"Appeal to Authority"? A Reader Rightly Chides Me - Evolution News & Views

Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

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"Appeal to Authority"? A Reader Rightly Chides Me

Thoughtful reader James in New Jersey chides me -- rightly, I think, on consideration:

I typically enjoy reading ENV articles, but the one posted today, "An Occasion to Recall Philip Skell's Classic Deconstruction Job on Darwinian Overenthusiasm," had a bit at the end asking rhetorically whether we should believe the word of a Professor Emeritus at Penn State or a self-employed astronomer and blogger. While I completely agree with Skell's statement about how so many invoke Darwin as mere narrative gloss after discoveries that had nothing to do with Darwinian evolution, I am a bit concerned by what appears to my mind to be a mixture of both ad hominem and appeal to authority in your last sentence.

Sentences like the one just give the pro-Darwin side more ammunition to bash DI more than they already do. I hope you understand that this is a genuine concern from a daily reader and take such concerns into consideration in the future.

James is correct. What I should have said is not that Skell's superior academic status makes him right, but that his superior practical experience does so. The issue is whether Darwinian theory contributes in any practical way to medical and other research. Skell, in his classic article in The Scientist, cites his own experience and that of other scientists he spoke with.
Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming's discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin's theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions; improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin's theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.

What we have is a confrontation between wisdom gained from scientists' own work (Skell), and a bald assertion (by Phil Plait) that "Evolution is the basis for all modern biology," the truth of which Plait backs up by providing a hyperlink to a page on the National Center for Science Education website -- a Darwinist advocacy group, not a research organization.

So yes, the late Dr. Skell is by far the more credible source, but just not for the precise reason I initially indicated.