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See Inside November 2010

The Skeptic's Skeptic

In the battle for ideas, scientists could learn from Christopher Hitchens



Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

Science values data and statistics and champions the virtues of evidence and experimentation. Those of us “viewing the world with a rational eye” (as the new descriptor for this column reads) also have another, underutilized tool at our disposal: rapier logic like that of Christopher Hitchens, a practiced logician trained in rhetoric. Hitchens—who is “leaving the party a bit earlier than I’d like” because of esophageal cancer, as he lamented to Charlie Rose in a recent PBS interview—has something deeply important to offer on how to think about unscientific claims. Although he has no formal training in science, I would pit Hitchens against any of the purveyors of pseudoscientific clap­trap because of his unique and enviable skill at peeling back the layers of an argument and cutting to its core.

We would all do well to observe and emulate his power to detect and dissect baloney through pure thought. To wit, after watching a quack medicine man fleecing India’s poor one Sunday afternoon, the belletrist scowled in a 2003 Slate column, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” The observation is worthy of elevation to a dictum.

Of course, as scientists we prefer to tether evidence, when it is available, to logical analysis in support of a claim or to proffer counterevidence that disputes a claim. A radiant example of Hitchens’s insightful thinking, coupled to the effective employment of counterevidence, is his reaction to an episode of the television series Planet Earth. As he watched, he had a revelation of creationism’s profound flaws. The episode was on life underground, during which Hitchens noticed that the blind salamander had “eyes” that “were denoted only by little concavities or indentations,” as he recounted in a 2008 Slate commentary. “Even as I was grasping the implications of this, the fine voice of Sir David Attenborough was telling me how many millions of years it had taken for these denizens of the underworld to lose the eyes they had once possessed.”

Creationists make a big deal about the eye, insisting that the gradual stepwise process of natural selection could not have sculpted such a complex instrument because of “irreducible complexity,” meaning that the removal of any part would render it useless. Even Charles Darwin fretted about the eye in On the Origin of Species: “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.”

If God created the eye, then how do creationists explain the blind salamander? “The most they can do is to intone that ‘the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,’” Hitchens mused. “Whereas the likelihood that the postocular blind­ness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to con­stitute a near certainty.” To confirm his instincts, Hitchens queried evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who agreed: “Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes? If he wanted to create blind salamanders, why not just create blind salamanders? Why give them dummy eyes that don’t work and that look as though they were inherited from sighted ancestors?”

Hitchens’s point is even deeper, however, when he applies the counterfactual argument of regression to the cosmos itself, noting that “there is a dialectical usefulness to considering the conventional arguments in reverse, as it were. For example, to the old theistic question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ we can now counterpose the findings of Professor Lawrence Krauss and others, about the foreseeable heat death of the universe.... So, the question can and must be rephrased: ‘Why will our brief ‘something’ so soon be replaced with nothing?’ It’s only once we shake our own innate belief in linear progression and consider the many recessions we have undergone and will undergo that we can grasp the gross stupidity of those who repose their faith in divine providence and godly design.”

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