Professor Prothero’s Preening, Pungent Prattle

“You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he came to be so silly….you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.” C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” God in the Dock (emphasis in original)

In my last post I explained I’m generally no longer inclined to stand up and argue for the existence of Bigfoot, Chupacabra, or the Mongolian Death Worm. But if someone uses faulty argumentation against their existence, it’s still enough to make me cringe. Especially if they have a PhD and wrote an entire book that seems dedicated to this faulty reasoning, and published it under an academic press.

A very exhaustively cited book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science is coauthored by Daniel Loxton (who seems like a very nice, fair-minded guy, and a very talented artist as well) and Donald Prothero, PhD (a paleontologist and professor at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA).

It’s not so much the book I am commenting on here (though that may happen after I’ve read the whole thing…honestly, I’m a slow reader, so I don’t know when that’s going to happen). But given the Amazon description, its subtitle (Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids), and what I had read of Prothero beforehand, I got suspicious that he’d already decided his conclusion before gathering research. Hence the quote about bulverism above.

Long story short: I expressed my suspicions on Twitter a while back, and it seems Prothero was informed. And judging by a comment on one of his blog posts, he wasn’t very happy about the suspicion. Normally I wouldn’t respond to something like this, certainly not at length. But each sentence was either false or so poorly argued, I elected to craft a response anyway.

Even if a skeptic is right on a particular subject, broken logic will never give him or her a solid basis on which to stand. In this case, it’s about time someone called him out for it. As a scientist, Prothero has a responsibility to use solid argumentation and make his case like a professional.

Okay, so here’s the comment. In its entirety.

“Clearly, this person hasn’t read the book, nor does he understand what we said. The genetic fallacy is only a fallacy if the origins story in question has no relevance to the truth or falsity of the argument being made. But the long story lines that Daniel teased out about the history of each of these cryptids–especially how their descriptions are inconsistent, how they are strongly influenced by cultural factors such as current movies, how they are full of hoaxes and bad data that the cryptozoologists NEVER expunge, and how they compile “lists of sightings” which are houses of cards, with nearly every one of them useless or questionable–is VERY relevant to the credibility of each cryptid.

“Even if we had not compiled the historical record of each cryptid, the rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence by a whole range of biological, geological and paleontological constraints that this critic clearly never read about. As usual, he’s doing the usual creationist tactic to avoid the confrontation of hard data against his beliefs: dismiss it with an irrelevant or false argument and then ignore it.”

Oh dear, where to begin?

First of all, I already admitted to not reading the book at the time. Check Twitter to see for yourself. I expressed concern that it was going to be a book with weak argumentation. I have a copy from the library at the moment. While some of its arguments are stronger than I worried, elsewhere those fears are being realized in spades.

Things don’t get any better when he gives the definition of “genetic fallacy” as the necessary condition under which it happens. That’s what the genetic fallacy teaches us: an idea’s origin doesn’t have any bearing on that idea’s truth or falsehood. Prothero is basically saying “a frog is only a frog if it’s a tailless amphibian of the order Anura.”

Duh. That’s what it means.

The next sentence makes a fair point, but Prothero doesn’t justify his position. He’s right that the case for most mystery animals appears lacking. I’ve stated at length that I don’t expect Bigfoot or Nessie or Yeti to be real, even if I want them to be real. (Mokele-mbembe, on the other hand…might be a different story)

Given the absence of a foundation of hard evidence, I’m inclined to agree with his overall conclusion. However, he then overestimates what the evidence gathered thus far actually tells us; then he dives to the bottom of the barrel, trying to make the proposal of unknown large animal species look like ridiculous, even dangerous pseudoscience. To do this, he scoops out cryptozoology’s familiar and well-established legacy of hoaxes, some genuinely preposterous ideas (Bigfoot being able to move to other dimensions, for instance), and the fact that humans can be made vulnerable to deception. To which Prothero himself, of course, is blessedly immune. The starting assumption in the book and his worldview appears to be that these sightings are most emphatically not caused by unclassified species of animals (even though that sounds like a perfectly modest and reasonable possibility, at least for some cryptids), therefore the explanation must lie in psychology and old-fashioned gullibility, and this is sufficient to explain pretty much the entirety of cryptozoology.

In other words: “It’s never credible and none of these animals exist, because look at all the weirdos and liars who go looking for monsters. Ta-da! No unclassified animal species needed. All you need are hoaxers, the credulous, and fundamentalists on a crusade to destroy science, and there you have it.”

Welcome back to the genetic fallacy, Professor. You have provided a textbook example of it, in more ways than one.

Oh, but you see, it’s totally okay that he does this, because SCIENCE! tells us that these creatures can’t possibly exist anyway. “The rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence…”

Oh? Says who? Is it scientifically impossible that there is an ape of unknown classification in the Himalayas? Is it impossible that a large something-or-other is lurking in the cloudy waters of Loch Ness?

