Brag time: My “Slam Dunk to Creationists” attacked by Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute, self appointed spokesman for Intelligent Design theory (i.e. cryptocreationist obscurantism) has singled out my piece in The Conversation, How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.

Slam Dunk image plagiarised from Discovery Institute. Provenance unknown

My piece argues that we should be talking about the evidence, not about the meaning of words. In particular, I take exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is. The Discovery Institute uses fancy layout to quotemine what I said, so that my criticism of the National Academy is made to look like approval, before taking exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is.

In passing, the DI also tells us that “Sahelanthropus … is thought by some to just be a female gorilla.” Eat your heart out, Smithsonian.

I’m honoured by such well-informed and well thought out attention. And while the DI’s article is unsigned, connoisseurs of Creationism will understand my additional delight at having Casey Luskin and Douglas Axe listed among my accusers. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

At the time of writing, my piece has attracted 78,000 hits [update: 95,000 hits] and been featured by Newsweek, Business Insider, The Raw Story, RealClearScience, and others. My thanks to Jane Wright, at The Conversation, whose skilful editing helped make all this possible.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on August 4, 2017, in Education, Evolution, Fossil record and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Yes, arguments around the definition of “theory” are pointless to the extent of being damaging. One ends up on a forking garden path of absurdity. The word is tainted, like the word “organic.” By organic, does one mean “pertaining to carbon chemistry” or “agricultural marketing ploy”? Like theory, the use of “organic” can better utterly confusing and contradictory. For example, the inorganic compound copper sulfate is approved as an “organic” pesticide, but the organic chemical formulation carbaryl (Sevin insecticide) is banned in “organic” farming. The “natural,” organic compound nicotine is also banned, but the inorganic chemical peroxide is OK. One goes back and forth with “organic,” meaning one thing first, then its opposite the next. And from this we should learn to abandon discussions about “theory.”


  2. I had never heard of the Discovery Institute so I looked at the site . It’s seems there is a lot of semantics at play and lawyers along with politicians are quite brilliant at fudging. It says intelligent design has nothing to do with creationism adding they have agnostic as well as religious members.
    ‘ Evolution is best explained by an intelligent cause not an undirected process such as natural selection ‘
    Maybe this point of view comes from Richard Dawkins .
    ‘ Natural selection is the Blind Watchmaker , it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, and has no purpose in view.’
    I think we can accept Mr Dawkins brilliant definition and rule out ‘ undirected process ‘ since it is directed by itself.
    Richard Dawkins makes it very clear that it is no easy thing to see how complex things like living animals can exist without an intelligent watchmaker.


    • Quite so. Though Dawkins merely states (I do nothave a high opinion of him as a would-be philosopher) that this would work; Gregory Chaitin, however, proved it would in his rebuttal of Berlinski. I point this out merely to pre-empt creationist intrusions.


  3. No, evolution is not a ‘theory like gravity is a theory.’ That is a huge category error. Now, if you equivocate ‘evolution’ to necessarily describe the development of life, you might have a less fallacious argument, but that’s a huge a priori leap and frankly is an exercise in question-begging. yes, evolution is a theory with an impressive degree of morphological supporting evidence. But this kind of fallacious ‘reasoning’ doesn’t help your cause. IMHO the evidence for and against Darwinism stops far short of presenting a convincing case to describe how random mutation acting through natural selection explains life’s development. But if one has an a priori commitment to a naturalistic explanation, I guess even an inadequate explanation will have to do, won’t it?


    • “Darwinism”; what a delicious 19th century expression.

      I think you confuse the factual claim of common descent, as supported by morphological etc etc evidence, and which you seem to accept, with the current theory (of which you outline a rather impoverished version) of what makes this happen. The former is like saying things fall; the latter is like Newton’s, or Einstein’s, or whatever later modification may arise, which are proposed accounts of what makes them fall.

      I avoid non-naturalistic expalantions on pragmatic,not dogmatic, grounds. I don’t see how they can be tested, and fear that they stultify enquiry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sidestepping the category error by doubling down on question-begging.

