Falsified AND Unfalsifiable

From a recent comment on Good Math, Bad Math (edited here for clarity…and yes it’s my own comment):

“So you’re saying you falsified my claim, AND the claim is unfalsifiable?”

This seems to be a common response when some people are confronted with the fact that their ideas* are unfalsifiable. It’s intended to demonstrate how ridiculous such a stance is.

What’s actually happening is that a prediction is generated based on the given idea and a thought experiment is proposed which could potentially falsify the prediction. When the test is followed to it’s logical conclusion it is found to contradict the prediction and thus falsifies the claim. In rebuttal definitions are changed, values are shifted, and concepts are restated using different words, all of which serve to render that test invalid in some way, or to make the results consistent with the reworded idea. The fact that all of these change are still consistent with the original idea is a clear demonstration that it is in fact unfalsifiable.

The claim is not that “I tested it AND it’s untestable.” The claim is “I attempted to test it, but every test resulting in a falsification is simply reinterpreted in such a way as to render it unfalsified. Since this can be done at will while remaining consistent with the original idea, it is in fact unfalsifiable.”

* I am purposefully using the term “idea” here instead of “theory” because the fact that these ideas aren’t falsifiable means that they are not in fact theories at all.

Where The Hell Have You Been, Man?

The long hiatus is over. After a multitude of family issues coupled with a deep abiding commitment to procrastination I’m finally back to posting on my blog. I’m going to start off slowly. For now I’ll just put forth an observation that I made a while back in a debate with a creationist.

The Cambrian Explosion, in which multitudes of new species began to appear in the fossil record is considered to have happened so amazingly fast (only a few million years) that many consider it a refutation of evolution all it’s own. Meanwhile, the fact that we haven’t directly observed a single speciation event* in the 150 years since Darwin is also refutation of evolution. In other words a few million years isn’t enough time for evolution to work, but 150 years is so much time that if evolution worked we’d have seen it directly by now.

* I’m going to steal another guys references here. Over at Corny’s blog (a favorite of mine…he’s hilarious) someone posted a bunch of references to directly observed speciation events. Please note that, being the lazy bastard that I am I didn’t actually go to verify any of these, so feel free to mock me mercilessly for being an evolutionist tool if these turn out to be bogus.

Sympatric ecological speciation meets pyrosequencing: sampling the transcriptome of the apple maggot Rhagoletis pomonella.
BMC Genomics. 2009 Dec 27;10:633.

Rapid evolution and selection inferred from the transcriptomes of sympatric crater lake cichlid fishes.
Mol Ecol. 2010 Mar;19 Suppl 1:197-211.

Adaptive radiations: from field to genomic studies.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jun 16;106 Suppl 1:9947-54. Epub 2009

Evolution in the Drosophila ananassae species subgroup.
Fly (Austin). 2009 Apr-Jun;3(2):157-69. Epub 2009 Apr 12.

Ahearn, J. N. 1980. Evolution of behavioral reproductive isolation in a laboratory stock of Drosophila silvestris. Experientia. 36:63-64.

Boraas, M. E. 1983. Predator induced evolution in chemostat culture. EOS. Transactions of the American Geophysical Union. 64:1102.

Crossley, S. A. 1974. Changes in mating behavior produced by selection for ethological isolation between ebony and vestigial mutants of Drosophilia melanogaster. Evolution. 28:631-647.

Dobzhansky, T. and O. Pavlovsky. 1971. Experimentally created incipient species of Drosophila. Nature. 230:289-292.


I think that many people who are anti-science, or even just anti-my-pet-theory, have trouble not with the science itself but with their own inability to re-evaluate their position. You might remember a post I made awhile back called Cognitive Disfunction. It was about the inability to accept evidence contrary to one’s own belief regardless of the reason. As an example I used the Plane on a Conveyor Belt episode of Mythbusters. As I thought about it more I came to the realization that the major problem there was an inability to re-evaluate the original conclusion that they reached.

In part the problem arose because of that way that it was worded (which was most likely by design). Here again is the actual description of the problem.

[N]ormally a plane sits on the runway, spins up its engines, moves forwards gets enough air over its wings and takes off. But in this case, the plane is sitting not on the runway, but a huge conveyor belt that is matching the planes forward speed in reverse, and the grand question is can the plane take off? The myth is that it can’t

On first hearing it, the mental image that you might form is one of the plane standing still because the faster it moves, the faster the conveyor belt moves, thereby nullifying it’s forward speed and preventing it from getting any airflow over the wings so it can fly. It just remains stationary. I admit that this was my first impression and I was one of those people who were fooled by the wording.

The breakthrough moment comes when you realize that this conclusion is based on the false premise that the wheels are powering the forward movement of the plane. They aren’t. The forward movement comes from the propellers (or possible the jet), which is independent of the wheels. Therefore it doesn’t matter how fast the conveyor belt moves, the plane will move forward.