Of course not! It’s unlikely, but no possibility is demolished. Why take the position that it’s impossible?

  • “Says the fossil record,” which Prothero seems to believe is overall complete with no big surprises awaiting us. Never mind that they keep finding a new species of dinosaur every couple of months. Many of which are totally unexpected. Not to mention the numerous other newly identified animal and plant species routinely recovered from the field or dusted off in museum archives. Paleontology is a great scientific endeavor, but when they can’t even get the nonexistence of Brontosaurus right, you’d be wise to learn to never say never.
  • “Says biology,” because of course we’ve learned every single impact an organism can have on its environment. We can instantly detect the impact a species has when something is amiss. Oh, except for the 125,000 extra gorillas found in the Congo in 2007. And the new species we discover all the time on submarine dives to the darkest corners of our oceans. Hmm, maybe we don’t have all the evidence in yet?
  • “Says geology” because…well, I’m not sure what he means. It seems paleontology would have more to say about animals than would general geology. It was kind of a broad brush to start with.

Then he throws out a red herring that implies anyone who says he commits the genetic fallacy is on the wrong side of the origins fence. As if no one who accepts evolution could possibly see anything wrong with his logic, or as if this has anything to do with the veracity of his claims.

Basically, he got caught committing the genetic fallacy. But rather than owning up to it or beefing up his arguments or retracting them, he opted to flaunt his dubious line of reasoning in everyone’s face, and yell that he’s totally justified in doing so. This is such an insult to logic that Mister Spock would do a “Live Long and Prosper” facepalm.

Skeptics, you’ll do yourselves and others a huge favor if you can please get your act together.

UPDATE, APRIL 29, 2015: Regarding Prothero’s stance that the fossil record doesn’t hold animals that can be properly called “cryptids,” I’d like to point out yet another unexpected discovery reported today: a pigeon-sized dinosaur in China, with elongated arms and fingers, and membranes underneath that strongly resemble the wings of a bat.

That’s right. If this fossil is genuine, they basically discovered a small dragon. You’re welcome.


Watching the Watchmen: Thoughts on Abiogenesis

I will be upfront and say I lack training in microbiology and biochemistry, and this post is intended to be a big-picture pondering on the subject, rather than a paper for peer review. So feel free to take what I write with a five pound bag of salt.

Abiogenesis is the notion that biological life can coalesce out of molecules. In this scenario, no more than the right circumstances and chemicals are required, and they can be acted upon by natural laws to bring about a complex self-replicating molecule that could eventually give rise to what we would normally call a cell.

It is also something that has never been replicated in the laboratory. The actual results behind the optimistic rhetoric of life’s “building blocks” (amino acids, etc.) being generated in the laboratory pales in comparison to our increased understanding of what would be required to be present in even the simplest conceivable cell, one much simpler than the ones we have yet detected under a microscope. And yet abiogenesis is taken for granted as having occurred at some point in the past, whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Some time ago on Facebook, I had a couple of debates with natural history illustrator and paleoartist Julius Csotonyi, who is also very well-trained in microbiology. My position was (and is) that decades of experimentation give us excellent reason to harshly criticize the assumption of abiogenesis, and even discard it. He pointed me to many, many papers on the subject and the basic argument put forward was, “We’re working on it, and are getting more answers. We just need more time to figure out how [not if] abiogenesis happened.” I would point out more problems after looking over the arguments given (and the papers I had time to peruse), and more papers would be thrown down to trip me up. All in the name of benevolently “educating” me, you understand.

Nonetheless, I know enough to recognize what we should be seeing if Csotonyi and other microbiologists are correct in saying abiogenesis must have happened. The issue was not what the papers contained, but what was missing from them. My basic requirement, that went all but ignored, was “Show me a cell or self-replicating complex molecule.”

We all know that either one of those showing up in a test tube would be the biggest biochemical breakthrough in this century and would instantly flood journals and social media both. In the meantime, the gap between laboratory results and the requirements to generate a cell should be shrinking. If that gap expands, it’s a good bet that abiogenesis is a faulty hypothesis, and to hold it as the clear explanation for life’s origin is to engage in pseudoscience.

As far as I can tell, a handful of possible but hotly debated answers have been uncovered, but that handful is dwarfed by the mountains of newly uncovered questions and obstacles. The gap between lab results and the requirements to generate even the simplest cell seems to grow every year.

Still, is there some chance that the stated results of abiogenesis experiments give any cause for excitement at someday creating a cell, or at least a self-replicating complex molecule?

