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Coulter Mangles Science

by Steven Novella, Aug 29 2011

It probably comes as no surprise to any reader here that Ann Coulter is not a scientist, nor does she give any evidence of scientific literacy. Why, then, is she writing about science?

In a recent article entitled The Flash Mob Method of Scientific Inquiry, she repeats claims she made in a prior book that evolution is pseudoscience – the demented belief system of atheist liberals. I am not interested in Coulter‘s politics – she is just another polemicist rallying the troops. In fact, evolution has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, except that some conservatives want to make it about this.

Evolution is a solid scientific theory backed by a mountain of evidence. It not a political or religious issue. It is only the political or religious ideology of some that attempts to make it so. And that’s what Coulter is doing.

She also demonstrates her intellectual “slipperiness” by repeating her claim that no defender of evolution will challenge her on her claims. It’s easy to make this claim if you ignore all those evolutionary scientists who have already demolished her claims. PZ Myers has also offered to take on any claim in her book where she trashes evolutionary theory – anyone can pick the best argument they think Coulter makes (including Coulter herself) and discuss it at length with PZ.

OK – you might argue that PZ is beneath Coulter’s notice, but that is not a very good argument. He is, as far as I am aware, the most popular science blogger on the planet. Surely if Coulter (or any of her defenders) were making any attempt to actually follow up on her offer his blogging about the issue would have been noticed. I have also made a somewhat more obscure yet public offer to debate Coulter on the issue on my podcast, or another venue if she wishes. So far she has not responded.

In any case, I wanted to take just one claim that Coulter makes in her recent article and show how intellectually vacuous she is. She writes:

It is a mathematical impossibility, for example, that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell’s flagellum — forget the 200 parts of the cilium! — could all arise at once by random mutation. According to most scientists, such an occurrence is considered even less likely than John Edwards marrying Rielle Hunter, the “ground zero” of the impossible.

Nor would each of the 30 to 40 parts individually make an organism more fit to survive and reproduce, which, you will recall, is the lynchpin of the whole contraption.

This is her big argument – the irreducible complexity of Michael Behe. She has apparently not noticed (I suspect because she doesn’t care) that Behe‘s arguments have been thoroughly refuted in the scientific literature and popular writings. Anyone with even modest Google chops would immediate come upon this excellent and thorough article by (Catholic biologist) Ken Miller, The Flagellum Unspun. In this article Miller walks the reader through all the logical errors of irreducible complexity, and the factual errors in the flagellum argument.

It is no longer excusable for evolution deniers like Coulter to reference Behe‘s flagellum argument as if it stands unrefuted. This is the strategy of claiming victory by simply ignoring all dissent. I guess if you ignore all the other runners in the Boston Marathon you can also claim to have won that race (even if you don’t finish).

Miller points out, for example, that the Type III Secretory Apparatus (TTSS) has significant homology with the bacterial flagellum. This destroys the irreducible complexity argument, as a subset of the flagellum can serve a purpose (injecting poison) that can provide a selective advantage.

Of course deniers can continue to make their argument from ignorance, stating that the TTSS is irreducibly complex – until we find a yet simpler and functioning structure. This “god-of-the-gaps” strategy can continue forever, since we will have to fill every nook and cranny of knowledge about the evolutionary history of every aspect of every creature on earth.

Since there will always be gaps in our knowledge, a better way to look at the value of evolutionary theory vs intelligent design is to consider how it advances over time. The evolutionary paradigm has proven powerful, in both predictive and explanatory power. We continue to find evolutionary connections that explain how biological structures came about.

ID, on the other hand, explains nothing. It also is terrible at making predictions. If irreducible complexity is a major prediction of ID, and every example of irreducible complexity collapses as knowledge advances, requiring new examples to replace the old ones and stay one step ahead of the advancing edge of scientific knowledge – then ID is an utter failure. In fact, it is not even a scientific theory. It floats in the gaps ahead of our current knowledge, unfalsifiable, making no verifiable predictions, and explaining nothing. (Waving one’s hands and saying that it’s all magic is not an explanation.)

It is amazing, however, that Coulter has learned to adopt the language of skepticism as she attempts to describe evolution as a pseudoscientific ideologically-driven belief system. Perhaps it’s just confirmation bias, but I see this happening more and more. Her claims are completely disconnected from reality, making them pseudoskepticism. She had learned to adopt the form of skeptical writing, but not the essence of skeptical analysis.

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20 Responses to “Coulter Mangles Science”

  1. John Myste says:

    I will read the irreducible complexity article, but it sounds like she is using Hoyle’s Fallacy to make her case.

  2. Captain Atheist says:

    When I see and listen to coulter, I become skeptical of both theories.

  3. Beelzebud says:

    Not surprising coming from this know-nothing. What amazes me is that some of these people seem genuinely proud to be this dense.

    I’m reminded of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84EjWeTMBZs

    Totally living in her own fantasy world, where actual facts do not matter.

  4. John Greg says:

    Steven Novella said:

    “It probably comes as no surprise to any reader here that Ann Coulter is not a scientist, nor does she give any evidence of scientific literacy. Why, then, is she writing about science?”

    Perhaps for the same reason Rebecca Watson blathers about science online: heterosexual leisure class white female privilege (and a “thousands strong” uncritical and worshipful audience)?

    Hey. Just sayin’. A little satire goes a long way.

    • Beelzebud says:

      One slight difference. Rebecca Watson isn’t totally full of shit.

