Nelson's game

Sometimes, I feel very sorry for Paul Nelson. He's one of the few creationists who actually tries to engage his critics, and I think there's a very good reason for that: when creationists try to emerge from the hothouse environment of their "think-tanks" and institutions of ignorance, when they stand before audiences that weren't bussed in from the local fundamentalist church, they tend to get bopped hard. There is a good reason for that, of course —it's because they say such remarkably silly things. The exceptional thing about Nelson is that he keeps on saying such silly things.

And he's done it again, in an article full of misconceptions and half-truths about how science works. It's a sincere attempt to express his beliefs, I will grant him that, but dang if it isn't astoundingly wrong from top to bottom. Jason Rosenhouse has already flensed it once, so I'm left with little but a few bones to crack, but hey, that's fun, too.

First, the half-truths. Nelson is dismayed at the one-way door of science: arguments and evidence against creationism are accepted on the one hand, but on the other, supernatural explanations are not accepted.

On the one hand, Charles Darwin had refuted the theories of special creation of the early 19th century -- and thus such theories were testable, not least because they had been tested and falsified. On the other hand, however, the strong positivism that permeated the atmosphere of the 10th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, the home of the history and philosophy of science program at Pitt, often held that "supernatural" explanations were untestable in principle.

But if such theories were untestable in principle, why did so many of my professors, from both philosophy and biology, talk at length about data that did or did not support Duane Gish's creationism, or "scientific creationism" generally (au courant at the time because of the various "balanced treatment" cases in US federal courts). If Gish's arguments could be countered by evidence, then the dialectic of science was already fully engaged. Whatever evidence can challenge, evidence can support. Right?

Wrong. Duane Gish made testable claims about the world, and that they were evaluated and rejected by the machinery of science does not mean that his other untestable metaphysical claims were therefore also grist for the scientific mill. Nelson has a falsely fluid idea of the nature of evidence if he think it can support anything. The moon is made of lime jello! That we can marshal huge amounts of evidence and theory to show that that is false does not imply that there is also reasonable evidence that the moon is citrus-flavored protein.

Much of the rest of Nelson's argument is taken up with his misconception, an "insight" that science is like a game with arbitrary rules, and that Design Theory is only excluded because it falls outside the foul line of the grand game of Science Baseball, and that if only we were playing Science Cricket it would be a fair idea in play. It's just an accident of history, a whim of the owners of the teams, that has led to his game being excluded. Why, if only the umpires were using the 1889 rulebook, then the moon would be made of lime jello.

I think everyone can see the flaws in his argument. We aren't just playing a game, but are trying to understand how the world works. The umpire here is the world around us and his rulebook is reality; you don't get to change it. If science is a game, it's one that is trying to test reality, and determine what the actual rules are.

Nelson can whine all he want that his rules are better, or that he knows of a super-secret rule on page 197 that lets him count a strike as a bunt, but it doesn't change the fact that the umpire has just called him out.

Speaking of arbitrary rules, I have to bring up this one revelation from Nelson's article. When he was in grad school, he wrote a paper on this subject, and…

When I got my paper back, it was clear that Stein hated it. He gave me a B, a "pass but barely" grade in the program.

Maybe this is where Nelson gets the idea that rules are infinitely elastic and anything goes, as long as you babble enough and ignore all the evidence against it: he's the product of grade inflation. I assure you, if Nelson took a course from me, I wouldn't hesitate to give him an "F" if he didn't meet the standards of the class. Getting a B at UMM in a class means you understand the material very well, not that you "barely passed".

More like this

In my week long visit to Ireland, I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone I talked to was forthright and willing to state their views clearly, even if I thought they were dead wrong and rather stupid (my radio interview with Tom McGurk comes to mind — he was an…
I'm wondering how the Sarkar-Nelson debate in Austin went down—any attendees want to let me know? I ask because I just now read the discussion paper by Nelson that supposedly represents his side of the argument, and rarely have I seen such a shallow and pointless position advanced with any…
Darksyde takes on the teaching of creationism in Missouri…let's see if readers here are clever enough to see the dishonesty in this quote. [Mike] Riddle had been invited to Potosi High and John A. Evans Middle School by Randy Davis, superintendent of the Potosi-RIII school district, and his board…
Paul Nelson has actually responded to a challenge in a timely fashion. I am shocked. Of course, his response is ineffectual and wrong, so ultimately I'm not too surprised at all. Josh comments on Nelson's reply. I'll just pile on. Nelson complains that the question of whether ID should be taught in…

