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Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Did I Do That?

And the drama continues. The war of words between dlamming and Ed Brayton continues to get more heated. Since my last post covering their opposing arguments, they've both posted new entries on the subject (see dlamming's here, and see Ed's here).

Previously I said I thought it was unlikely that Ed Brayton found dlamming's original post via one of my blog entries. Then Ed left a comment to my post confirming that he had, in fact, gotten to dlamming's post from my blog. He used a Firefox extension that links to Google's blog search engine. So, since I bear partial responsibility for igniting this turmoil, I figure I should try to capture and summarize the arguments as I see them for posterity.

I'm attempting the "paraphrasing challenge" based on David Brin's idea of "Disputation Arenas" to make sure I've accurately captured both sides of the argument. If either dlamming or Ed wishes to offer corrections here, I'll gladly incorporate them. I've seen the same arguments going back and forth several times, so this is an attempt to nail things down.

First, let's take Ed's original post about the Discovery Institute's (DI) list of scientists "dissenting from Darwin." As I understand it, Ed made two main points:
Now, let's look at dlamming's original post decrying elitism. His major point is that it is elitist to claim that for any particular field, only experts can discuss the issues of that field, and only the opinions of experts should be considered valid on any subject. He further claims that this position is the "logical extreme" of the second point in Ed's post. In addition to Ed's post, he also presents additional examples from Mike the Mad Biologist and Tim Lambert as demonstration of other bloggers' elitism in this regard.

This is where I came into the discussion. I made several comments on dlamming's original post, because I didn't (and still don't) see the logical connection between the elitism dlamming rightly disdains, and the original points in Ed's post (or the other examples, for that matter). To clarify, here is a list of possible positions one could take on the topic:
  1. It is elitist and wrong to reject out-of-hand the opinions of non-experts just because they aren't experts in a field. It's possible non-experts can be knowledgeable in a field.
  2. The opinions of experts and non-experts should be treated equally on a subject because the experts may be biased, and the non-experts may have studied the subject in detail.
  3. Without additional information, it is appropriate to give the opinions of experts more consideration than the opinions of non-experts, because experts are more likely to be knowledgeable in the field.
  4. Ultimately, opinions must be judged on the merits of the arguments and evidence presented, regardless of the source (expert or non-expert).
dlamming argues against (1), and I agree with him. Ed argues against (2), and I agree with him as well. Is that a contradiciton? No, because I agree with (3) and (4), which are reasonable positions between the extremes of (1) and (2). I'd wager both dlamming and Ed would agree to (3) and (4) as well. At least, when I brought up (3) in my arugments on dlamming's blog, he never argued against it. I don't think there's any room for debate on (4).

So why all the fuss? It seems dlamming continues to claim that Ed's statements argue for (1), when they actually argue against (2) and in favor of (3). This is where I see a fundamental disconnect.

The arguments spiraled around this disconnect on both Ed's and dlamming's blogs, with other commenters chiming in. Later in the discussion, Ed made the statement that he doesn't "believe that educated people in general have a good idea what evolution is about." dlamming responded with "Well, I believe that a basic knowledge of evolution is widespread among scientists (and lay people) of many fields, and certainly those of biology, chemistry, and medicine. And, as I did in my first post, I hold your unwillingness to believe this as evidence that you and others believe that 'only experts should talk about scientific issues.'"

This is another disconnect. Ed's statement is descriptive, claiming that educated people in general don't understand evolution. The position dlamming argues against and claims Ed is holding is prescriptive; that only experts should hold forth on scientific issues. One does not have to support the latter position to agree with the former.

Ed's statement about educated people is a question of fact that can be verified or falsified with sufficient observation. He's formed that opinion based on direct extended interaction over many years with educated people from various fields on the subject of evolution. Hey may be right or wrong about this statement, but he never used this assertion to imply that only expert opinions should be considered for any topic, or that some people can't talk about a particular topic because they're not experts.

The second statement is a position that argues in favor of only considering arguments from authority and rejecting all other arguments regardless of their merit. This is clearly the "elitist" position that dlamming derides, but it has no direct connection to Ed's assertion, and Ed expressly denied that he supported it.

After going through the various posts repeatedly, it seems to me that the arguments are driven by dlamming's continued refusal to recognize and acknowledge the disconnects in his arguments, and Ed and other commenters getting increasingly frustrated and hostile toward this refusal.

