Watch Your Assumptions: They Can Lead To False Conclusions!

Poor assumptions can lead to myths instead of facts (image from shutterstock.com by Thinglass)

Poor assumptions can lead to myths instead of facts (image from shutterstock.com by Thinglass)

I am always on the lookout for experiences that can be turned into a “teachable moment.” Over the past two weeks, I have had two such experiences, so I thought I would write about them. The first one was a result of my article entitled Reflections on the Ark Encounter, which is a positive review of the latest attraction produced by Answers in Genesis. The day after it was published, I got a Facebook message from someone who had shared my post with a friend of hers. In reply, this friend asked if I was a “real” scientist. She assured him that I was and shared my Facebook page with him. She was rather taken aback when her friend sent her the following reply:

A mimeographed “PhD” from whatever fundamentalist “college” he sent his box tops to is not qualification to shine a real scientist’s shoes, let alone make claims about the natural world. Further, any parents who buy into this complete fiction, and indoctrinate their kids in this manner, are guilty of emotional and mental child abuse, and in my opinion should be prosecuted. I cant think of a better way to sabotage a child’s future in a modern, scientific and technological society.

This didn’t surprise me, of course. I am used to having my credentials questioned and being insulted because I don’t slavishly “toe the line” when it comes to today’s scientific consensus. That comes with the territory. Indeed, Dr. Dan Shechtman was asked to leave his research group because he dared to question the scientific consensus. Of course, the data eventually proved him to be correct and the scientific consensus to be wrong. However, that was until after being ridiculed as a “quasi-scientist” by one of the greatest chemists who has ever lived!

When I read that person’s reply, then, I just chuckled, because I knew how wrong he was. However, it got me thinking. This person is incorrect on so many levels, and the reason he is incorrect is because he has made some assumptions that are quite false. As a result, they have led him to false conclusions.

He seems to have assumed that there is no way a person could get a Ph.D. in science from a secular university and believe in young-earth creationism. Thus, he assumed I must have gotten my Ph.D. from a diploma mill that was probably a fundamentalist institution. Of course, that’s not correct. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Rochester, which is a purely secular university that I found to be openly hostile towards Christianity.

In addition, he assumes that children who are taught to question the scientific consensus are being harmed. He says that those children are having their future sabotaged in today’s modern, scientific and technological society. Once again, however, that is far from the truth. I have written before about how students who have been taught young-earth creationism do very well in college science courses (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Far from sabotaging a student’s future, then, a young-earth creationist education prepares the student very well for university-level science.

In the end, this person’s conclusions couldn’t be more wrong, and it’s because his assumptions are wrong. Since he seems to be unwilling to question those assumptions, he is destined to be wrong about these things for a long, long time.

The second experience of mine that relates to this also comes from a blog article I wrote. In that article, I give a positive review of Dr. Douglas Axe’s latest book, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. A person who lists his name only as “Hrafn” (an Old Norse name that means “Raven”) thinks that Dr. Axe’s book is irrelevant. Interestingly enough, however, he hasn’t read the book.

Of course, the fact that he hasn’t read the book doesn’t seem to keep him from evaluating it. In fact, in at least two comments, he claims that the book is making an Argument from Ignorance. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. Axe’s book is based on experimentally-derived parameters that allow him to evaluate when a protein can evolve and when it can’t. There is no ignorance – just a hard, fact-based appraisal of when it is reasonable to look for answers other than those supplied by Neo-Darwinism.

Obviously, the irony is amazing. A person who is completely ignorant of what the book says actually claims that the book is making an Argument from Ignorance! Why? Because that is a common statement made in reference to the Intelligent Design movement, and he just assumes that the comment can be made in reference to Dr. Axe’s book, since Dr. Axe is a member of the intelligent design community. Once again, a faulty assumption leads him to an incorrect conclusion.

Now please understand what I am saying here. I am not saying that the person who thought I got my Ph.D. from a fundamentalist university is wrong about his belief in evolution. He could be right. I might be wrong on the origins issue. In the same way, Raven might not be wrong when it comes to his view on Intelligent Design. He might be right. The Intelligent Design community might be wrong.

