Talk Reason PRINT

Luskin has lost it (on Altenberg)

By Nick Matzke

Posted July 20, 2008

Our good ol' buddy Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute Media Complaints Division has just put up an impressively mistake-strewn story about the "Altenberg 16" meeting in Vienna. In real life, the meeting discussed the possibilities for an "Extended Synthesis" in evolutionary biology which incorporates development, evolvability, complexity theory, etc. into the old "Modern Synthesis" of population genetics. But in the land of cranks & ID/creationists, the Altenberg 16 meeting has become the latest bit of evidence that evolution is a theory in crisis. The primary person who got the crazy-train going was "journalist" Suzan Mazur, who has written a series of stories that mis-portray almost everyone and everything involved and, no matter what her interviewees tell her, end up with the inevitable conclusion that evolution is on its last legs. No one seriously informed would pay attention to this kind of schlock, but ID/creationists will jump on anything with a vestige of credibility (in this case an allegedly serious journalist -- is she a freelancer or what?). When meeting organizer Massimo Pigluicci got wind of the misinformation being passed around about the meeting, he wrote a great explanation of what it was actually about and why Mazur et al. were wrong.

Enter Luskin, who for some reason always takes on the unenviable job of defending and then making worse the mistakes of other people in his camp. He devoted an entire post to explaining why Mazur's second-hand, ill-informed hearsay conspiracy theorizing about the meeting should trump the opinion of Pigliucci, the very guy running it. But Luskin, in classic creationist form, is simply taking a bad source (Mazur), then piling his own mistaken assumptions on top. The result is a conspiracy story which he and all ID followers (who virtually completely lack the spine or gumption to ever double-check their sources, or correct each other even on obvious factual points) will strongly believe, despite the fact that it bears only the vaguest resemblance to what actually happened. (In passing, it is worth noting that this sort of filter-assume-extrapolate-copy-don't-correct-repeat process explains far more creationist behavior than the "they're liars!" hypothesis). (E.g., here's an example of Paul Nelson at Uncommon Descent uncritically passing on Mazur's silliness.)

Let's begin. Luskin writes:

Last year Rob Crowther reported on the "Altenberg 16" conference that was planned for Altenberg, Austria. Sixteen leading leading evolutionary scientist -- who do not support intelligent design but do have doubts about Darwinism -- were to re-evaluate the core claims of neo-Darwinism.

The conference apparently did happen, as scheduled -- last week. We still don't have any report on what took place, but that the topic definitely will continue to prove interesting.

Somehow Luskin, despite linking to Pigliucci's debunking of the claims that the meeting was undermining "Darwinism" or "Neo-Darwinism" (whatever these terms mean to creationists, which are never the same thing they means in academic discussions, even when, rarely, "Darwinism" specifically is a topic of an academic discussion as opposed to the modern theory of evolution) missed the fact that Pigliucci has posted several detailed reports over the last week of what has been going on at the conference: 1, 2, 3 (and 4 a summary of the meeting by all 16 participants which was put up today, after Luskin's post I think). Oops.

Luskin continues,

In advance of the conference, one participant, Massimo Pigliucci, tried to downplay the importance,, asserting that there is "not a sign of 'crisis'" at this conference over neo-Darwinian evolution:

Um -- Pigliucci wasn't just "one participant", he was the freakin' chair and (I think) the lead organizer of the dang thing.

Of course no one here has been claiming that any Altenberg attendees support intelligent design (ID). But while the conference participants may not have been talking about ID as an alternative to neo-Darwinism (many of them prefer models of evolution driven by "self-organization" -- models that have their own problems), Pigliucci's comment sure sounds like damage control.

According to Luskin's conspiracy theory, then, Pigliucci organized and publicized a conference to undermine "Darwinism" and then…tried to hide it? What? Most conspiracy theories at least have the virtue of being self-consistent, can't we get something better than this?

In fact, according to Suzan Mazur, a journalist experienced in covering evolution who was invited to report on the conference, there is patently politically-motivated damage control taking place. As Mazur shows, the National Center for Science and Education -- the Darwinist education lobby -- opposed this conference for political reasons. Self-organizational models are rife with potent critiques of neo-Darwinian models of evolution, so they don't like them:

I decided to ask [Eugenie Scott] some questions since I'd interviewed her colleague [NCSE President] Kevin Padian about the "evolution debate", and he'd hung up on me. ...

