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.