        Common descent is indeed evidence for Darwinism (if Richard Dawkins can use the term, so can I!), but you have to go far beyond that to show how unguided mutation has the causative power to account for the observed effect, particularly in the face of evidence to the contrary.


      • “evidence to the contrary”; you intrigue me. Please be specific, preferably with links to verifiable material. But don’t bother with Axe or Dembski

        Liked by 2 people

      • I second Dr. Braterman’s query. Please provide examples from recognized experts in the field. And, as an aside, can you please be more specific as to just what the “Theory of Gravity” actually is and says? I am not word playing, as Dr. Braterman and I agree is a useless pursuit, but rather I am simply curious if you actually understand the area you are treading into.


      • Michael Fugate

        Dennis are you advocating guided mutation as a cause? How do you know if a mutation is guided or unguided?


    • Many of the Young Earth Creationists now accept that a certain amount of evolution takes place in the world of life, they only differ in that there is some vaguely defined barrier to what evolution can produce.
      Yet there is a clear place for the human body in the nested hierarchy (“tree of life”) of taxonomy (as shown by comparative anatomy, DNA, embryology, and distribution in space (biogeography) and time (paleontology)), where humans are the closest to chimps and other apes, and mammals, birds, reptiles are closest to other vertebrates, etc. The explanation that that is due to common descent with modification has been fruitful (the “model” has suggested new places to look, and the discoveries have been consistent).

      And there has been no explanation offered which has not involved common descent with modification.

      One can take the position that “I have no interest in explaining that observation”, or “that could just be a matter of chance”. But no one has offered any alternative which does not mention common descent with modification.

      For example, Intelligent Design (ID) has said only that there is a better explanation, but have not described what that is. (“Design” seems to be a vague something which is as compatible with any outcome as any other, including physically impossible ones, with no greater probability for life, let alone for a nested hierarchy.)


  4. And there it is: the ubiquitous pesticide resistance. Proof positive bacteria evolved into h. sapiens

    “But evolution is a theory only in the scientific sense of the word. And in the words of the National Academy of Sciences, “The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.” Attaching this label to evolution is an indicator of strength, not weakness.”

    This is an endorsement of the NAS definition not a criticism.


    • I merely restated the NAS position, as one should under Rapaport’s Rules, before (in the next paragraph) demolishing it. I am sorry that you seem to have missed this


      • I don’t think you demolished it so much as said that it is inconsistently used and should not in any in any way be part of the better argument, i.e., the overwhelming evidence. Axe was inconsistent, for the NAS definition IS a definition of the term. But scientists use it so inconsistently that it is becoming a near meaningless distinction as far as the lay person is concerned.

        in grad school, the NAS definition was pounded into me (physics). Then along comes “String Theory” which is a model and not a theory by any means in the sense I was taught for science and the NAS proclaims. But evolution, atomic, general relativity, etc., all correspond to the NAS definition. Yet, the public is so confused by the inconsistent usage in other ways so why argue the point?

        Rather than demolish the NAS, you have simply pointed out that the word is generally not used in the sense the NAS defines it or at least inconsistently used among scientists. Axe is still wrong and self contradictory. And you are correct in that it is misleading to go off on the NAS argumentation tact. Argue evidence and admit that “theory” is inconsistently used if need be.


      • You say NAS is putting forward a definition which is one of many. I say they are putting forward a definition that is incorrect, since it differs from so much usage (including, ironicially in this context, Darwin’s). This could turn into exactly the kind of semantic distinction that, as we agree, is a distraction from the real work of evidence and inference, so I’ll leave it there.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes it could. All I am saying is that the NAS definition is precisely the definition that was pounded into my head in physics grad school, also with the understanding that it was limited to science in that sense. It s not wrong, In fact, it is one of the dictionary definitions. it is merely not consistently used in that sense. I cannot understand you saying that it is wrong and you proved it. I can understand you saying it is misleading and should not be part of any argument put forth against it, but I cannot understand you saying that it is “the” wrong definition. It is “a”definition when used contextually with the word “science” that is correct. But it is not used consistently, so we should not depend its definition to win an argument. That’s all. The NAS is not wrong, rather it is simply not a good justification for arguing against ID. Instead use the evidence.