…When I introduced myself to Eugenie Scott, who was unfamiliar with my stories on evolution, I asked her what she thought about self-organization and why self-organization was not represented in the books NCSE was promoting?

She responded that people confuse self-organization with Intelligent Design and that is why NCSE has not been supportive.

Pigliucci claims there's "no crisis" here, but Kevin Padian is hanging up on people and Eugenie Scott claims people will confuse the arguments of conference-attendees with intelligent design.

See that transition occuring? Reality (what people actually said) --> Mazur --> Mazur's piece --> Luskin --> conspiracy to hide the "crisis." Since I know the people involved (although I no longer work at NCSE and have not talked to either of them about Mazur, so these are strictly my own opinions), I'm pretty sure what happened. Padian is a busy guy running a paleontology lab and has little patience for reporters who make it evident they are bound and determined to misunderstand and misreport on evolutionary topics, rather than actually try to make an effort to understand what is going on (he will make plenty of time for the latter). Padian got that Mazur was hell-bent on writing an 'evolution is a theory in crisis' story, told her that in reality there was no scientific debate over the validity of evolution, and hung up. Genie Scott, on the other hand, possesses a saint-like patience and obviously made an attempt to help Mazur understand that (a) self-organization has nothing to do with ID but (b) the IDists attempt to invoke it, falsely, as "an alternative to Darwinism", and then slip in ID as another alternative, (c) this sort of trickery is invalid in education or journalism and this is what NCSE opposes. And the idea that NCSE somehow "opposed" the Altenberg meeting, organized by one of NCSE's own best buddies (Pigliucci) and attended by numerous others, is just silly three times before breakfast.

Mazur may have manipulated the interview into some sort of statement about NCSE "not supporting" the Altenberg meeting or books on self-organization -- but there are a near-infinite number of books and meetings on all sorts of technical/academic evolution-related topics. NCSE doesn't have the money, time, or mission to "support" them all even with website commentary, let alone financially or with staff time. NCSE doesn't oppose any of these things, obviously. Based on Mazur's argument, one could make an equally silly argument that NCSE "doesn't support" statistical phylogenetics -- a major academic topic these days. It's the job of the National Science Foundation and other huge institutions to support research in diverse technical academic subjects; NCSE's job is simply to support good science education.

Luskin continues:

What is most interesting here is not just Pigliucci's attempt at damage control, but the NCSE's knee-jerk reaction against anything that isn't neo-Darwinian. It seems that the NCSE was indeed quite worried that this conference will do damage to neo-Darwinism. At the very least, this exchange exposes the NCSE's intolerant attitude towards non-Darwinian thoughts, even when the doubters don't support ID. Indeed, Mazur's reports reveal that various scientists she has interviewed at the conference have fundamental doubts about neo-Darwinism, but they are eschewed by the scientific community.

C'mon, Casey, the people at the Altenberg 16 were the friggin academic community! All of them leaders in various evolutionary specialities. And what did they officially conclude at the end of their meeting? Not that evolutionary theory was in crisis, but simply that our understanding is advancing in many areas at once. This statement was signed by all 16:

By incorporating these new results and insights into our understanding of evolution, we believe that the explanatory power of evolutionary theory is greatly expanded within biology and beyond. As is the nature of science, some of the new ideas will stand the test of time, while others will be significantly modified. Nonetheless, there is much justified excitement in evolutionary biology these days. This is a propitious time to engage the scientific community in a vast interdisciplinary effort to further our understanding of how life evolves.

Oh, and Mazur is not "a journalist experienced in covering evolution", she has come completely out of the blue on evolution reporting, has little idea who or what she is writing about, and her "experience" appears to consist completely of her recent error-strewn stories about Altenberg and related matters.

Luskin sticks in a bit about Stanley Salthe, who had nothing to do with the meeting, and then moves to well-known crank Stuart Pivar:

According to Mazur, the same thing happened to Altenberg 16 participant chemist and engineer Stuart Pivar: "Stuart Pivar has been investigating self-organization in living forms but thinks natural selection is irrelevant -- and has paid the price for this on the blogosphere."

