debates Over Evolution and Global Warming

  1. 1
    PaV says:

    Eric:

    I think it’s important that you point out these similarities. It’s important for modern men and women to understand how ideological considerations get in the way of true science.

    One of the truths that is emerging from these parallels, is that science—contrary to what is commonly believed—is not immune from prejudice and what amounts to a ‘belief system.’ Science, then, is not a ‘purifier’ of religious thought, or, logic itself, but simply functions with the same tendency towards self-deception as do all areas of human thought: which is to say, science isn’t ‘pure truth.’

    Within this new purview, religion will need to be re-evaluated.

  2. 2
    EDTA says:

    We also need a running list of the pathologies/problems that the practice of science in general is suffering from these days. I started one here.

  3. 3
    asauber says:

    Thank you for posting this, Eric Anderson.

    I have been observing these things for a long time, too. I’m glad you put this together.

    Andrew

  4. 4
    asauber says:

    One thing I’d like to add is that the game evidently is to give the impression for mass consumption, that simplistic words/phrases like Evolution and Global Warming/Climate Change are true.

    Once you get down into the weeds with these things, you find out they are just narratives, with science being a motif, not a method.

    Andrew

  5. 5
    Barry Arrington says:

    Excellent post Eric.

    As you know, I post frequently on climate change, and I have often been asked why we talk about that topic so much on a blog devoted to origins. Your post points to the answer to that question.

  6. 6

    To be fair, when the proponent of a theory who claims that theory to be scientific fact provides little or nothing in the way of falsifiable predictions and offers largely only sweeping narratives and historical inferences based on ideological assumptions and/or an imagined infinite pool of unqualified possibility, it’s impossible for the opposition to offer specified rebuttals.

    Until proponents offer specified, falsifiable predictions, the proper response to such a theory is to “lump everything into a single bucket and dismiss the entire topic.”

  7. 7
    Eric Anderson says:

    PaV @1:

    One of the truths that is emerging from these parallels, is that science—contrary to what is commonly believed—is not immune from prejudice and what amounts to a ‘belief system.’ Science, then, is not a ‘purifier’ of religious thought, or, logic itself, but simply functions with the same tendency towards self-deception as do all areas of human thought: which is to say, science isn’t ‘pure truth.’

    Good point. This is certainly the case with respect to the institutional and political activities that are often grouped under the heading of “science”.

    —–

    PaV and EDTA:

    I’m sure we are largely on the same page, but your comments prompt me to share a little bit about how I view science.

    I tend to take a generally idealistic view of science: more along the lines of an objective search for truth, as some of the great early scientists envisioned it.

    As a result, I like to separate the actual science from the rhetorical, social, political, philosophical trappings that get brought in by the fallible and sometimes agenda-driven humans who call themselves “scientists”.

    So, for example, if a materialist comes to us and claims, “I’m doing science and my conclusion is Materialist Claim X, so you have to believe it,” we have a couple of possible approaches:

    (a) Point out that scientists are fallible, that science is potentially corrupted by money, that scientists sometimes behave badly, and that science is not really any more valuable or reliable than any other avenue of thought.

    (b) Point out that their Materialist Claim X doesn’t follow from the science and that they are not doing good science, but are instead letting their personal religious and philosophical get in the way of doing good science. They are hindering science.

    I guess it is partly a question of how we define “science”, but I think the latter approach probably makes more sense. It allows us to avoid getting into a protracted battle about all the foibles of institutional “science” writ large, and instead focus on the specific missteps or malfeasance of the specific individual making the particular claims.

    It also helps us avoid becoming cynical and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If someone is a materialist, but is doing good science, I’m happy to believe and accept what they show me. So I really try to go back to the specific facts in the particular case, rather than casting a pale on science at large.

    Finally, I love science, I value science, I still think objective analysis of facts and observations is an incredibly valuable way to approach life and learning. So I don’t want give up on science or cast aspersions on science. Rather, I want to protect science from bad actors — from those who would use the authority of science to push their own agenda.

    As Philip Johnson observed regarding Darwinism: It is not so much that science is untrustworthy so we can disregard the Darwinian claims. Rather the problem is that Darwinism is “philosophy masquerading as science.”

