Philosophy Science

Massimo Pigliucci: A burden of proof in science that just does not make sense

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From Massimo Pigliucci at Footnotes to Plato:

Intelligent Design proponents and assorted creationists, for instance, have often pointed to alleged instances of “irreducible complexity” in the living world: biological systems that are so intricate that they could not possibly have evolved. In dealing with such challenges, evolutionary biologists can suggest possible evolutionary pathways leading to a given complex biological structure. When they have done so, there is an extra BoP [burden of proof] on ID advocates to rule out all of the proposed natural explanations. Contrary to what believers think, the BoP is not on skeptics to demonstrate which one of the natural explanations is the correct one. Given the overwhelming evidence for the power of natural selection to produce adaptive complexity, and the difficulty of garnering information about a distant evolutionary past, this kind of informed speculation is all that is needed to put ID arguments to rest (of course, evidence of specific mutations and selection processes further strengthens the case for evolution, but its fate no longer depends on it). The amount of anomalies (in casu, evolutionary puzzles) has simply not come even close to the Kuhnian threshold for a paradigm shift, though of course this says nothing about whether it might do so in the future. More.

First, we are astonished at Pigliucci’s grand claims for the tautology of “natural selection” to produce adaptive complexity which is about as well demonstrated in the real world as magic.

Second, no one applies the standard he suggests (rule out all of the proposed natural explanations [= explanations my crowd favours]) if anything important is at issue. As it happens, the evidence does not favour his crowd’s explanation.

For one thing, anyone can suggest “possible evolutionary pathways” without limit. No one can rule out all possible explanations, however unlikely, in this universe—or one of an infinite multiverse that may intersect with ours (as we sometimes hear).

When making decisions, we usually use an inference to the best explanation. Only textbook Darwinism and the ever-supportive multiverse are exempt. But why are they always sheltered that way?

See also: The multiverse: The long march of progressive politics through science institutions

35 Replies to “Massimo Pigliucci: A burden of proof in science that just does not make sense

  1. 1
    Phinehas says:

    Huh. When I first read the quote from Pigliucci, I thought I was reading satire. Poe’s Law strikes again, I suppose.

  2. 2
    chris haynes says:

    Who has the burden of proof?

    Differences between organisms through the course of natural history can be always be explained as resulting from improved survival due to improved function. Thus Dr. Pigliucci is on solid ground. His Creationist opponents cant disprove the meme of natural selection for any given instance. But neither can he prove that his explanation, or even one of his explanations, is correct. In a situation such as this, where neither side can possibly offer proof, we will always get the answer that Dr Pagliucci gave, “My opponents have the burden of proof”.

    But then there is the matter of abiogenesis, the origin of life. As with evolution, two explanations have been offered, the Creationist and the anti-Creationist. The anti-Creationists have it that life arose from chemical reactions, and chemical reactions can always be replicated, if they are indeed possible. Thus those who postulate reactions have the burden of demonstrating them.

    In this case the chemical ingredients for the reactions are simple Home Depot stuff, and the pressures and temperatures can be gotten in almost any college lab. But incredibly, after a century of trying, with oodles of funding and Nobel prize winners on board, Dr Pagliucci’s colleagues are still unable to demonstrate the reactions they assure us happened.

    The competing theories of Abiogenesis are like the battle between perpetual motion and the second law of thermodynamics. The former was discredited by failure to demonstrate, thus establishing the latter as the settled science. It would be interesting to hear Dr Pagliucci tell us why the 100 year failure of chemical abiogenesis research doesn’t establish Creationism as the “settled science” of abiogenisis

  3. 3
    asauber says:

    Given the overwhelming evidence for the power of natural selection to produce adaptive complexity

    Always count on Evolutionists to resort to poetry to try and convince someone (I’m not sure who exactly) of their position.

    “Overwhelming” is not scientific language.

