Monday, January 30, 2012

Jerry Coyne Knows About Horny Fruit Flies & Little Else

Pardon my bluntness lately.

Jerry Coyne had this to say recently regarding necessary beings:

No theologian in the world is going to convince me that it’s impossible for God to fail to exist because he’s a “necessary being.” Science has shown that he’s not “necessary” for anything we know about the universe.
Now, he's being raked over the coals for this one, at least outside of cultist circles. Even atheists cringed a little, since it's a stellar example of Coyne shooting his mouth off and clearly not knowing what he's talking about. The short version of the reply to Coyne, given here by Bill Valicella, focuses on the man not seeming to understand what a 'necessary being' even is, and therefore why turning to science to answer the question is wrongheaded.

As usual, I think Coyne is getting off light. Primarily because this is a prime case of Coyne displaying not only an utter lack of comprehension of theology, philosophy and religion (which doesn't keep him from spouting off on the things as a wannabe authority on a regular basis), but of abusing science. Back to the problem with the scientism charge, which Valicella lobs at Coyne: there's this oft-repeated claim that guys like Coyne just love science and hold it in too high esteem, but their signature move is to says "science shows" things that science doesn't, and in some cases in principle cannot, show. The fact that guys like this won't shut up about how much they love science does not make them lovers of science, anymore than their penchant for screaming about reason doesn't make them either reasonable, or lovers of reason. If it did, you could accuse many Young Earth Creationists of scientism on the grounds that a number of them insist science is on their side, coupled with a praise for (in their views, accurate) science.

But I think the most insulting thing about Coyne's outbursts as of late is the gall. I can appreciate that the man is employed as a scientist as his day job. I'll even go ahead and assume that his particular specialty has some actual useful applications. But the fact is, his knowledge is exceedingly narrow. So sayeth the wikipedia: His concentration is speciation and ecological and evolutionary genetics, particularly as they involve the fruit fly, Drosophila.


Look, I'm a theistic evolutionist myself. I can appreciate the knowledge and the research and blah blah blah. But the fact is, whatever has come of it, Coyne's specialty is in getting fruit flies to have sex and then sussing out what the results mean. Say what you will about the importance of this data, appreciate the knowledge of speciation and banal evolutionary processes that can be gained from it as much as you like. The fact of the matter is, it's a pretty narrow specialty. Does anyone really think Coyne has gleaned particular insight on God's existence or non-existence as a result of keeping data on whether fruit flies will screw each other if they have slightly different colored eyes? Is he in a position to say "science has shown God is/is not necessary" with any more authority than a grand-prize winner on The Price is Right?


This unwarranted respect for opinions of scientists - in either direction, mind you - when it comes to questions far outside of their specialty is something people really have to get over. In fact, instead of asking to give his opinion on controversial philosophical topics, the next question USA Today should let Coyne answer is "What do you do, how much are you paid, is your salary funded by the government, and can your research justify your salary in terms of utility or potential utility? Will it lead to more effective medical treatments or better technology in general?"

To be fair, I'm not sure his answer to that question will be any better than his thoughts on necessary beings.

9 comments:

The Deuce said...

To be fair, I'm not sure his answer to that question will be any better than his thoughts on necessary beings.

Yup, that's where I am. Setting philosophy, theology, and religion aside for a moment, I don't think I'd put much trust in Coyne's statements as authoritative about biology at this point - or indeed about anything except the specific, uninterpreted results of his own experiments.

I mean, he's shown himself to be intellectually dishonest in the extreme. He's shown himself quite willing to speak in an arrogant and authoritative manner on matters of which he is totally, laughably clueless. He's shown the ability to utter total incoherence without even pausing to consider it. This necessary beings nonsense is just his latest and most hilarious example. Are we to suppose that his huge personality flaws, his intellectual dishonesty, his willingness to arrogantly feign knowledge, and his logical incompetence only exist when he's talking about necessary beings or free will? I see no reason to think that they do, and hence I think he should be seen as unreliable in general.

Crude said...

That's a good point, really. I think many people would blanch at scoffing at a scientist's trustworthiness in his own field no matter what he does anywhere else, but that's mostly related to people having a bizarre view of scientists.

But yes, he's very clearly a shameless bullshitter and liar (I'm not into the typical game of chalking up every grossly untrue or mangled statement coming from guys like this as being due merely to ignorance.)

Crude said...

That's a good point, really. I think many people would blanch at scoffing at a scientist's trustworthiness in his own field no matter what he does anywhere else, but that's mostly related to people having a bizarre view of scientists.