      • John Greg says:

        “One slight difference. Rebecca Watson isn’t totally full of shit.”

        Well, ya, not as much as Ms. C. anyway.

      • Holtzmann says:

        I think we can safely assume it’s impossible to be 100% devoid of shit. Everybody has a certain amount of it. Some are full to the brim, others have just enough to be controversial in certain circles. I’m not a big fan of Rebecca either, but I think her and Mrs. Coulter are in two entirely different leagues.

      • John Greg says:

        Holtzmann said:

        “I’m not a big fan of Rebecca either, but I think her and Mrs. Coulter are in two entirely different leagues.”

        Yes, one is a right-wingnut leaguer, the other a left-wingnut leaguer.

        Seriously though, and to specifically answer to the intent of your comment, I am not so sure that they are in fact all that fundamentally different — different skins, as it were, but underneath beats the same ideologically-based heart.

        Ultimately, I think they have the same agenda, which is, above all else, self-promotion.

        Both Watson and Coulter use the same tactics to accomplish this: Fear-mongering; inventing and proselytizing false catastrophies / crises; disseminating what amounts to hate speech regarding fabricated enemies; attempting to silence in any way possible any and all dissent, criticism, and questioning of their ideology (through shaming, stirring up their supportive, hordes, ridiculing, dismissing, etc.); performances at public speaking engagements that amount to wholesale non sequitur blather; manipulating all dialogues; lying about and shaming, belittling, and dismissing dissentors, critics, and potential allies who do not agree wholesale with their ideolgy, and so forth and so on.

        Now I know many Watson supporters will be all up in high dudgeony arms over such statements, but I think these claims hold water, and if one examines the last few years of presentation both Coulter and Watson show very, very similar tactics and methodologies, Watson being perhaps less hysterical than Coulter, but the only primary distinction being that Watson tends to dwell somewhat more, though not entirely so, in the realm of the real world than does Coulter.

    • pornalysis says:

      re:”Perhaps for the same reason Rebecca Watson blathers about science online: heterosexual leisure class white female privilege (and a “thousands strong” uncritical and worshipful audience)?’

      gee whizz–I thought I was the only one who noticed how privileged white females consume the resources of every debate these days.

      Headline: “Dialectic conversational space shortage possibly due to white female blowhards and Pz Meyers”

  5. BKsea says:

    I think the ID movement really does a service to show how good evolutionary theory really holds up. The theory of evolution offers numerous opportunities to be shown to be impossible. When DNA was discovered, it could have been completely inconsistent with evolution instead it matched perfectly. We could find animals that show signs of descending from two disparate branches of the evolutionary tree. But, crocoducks don’t exist. The fact that no solid argument can be made to impact the theory shows how good the theory is.

  6. tmac57 says:

    “…she is just another polemicist rallying the troops.”

    I see Coulter as being more of a demagogue per H. L. Mencken:

    “one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”

    • Well, I don’t think Coulter has that vein of pure Mencken-type cynicism. I think she’s a halfway believer, even.

      Oh, sidebar … to me, she is NOT that good looking, either.

      • tmac57 says:

        Looking over her Wiki entry,I agree that she appears to believe in much of what she spews,but I also think that she has a cynical contempt for her audience. Much of her over-the-top rhetoric,is designed to deliberately paint a cartoonish view of liberals that she knows will not only get a rise out of her enemies,but pander to a knee-jerk wingnut element. You can’t do that kind of thing without having low opinion of the intelligence of your supporters.
        Her looks are unimportant to me,one way or the other,but I can’t stand to listen to her talk.I guess that’s the effect she is after,and is probably laughing all the way to the bank.

  7. MadScientist says:

    Evolution may have a mountain of evidence, but Jesus and Mohammed simply take the much easier route of moving the goalposts and their followers generally nod mindlessly rather than contemplate reality.

  8. Max says:

    “She had learned to adopt the form of skeptical writing, but not the essence of skeptical analysis.”

    You get that a lot with denialists, who refer to sound science as “junk science” and vice-versa.

  9. Grisha says:

    Steve, all your arguments are good, but what the point?

    She believes (assuming she believes) not because of logic and reasons. There is no use to try to argue with true believer.

    I have some experience in such discussions and one of most funny examples was when in discussion about incompatibility of omnipotence and omniscience I got the story line from “Back to the future part 2″ as a counterargument.

  10. John K. says:

    After long enough, repeated ignorance has to be willful and deliberate. As Dr. Novella points out, this rhetoric is most likely about telling people what they want to hear so they will vote how you want them to vote. We cannot know the secret beliefs of Ms. Coulter, but manipulative dishonesty is becoming a simpler and simpler explanation as time goes on.

  11. st0nes says:

    I had hitherto not heard of this person (I’m not an American), so when I started to read her article I thought it was some weird satire. Please tell me she isn’t serious; if she is then America is in big trouble.

  12. John says:

    Science not only about figuring something out. A secondary benefit of science is the learning when an experiment fails.

    So not only would ID fanatics like Coulter have to explain how ID works, they also have to explain how ID fails.

    For example, in White Sands, New Mexico, it has been proven that animals evolved white skin pigmentation over time in order to better hide from predators. Those that did passed that trait down to their descendents and so on and so forth. Those animals that did not adopt the white pigmentation were easily killed off by predators, which resulted in the white-pigmented animals surviving and flourishing and I guess becoming the “standard.”

    If ID is true, then how would they explain why there were animals that did not have the white pigmentation right from the start? Shouldn’t they have been “designed” with it already?