Um, what? Pivar wasn't part of the Altenberg 16, read the friggin' list of the 16 right here. And in what way does being a chemist/engineer and former vague associate of Stephen Jay Gould qualify anyone to be a serious commentator on evolution worthy of inclusion in Mazur's review? (And read PZ Myers's review of Pivar.)

And let's break out the tiny little violins for anyone who "pay[s] the price" on the blogosphere. Boo-hoo-hoo, people disagreed Pivar and noted that his "science" was crankery. It's not the freakin' Spanish inquisition.

Mazur also reports that Altenberg 16 participant, Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor, "essentially argues that biologists increasingly see the central story of Darwin as wrong in a way that can't be repaired." Mazur recounts that Michael Ruse condemned Fodor for even printing such thoughts in a mainstream publication -- not because of the empirical data, but because of politics: In Ruse's words, "to write a piece slagging off natural selection in that way, is to give a piece of candy to the creationists." Apparently Ruse would suggest that scientists banish from their minds -- and certainly from their pens -- any real doubts about the sufficiency of natural selection, for purely political reasons.

Fodor is another Altenberg attendee that was completely imagined by Luskin. Can someone please inform the guys at the DI that just because one silly journalist mentions Fodor & Pivar in the same article as the Altenberg meeting, that doesn't mean they were participants?

As for Ruse's remark, he's spot on. Unlike many other academic topics, evolution has a set of groupies from an evil parallel universe, i.e. creationists, who sit around 24/7 and yank out any quote, comment, paper, news article, etc., that sounds vaguely anti-evolutionary to them (and they almost universally misunderstand everything they comment on). This could be ignored if creationism was at the ignorable level of many other pseudosciences, but creationism has substantial political clout, and political struggles over legislation, lawsuits, etc. can and will happen again. In that situation, I think, there is some extra duty for academics to make sure they know what they're talking about and to think about how it will be interpreted or easily misinterpreted by other scientists, journalists, the public, creationists, etc. It's not an overwhelming duty -- obviously an academic's primary responsibility is to say what they think -- but it deserves some consideration. And it is perfectly legitimate to criticize academics like Fodor who ought to know better when they make well-worn, long-debunked mistakes, ignore obvious and important distinctions, and fight subsidiary philosophical battles in the guise of opposing a concept as well-tested and explanatory as natural selection. I.e., "you're wrong, but not only that your wrongness is being exploited by creationists, which anyone paying attention would have seen coming."

Well, Pigliucci is certainly doing a good job of "vigorously and positively deny[ing]" all of the challenges to neo-Darwinian theory at this conference. So at least he's consistent. But in the end, one thing is clear: there are fundamental doubts about neo-Darwinism in the minds of many of the scientists and philosophers who participated at Altenberg 16, and some leading Darwinists desperately wish that those doubts did not exist.

Posted by Casey Luskin on July 16, 2008 2:46 PM

So, according to Luskin, we're supposed to think that when an (alleged) "leading Darwinist" like Pigliucci organizes and chairs a meeting to explore new areas in evolutionary theory, evolution is in crisis, because a few uninformed non-biologists have said some clueless/cranky things. Except they weren't even at the meeting, and the actual participants of the actual meeting have denied the very conclusions which Luskin draws.

That's ID/creationism for you: equal parts cluelessness, wishful thinking, copying other people's mistakes, relying on unauthoritative sources that say what the creationist wants to hear, inventing new mistakes by assumption, all pasted together with a thick glue of wishful thinking and unshakeable faith in the rectitude of one's facts & opinions.

Note to creationists: why don't you ever double-check anything? Heck, even us partisans on the other side double-check each other. For example, I think us evolutionary scientists tend to create problems for ourselves in certain ways, e.g. research findings, meetings, science journalism, press releases, etc. far too often state or imply that whatever we are working on is "revolutionary", "overturning long-held ideas", etc. An awful lot of this is just hype and exaggeration. It is not a problem in evolution specifically, but science generally, because everyone is competing for funding, attention in the press and public, etc. The problem is probably unfixable, but we should at least be aware that it goes on and is a small but not tiny part of what keeps creationism and other forms of crankery psychologically viable. (I'm not saying this happened with the Altenberg meeting, I haven't investigated the original announcements etc.)


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