  8. 8
    Eric Anderson says:

    WJM @6:

    I hear you and share some of your frustration.

    The risk, I believe, is that we can end up doing both ourselves and our position a disservice if we fail to adequately parse the claims.

    I have learned a great deal from studying and engaging in the debates over the years — and delving into the science and the particular claims. That is valuable to me in its own right.

    Perhaps more importantly, I’m in a better position to engage with others and to help them understand the issues.

    Just as an example, when a friend, colleague or family member has had a question about the role of mutations and natural selection in evolution I have been able to provide a reasoned response that helps them understand the issue and also to be inoculated against the more questionable claims of materialist evolutionary propaganda.

    If I had just dismissed the question with “evolution is all nonsense,” I would have done a disservice to their learning. Furthermore, later when they inevitably learn that mutations are real and do have an observable impact on organisms, they would question my understanding of the topic, as well as my arguments against the more critical claims of evolution.

    I work with youth a fair amount, in addition to my own kids. One of the best things we can do is teach them how to critically think through the issues — to learn how to sort through the chaff for the kernel of truth. If we just lump everything into a single bucket and dismiss the entire topic we have lost our opportunity to help them sort through the details and the issues.

    The topic won’t go away. They will continue to be exposed to it. If we haven’t helped them navigate the topic, someone else will once they get to college or move on to professional work. And, unfortunately, it may be someone with an agenda.

    Furthermore, there are a large number of onlookers and fence sitters who have sincere questions and who want to know the truth. Being willing to acknowledge the parts of the theory or the aspects that are grounded in observation will help them understand the topic. It will also help us remain objective and will help them see our objectivity.

    Finally, I have found that willingness to engage in the topic and ask questions helps to deepen my understanding and, ultimately, strengthen my own position.

    For example, the more I have studied the origin of life, the more clear it has become that the materialistic story has no legs and that a designing intelligence is required. If someone at Harvard makes a claim that they have figured out how to get a primitive “cellular membrane” to replicate, my best avenue of learning — and also of supporting the design position — is not to dismiss the study, but to delve into it: what did they really show, what were the real results, what are the objective takeaways? Every alleged discovery in OOL research has brought a dozen new challenging questions and, rather than bringing us closer to a materialistic answer, has underscored and increased the vast chasm that separates the materialist story from reality. The same holds true in so many other aspects of the evolutionary story.

    The more we learn and engage, the more clearly we are able to see the holes in the theory.

    Well, I’ve prattled on long enough. I suspect we are largely on the same page, and I hear your frustration about the significant deficiencies of the theories.

    I offer just a gentle call, perhaps, to soldier on and parse the details, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of those around us.

  9. 9
    PaV says:

    Eric:

    There is science, and then there is science.

    Everyday scientific research, I would think, is generally good; and, whether a “materialist” or a religious person discovers new facts, matters not to me.

    However, there is a ‘corridor of power’ when it comes to enforcing orthodoxy, and within this ‘corridor’ only ‘consensus’ thinking is allowed. This is the problem, as I see it. The problem even extends to the area of physics where the ‘multiverse’ notion is supported, not by facts, but simply by ‘consensus’ thinking.

    A couple of years ago I had an OP titled: “The Demise of Science”. Take a look.

  10. 10
    kairosfocus says:

    Folks,

    no theory — inherently provisional, inductively supported explanatory framework — can be a “fact.” At best, it can be empirically tested and found reliable so far.

    Where, I take fact in its responsible sense: that which is per experience, observation and reliable report, confidently known to have occurred or be so.

    E.g. the earth is round, but on ordinary scale appears locally flat. Likewise, the sun appears to rise, climb across the sky and set, but this is a result of earth’s diurnal rotation and orbital motion (so the sidereal day is about four minutes shorter than the apparent 24 hour day).

    Of course, I chose these because in former centuries one of each pair of facts was disputed.