But yes, he's very clearly a shameless bullshitter and liar (I'm not into the typical game of chalking up every grossly untrue or mangled statement coming from guys like this as being due merely to ignorance.)

some kant said...

Fruit flies like a banana, therefore Plantinga is wrong.

You gotta love his followers too. These days a faculty position grants you priest-like status among them and everything you say will be defended by them, no matter how ridiculous.

BTW, philosophical heavyweight Sam Harris is going to publish a book on free will. I'm betting it'll look exactly like his book on morality -- a rehash of old bad arguments dressed with a bunch of references to neuroscience publications.

Yeah, I'm that cynical.

The Deuce said...

Yup, I'd say it's the complete opposite of what many people think.

If someone has shown themselves to be such a rank demagogue that they'll shamelessly bullshit you even on topics of which they are so thoroughly ignorant that a barely initiated neophyte can catch them in their glaring errors, what do you think they'll do on a topic on which they have enough knowledge to be dangerous? Are they suddenly going to transform into intellectually honest servants of truth whenever they speak on that topic, or will they use their professional advantage to more effectively sneak bullshit past unwary laymen in service of their agenda?

What Coyne has done is to give us good reason to be *especially* wary of him when he's talking on his area of expertise, since that's where his sophistry will be easiest for him to hide.

The Deuce said...

BTW, philosophical heavyweight Sam Harris is going to publish a book on free will. I'm betting it'll look exactly like his book on morality -- a rehash of old bad arguments dressed with a bunch of references to neuroscience publications.

Who knows. Remember that he also believes in xenoglossy and residual memory of past lives, but he gets a pass from the "reality based community" since his hatred of Christians is deemed sufficient. The precise nature of whatever bullshit he's cooking up is really a tossup.

Crude said...

I actually wonder if the faculty position has anything to do with it, since really, you see similar fervent praise even when there's no faculty position in play. See Loftus' fans, though they seem to be dwindling. Or Carrier's fans, where I imagine 'being faculty for a distance education course taught by an atheist organization' is a turd many people try to polish. It's more a case of "tell me what you do, atheist leader, and I will start talking about how important it is and how great you are".

No surprise re: Harris. You can read his upcoming act since he wrote about it in the New Statesman, complete with the "scientists can predict some decisions binary decisions you'll make with somewhat better than chance accuracy in a tightly controlled environment" game. I wonder if he'll take as much of a beating there as he did with his morality book - let's face it, that did not go over well, though getting his ass handed to him by Craig helped snuff that I'm sure. Along with the fact that that was actually something even many Cultists of Gnu had trouble getting behind, since they're divided between "Let's pretend objective morality is real and can be decided by scientists and conveniently everything I already believe is the scientifically moral thing to do" and "There's no such thing as objective morality, because there is no way any scientist is going to decide that what I like to do is moral, and that's pretty annoying".

Anyway, regarding the scientist fetish - my concern is that the general hanging on the words of a scientist, or even an academic, extends far beyond the cultists. Even when what they're talking about has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Jerry Coyne's thoughts on whether the universe is designed by an intelligent agent, or whether God exists, should be given as much a priori respect as Lady Gaga's.

Crude said...

Actually, Lady Gaga is a bad example, a lot of people would probably consider her an authority for no other reason than "she's popular".

Crude said...

Who knows. Remember that he also believes in xenoglossy and residual memory of past lives, but he gets a pass from the "reality based community" since his hatred of Christians is deemed sufficient.

Actually, yeah, I've heard rumblings of this kind of crap at times from Harris. I admit, I don't follow him too closely - I've read his rantings and came to the conclusions he's just Richard Carrier if Carrier had anything approaching social grace - but if he actually came out as believing in telepathy, or past lives, or even taking those things too seriously... man, the hell that would break loose.

I admit, that's something I'm really hoping for. A major shitstorm breaking out between the Gnu bishops, where neither side backs down. Coyne more or less pussed out against PZ Myers (Remember when the ability to state what evidence would change one's mind was the KEY SIGN of rational behavior - until PZ Myers said outright that no evidence would ever change his mind about God?), and it looks like ultimately everyone moved against the Elevator Lady despite the Myers-Dawkins dustup. I want to see these guys have a sharp disagreement that devolves into mudslinging, just for the Cult of Gnu fallout where the guys break down sobbing because they don't know what to do when a prominent atheist attacks a prominent atheist.