Let us imagine a compulsive gambler who has racked up several million dollars in debt. Hoping to win it back, he returns to the tables, and manages to win a few hundred bucks. But he has not come close to paying it off. He’s even lost enough times, in his renewed efforts, to add another million to the bill.

Would any hope or optimism on the gambler’s part be warranted?

The obvious answer also applies to the ever-hopeful microbiologist who still seeks to find a way to generate a basic cell in a test tube. (I invoke gambling not to say life would generate “randomly.” This is a question of debt, or the criteria that an experiment’s results must satisfy before we can reach a cell.)

I admire the dogged persistence for a desired result. What disappoints and frustrates me is the double header of assuming the process must be possible, combined with a climate of hubris in academia, which perceives anyone who says abiogenesis cannot happen to be uneducated, or unwilling to consider it — perhaps out of some nefarious religious motivation.

It would be more accurate (and more gracious) to say that those more removed from the assumption that life can start by natural means may, ironically, be more observant and more willing to follow where the data points. Not only have the predictions of abiogenesis failed (or “been revised” to put it more politely), but the hurdles of statistics and chemistry have added to the problems with even the simplest conceivable cell assembling from a state without biological life.

This is much more than scientific inquiry whittling down explanations and refining the hypothesis. The debt does not merely still stand; it has been augmented.

The insistence of the True Believer combines with the momentum of grant money and an assumption that is less warranted than ever, that life “must have spontaneously generated” by natural process (the words of Stephen Hawking). Thus today’s model of Spontaneous Generation spins its wheels, all the while demanding exclusivity in laboratory and classroom alike.

My request remains. A cell or self-replicating complex molecule will do. Neither a computer simulation of a cell nor the laughably mislabeled “protocells” so far generated will satisfy the demand for abiogenesis to be scientifically tenable.

If the hypothesis fails, what should we replace it with? I am even less qualified to offer an answer to that, so I won’t dare speak on any replacement theory. All I can do is give speculation:

The changeable rules of “proper” science may cling to abiogenesis in the teeth of the evidence and hang a no-creators-allowed sign on its clubhouse door. But, if such a creator happens to exist, the necessity of such a being’s handiwork may insist on giving Him a hearing anyway.

A Note on Science and Skepticism

“Question everything.” If only Neil deGrasse Tyson would turn this elegant phrase on his own positions, especially regarding known historical fact.

I had the great honor of meeting Tyson at the 2006 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He was incredibly witty, friendly, and accessible. We had a grand time discussing the possibility of life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, while waiting in line for ice cream. For this reason and others, Cosmos was a series I looked forward to. So far I’ve watched the pilot, and more than half of another episode (there’s a lot of TV I have yet to catch up on; procrastinators unite…tomorrow). The visuals are incredible — they are the kinds of things I’ve longed for since Jurassic Park forever spoiled me to special effects. If only Tyson’s “polite” antagonism toward theism didn’t keep throwing itself in the way. Oh well. One day I’d love to meet up with him again over coffee and discuss science once more.

However, I bring up this matter to illuminate a larger point, about skepticism. What passes for “skepticism” today ain’t what it used to be. What it should be.

Anyone can make a claim about reality. But whether it meshes with what is already known is another matter entirely. Like Tyson’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno tarnishing an otherwise amazing introduction to the wonders of the universe, a faulty line of reasoning or a powerful and trendy agenda can throw a wrench into the gears of critical thinking.

Science is by its nature investigative. It is a fine scientist indeed who manages to put aside as much of his bias as possible, and draw conclusions based on what is observed rather than what he thinks “should” be there. It’s an ideal we may never fully realize, but knowledge is only gained when you keep reaching for it.

In other words, science as properly practiced has no sympathy for dogma or declarative statements that something is “impossible.” Nature itself seems to lack that sympathy, as well. Seashells have inspired possible modifications of military armor. Jupiter’s moons were thought to be boring, cold chunks of ice before the Voyager probes revealed otherwise. Soft tissue has been confirmed in dinosaur fossils, which surprised just about everyone. The universe keeps knocking our expectations off their fragile pedestals over and over again. I thought we would have learned our lesson by now.

Alas, the modern skeptic, rather than pay any attention to his creed and examine matters at hand with a careful eye, tends to arrogantly scoff at certain verboten claims even before he examines them. Clumsy ad hominem attacks and self-assured political grandstanding start to take the place of any actual care for accuracy. Oftentimes they can make a legitimate point (as in the case of vaccine safety), but follow a faulty line of reasoning. Being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

For that reason, I tend to distrust the conclusions of a self-described “skeptic.” If you call yourself a skeptic, I only ask you to please walk the talk. Send the hard questions in every direction, not only at your favorite punching bag. Remember to sharpen your own thinking skills, and remember: even those with a university degree and grant money can engage in pseudoscience.