However, both of them are certainly wrong on very specific points (where my Ph.D. comes from, the effects of a young-earth creationist education, and Dr. Axe making an Argument from Ignorance). Why? Because they are making faulty assumptions that they seem unwilling to question.

So at last we reach the teachable moment. We all make assumptions, and most likely some of those assumptions are wrong, which means they will lead us to false conclusions. Thus, we should be willing to question our assumptions. It’s a necessary part of striving for the truth!

23 Comments

  1. Becca says:

    Wonderful. Love that you have written this in to your science books as well. It is a great lesson to teach our kids…question everything!

  2. Jake says:

    I am always amused when you start listing the times you wrote about something in the past. So many “here”s!

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Hehe. I do write a lot of stuff!

  3. tsi says:

    thank you. I’m constantly barraged by wannabe PhD atheists who don’t even understand there a quite a difference between old-atheism, the logical (usually) discourse, and the modern ‘new’ atheism, which is shrill, rape your soul to own it, and far from logic. they live in a small, dark box of urban legend where only they are the intellect. Nietzsche said atheists would destroy atheism. Well, at least he got something right! Nietzsche is dead. God lives. God’s peace be on you in Christ, Amen!

  4. John D. says:

    As a Christian you have a right and duty to teach your children Biblical Creation. Consider yourself blessed if they make it through secular education still holding that belief – they will face ridicule & downright contempt.

    It’s ironic that the liberal education police are insisting that teaching anything besides the “current understanding” is akin to child abuse. If you consider past scientific folly & the current rapidly changing scientific climate, it seems best to teach children to take everything with a grain of salt.

    It’s also your responsibility to teach your children that scientists are guessing / extrapolating quite often. For instance – the makeup of our own planet. We are taught the crust, mantle, & core details as fact. But these are just educated guesses. We’ve only drilled down 7.5 miles… not even through the crust. Francis Birch, the father of modern geophysics even humorously warned us to question his ideas –

    “Unwary readers should take warning that ordinary language undergoes modification to a high-pressure form when applied to the interior of the Earth. A few examples of equivalents follow: Certain = Dubious, Undoubtedly = Perhaps, Unanswerable argument = Trivial objection, Pure Iron Core = Uncertain mixture of all the elements”

    Lastly, you should also teach your children that it is not beyond a scientist to outright lie. There are unholy motivators such as profit, position, reputation, political gain, etc.

  5. Bill McClymonds says:

    I watched a TED lecture recently. Actually I watched a number of different TED talks over a span of about a week so I don’t remember which talk it was. The person speaking talked about how much world views (or some similar term) influenced the way we interpret information. Each of us has a lot invested in the position we hold so we try to interpret new information within a framework that sheds the best possible light on the interpretation of that information within the framework of our belief system. We also tend to fight against believing any negative information that threatens our basic world view.

    It would be great if everyone could look at information and evaluate it from a neutral position, but that doesn’t seem to be the way most people function. I agree that we should question our assumptions but, if the lecturer is correct, people in general don’t seem to function that way.

  6. David H says:

    I had to laugh at your Facebook critic’s statement about creationism that “I cant think of a better way to sabotage a child’s future in a modern, scientific and technological society.”

    There is absolutely no connection between Evolutionary Biology and the technological progress of our modern society! Evolutionary Biologists had nothing to do with making airplanes fly or computers that fit in your pocket. They had nothing to do with the iPhone or the Internet, or sending probes to Mars and Jupiter, etc.

    It has been my privilege to work alongside some of the greatest minds in computer engineering as we developed the microprocessor technology that affects our lives every day. Many of my fellow engineers are religious believers of various backgrounds. Evolution never came up in our work, not once. Not in our education, not in our training, nor in our practice. My lack of belief in new-Darwinism has never hindered me these past couple of decades.

    Indeed, if we engineers relied on “evolutionary” techniques involving random searches through a complex solution space, you wouldn’t have any of our modern technology. That’s because a directed, intelligent search converges on a working design much faster. Everyone agrees technology has progressed rapidly in recent times, but evolution takes millions of years. Even if Darwinian evolution were a real thing, it would, according to evolutionary principles, die out and be replaced by intelligent design because intelligent design has proven itself to be so much more effective. 🙂

  7. Hrafn says:

    Jay-the-Nuclear-Chemist-a-Field-Completely-Unrelated-to-Evolutionary-Biology

    ARGUMENT FROM IGNORANCE?

