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ISSUE #112
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Features

ArrowMcCain's Mutiny
Why "Mr. Integrity" wants the war to drag on
Allan Uthman

ArrowThe Negligents
How to convert ignorance into “skepticism”
Ben Zaitchik

ArrowCivil War?
An oxymoron in one act
Ian Murphy

ArrowBaker-Hamilton Omission Report
Iraq Study Group aims to change perception, not reality
Matt Taibbi

ArrowThe BEAST Holiday Gift Guide
Because you must consume!

ArrowAre YOU a Racist?
Take the BEAST Quiz!

Local BEAST

ArrowAn Important Message from our Fearless Leader
Paul Fallon

Departments

ArrowThe Beast Page 3
Environmental Apocalypse

ArrowKino Korner: Movies
Turistas, Blood Diamond, Unaccompanied Minors, Apocalypto, The Holiday

ArrowBEAST-O-Scopes
As divined by your ethereal guide

Arrow[sic] - Letters
Fiends Like These, Cutler & Run, That's [sic], Osama for your Mama and more

 

The Negligents

continued - page 2

Evolution is a messy business. Mutations, pandemics, extinctions, refugee populations, developmental dead-ends, nature red in tooth and claw. Given the enormous diversity of evolutionary processes and outcomes, the difficulty of drawing evidence from a sparse fossil record, and the surprises that accompany each new discovery, the honest student of evolution finds herself bloodied every now and again. The science of evolution is not unique in this regard -- all empirically based fields encounter the occasional anomaly that takes long hours to explain. Think Freakonomics. Think Pluto. It's part of the game.

As evolutionary scientists have known for some time, however, the game takes on a very different tone in their field. Whenever a bump is encountered, or a step modifies previous understanding, a pack of fresh-of-the-ark wolves descends, pointing to the temporary contradiction in data as the Achilles heel of the entire godless enterprise. Four specific tactics are utilized:

  1. The claim that the simple explanation is best.
  2. The "missing link" as evidence of poor science.
  3. The counter-example.
  4. The cabal.

These tactics work the same way for Negligism as they do for Creationism.

1. Simplicity

This argument is effective because it is intuitive. Evolutionary science itself relies on the simplifying principle of "parsimony": in the absence of compelling counter-evidence, the evolutionary reconstruction requiring the fewest steps is deemed the most likely to be true. When invoked by Creationists, however, the simplicity argument is used to destroy rational explanation, not to develop it. The speaker will generally pick a particularly convoluted segment of evolutionary history, and then laundry-list evidence, counter-evidence, arguments in favor, arguments against, debates on detail, on origin, on fidelity of data, problems of chronology, the cacophony of competing papers in the scientific literature. . . then he will pause. Theatrically. And dismiss the indignities of science in favor of the simple truth of divine creation.

Negligents do the same thing, right down to the dramatic pause. To be fair, descriptions of Earth's climate do make one pause; it's a complex system full of non-linear feedbacks, and our understanding is far from complete. This makes the simplicity argument fertile ground for the Negligent. He or she will correctly, if disingenuously, point out that CO2 alone can't possibly warm the planet as much as it has warmed in the past century. On top of that, fossil fuel emissions have been consistent while warming has occurred in irregular jumps... how could the two possibly be related? These criticisms hinge on a willful over-simplification of climate change. The problem is that it's necessary to engage the complexity of the system in order to respond. Overall warming, for example, depends heavily on water vapor feedbacks induced by elevated CO2; no scientist would ever claim that the climate responds to CO2 alone. Much of the jumpiness of temperature rise, meanwhile, appears to be related to aerosols and other known climate components. If an informed audience member raises these points then the "skeptic" leaps into action, hands waving, inveighing on the lay public not to trust such complex voodoo.

2. The Missing Link

The missing link criticism adopts the best of scientific curiosity -- "explain to me exactly how this works" -- in order to undermine the development of scientific understanding. Until our observations of any natural phenomenon are perfect, theory will be called upon to fill gaps in the empirical record. This is particularly necessary in the case of evolution, since the fossil record will never be complete for all lineages and will, in fact, only decay further with time. These imperfections present a series of exciting challenges to an evolutionary scientist, or to any thinker who might attempt a non-Darwinian explanation of phenomena. To the religious literalist, they're just an excuse to reject rationalism: how can you claim that humans are related to monkeys if you can't find a common ancestor? And if you can't do that, how can you claim to know anything at all about the history of life?

The missing link complaint plays out a little differently in climate change than it does in evolution, but the manipulation is the same: rather than work to close known gaps in observation that would have the power to support or reject the hypothesis in question, use the absence of information itself as a rhetorical weapon. MIT professor Richard Lindzen -- and Cato Institute favorite -- is a master of the technique. Any point of theory that has ever wanted for observational support has made it into his PowerPoint presentation. Whenever observations catch up with theory on a certain point -- historic temperature trends, for example -- the presentation gets a little shorter. I've caught the Lindzen tour three times, so I've seen a number of beautifully crafted slides disappear. A recent loss pertained to the vertical profile of warming in the atmosphere. I'd heard Lindzen harp on this one before ("How can CO2 possibly be responsible for warming, when our observations don't show warming at the right height?"), so I was surprised when it didn't come up at a recent talk. Maybe it had something to do with two papers, recently published in Science, that reconciled the apparent gap between theory and observation (1,2). Apparently Lindzen has read the papers, but he hasn't had time to incorporate their findings into his presentation -- he does have a busy speaking schedule, after all -- so now he just ignores the topic. His reassuring Negligent conclusions remain unchanged.

page 3

 

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