    “Power” is really decorative here. It’s attempting to paint a philosophically loaded idea- “Natural Selection” as having some kind of ability, when it doesn’t have any. As we all know “Natural Selection” is just a fancy description for “what happened” and nothing more.

    Andrew

  4. 4
    News says:

    Chris Haynes at 2, there is alway the possibility that abiogenesis is not a science topic at present. That’s not to denigrate anyone involved. It’s more like asking, is there a way to test it that goes beyond speculation that a given hypothesis might be possible?

    If so, one must demonstrate that a given hypothesis was at least one of the ways it happened. We are now talking history, which means, among other things, that *we must rule out contradictory explanations.* (Napoleon cannot have both won and lost the Battle of Wateloo).

    We suspect the OOL folk will be at it a long tme.

  5. 5
    hnorman5 says:

    “Overwhelming evidence for the power of natural selection to produce adaptive complexity”? Then why does Pagliucci feel the need to put the burden of proof on the other side? I was expecting his article to show us some of that overwhelming evidence instead of throwing out the burden of proof.

  6. 6

    Pagliucci is a true believer in the a/mat philosophical worldview. A man of deep devotion to Darwinism (of every stripe) and perhaps an even deeper devotion to atheism/materialism.

    His thoughts on ID are irrelevant…at least to me.

  7. 7
    Barry Arrington says:

    This is nothing but a rehash of Darwin on the same topic:

    If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

    At first blush this sounds like a way to actually test the theory. In practice it has proven to be a red herring. Because “not possibly” in practice has meant “if you can prove that all of the just so stories we throw at you are logically impossible (not just practically impossible), then you have not met the test.” Put this one in the “nothing new under the sun” file.

  8. 8
    Axel says:

    ‘It would be interesting to hear Dr Pagliucci tell us why the 100 year failure of chemical abiogenesis research doesn’t establish Creationism as the “settled science” of abiogenisis.’

    … failing which, we shall take his real name to be Pagliacci, and Pagliucci, his ‘nom de plume’.

  9. 9
    Axel says:

    ‘Given the overwhelming evidence for the power of natural selection to produce adaptive complexity, and the difficulty of garnering information about a distant evolutionary past, this kind of informed speculation is all that is needed to put ID arguments to rest……’
    —————–
    Hmm. So, now, according to the canons of materialist reasoning, ‘difficulty of garnering information’ constitutes one of two trump cards in materialist apologetics, which, together with the other trump card, a ludicrously tendentious claim concerning ‘the power of natural selection’, engenders a rich synergy, to definitively demolish ID with the ‘coup de grace’ of a putatively ‘informed conjecture’. I see.

    Stop tying yourself in knots, Massimo. I would venture to suggest you might find the Pope’ s prayer to Our Lady Untier of Knots would be graciously received.

  10. 10
    EDTA says:

    In today’s world, Kuhn is irrelevant. He wrote mostly about physics and, at least in his most famous work (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), never about any field as imprecise and hard to pin down as evolution.

    With all the different major problems science has today (I count at least a dozen), one has to work to convince one’s self that anyone is actually seeking truth anymore…

  11. 11
    rvb8 says:

    Another famous scientist attests to the strength of NS, and another post appears on UD damning it before it has the time to gather legs.

    The heavy hitters Denyse and Barry arrive to batt it down, smothering its chances of being heard.

    They return to their roosts awaitng the next opportunity to be ignored by a larger audience.

    NS remains the base of evolution. And even though Denyse posts endlessly on some inner conflict within the evolutionary biological community about ‘the modern synthesis’ dilemma via Suzan Mazur, there is none it exists not.

    I think the thing that stung here is that a famous philosopher of science refuses to even bother to distinguish between ID and creationism; just like Judge Jones, and the Wedge Strategy:

    “To replace materialist explanations with theistic understanding that nature and human beings arecreated by God.”

    There you have the smoking gun, and scientists reply; ‘This is an inaddequate answer, we think nature and nature’s forces are sufficient.’

    Thank God.