    Still flogging this dead horse?

    1) Evolutionary Biologists have pointed out that Axe’s 2004 paper employs a methodology that is unrelated to evolutionary mechanisms (as does his 2000 paper).

    1a) This paper therefore provides NO BASIS for criticising evolution.

    2) Axe’s academic training, in Chemical Engineering is likewise unrelated to Evolutionary Biology.

    2a) His PhD (which you made much of in the last thread) likewise provides NO BASIS for criticising evolution.

    Whether this should be considered an argument from ignorance (Axe not understanding evolution, therefore thinking that it must work the way his paper works, therefore concluding evolution doesn’t work) or a strawman argument (simply misrepresenting how evolutionary biologists state it works) is an exercise in hair-splitting.

    As none of this reasoning required reading Axe’s book, I make no apology for not having done so. Very little that ID has done in the past decade has gone beyond reworking of old claims, so you generally don’t have to read the NEW book to criticise the OLD argument.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for your comment, Raven. I am not flogging a dead horse. I am simply helping people learn how important assumptions are to the conclusions one draws. Your comments make that quite apparent.

      1) I think you need to read Axe’s paper, since it is directly related to evolutionary mechanisms. In essence, his experiment estimates the probability that a random change to a protein will produce an equal or better tertiary structure when it comes to the protein’s function. This is precisely what happens in evolution: random mutations to DNA cause random changes in the protein.

      1a) Because it probes exactly what happens in evolution at the molecular level, it is precisely applicable to discussing evolution.

      2) Dr. Axe’s training is directly related to evolution, as he has studied the function of proteins, which are coded by genes. Thus, he understands evolution at the molecular level.

      2a) His Ph.D. thesis is directly related to evolution. Once again, you should probably read it. It was a kinetic study of RNA polymerase, which produces the primary RNA transcript. This, of course, is how the cell reads its DNA to determine how to make the proteins it needs to make. Since it is those proteins that are affected by the mutations that drive evolution, this work is directly related to evolution.

      2) Since his Ph.D. thesis is directly related to evolution, his Ph.D. gives him a strong basis for evaluating evolution. The fact that he approaches it from an engineering standpoint makes his research very realistic.

      I have told you this before, but it bears repeating, since you are still falsely claiming that Dr. Axe says that evolution doesn’t work. In fact, he understands exactly how evolution works, and he understands its limits. Thus, he doesn’t say that evolution doesn’t work. He discusses the limits of evolutionary mechanisms, which his experiments have helped to pin down.

      You can choose to read the book or not. That’s up to you. However, trying to argue against a book that you haven’t read is the textbook definition of an Argument from Ignorance.

      1. Hrafn says:

        Graphium Doson, my little butterfly:

        1) Whilst RNA (and more particularly DNA) are applicable to evolutionary biology, the kinetics of their synthesis is not. To the extent that Axe’s thesis lies within a ‘bio-field’ it would appear to be in the intersection between biophysics and molecular biology, well away from evolutionary biology (which intersects with molecular biology at the field of molecular evolution). So NO, his thesis is NOT “directly related to evolution”.

        2) The “function of proteins” is likewise in the field of molecular biology, not molecular evolution, let alone evolutionary biology. So again NO, his “training” is NOT “directly related to evolution”.

        3) Your bald assertion that his paper “is directly related to evolutionary mechanisms” appears to be without foundation, beyond your simplistic ASSUMPTION that anything-random=evolution.

        Unfortunately for Axe, his approach is neither the only, nor the most favored, approach to this question. One approach is called “mRNA display”, which has been employed numerous times, and yields results 50 orders of magnitude more favorable to evolution than Axe’s (and turn the purportedly-impossible into the very likely).

        4) Little butterfly, you can ‘repeatedly’ ‘tell’ me that Axe understands evolution until you are blue in the face — it remains an empty Argumentum ad Nauseam. Likewise any attempt on your part to claim authority on any scientific matter unrelated to “intermediate mass fragments during fission”, “neutron emission” and the like, are an Argument to False Authority. You have no more expertise on the subject of evolutionary biology than I do (or your plumber does).