    Myths often taken as fact include that Columbus argued against courtiers who believed the world was flat. Since 200 – 400 BC, roundness of earth had been shown and the circumference estimated to reasonable accuracy; Columbus’ claim was a significant under estimate and his critics were right. Just, there was evidence of something out there within sailing range. Columbus was able to use the global trade winds system to go out and come back.

    So, let us distinguish facts and theories that seek to make good sense of them.

    KF

  11. 11
    Eric Anderson says:

    PaV @9:

    Agreed. Good points.

  12. 12
    bill cole says:

    Eric
    Great op. I think you nailed it.

    As Philip Johnson observed regarding Darwinism: It is not so much that science is untrustworthy so we can disregard the Darwinian claims. Rather the problem is that Darwinism is “philosophy masquerading as science.”

    This is the problem. We have materialist philosophy masquerading as science in our biology text books and up to 10% of the content. Indiana just passed a law allowing teachers to teach the strengths and weakness of the theory. This is a good start. Does any one have a good idea how to clean up the textbooks?

  13. 13
    Eric Anderson says:

    Barry @5:

    Thanks for the comment.

    Yes, there are so many similarities in how the debates play out it is almost uncanny. For individuals who are willing to see what is happening it is rather eye-opening — even if they don’t yet know much about the underlying science in one of the areas.

    A couple of years ago our fine friends at the NCSE (Eugenie Scott et al.) officially entered into the global warming debate — in defense, they claimed, of “science”.

    It was interesting to see that quite a few skeptics of global warming were shocked and dismayed that such a wonderful, reliable, reputable, science-defending organization that had hitherto been defending “science” against those anti-evolution rubes for all these years would suddenly change course and sully its reputation by resorting to questionable tactics, fallacious arguments, attempts to silence debate, fear mongering, and other unpalatable behavior.

    Those of us who know the NCSE well knew that it wasn’t a change of course at all. They were carrying out their same tired tactics just as they always had — only this time with a new topic.

    I took the opportunity to point out to the global warming skeptics that this was absolutely par for the course for the NCSE and that it should give anyone pause who had previously taken at face value the NCSE’s so-called defense of “science” in the area of origins as well.

    It was a brief post or two on a couple of busy blogs, so likely fell mostly on deaf ears. But perhaps a handful of individuals sat up and took notice.

    It is specifically individuals like that (those who are skeptical about global warming propaganda but buy into similar tactics in the evolution debate; or vice-versa), whom I hoped to reason with and who I hoped could potentially see some parallels and realize that the problems are not unique to just one of the topics.

  14. 14
    GaryGag says:

    Good points, Eric. The reason that they are so similar, however, is that the real driving force here is money, specifically government money. Those interesting in increasing government power also control the purse strings of research funding. They fund ideas that are more compatible with government control. The resulting structures you describe are built to justify the continued flow of that money. The tilt of the media toward programs that increase government control is also helpful in this construction. If scientists could only make money producing results that had an impact on material people’s lives instead of promoting an ideology, you wouldn’t see these defensive structures being built.

  15. 15
    Eric Anderson says:

    GaryGag @14:

    Thanks for your comments. I agree there is a significant monetary aspect to some of this.

    I would caution, however, that we need to be careful not to assume that this is all about government control or increasing government power. This is too simplistic of a narrative and too conspiratorial.

    In my experience, when people do things that I think are obviously erroneous, the cause is much more likely to be incompetence, rather than conspiracy.

    Furthermore, many people have a natural desire to have their personal opinions confirmed and it is natural for them to continue that narrative — whether it is based on career, education, reputation — independent of governmental control or money.

    There are also many people who have an ideology or worldview that is supported by the theory — particularly when we are talking about evolution. It is this ideology and worldview that have a critical impact, more than any effort of government control over our lives.

    Finally, there are a number of well-meaning and well-intentioned individuals who simply haven’t learned the facts or thought through the issues yet.

    So yes, the purse strings are important in how research grants are made and how institutional science is pursued. There may even be some slight element of governmental control involved (though we have to remember this “government” is not a thing unto itself: it too is made up of people — a constantly shifting group of people).

    So beyond the money and any governmental influence we need to recognize there are other important reasons and motivations, including worldview and plain old ignorance.

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