Monday, January 7, 2019

The Danger To Evolutionary Science And All Of Us From The Pseudo-Scientific Use Of The Word "Evolution"

I have an note to myself on my desk which I found about a week back.  It's undated but I clean off my desk once a month so I know it was from December.  It's a reminder that I should research examples of casual dropping of the word "evolution" in the media, as in the phrase "evolution made" something or "the reason for that is 'evolution' " and trying to find out if there is any, even the slightest evidence in rigorous science that the said something has been traced to evidence of evolution having a hand in producing it.  I strongly suspect it was a note I wrote to myself after hearing NPR's Shankar Vedantam - the "Hidden Brain" guy who, typically of those who spout off pseudo-scientifically about minds and behavior, will use the word "evolution" as a sort of magic charm to come up with a simulation of an explanation when not only is there no explanation for what they're expounding on, quite often the scientific evidence for the existence of some of the phenomena being so "explained" is non-existent and even for those that exist, my guess is that there is no valid scientific evidence that explains their existence within evolution.  That is if you take the claimed methods of science seriously, something which, alas, many who teach "science" and even science at major universities don't seem to.

I mentioned that to one of my relatives, someone who had a career and an education in biology - for the record Vedantam, typical of so many American "science reporters" has a minimal education in science, he's got an electronics engineering degree and a masters in "journalism".   My relative became notably uneasy when I criticized the misuse of the word "evolution" in contexts in which there is no science to support the contention.   He made a joke that I sounded like a "flat-earther" which is interesting in that it would seem to be the response any such questioning of even the most outlandish use of the word "evolution" as a materialist-secularist magic charm.   He knows that I believe in evolution, we've talked about evolutionary topics often enough, it was just my criticism of the abuse of the word by pseudo-scientists of the behavioral kind that gave him the willies.
Lost in that was the fact that I was trying to uphold the integrity of science against the popularization of words in ways that damaged their meaning. 

It was reading a criticism of Jordan Peterson's idiotic diet advice - literally an all beef diet, with a little salt, something he got from his huckster daughter who charges people $120 an hour as an expert consultant*, that reminded me that I was going to research this use of the word "evolution" to see just how much damage had been done to its scientific integrity by its greatest fans. 

It was also being reminded that Jordan Peterson is considered an expert in "evolutionary psychology" which I think is just neo-eugenics repackaged to promote racism and sexism and class inequality since the last quarter of the last century.   Being someone who took more notice than many at how E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology morphed rather fast into "evolutionary psychology" mostly, from what I saw, on the basis of escaping the criticisms of Wilson's work and avoiding most of the actual business of observation in nature for making up stories,  I think they called their bull-shit stream of psychology "evolutionary" in order to take advantage of the magical character that word has with the college credentialed crowd.  Lots of "evolution" even going back to the earliest years consists of such story telling, honest evolutionary biologists will admit that, though I think it's generally not evolution that they're making the stories up about but natural selection, which is not the same thing.

Remember to ask yourself, the next time you hear someone like Vedantham explain something as a product of "evolution" whether or not there is the slightest evidence in scientific observation that that is "where it came from".  And while you're at it, take a hard look at any such "science" used to explain it or even to prove the phenomena they're explaining exists.   "Science" accepted on the same basis as the kind of lore that the Peterson-meathead diet is based in is not science.  Scientists should be the first ones to protect the integrity of their field, but they almost never will.

*Ms Peterson is offering consultations for $120 an hour. If that seems expensive, well, simply read the testimonials she has collected to assure you that it is money well spent. Do not stop to consider if the plural of anecdote is evidence.

Meeting criticism of her lack of qualifications, Ms Peterson says, “I’m not going to go to a school run by either the pharmaceutical companies or the food companies to learn about how eating grain is healthy.” Contemporary nutritional science is not, of course, infallible or immutable, but unlike Peterson’s beef and vodka diet, it has been arrived at over many decades through longitudinal and quantitative studies. There are schisms within the discourse – for example, over the risks of saturated fat. But such schisms are best addressed through systematic reviews of research and further peer-reviewed investigation.

Ms Peterson’s blog cherrypicks studies to support her beliefs, while treating robust scientific literature and consensus on nutrition with the kind of scorn for the scientific method that I ordinarily associate with anti-vaxxers, raw-food-cures-cancer advocates, or the eminently disturbing bleach enemas for autistic children crowd.

While I'd agree with Rupert Sheldrake that nutrition is not our most successful branch of biology, it's a lot better than this kind of bull shit which daddy Peterson is peddling.  I wonder if she got her notions of science from him.

1 comment:

  1. "Evolution" doesn't even mean what it is popularly thought to mean: "Progress" or "improvement."

    The whole idea is simply that species change over time, due to a multitude of factors. It doesn't mean a steady march toward perfection and some sort of goal.

    Wilson's book is about as credible as Dawkins' was, and as responsible for as much bad pop-sci, the worst of which is presented in "Hidden Brain." Even the title doesn't make sense, frankly; but it's one of the few moments when I reflexively turn the radio down in the mornings. Well, that and "Story Corps." (or is it "Core"? I dunno, and I'm sick of it anyway. Turns out ordinary people's lives aren't really intrinsically interesting to strangers.). "HB" is crap; poorly researched, more poorly presented, and about usually contradicted in a week or two by a new story. Sort of like Trump's tales of reality, in fact.

    Indeed, it's disturbing how much Trump merely reflects and amplifies the bullshit we wade in on a daily basis. He really isn't sui generis or all that divorced from reality; if anything he's much more gullible than most of us. Most of us suspect something's generally wrong with the information soaking our world; Trump takes it all at face value. If he weren't so obnoxious about it, he'd be indistinguishable from most reporters, especially the ones reporting on subjects they know absolutely nothing about.