      • I owe you a (partial) apology. The idea of being substantiate does occur in definition 3b out of the 5 definitions listed by the Oxford english Dictionary. So I withdraw my cliam that it is wrong. But then we can’t say that the definiont of theory as “hypothesis” (OED defintion 5) is wrong, either. And it helps nothing to invoke Definition 3b either, since in order to justify invoking it we still need to show that evolution is well-supported.

        We now, I think, are essentially in agreement

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I beg to differ on one small point, when you say that in the time of Darwin that his theory of evolution was not well supported because of the lack of fossil record.
    On the one hand, yes, the fossil record was scant at that time, and today it is abundant. But that does not mean that the other lines of evidence, especially the structure of taxonomy, was enough to support the explanation of common descent with modification. It was true then, and it is true today, that no one has offered any explanation for the structure of taxonomy, the nested hierarchy or tree of life – no explanation which does not include common descent with modification.
    Shortly after the appearance of “On the Origin of Species”, the evidence offered for common descent with modification was adequate for large numbers of those who were acquainted with the evidence.
    On the other hand, one aspect of Darwin’s theory, natural selection, was not well supported, in part because the mechanism of genetics was not known, and when Mendel’s work became known, in the early 20th century, it was not well understood how it fit with natural selection until the “Modern Synthesis” of the 1930s.


    • Indeed, I would use your argument in support of my position that we call intellectual structures theories even when they are not well supported. Taxonomy supports common descent (although not at all obviously, in the then intellectual climate, or Linnaeus would have anticipated Darwin). Natural selection as the dominant driver was not well supported at the time,and indeed we now know its role to be considerably than Darwin thought. Nonetheless,we do regard it as an integral component of what he described as “my theory”


  6. Saw that… CONRATULATIONS!


  7. Axe really displays his inability to either understand or to think logically and coherently. In fact, this is an outstanding example of how the whole DI generally contradicts itself. Here is the first quote from Axe:

    ‘US National Academy redefined “theory” for propagandistic reasons. According to Academy bluff, theory = “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.” The intended implication is that scientists only call something a theory if it’s overwhelmingly supported and accepted. That’s baloney!”

    That is an absurdly self serving and ignorant comment, though I do love to see such nonsensical things coming from the mouth of a self-proclaimed “expert.” It makes him look quite foolish. But the real kicker is the contradicting a few lines later that the author(s) apparently did not fully appreciate from Axe, and I quote:

    “The problem with Darwinism isn’t that it’s a theory, but rather that its proponents guard it so defensively. Must be a very weak theory.”

    Do the DI and Axe not even have the sense to review what they write and say before publishing? The second quote clearly implies that “theory” in the scientific sense means just what Axe says it doesn’t mean from the first quote. These people are so confusing. I wonder if they apply the same lack of self examination to their lives in general?

    And still – they miss the whole point of Dr. Braterman’s article: the evidence for the theory evolution is overwhelming. I guess if you cannot address the main issue, you should sidestep it? But at least be consistent in sidestepping, and don’t make fools of yourselves.


    • Ironically, I agree with the DI in their criticism of the question-begging National Academy definition of “theory”. Indeed, that is one fot he things my Conversation past was about. What I found most interesting here was the way they managed to slice and dice my sentences to make it look as if my intention was the exact opposite


      • Actually, what the NAS says is one definition. Your point is that it is silly to argue about it, since “theory” is used in the sense of hypothesis by lay people and scientists alike, and it is beside the point. The real argument is that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. (Correct me if I’m wrong, please.) My point was that the NAS was right in terms of a definition (one that scientists have been very careless in keeping clean). In that sense, Axe is blowing smoke and contradicting himself. I don’t know that I would call that begging the question on the part of NAS. As I recall, the NAS does contextualize this formal definition. But only this portion is quoted. However, my memory may be in error on that point.


      • In the original Conversation article, I made two points. Firstly, we should not let the discussion revolve around words. Secondly, less importantly, the NAS definition is wrong, and I cite Darwin’s own use of the word as evidence. Axe is perfectly correct in his attack on NAS; I said as much myself in that original article!


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