I think many of the people who were arguing against the Mythbuster’s conclusion were stuck with their first impression of the problem. Arguments that the wheels didn’t affect the forward movement of the plane weren’t even relevant to them because as far as they were concerned the description said that the plane was stationary, and a stationary plane cannot take off. The fact that you were arguing against that simple premise demonstrated that you didn’t actually understand the original description.

A similar problem seems to affect people who are dead set against the Theory of Evolution. I’ve been in many debates with anti-evolutionists who obviously had a great misunderstanding of how evolution works. For example they would say that mutations can only be detrimental, meaning that natural selection could only allow organisms to survive which couldn’t survive because of the mutations. The absurdity of that proves that evolution is false. Or they would question exactly who it is that is deciding which organisms live or die. Without someone to make that decision evolution simply cannot work. These are obviously profound misunderstandings of how evolution works, but of course from their point of view I am the one that doesn’t understand. And just like the stationary plane they are based on initial misunderstandings that they either can’t or won’t re-evaluate.

A Petty Snipe

This isn’t about someone else’s petty little snipe at someone else. This is my petty little snipe at someone over at UD. A common theme over there is the claim that Darwin was a racist, and one bit of evidence which is brought up often is the full title of his most famous book: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” (emphasis mine of course). What becomes obvious if you actually read the book is that races in this context meant only varieties rather than the modern connotation of human races. For example at one point in the book he refers to “the several races…of the cabbage” (remember, when you see ellipses like that, check to make sure I’m not changing the context of the quote…look it up yourself).

But of course, that’s all rubbish. Whatever the word means today is what it meant back then, even if he didn’t know it.

Then there’s this comment by johnnyb:

This is a common problem with Biblical interpretation – the word “slave” that we think of is not the same thing as “slave” in that time. It is certainly worthy of discussion whether the Hebrew system was good or bad, just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, and the like, but it is a category error to make a simple equation of Hebrew slavery with 19th century Western slavery.

This is very much like the argument used against the whole “Darwin was a racist, and the title of his book proves it” argument.

This is a common problem with [Historical]  interpretation – the word “[race]” that we think of is not the same thing as “[race]” in that time. It is certainly worthy of discussion whether [Darwin’s views on race were] good or bad, just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, and the like, but it is a category error to make a simple equation of [Darwin’s use of the word “race”] with [21st] century [use of the word “race”].

I wonder if they are aware of their double standard, or if they’re really that stupid.

This is a common problem with Biblical interpretation – the word “slave” that we think of is not the same thing as “slave” in that time.

Paleyism Will Never Die

The design argument relies on ignorance to work. This was just as true for Paley’s watch as it is for current Intelligent Design theory. The basic thought process is this (for the design argument known as the Watchmaker Analogy):

  1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer.
  2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe) necessitates a designer.

Step 1 relies on our knowledge of the watch and how it was designed and created. Step 2 relies on our ignorance of X and how (or even if) it was designed and created. The idea is that we should explain what we don’t know in terms of what we do know, and since we know that the watch was designed, we should be able to explain what we don’t know about X as the product of design as well.

I’m not here today to argue the merits of this. Rather I wanted to point out the simple fact that such arguments will never go away.

“But Venture,” I hear you say, “as we learn more we’ll be better able to explain X as a result of natural processes, thereby chipping away at this argument!” There is one glaring problem with that view. History has shown us that the more we come to know, the more we also come to know how much we don’t know. It’s not that ignorance increases along with knowledge but that our awareness of our ignorance increases. The sophistication of the Intelligent Design arguments are a testament to that. Scientists such as Michael Behe use our ignorance to great effect by providing very detailed explanations of exactly what it is that we don’t yet understand and making a design inference from that.

The fact is that the design inference will never go away because it relies on our knowledge of one thing to explain our ignorance of another thing, and as science progresses we will always become more and more aware of both.

Not Just Creationists

This video is making the rounds on atheist blogs all over the blogofractal.

It’s meant to be funny, and of course it is. And yet, like a person with PTSD I find myself almost hating it because it gets it too perfect. I’ve wasted hours, even days in these kinds of circular arguments, where any point that I effectively rebut is dropped only to be restated later as though it were never addressed.

And it’s not just creationists for whom this problem exists. Anti-Vaxxers, AGW Deniers, Cdesign Proponentsists, Moon Hoaxers, 911 Truthers, UFOlogists, and pretty much any Conspiracy Theorists have this penchant for continually stating and restating their talking points without ever acknowledging that any attempt at rebuttal was ever even made.

Here’s a philosophical question for you. If you present evidence and I never look at it, does it actually exist?