Rhetorical tactics: dealing with evidence

Wesley ElsberryWesley R. Elsberry discusses IDist’s rhetorical responses to factual evidence. This is from a long discussion thread in antievolution.org, where Wesley summarizes the patterns of common arguments. (Bolding, italics, colours, and 2 subheads are mine.)

First, the interpretation of evidence:

Science works by not relying upon individual interpretations, but rather placing value in the evidence and inferences from that evidence that can survive a process of intersubjective criticism. It is still not the unobtainable goal of objective knowledge, but it is as close as we humans have managed to come.

Then, which interpretation is more valuable?

Why then does the scientific community, comprising millions of individuals from almost every culture in the world, have just one broad consensus that the fossil record shows the history and diversity of life evolving by descent with modification showing common descent from one or a few original forms? Is that “interpretation” of only equal value to the “interpretation” of the long-dead people who didn’t even believe that fossils were anything but odd mineral deposits? Or can there be “interpretations” that can be demonstrated to be superior to other “interpretations” by consistent criteria? … Do the “interpretations” of people who are ignorant count just the same as the interpretation hammered out over decades of intersubjective criticism and testing by thousands of domain experts?

The science community subjects interpretations to intersubjective criticism and ruthlessly discards the unworkable, meaningless, and counterfactual interpretations. Does that count for anything in the end product?

Wesley then poses a challenge for Kevin Miller: to explain clear evidence of transitional fossils described and photographed in one particular research paper. Go to the link for the reference and description, plus links to photos and diagrams.

Finally, Wesley gets to the part I want to highlight:

There are a lot of ways to argue to set aside this research that have nothing to do with the evidence at all. This is where religious antievolutionists shine. The following is from a challenge I make to people who claim that no transitional fossil sequences exist.

Evidentiary and Non-Evidentiary Responses to Challenges


There are two main ways in which respondents can deal with the Transitional Fossil Existence Challenge [TEFC]. The intellectually honest and appropriate way is with specific discussion of the fossil evidence as described and discussed in the primary literature. This is by far the least common approach taken by those who have been given the TFEC, and typically only follows after a long period of non-response, the elapsed time apparently serving as an index of the claimant’s unfamiliarity with the specific evidence.


The other category of approach is to ignore, so far as possible, any mention or discussion of actual fossil evidence. These varied strategies are what I term “non-evidentiary” responses, since they are completely independent of empirical data. There are many routes to achieving this end. The simplest is non-response. The challenged person may decide that not saying anything further is the best option, sometimes in the hope that there will be no long-term penalty for this behavior, and that eventually few, if any, persons will remember the abandonment of the original claim. Another common non-evidentiary response is digression. Bringing up a different topic as if it held some relevance to the TFEC allows someone to give a semblance of a reply, even though few will be fooled by it. Yet another strategy is to discuss theoretical issues as if theory did away with the need to actually look at the empirical data. A variant of the theory strategy is the quote-mining of those people who expound theory. Usually, though, quotes reveal nothing about the specific data at hand, and often come from sources whose opposition to anti-evolutionary action is otherwise well-known. Still another variant upon the theory strategy is the definition game. One can construct connotations of “transitional” such that no real-world evidence can satisfy all the piled-on conditions. It is useful to know when an anti-evolutionist simply defines evidence out of existence, though. Another possible tactic is to dismiss the taxonomic category from which the cited example comes. A respondent can claim that they really meant no transitional fossils in some other taxonomic hierarchy, but they often seem to forget that this means that the “no transitional fossils” claim is then self-admittedly false. A particularly brazen non-evidentiary response is to play an “even if” game, as in, “Even if this is true, it doesn’t mean anything.” That ignores that if the cited sequence does contain transitional fossils, it at least means that the claim of no transitional fossils is false.

Wesley lists sample responses that don’t address the evidence and to suggest that from now on, apologists simply refer to them by their letters:

The following is a short form for response to the TFEC, if a challenged person wishes to ignore the evidence and simply adopt one of the non-evidentiary tactics for their own. Simply indicate which one or more of the following Non-Evidentiary Response Items (NERI) fits what would otherwise involve a bunch of redundant typing.