  12. 12
    Marfin says:

    RVB8-So RV how does NS work? how does NS change creatures
    over time? how exactly does the NS process work?

  13. 13
    rvb8 says:

    Marfin,

    nature, Selects Naturally, hence natural selction.

    If man were involved we would call this Artificial Selection, and accept the products as various versions of dog, horse, cat, cow, rice grain, wheat, potato, etc etc.

    We would see these various artificial selection changes, in these various useful animals, and plants, advance quite quickly; within generations.

    However, as we are only short lived beings, the changes occuring naturally, within nature, happening over eons, are beyond our small minded ken.

    Hence the need for geniuses, such as Darwin, to enlighten our childish, myopic, self centred, man centred ,thinking.

    God is nt useful here.

  14. 14
    Phinehas says:

    rvb8:

    No, nature doesn’t select at all. That’s merely an anthropomorphism that implies intelligence where none exists. What dies, dies and everything beyond that involves trying to reframe this so that it appears as though nature is doing something intelligent or useful.

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    morons do not have the burden of proof

  16. 16
    soundburger says:

    rvb8, #13.
    You don’t understand natural selection. Therefore you do not understand how it is not a convincing explanation, to say nothing of ‘proof’, for the immense variety of species, phenotypes, behavioral tendencies, physiologies, reproduction cycles, etc.etc. that are observed in nature.
    You simply swallow a simplified concept because you are satisfied that your ‘betters’ (scientists with degrees) have done your work for you.

  17. 17
    Dionisio says:

    The only proof required here is the simple evo-devo formulation:
    Dev(d1) = Dev(ca) + Delta(ca,d1)
    Dev(d2) = Dev(ca) + Delta(ca,d2)
    Where ca represents a biological system that is considered the last common ancestor for its descendants d1 and d2.
    Dev(x) is the developmental process of a biological system x.
    Delta(x,y) represents all the spatiotemporal changes required for Dev(x) to turn into Dev(y).
    By ‘developmental process’ we should have in mind the whole enchilada, including the regulatory networks, signaling pathways, morphogenesis, and the whole nine yards.
    The evo-devo literature shows how they struggle to figure out just how to approach that task. However, their reductionist bottom-up reverse engineering approach wastes much precious time.
    Based on the current situation, any speculative comments on this subject is archaic pseudoscientific hogwash or low grade bovine excreta.
    Nonsense remains nonsense regardless of who says it.

  18. 18
    rvb8 says:

    soundberger,

    What? They are my, “betters”, in evolutionary biology at least. And if you are not an ‘evolutionary biologist’, they are your ‘betters’, too.

    My local auto electrician is my ‘better’ when it comes to auto electrical problems, and my local carpenter is my ‘better’ when it comes to wood stuff.

    It always amazes me when parents question doctors and demand different treatment, for their child.

    Maybe a second opinion sure, but different treatment? When the doctor gives a medicine, do the parents nip off to med school, get a degree, study treatments, and give their own consudered opinion? No!

    So, soundberger (the aptly named),

    when it comes to evolutionary biology, I will indeed defer to Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Dawkins, E.O.Wilson, Richard Lewontin, and of course Mr Darwin.

    You see, the alternative is you, O’Leary for NEWS- or NEWS for O’leary, Mr Arrington, Phillip Johson and his ‘wedge strategy’, and Dembski etc.

    Compared to your lot, my “betters”, are streets and streets ahead.

    They do actual scientific experiments, and gather actual evidence.