Regarding grad school B's:
I think that what he was referring to was that, as at the grad school I attended, a C or lower in a course prevented the student from getting credit for the course. I didn't get the impression that a C suddenly meant the student didn't understand the material at all, just that the level of understanding that was considered acceptable for an undergrad student was no longer considered acceptable in graduate school. The D I got in Constitutional Law as an undergraduate was adequate to get me course credit towards my physics/philosophy degree; a D (or even a C) in one of the philosophy or mathematics classes I took in grad school would have been a clear indication that I was in the wrong program ... And in fact, even the low B I snuck out of my Metamathematics class with was worrying.

By Scott Simmons (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

Hi PZ,

Love your site. First time, long time. Anyway, I agree with everything you said here. I just wanted to point out that, at least when I was in Grad School for history at Ohio State, a B was indeed about the lowest passing grade you could get in a graduate level course. Anything less than a B- and you didn't get credit for the course. That C+ I got in Latin Prose Comp was the heartbreaker of my academic carreer (such as it was).

Keep up the good work!

I think Nelson actually has half a point here, which I will try to illustrate with an example.

Suppose someone discovered a prophetic stone. On one side it has a smooth surface, which every hour displays a topical message in the native language of whoever is viewing it at that time. And some of these messages regularly are testable prophecies of random sequences our best physics theories say shouldn't be predictable, such as the last digit of the next day's Dow Jones average, or the precise timing a specified detector fires as it measures beta particles coming from a sample of cesium 137.

It is fully within the competence of science to determine whether these prophecies are accurate. More, given enough sequences, we can determine whether the prophetic source is merely foreseeing the future, or is manipulating it, by testing the predicted subsequences for randomness. There would remain large issues, of course, about how we should treat the messages from the stone that aren't test prophecies. Just because we are getting messages from someone or something who can predict or manipulate certain kinds of future events doesn't necessarily tell how we should view its other messages. Nonetheless, there is nothing a priori that rules out a source of scientifically testable prophesy.

Of course, the someone or something capable of prophesying might reveal himself in some more personal fashion, and still demonstrate powers that were empirically testable. There are any number of fictional accounts of this, such as Star Trek's Q. The problem for religious believers is not that a god couldn't reveal himself in ways that empirical investigation would plumb, but that there is no empirical evidence that this has happened. The same is true for other kinds of occult phenomenon. There is no philosophical barrier to the empirical investigation of prophesy, ghosts, angels, telepathy, vampires, etc. There is only the empirical fact that the more these are investigated, the less evidence there is for these. Gods and ghosts and vampires reside in the gaps not because scientific methodology refuses to see them, but because the gaps are the last place where believers can posit their existence.

We need to be careful in explaining science to point out that it makes no assumptions about the nature of nature. Science does not have some preliminary rule that leaves gods and ghosts and things that go bump in the night out of its domain. Science goes wherever empirical investigation takes it. If there is something that leaves no evidence of its existence, that is not science's fault. The gods are shy about revealing themselves. Or rather, their believers go to great lengths to imagine the gods are this way, since the gaps get ever smaller.

There are writers who try to paint a happier picture for the religious believer, and do so by falling into the mistake that Nelson criticizes. They talk about two magisteria, and say of science that it simply doesn't deal with the supernatural. I think the notion of "supernatural" is largely a mistake. Where do we draw the boundary around nature? If we find something outside that, do we as scientists then refuse to study or speak on it? What scientists need is evidence. And the only stuff that is outside science's domain is whatever doesn't leave evidence. That doesn't leave a separate magisteria for the study of those who aren't scientists. What it leaves is the domain of fantasy and speculation.

Nelson is exploiting a property of the Popperian view of science. If A is non-falsifiable and B is falsifiable, then the statement "A and B" is actually falsifiable. For example, even if "God exists" is not falsifiable, "God exists and created the world in 6 days" certainly is -- indeed, it has been falsified. Elliott Sober used this observation to conclude that it's not a good strategy simply to label creationism as non-falsifiable. How any of this brings comfort to Nelson and other intelligent design creationists is beyond me, though...

Suppose someone discovered a prophetic stone. On one side it has a smooth surface, which every hour displays a topical message in the native language of whoever is viewing it at that time. And some of these messages regularly are testable prophecies of random sequences our best physics theories say shouldn't be predictable,

But why would a prophecy necessarily be supernatural? It's possible that the stone is an alien artifact that produces predictions based on some yet undiscovered physical principle.