Non-Evidentiary Response Items:
A. You have your faith; I have mine.

B. I meant that no vertebrate transitional fossils exist.

C. I meant that no transitional fossils above taxonomic rank _______ (fill in blank), which means that none can exist.

D. I have quotes from _______ (give list of names) that say that no transitional fossils exist.

E. My understanding of _______ theory (fill in blank) is that transitional fossils cannot exist.

F. My connotation of “transitional fossils” is _______ (fill in blank), which means that none can exist.

G. I have a cool rebuttal of _______ (fill in blank). What were you saying about transitional fossils?

H. Even if the cited example does show transitional fossils, it doesn’t mean anything.

I. I cannot be bothered to support my claim, so I will not be giving you a reply.

J. I promise to support my claim Real Soon Now. I will be in touch. My reply will be devastating to you and completely and utterly convincing to everyone. Just you wait. It’s in the mail.

K. Provide the fossils for the transition from X to Y, which will let me ignore these fossils that actually exist.

L. Person X says this challenge is bogus, therefore I don’t have to provide any response to actual evidence of transitional forms.

I recognize various techniques there. William Dembski is notorious for using Response I, as in, “It’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail.” Come back tomorrow to read about the Dembski Dodge.

Flunked, not Expelled

Flunked, I mean Expelled the movie, is so bad that no objective movie reviewer seems to like it. Or, as Wesley R. Elsberry points out, even Fox News doesn’t like it. He links to the FoxNews review by Roger Friedman.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula)

Expelled movie Exposed as dishonest

For movie reviews and more information, see Expelled Exposed.

They’re doing it again

I’ve been reading Judge Jones’ response (Montana Law Review, Volume 68.) to Discovery Institute arguments about Kitzmiller v. Dover. He goes into some detail about the origins and history of Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins (Pandas).

About two-thirds of the way through the 30-page document, I read a passage that resonated with the current flap about Expelled and its copyright infringements.

–from Lou FCD

Judge Jones writes:

…more needs to be said about Pandas, its origins, and DI’s connection to it. Originally designed as a “creationist” biology text, Pandas went through several drafts before it was published in 1989 by the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE), whose articles of incorporation stated that its “primary purpose is both religious and educational, which includes… proclaiming, publishing, preaching, teaching, promoting… and otherwise making known the Christian gospel and understanding of the Bible and the light it sheds on the academic and social issues of our day.” Significantly, three DI Fellows (Stephen Meyer, Charles Thaxton, and Dean Kenyon) were involved in the writing and editing of Pandas. Kenyon, a biology professor at San Francisco State University, co-authored the book with Percival W. Davis.

Notably, both Kenyon and Davis are admitted “young-earth” creationists. [Here Judge Jones describes quotations and actions by the authors to prove his assertion.] … In a 1994 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Davis was candid about the purpose of Pandas: “Of course my motives were religious. There’s no question about it.”

…. The DI authors claim, however, that the book had been purged of its original creationist content, and that “the removal of creationist terminology [from the published version] should have protected Pandas, not rendered the textbook unconstitutional.”

So here we have the hopeful alteration of a few superficial details while keeping a tell-tale, characteristic perspective. It is yet another resort to a legal fig-leaf: “But we’re not stark naked!” And here’s how they purged it:

…with a search and replace function that left behind a transitional fossil: “cdesign proponentsists.”

Doesn’t it sound just like the protestations from Expelled? “But we made an original copy! That shouldn’t count as plagiarism!”

Expelled Exposed

Scientific American reviews Expelled

logo, Scientific American magazineScientific American columnist John Rennie says, “No one could have been more surprised than I when the producers called offering Scientific American’s editors a private screening.”

Read his review: “Ben Stein’s Expelled: no integrity allowed.”

Look here for follow-up information: Expelled Exposed.

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