  19. 19
    Dionisio says:

    Hey folks, it’s summertime. Go to the beach. Chill out.
    The politely dissenting interlocutors don’t know what they’re talking about.
    Let’s repeat it:
    The only proof required here is the simple evo-devo formulation:
    Dev(d1) = Dev(ca) + Delta(ca,d1)
    Dev(d2) = Dev(ca) + Delta(ca,d2)
    Where ca represents a biological system that is considered the last common ancestor for its descendants d1 and d2.
    Dev(x) is the developmental process of a biological system x.
    Delta(x,y) represents all the spatiotemporal changes required for Dev(x) to turn into Dev(y).
    By ‘developmental process’ we should have in mind the whole enchilada, including the regulatory networks, signaling pathways, morphogenesis, and the whole nine yards.
    The evo-devo literature shows how they struggle to figure out just how to approach that task. However, their reductionist bottom-up reverse engineering approach wastes much precious time.
    Based on the current situation, any speculative comments on this subject is archaic pseudoscientific hogwash or low grade bovine excreta.
    Nonsense remains nonsense regardless of who says it.
    That proof to support the Darwinian ideas hasn’t been produced yet. And it seems like it’s getting harder to produce.

  20. 20
    Eric Anderson says:

    I’m willing to give Pigliucci the benefit of the doubt and interpret when he says we have to rule out all the “proposed” naturalistic explanations that we have to rule out the rational proposals that have actually been advanced, not hypothetical or wild or still-to-be-dreamed-up naturalistic stories.

    That would be more reasonable.

    But even with that charitable interpretation it would seem he is unfamiliar with the biological evidence. After all, no rational naturalistic explanation has ever been proposed for a highly-functional, integrated, information-driven biological system.

    Thus the burden of proof has been met by the ID proponent.

    The real question is: Will the materialist now step up to the plate and offer anything substantive in response?

    —–

    Closely related issue:

    https://uncommondescent.com/darwinism/must-csi-include-the-probabilities-of-all-natural-processes-known-and-unknown/

  21. 21
    rvb8 says:

    EA,

    the materialists won’t ‘step up to the plate’, they’re in their labs.

    Dionisio,

    are these your equations? Why not publish? Or why not envisage an experiment to support your equations?

    Anything; please!

  22. 22
    soundburger says:

    rv #18.
    That’s all fine and well. But the fact remains that you clearly don’t understand natural selection. ‘Defer’ as you like.

  23. 23
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8, we do not need to publish trivially true results in peer reviewed literature to use them in discussion. D has simply summarised in a simple mathematical-logical framework. At first level. From his phrasing he may even be citing a commonplace, he can answer that. But the meaning is almost self-evident: start at baseline then add changes to arrive at result. The problem is to account for that against available dynamics, timeline and search challenge i/l/o island of function issues starting at molecular level (proteins in AA space and wider organic chemistry). KF

  24. 24
    Dionisio says:

    KF @23:

    we do not need to publish trivially true results in peer reviewed literature to use them in discussion.

    The problem is to account for that against available dynamics, timeline and search challenge i/l/o island of function issues starting at molecular level (proteins in AA space and wider organic chemistry).

    Exactly.
    I could not have expressed it as well as you did.
    Thanks.

  25. 25
    Dionisio says:

    KF @23:

    Apparently our politely dissenting interlocutor @21 refers to my comments @17 & @19.
    In those comments I explicitly identified the equations as
    “simple evo-devo formulation”.
    I don’t know if the politely dissenting interlocutor knows what evo-devo stands for, but apparently s/he doesn’t.

  26. 26
    soundburger says:

    rv, I am curious.
    In your response to me, you write,
    “They do actual scientific experiments, and gather actual evidence.”
    Then, in #21, you write, “the materialists won’t ‘step up to the plate’, they’re in their labs.”

    Just what exactly do you, personally, imagine these ‘experiments’, ‘actual evidence’ and work ‘in their labs’ to be? Is it your imagining that what these scientists you defer to are doing is continually proving natural selection? Experiment after experiment in lab after lab?

    This seems like a very odd enterprise. Go into ‘labs’, conduct ‘experiments’ and then demonstrate that nature selects through stochastic processes and creates new species and no gods are necessary.

    Please give us just one example of this; one experiment that you yourself have found to be conclusive enough to end debate. Show us that you have at least not let it all drop at ‘after all, they’re the experts, so what they are saying must be true’.