The theory "the stone transmits supernaturally produced prophecies" is still falsifiable, because it is possible we later discover evidence of the alien designers or learn how the stone works. But is there anything at all similarly falsifiable in creationism/ID that isn't already falsified?

If A is non-falsifiable and B is falsifiable, then the statement "A and B" is actually falsifiable.

Has anyone tried to define the notion of a minimal falsifiable statement? Here's how I would approach it. If P is a falsifiable proposition then P is minimally falsifiable unless there another proposition P' such that "if P then P'" is tautologically true, but "if P' then P" is not (i.e., there is some truth assignment such that P' is true but P is false) then P is not minimal. This is clearly the case if P is "A and B" and P' is B. I.e., "if (A and B) then B" is a tautology, but "if B then (A and B)" is not.

In intuitive terms, scientific experiments address the weakest falsifiable claim that they can falsify. If I say that I have a parrot on my shoulder and I'm Blackbeard come back from the dead, then it's reasonable for science to address only the part about the parrot and this can be identified as a strictly weaker claim than the original.

It would actually be quite difficult to prove something is a minimal falsifiable claims in many cases, but one could rule out non-minimal claims readily, particularly when the claim is obviously a conjunction of falsifiable and non-falsifiable.

It makes a lot of practical and historical sense to see science as inherently not making assumptions. Before what Jason calls "standard pieces of the scientific method" was firmly established as practical (by observations, no less), the subjects of natural phenomena, our own artefacts, and supernatural claims were studied equally.

It is by observations and not assumption that we concluded that we simply study nature, and that we have found claims of natural, technical or supernatural 'souls', 'essences' or 'gods' lacking. Today we are so certain that we can say that this defines science. But as Jason says nothing in principle precludes discoveries of for example supernatural phenomena to revert the situation.

In the same manner, Popperian views of science are not defining it but describing essential parts of how it has turned out. If a large part of a theory's statements are nonfalsifiable, it's obviously rather useless because we can never find out if that important part is false or not.

To couple such an unfalsifiable defining part to falsifiable statements doesn't help a useless theory. We, being merciless executioners of creationism or other pseudosciences, can simply cut off the defining part since it is unnecessary. Using Ricardo's example, the useful theory is simplest "the world is 6 days old".

Which is why I feel comfortable with calling creationism unfalsifiable ergo no scientific theory.

By Torbjorn Larsson (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

I see PaulC said the much the same thing just before I posted.

By Torbjorn Larsson (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

I wrote "unless there another proposition P' ..." I meant "unless there is another falsfiable proposition P' ..." There may be some glitches in my formulation of a minimal falsifiable claim, but I think the basic idea can be made to work.

I think the real issue is that Deism is only falsifiable. If you start with either postulate - that God exists or God doesn't exist, any predictive or evidentiary hypothesis not based on a logical fallicy will eventually lead to the answer that God doesn't exist. This is true even if science accepted supernatural explanations.

Science has generally had a truce with religion, but not always the other way around. Those who want to corrupt science are walking into a trap. That is, that religion will become the subject of reason and testing. Because that is an unacceptable outcome for churches they will attempt to co-opt science for their benefit. We know it's already happening.

End the truce! Just pointing out their bad science and logical fallacies isn't enough. Defending the scientific method is not enough. Too many Americans prefer creationism to scientific answers because the constant offensive from groups like the Discovery Institute work.

I think you mean "call a strike as a ball." Umpires don't have to call bunts, the ball just tends to roll into the infield. Just saying.

Windy asks "But why would a prophecy necessarily be supernatural?"

Part of what I'm arguing is that "supernatural" does not have any operational meaning. Until we prove the Final Theory of Everything (ha!), we are not capable of drawing a boundary around nature. Or to put it another way, there is nothing that you can definitely label as supernatural. Suppose the god Yahweh exists exactly as the Jewish and Christian writings describe, somehow resolving their internal contradictions and conflicts with fact. That's not too far a reach; any half-decent science fiction author could write that novel. Would he then be beyond investigation? Not really. This is the god who sent plagues to Egypt, who carved stone for Moses, who wrestled with Joseph, and who spoke to any number of people. It is an uncomfortable finding for believers that these feats are recorded in the myst of prehistory, and that he doesn't seem to much do such things today. An uncomfortable empirical finding.

