This will be a long one, so buckle up. First, I wish to note three things: (1) Despite his admirable composure and agreeable willingness to answer many questions, Scott has not successfully answered a few of my questions nor has he yet attempted to make a coherent case for evolution. No doubt he has a bit more data with which to do so now…. (2) Scott’s genetic definition of evolution differs from the conventional definition based on fossil-based speciation which one commonly encounters in discussions with pro-evolution laymen. (3) I am not attempting to make a proactive case for an alternate theory of speciation or genetic evolution, I am simply defending my position as an evolutionary skeptic.
Second, I wish to note a few points that Scott has graciously conceded. (1) There is no clear evidence of speciation in the fossil record. (2) One cannot claim that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection (TENS) is the truth and speak as a scientist. (3) Those who attempt to enlist TENS as proof for things which cannot be tested have left the domain of science.
Now, Scott has been asking for my opinion of a pair of predictions made in 1859 and 1989 that he believes to have been made and validated, not only demonstrating speciation but blowing out of the water the creationist claim that no transitional forms between land animals and whales have been found.
My response is that this is impressive and a beautiful example of the backtesting that I find interesting, but inherently unscientific. I’ll demonstrate why by mentioning the validation of an even more astounding “prediction” which was made 2,600 years ago. The Book of Jeremiah claims in chapter 39 verse 3 that an officer named Nebo-Sarsekim was with the Babylonian King Nebuchanezzar II at the siege of Jerusalem. Four days ago, the British Museum announced that a clay tablet in its possession had been determined to be a bill of receipt acknowledging Nebo-Sarsekim’s payment of 1.6 pounds of gold to a Babylonian temple in 595 BC, apparently confirming the Biblical timeline, the existence of the Babylonian king and the individual named Nebo-Sarsekim himself.
One cannot reasonably argue that one prediction of subsequently confirmed past events is proper science while the other is not. If we must accept TENS on the basis of an aquatic bear skeleton, then we must also accept the Bible, (or at least the Book of Jeremiah, including the bits about the Lord speaking to him) – frankly, the Biblical “prediction” is much more impressive, being more than 20 times older – and I doubt many scientists are inclined to accept that conclusion.
While some have failed to understand the significance of my comparison of macroeconomic modeling to macroevolutionary modeling, Scott gets it. He describes the issue well when he writes: “as a scientist, I’m not in the ‘truth business.’ I’m in the ‘model building and model testing business.'” What he has not yet fully comprehended, most likely because his field is subject to significantly less rigorous testing, is the scientific unreliability of successfully backtested theories.
I previously related my own failures in that regard. But I’m far from the only one, Goldman Sachs right now is having far more serious problems with their presumably more advanced models than I ever did. Although the exact details are unclear, shares began to move in ways that were precisely the opposite of those predicted by computer models. These moves triggered selling by funds as they attempted to cover their losses and meet margin calls from banks. This, in turn, made share price movements even worse. As Goldman’s CFO noted in a rare conference call: “We are seeing things that were 25-standard deviation events, several days in a row.” That’s something that only happens once every 100,000 years.
Lehman Brothers is having the same sort of problems: “Models are behaving in the opposite way we would predict and have seen and tested for over very long time periods.”
Now, I admit that it is theoretically possible that the tremendous problems faced by macroeconomists and financial analysts, whose models are very, very different, will not be experienced by scientists basing their predictive models on TENS. However, given the superior precision of the backtesting of the economic and financial models and the unsuccessful nature of so many TENS backdated “predictions”, the logical conclusion based on the current data is that the TENS model is far less likely to prove functional when tested for its future performance in a scientific manner than the inadequate models from other scientific disciplines.
Large numbers multiplied by epochs of time look like a godsend to those who support TENS now because they have filled in so little of the historical record, but the reality is that the complexity they represent are very likely to present numerous and serious problems as more data is gathered and attempts to put it to the only test that really counts are made. The author of a book called The Black Swan writes: “people — especially so-called experts — tend to overestimate what they know and underestimate the uncertainty that is derived from those things they don’t know.” This applies to Darwinism as well as Keynesianism and Bernahnkeism.
I have no alternative to offer TENS subscribers at this point in time, nor do I think I am likely to in the future, but Scott’s juxtaposition of my position with Kepler’s regarding the Ptolemic model – no doubt made with tongue firmly in cheek – is correct in the sense that there is no reason for scientists to abandon TENS at this point in time. It is, as he and others have said, the best model they’ve got right now, and it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to continue to use it to look for ancient bear-whales and fruit flies that can’t breed with other fruit flies. I don’t object to that, but I’m not particularly interested in it either. Let me know when you’re ready to test it instead of using it as a historical dowsing device.
(Speaking of fruit flies, the Dobzhansky paper from 1966 on the Drosophila Paulistorum Complex was quite interesting. Why are there no newer papers on this? What happened to the new “incipient species” of Llanos-A that spontaneously emerged? It can’t breed with its predecessors, and yet it is genetically and morphologically the same as its predecessors at this point in time. Has this changed in any of the generations that have presumably continued to evolve over the last 41 years?)
Thus far, this debate has led me to believe that I can state with complete confidence that it is utterly absurd to attack religious faith on the basis of TENS, that it is ridiculous to ask political candidates whether they “believe” in TENS and that it is scientifically irresponsible to argue that one must be either stupid or ignorant to possess doubts about TENS as a theory capable of standing up to the conventional definition of the scientific method of hypothesis, testing and replicable observation.
Scott writes: Vox, you can play the part of evolutionary skeptic all you want to, but you can’t expect the scientific community to join you in rejecting TENS on the grounds that you’ve given (its high margin of error) unless you can do what Kepler did and propose a testable explanation whose margin of error is significantly lower.
Agreed. I don’t expect the scientific community to reject TENS, I don’t even expect them to seriously question it at this point in time since they’re not testing its predictive validity. However, I do expect those non-scientists whose understanding of evolution is significantly less sophisticated than Scott’s to be more than a little abashed when they realize that they are simpl
y not standing on the firmly scientific grounds that they clearly believed they were.
My skepticism may be nothing more than an intuition, (although I’d prefer to describe it as pattern recognition), but it is an educated and informed intuition, and more so now, thanks to Scott. Remember, it was Richard Leakey, a professor of Human Evolution, who quoted David Pilbeam in 1981: “If you brought in a smart scientist from another discipline and showed him the meagre evidence we’ve got he’d surely say, ‘forget it: there isn’t enough to go on’.”
My latest question to Scott is this: if many other complex models which backtested better than TENS have proven to be roundly unsuccessful when their future predictions have been subjected to rigorous scientific experimentation, what is the basis of your apparent belief that TENS-based models will prove more successful?