  27. 27
    Dionisio says:

    KF @23:

    Regarding #17, 19, 21.

    Obviously the presented formulation is not my original invention. It’s the implicit goal described in the evo-devo literature. Apparently the politely dissenting interlocutor isn’t aware of that important detail.

  28. 28
    Dionisio says:

    soundburger @26:

    Your politely dissenting interlocutor might not give any valid answer to your questions, simply because s/he doesn’t seem to know much abut the discussed subject. See comments @25 & @27.

  29. 29
    soundburger says:

    Dionisio #28

    Yes, that’s apparent. I just have a difficult time imagining what sort of scientific scenario he envisions. If the point is simply to prove, experiment after experiment, that natural selection by random mutation is the mechanism of species divergence; it just seems like a big waste of time. I mean, just prove it, once, and end all debate. The way he describes it, it seems more like a jobs program for biologists who would otherwise be flipping burgers 😉

  30. 30
    kairosfocus says:

    SoundB, invariably, minor adaptations on a few changes within a population will be extrapolated into evidence of body plan origin by blind chance and mechanical necessity, from OoL to us across the so-called tree of life (a zombie icon). The info-origin challenge will usually not be perceived, or will be dismissed, much less the island of function deeply isolated in vast seas of non function, starting with proteins in AA-sequence space. KF

    PS: RVB8 and his backers have been pointed to Scott Minnich et al, Behe’s work and Axe et al, as well as Dembski, Marks et al. He still persists in the insinuation that the ID School of thought carries out no empirical investigations of scientific character. Even in the face of direct citation and links to professional literature, he has never retracted much less apologised for a false and — in context — even defamatory assertion that such workers have not published in the professional literature. That sort of insistent assertion, insinuation and innuendo in the teeth of cogent correction is a classic agit prop tactic.

  31. 31
    Eric Anderson says:

    the materialists won’t ‘step up to the plate’, they’re in their labs.

    Really? What are you doing in your lab? What is Dawkins doing in his lab? What is Coyne doing in his lab? What is Pigliucci doing in his lab? Please. Your juvenile bluffs and attempts at disparagement are well noted.

    No-one has any issue with good bench science, as long as it is reported objectively and without philosophical bias.

    And the bench science that has been done repeatedly affirms the utterly anemic nature of the so-called Darwinian mechanism, and the need for intelligent intervention.

    Unfortunately, Pigliucci — the topic of this thread after all — is simply wrong. At least with respect to the science (assuming my charitable interpretation of his statement @20), and additionally with respect to the approach to science itself and the burden of proof, if his statement is taken at face value as he (probably) intended it.

  32. 32
    Dionisio says:

    KF @30:

    […] invariably, minor adaptations on a few changes within a population will be extrapolated into evidence of body plan origin by blind chance and mechanical necessity, from OoL to us across the so-called tree of life (a zombie icon). The info-origin challenge will usually not be perceived, or will be dismissed, much less the island of function deeply isolated in vast seas of non function, starting with proteins in AA-sequence space.

    Couldn’t be said in better terms. Please, keep repeating this.

    Too bad the politely –sometimes stubbornly– dissenting interlocutors don’t want to understand it.

  33. 33
    Dionisio says:

    Eric Anderson @31:

    No-one has any issue with good bench science, as long as it is reported objectively and without philosophical bias.

    Unfortunately some research papers contain rotting archaic pseudoscientific hogwash that renders their text low grade bovine excreta.

  34. 34
    Dionisio says:

    Eric Anderson @31:

    […] the bench science that has been done repeatedly affirms the utterly anemic nature of the so-called Darwinian mechanism, and the need for intelligent intervention.

    Yes, but the politely dissenting interlocutors don’t want to see it that way.

  35. 35
    Dionisio says:

    The latest politely dissenting comment within this thread was posted @21 several days ago.
    Maybe soundburger, KF and EA shut up that poor politely dissenting interlocutor?

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