        I can understand why you view Axe favorably. Like yourself, he had a brief scientific career before retreating into the coddling embrace of the Creationist echo chamber. I do not however see why anybody outside that echo chamber would value either his, or your, opinion over that of the scientific community.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Thanks for your reply, Corvus corax. Please allow me to correct all the errors found therein:

          1) As I have told you before, it helps to read something before you try to comment on it. As I tried to explain to you before, Dr. Axe’s thesis deals with RNA polymerase and how it reads the DNA so that the primary transcript can be made. It has nothing to do with the kinetics of RNA or DNA synthesis. Instead, it deals with the regulation and synthesis of bacterial proteins. This, of course, is directly related to evolution, because the mutations that drive evolution affect the regulation and synthesis of proteins.

          2) The function of proteins is directly related to evolution, as the mutations which drive evolution directly affect protein function.

          3) Your false assertion that Dr. Axe’s thesis has nothing to do with evolution is clearly not based on any understanding of his thesis. Once again, it seems to be an argument from ignorance.

          You seem to be really confused about mRNA display. Let me see if I can help you understand this process, because it actually gives a lot of support to Dr. Axe’s thesis. mRNA display works by creating proteins from various mRNA transcripts (which are constructed from various DNA sequences that typically come from large libraries) and binding each transcript to its protein. The proteins are then tested for their affinity to a particular target. The experimenter chooses the protein that binds best, and then uses its mRNA transcript to reverse engineer the DNA code that will generate it. This allows experimenters to start with a huge library of genes and then choose the gene that produces the best protein for the job. This technique is one of several techniques that are typically referred to as directed evolution techniques. In other words, you can end up producing a lot of good proteins when their evolution is directed. That’s the main thesis of Dr. Axe’s book. Unguided evolution can, at best, tinker with a protein that already works to some degree. Evolution that is being directed, which is what happens in mRNA display, has much wider success range. It has the possibility of coming up with a functional protein when there wasn’t one initially. Thanks for bringing up something that directly supports Dr. Axe’s main thesis!

          4) You can repeatedly tell me that Dr. Axe doesn’t understand evolution until you are blue in the face — it remains an empty Argumentum ad Nauseam. As is clear from his Ph.D. thesis, his peer-reviewed journal articles, and both of his books that he clearly understands evolution.

          I am not sure where you think I claim any “authority” when it comes to evolution. I certainly do not. The only thing I claimed authority on was determining whether or not someone is a scientist, since I am a scientist myself. Now, I do look at the data and think for myself instead of simply slavishly relying on the opinions of others. However, it takes no specific expertise to do that. Anyone who can read and think can do that.

          I would note that by your own admission, you are also not an authority on evolution. Nevertheless, you claim that you can evaluate Dr. Axe’s knowledge of evolution. Interesting…

          The reason I view Dr. Axe favorably is that he is a serious scientist who does excellent original research and follows his data where they lead, regardless of the fact that it results in scorn from those who are more interested in defending the current paradigm than in advancing our scientific knowledge. Science needs more scientists like him, and science is best served by those who think for themselves instead of slavishly relying on the opinions of others.

    2. John D. says:

      Funny, this comment reinforces a previous comment about how preconception totally plays a part in research. Rather than read the said paper which may rattle said held notion, the above commenter went straight to reading papers critical of that original paper – completely bypassing the original information! I suppose we all do this to some extent. I try and read everything I can understand – unfortunately that leaves quite a bit off the table! It’s funny how ultimately it does boil down to “faith”. You can literally research ANY subject up to a point to which you no longer understand. A friend of mine had a professor who spent a lifetime watching yeast – one strain of yeast. He still was boggled, perplexed, dumbfounded, and left with many questions. It makes me wonder if anything is ever really meant to be “solved”. Maybe our Creator never wanted “faith” to be taken off the table.

      1. Hrafn says:

        John D:

        May I take issue with your PRECONCEPTION and ASSUMPTION that an article of the primary literature, in isolation, will tell a lay reader anything meaningful at all.