Unfortunately, Ed and other commenters have added some vitriol to their replies to dlamming, stemming from their growing frustration. I commend dlamming for remaining relatively polite in his responses. Unfortunately, that's the only merit I see in his arguments. And his continued refusal to acknowledge the disconnect between the positions he argues against and the positions his opponents actually hold is not helping.

But that's just my non-expert opinion.

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"Unfortunately, Ed and other commenters have added some vitriol to their replies to dlamming, stemming from their growing frustration. I commend dlamming for remaining relatively polite in his responses."

I can't help but find it rather bizarre that society seems to consider a little light invective more impolite than making patently false claims about what someone else believes or has said. The latter seems pretty damn rude to me, whether or not it is intentional.
You're right martinm - it's quite bizarre. However, given the string of insults thrown my way - not to mention the bizarre claims that I'm advocating creationism and/or ID here - I'm happy to accept bigC's commendations. :)

Big C -- I agree with points 3 and 4. However, I guess we read Ed's comments differently. I still feel Ed rejected the opinions of certain "non-experts" (chemists and engineers) out of hand, which is what I was arguing against (1). In my reading of it, he didn't simply assign their opinions a bit less worth - he dismissed them entirely.

Of course, he later dismisses the opinions of those on the list who ARE biologists, but that's a seperate matter.
dlamming, Ed's first point demonstrates why the list can be dismissed outright, regardless of the signers, as the DI's statement is vacuous. Do you disagree with that?

He hasn't dismissed the opinions of biologists in general out of hand, nor has he dismissed the opinions of chemists and engineers in general out of hand. He's dismissed the opinions of the signers of the list because the statement they signed is a bogus, noncommittal "dissent" being used by the DI to manufacture "controversy."

It seems to me that anyone who has a sufficient understanding of evolution would recognize that the statement itself is flawed, regardless of whether they doubt evolution or not.

I think it's poor form for you to continue to claim that Ed was dismissing everyone's opinions out of hand, after he made it extremely clear to you that he wasn't doing that.

As I said above, holding the opinion that in general educated people don't understand evolution is not the same as holding the opinion that the positions of all non-experts on evolution can be summarily dismissed. One opinion is descriptive, the other is prescriptive. Ed has claimed the former, while expressly rejecting the latter. I think a lot of the insults being thrown your way would cease if you admitted that.
I have no idea exactly what the DI is claiming about the list. However, it is self-evident that one could use it to argue that educated persons, "scientists" even, are skeptical of evolution. Is this a minority, even tiny opinion? Sure. It's also irrelevant to my original post.

Ed B has now expanded upon his original argument, and speaks against these people being treated as authorities - but that wasn't my original point, and isn't what he orignally said, either. Read his post again, if you will. He implied in his last paragraph that the list was worthless not because their position was a minority one, but that it was worthless due to the presence of engineers and chemists.

My point was that their position (whatever its merits) shouldn't be automatically discarded as useless just because they aren't biologists. Just as, I hope, that you wouldn't automatically accept this petition as authoritative if the DI's list had consisted entirely of biologists.
'However, it is self-evident that one could use it to argue that educated persons, "scientists" even, are skeptical of evolution'

And therein lies the problem. This claim, which you consider 'self-evident,' is utterly wrong. The statement that the DI asks people to sign up to is not we're sceptical of evolution. It's we're sceptical of the proposition that random mutation and natural selection alone can account for the complexity of life. Since evolution does not make the proposition that random mutation and natural selection alone can account for the complexity of life, the two statements are different.

Imagine I asked you to agree that the Bernoulli principle does not explain how planes fly. And when you say yes, I then put out a press release saying 'aerodynamics cannot explain how planes fly, and dlamming agrees,' going on to explain that planes must be carried through the air by angels.

I think you might be just a little irritated, no?
"Of course, he later dismisses the opinions of those on the list who ARE biologists, but that's a seperate matter."

True. I am a biologist. My areas of expertise are anatomy and primate evolution.

If I signed a statement saying that, say, HIV has nothing to do with AIDS, would my opinion have merit simply because I am a biologist?
Well, I tried. I feel like Apu on the Simpsons in a certain episode when Homer comes into the Kwik-E-Mart to destroy his merchandise:

"Hey! Hey! Hey! I have asked you nicely not to mangle my merchandise. You leave me no choice but to...ask you nicely again."
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