Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"I see ... straw people."

No, this post really isn't about rhetorical strawmen, but it was too good a title to ignore. Anyway, as we've already noted, Skeptico over here laid a savage pummeling on this piece of right-wing, creationist excrement by ClownHall denizen Brian McNicoll. And while McNicoll certainly deserved the beating he got from Skeptico, I'm thinking that, sometimes, being that comprehensive and thorough might almost be counter-productive (although, God knows, I can get that carried away, too).

The problem with debunking something as stunningly stupid as McNicoll's idiocy is that there's so much of it, it's hard to know where to start. And even if you point out the obvious nonsense of 80% of it, there's always the potential rebuttal of, "Oh, yeah? Well, what about this claim? You didn't address that, did you? I didn't think so."

In cases like this, it might be more effective to focus on a single claim in the piece, beat it bloody with an axe handle, then suggest that the rest of the article might be no better. And, if you can, demand that the author defend that single claim without waffling or trying to change the subject.

As an example, McNicoll, in an absurd rewriting of history, writes:

The Darwinists have a lawyer in the proceedings named Pedro Irigonegaray, and he cross-examined some opposing witnesses. But so far, the scientific community of Kansas and surrounding areas has refused to participate. This proceeding, they say, is beneath them because all issues regarding the origin of life are settled.

When I hear such talk, I can’t help but think of the distinguished members of the scientific community who killed George Washington by using leeches to cure him of what amounted to a bad case of the flu. Or the study that came out just this week saying that a procedure performed a million times a year in this country on women during childbirth not only doesn’t help them but makes things worse. Or the sad treatment of Galileo, a distinguished scientist who spent the last years of his life under what amounted to house arrest because he’d been convicted of heresy for asserting that the earth orbited the sun, rather than the other way around.

The obvious implication here is that Galileo was persecuted. not by the Church for speaking heresy but (and I'll bet this surprises the shit out of you historians) by fellow scientists, thereby proving what sort of ignorant wankers scientists can be and how you can't always trust them, even to this day.

A more gratuitous and laughable re-interpretation of history would be hard to imagine, given how things really happened:

Galileo was a practicing Catholic, yet his writings on Copernican heliocentrism disturbed some in the Catholic Church who believed in a geocentric model of the solar system. They argued that heliocentrism was in direct contradiction of the Bible, at least as interpreted by the church fathers, and the highly revered ancient writings of Aristotle and Plato (especially among the Dominican order, facilitators of the Inquisition).

Um ... yeah. As most of us recall, it was the Church who didn't take kindly to Galileo, not his fellow scientists -- a bit of a difference from what that putz McNicoll writes. So what to do about it?

If it were me (and, by George, it is me), I'd ask McNicoll to respond to precisely that claim of his. I'd ignore the rest of the ignorant swill in his article and ask him to specifically defend that charge against Galileo, and I'd ask him where he got that information in the first place.

(As a slight digression, this historical mangling is not new. Many years ago, it was prominent creationist Duane Gish who was making this absurd claim:

One of the most often-heard claims of the creationists is that scientists are engaged in a vast conspiracy to censor creation-science and prevent the scientific data uncovered by the creationists from being heard. As Duane Gish puts it, "Three or four centuries ago, the notion that the sun and other planets revolved around the earth was the dogma of the scientific establishment. Galileo faced determined opposition from fellow astronomers when he suggested otherwise. Louis Pasteur and others, about a century ago, overturned the established dogma of centuries when they showed that living things never arose spontaneously from dead matter. Today, even though thousands of scientists are creationists, and the number is growing rapidly, the notion of evolution remains a stifling dogma." (Transcript of debate between Gish and Dr Russell Doolittle, October 13, 1981, cited in Montagu, 1984, p. 20)

So I'd put all this in front of McNicoll and press him to address it. And I'd suggest that he has an intellectual obligation to either prove his case regarding Galileo, or publicly retract it. And I wouldn't let up until he did one or the other. And only when that issue was conclusively and irrevocably settled, and I had McNicoll's unambiguous retraction in writing, would I go on to another point.

It might feel good to savagely paste someone as dumb as McNicoll up one side and down the other (and I succumb to the same urges all the time) but, to be productive, I think one has to focus on one refutation at a time. So, to McNicoll, I'd say: I want to know where you got that story in the first place, and I want to see you substantiate it or retract it.

And, yes, I have a long memory and I'm not going anywhere.


Orac said...

Yes, alties and pseudoscientists often use the Galileo gambit. It's a fallacy because, as Michael Shermer puts it, "Heresy does not equal correctness."

Orac said...

Oops. Hit "Login and Publish" too fast.

Nicoll's use of the example of the example of Galileo may be more apt than he thought, just not in the way he intended, Galileo's correct science was vigorously assailed by dogmatic religious people who could not accept his scientific conclusions because they did not agree with what their religious beliefs told them, not by scientists. So it is with evolution and intelligent design creationists. The difference is that (so far) religion hasn't trumped science as far as evolution goes--but sadly it's not for lack of trying by ID adherents. They just don't have the power to impose their religious beliefs on science, as the Catholic Church did at the time of Galileo.

CC said...

I think the version of the above that I recall was by either Gould or Sagan: "The fact that you are persecuted does not mean that you are right."


"The laughed at Edison. They laughed at Einstein."

"Well, yeah, but they laughed at Bozo the Clown, too."

Orac said...

Shermer paraphrased it as "heresy does not equal correctness" in his book Why People Believe Weird Things. I think he did give credit to Sagan for one of the quotes you mention.