As with every other wave, this movement involves simply recycling the usual stable of crappy creationist claims, but this time without any explicit title (not even “Intelligent Design”) or even any explicit unity between the arguments, let alone any hint of a specific alternative conclusion that they are all pointing towards. Instead, creationist standards are to be repackaged as “scientific criticisms,” divided up, and sprinkled liberally throughout textbooks and idiosyncratic classroom curricula. And politicians like Jindal are meant to abet the effort by passing “academic freedom” bills that curiously target the teaching of evolution, and only evolution, as needing special protection for the teaching of “critical views.”
The obvious trick inherent in all of these bills is that they never specify a standard of accuracy that such criticisms have to meet, and they are often vague as to who is going to evaluate or enforce that standard in any case.
Scientists in general already do a pretty good job of including actual scientific controversy and ambiguity in textbooks and curricula, which makes these bills basically an invitation to introduce legally protected psuedoscience into local classrooms. If this sounds a little too much like the “teach the controversy” strategy of the original creationists, well, you and I are like the 800th and 801st people to notice that.
In any case, both PZ Myers and Carl Zimmer recently covered an excellently awful example of the sort of “scientific” criticism of science that the former proponents of “Intelligent Design” (so third-wave!) presumably think public schools kids are being deprived of. In this case, the offender is Casey Luskin, resident lawyer for the Discovery Institute and snarky cheerleader for the “academic freedom” bills, whose inherent plausible deniability (“See, they say only scientific criticisms: why is evolution so scared of science“) he milks at every turn.
And the gaffe is truly legendary this time. In his latest article, Luskin is trying to cast doubt on some recent work by paleontologist Neil Shubin, discoverer of the transitional tetrapod Tiktaalik and author of the exceptionally entertaining “Your Inner Fish.” Luskin mainly complains that Shubin never makes any of the necessary connections to substantiate his claims that Tiktaalik’s fin lobes are truly homolagous to tetrapod arms and wrists.
Shubin et al.: “The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations.” (Note: I have labeled the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)
Translation: OK, then exactly which “wrist bones of tetrapods” are Tiktaalik’s bones homologous to? Shubin doesn’t say. This is a technical scientific paper, so a few corresponding “wrist bone”-names from tetrapods would seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.
Catch that? If you, like Luskin, don’t happen to know what the word “eponymous” means, then you’ve just read a level-howler. Eponymous basically means “similarly or derivitatively named,” which means that Shubin has given the “corresponding” names for the tetrapod bones: i.e. they have same names in tetrapods as they do in Tiktaalik.
Now, this was probably a mistake made out of ignorance. Which is fine: Luskin is not a paleontologist, let alone an expert on Tiktaalik. But this is precisely the sort of “ignorance-based” argument that is likely to end up in public schools based on the very academic freedom bills that Luskin favors. And from this sort of openness to error comes an endless rambling arrogance, as Zimmer expertly savages:
Luskin suggests instead it would be easier to make Tiktaalik a forerunner of lungfish. (Lungfish are among the closest living relatives of tetrapods, but our last common ancestor with them lived over 400 million years ago.) “Without trying to force-fit the fin of Tiktaalik into a pre-conceived evolutionary story,” he declares, “the living species that Tiktaalik’s fin seems to bear a much closer relationship to is the lungfish.”
Note the word seems.
If Luskin were offering a real scientific hypothesis, he could do an anlysis of lungfish, Tiktaalik, tetrapods, and other vertebrates–comparing not just their limbs but their heads, spines, and so on to figure out their evolutionary relationships. That’s exactly what Shubin and his colleagues did in their original paper on Tiktaalik. They compared 114 traits on species from nine different lineages of tetrapods and their aquatic relatives, including the lineage that produced today’s lungfish. And that analysis shows that Tiktaalik is more closely related to us than to lungfish.
Luskin apparently doesn’t need to do this sort of science. He can just announce what seems right to him personally.
The point is not that only experts can ever have anything useful to say on evolution, or even that experts cannot make mistakes and laypeople like Luskin can’t catch them. It’s that just because a layperson thinks that they’ve caught a mistake, or has a better understanding of some scientific subject than experts, that doesn’t automatically make the criticism accurate. Or good science. And chances are still very, very good that it’s confused crap. Science demands that we first find out whether it really is or isn’t crap by looking closely at the evidence: precisely the sort of thing that “experts” spend their time doing (which is precisely why they are experts, and Luskin is not).
Again, that expertise doesn’t create infaliability. But it is supposed to recommend a degree of extra humility for non-experts: a sense that you really need to really do your homework before making bold assertions. Creationism has basically thrived on a refusal to do one’s homework: to appeal to simplistic first-blush impressions and personal incredulity instead of grappling with the evidence and the often difficult subject material one needs to master in order to interpret it properly.
Personally, I don’t think “refusing to do one’s homework” is quite the right ethic for academic education.