I am arguing that the distinction between the natural and supernatural is bogus. I think philosophers and scientists make a mistake when they declare the supernatural lies outside the realm of science, because that falsely implies there is some worthwhile realm where we have knowledge, where scientific methods don't apply. That is precisely what gives people like Nelson his toehold.

My view is different. There is nothing in principle that prevents empirical investigation of anything, except that it somehow manages to leave no empirical trace. The problem with the gods is not that we cannot investigate in them in principle. The problem is that what investigation we have done doesn't show any trace of them. Either they aren't out there, or they are keeping themselves very well hidden. That is not a methodological failure of science. That is an evidential failure of religion.

Russell is quite correct. Even possessing a credible Theory of Everything, we could never truly rule out the possibility that it was merely an incomplete model of what was *really* going on, never discard the possibility that an inconsistency in measurement is due to a misunderstanding of the rules instead of simple error.

If science could find such a prophetic stone, its behavior would by definition be due to physical laws -- and if it turned out that the rules that described its behavior could not be reduced to the rules we believed ran the world, then we would change or discard our beliefs. Science is about methods, not specific conclusions. That is precisely why it is incompatibible with religion.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

I wonder if ID might consider whether other fields ought to be similary liberated from excessive naturalism. One example that comes to mind would be the Courts. Explanations would be found for many unsolved cases by invoking a supernatural intelligent agency- this would go a long way in convincing people of the superiority of supernatural jurisprudence, and bring ID that much closer to being accepted as science.

Also, this also provides the explanation why Judge Jones couldn't accept the idea of ID being taught as science. Long years on the bench, working within the arbitrary requirements of accepting only naturalistic explanations has certainly clouded his mind - preventing him from accepting the breathtaking possibilities of supernatural intelligent agencies. The solution is obvious - the best way to bring ID into the classroom is to first bring it into the courtroom.

As an an aside, here's an example from my own country's history of what supernaturally guided justice would look like. Before the law reforms of the early 1800s, a case was unexpectedly decided against the defendant, despite all the evidence being in his favour. The reason given by the judge was that he had discovered that the defendant's cow had died during the trial, an unquestionable mark of divine disfavour, which proved the man was really guilty.

By Halo Thane (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

That judge was nuts. Obviously, it was the cow who had sinned. ;-)

I think you mean "call a strike as a ball." Umpires don't have to call bunts, the ball just tends to roll into the infield. Just saying

Umpires do need to call bunts. If with two strikes a player hits the ball into foul territory, the umpire must decide whether or not the player was attemping a bunt. If so, he's struck out, but if not, it's just a foul ball.

By argy stokes (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

Paul Nelson is a silly bunt.

This is a little off topic, but how has your e-mail "conversation" with Fred Hutchinson gone? I hope we'll hear about it soon.

For example, even if "God exists" is not falsifiable, "God exists and created the world in 6 days" certainly is -- indeed, it has been falsified.

Well, it's falsifiable only insofar as you accept that reality is real. Once solipsism enters the game it's all over.

Fundies live in a rabbit-hole.

Paul N - if you're following this thread - can you tell us what your current position is on the age of the Earth? You have described yourself as a young Earth creationist, and even chided me for saying that you were somehow trying to conceal this information.

This is a testable proposition. Do you accept that the weight of scientific evidence refutes the idea of a young Earth, and rather supports the idea of a 4.5 billion year old Earth? Do you still believe the Earth is young in the face of this evidence? Or do you think that God just made the young Earth look like it was 4.5 billion years old to test our faith?

By Andy Groves (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink

Incidentally, the whole business about "supernatural" is why I prefer talking in terms of lawfulness/unlawfulness instead. Certain forms of creationism run into that problem; others run into problems with consilience either additionally or only.

Andy Groves,

Where have you read that Paul Nelson accepts YECreationism?

"Do you accept that the weight of scientific evidence refutes the idea of a young Earth, and rather supports the idea of a 4.5 billion year old Earth? Do you still believe the Earth is young in the face of this evidence? Or do you think that God just made the young Earth look like it was 4.5 billion years old to test our faith?"

These questions are silly. 1st provide some proof that Paul Nelson is a YEC. In listening to him or reading his writings I was never left with the impression that he supported YEC or that he even leaned in that direction.

By Tyrone Baker (not verified) on 28 Mar 2006 #permalink

Some of us have met and had conversations with Paul Nelson.

Yes, Nelson is a creationist and a vitalist, and he's not ashamed of it. His public talks and writings are more narrowly constrained, is all.