        1) Will reading Axe’s article in isolation tell a lay reader whether Axe’s methodology provides an adequate model of evolution? NO IT WILL NOT.

        2) Will reading Axe’s article in isolation tell a lay reader whether alternate methodologies exist? NO IT WILL NOT.

        3) Will reading Axe’s article in isolation tell a lay reader whether these alternate methodologies agree with Axe’s results? NO IT WILL NOT.

        Scientific investigation is itself a largely Darwinian endevour — methodologies that are successful are replicated, reused and refined, those that aren’t successful are occasionally criticised, but then largely ignored (beyond the occasional citation by authors attempting to prove that they’ve read all the relevant literature). This informal process, in addition to formal per-publication peer review, is part of science’s self-correction mechanism. Lacking this context, a lay reader has really no way of knowing if a paper’s methodology and conclusions have won any scientific acceptance.

        1. John says:

          “methodologies that are successful are replicated, reused and refined, those that aren’t successful are occasionally criticized, but then largely ignored”

          I would agree with this to some extent, however institutions carry the burden of power which sometimes manifest as symptoms of corruption and blindness. This is not only true for the Ivory Tower and the peer review process but also for institutions of faith as well. I would highly recommend watching Longitude – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecrf8KhVcyo – It’s a great movie and a great example of the peer review process stifling innovation due to the disciplinary prejudices of the British Royal Astronomers. These stuff DOES happen today and most likely WILL happen eternally. It’s in our prideful nature.

  8. Anthea says:

    PS I have no idea about your shoe-shining skills, Dr Jay, but if you can get our children to enjoy science, then you must have something going for you!

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Hehe. Thanks, Anthea. Actually, my shoe-shining skills are quite terrible!

  9. Anthea says:

    Hello Dr Jay

    Your detractor wrote: “A mimeographed “PhD” from whatever fundamentalist “college” he sent his box tops to is not qualification to shine a real scientist’s shoes, let alone make claims about the natural world.” Three minutes on Google would have prevented him from making that vulgar personal attack. A lie, if repeated, is seldom revealed to be untrue because people are too lazy to check facts.

    He also wrote: “…any parents who buy into this complete fiction, and indoctrinate their kids in this manner, are guilty of emotional and mental child abuse, and in my opinion should be prosecuted.” Now, to quote Churchill, up with this I will not put. This must be firmly refuted. The origin of this unlovely New Atheist slur is somewhere around page 350 of Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’. (Yes, I read it. Those are 2 days I won’t get back.) When the book was published, NAPAC (a British association for survivors of child abuse) publicly condemned the trivialisation of a serious ordeal that has hurt many children.

    One might object to the way that others raise their children. One might find the choice of schooling or clothing or entertainment to be shallow or trivial or even wrong. But when the term “child abuse” is used, then a very serious line has been crossed, and anyone who uses this sort of personal attack can and must be given a good telling off. This is not as difficult as might be supposed. If atheists were given a firm ticking off each time, it would stop. Adopt the tone used when a child won’t eat his greens or go to bed, for the best “I-love-you-but-I-won’t-stand-for-any-nonsense” effect.

    All people are doing is repeating the cliche/pet phrase that was borrowed from Dawkins’ writings. They need to be challenged, so that they actually think about what they are typing/saying. To make it all the worse, Dawkins was subjected to child sexual abuse at his posh English private school. (I know, just when you think that you’ve reached an age when nothing can surprise you any more.)

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I do have to say that as the adoptive a father of an abused child, I am also offended by that kind of trivialization of a serious issue. It is amazing how little some people think before they write!

  10. Virginia Stark-Vance says:

    Let us remember that Charles Darwin was no scientist, at least, not by today’s standards. He flunked out of medical school and eventually graduated with a B.A. in preparation for the ministry. His reputation as a biologist came from studying barnacles. Yes, he is known today for his writings, but if he were trying to get published today, that B.A./ministerial training is going to get him laughed out of the room.

  11. cjl says:

    Dr Wile,
    I know I’m late to this discussion, but I just want to encourage you to keep communicating the truth as best you can. There are still reasonable thinkers out here, don’t feel alone!

  12. cjl says:

    You’re welcome!