Tuesday, March 7, 2023

#2624: John Byrd

John Byrd is a fundie creationist village idiot and sometime guest columnist for the Shreveport Times of Shreveport, Louisiana. Byrd does not like science. In particular, Byrd does not like how science doesn’t invoke God to explain natural phenomena. “By limiting scientific inquiry to ‘natural’ explanations for observed phenomena,” says Byrd, “what was considered good science often becomes ‘religion’.” Yeah, science was better before – and notice how he explicitly invokes ‘natural’ phenomena as a presupposition for science rather than (more accurately) the results of employing appropriate means for investigation and confirmation of hypotheses.*


Byrd’s primary target is, of course, evolution: the reason creationism isn’t taken seriously as an alternative is not because it contradicts the evidence and offers no explanation for anything but because people who conclude with the Bible rather than evolution are ostracized from the scientific community by fiat (it’s an interestingly post-modern, Edinburgh-school like view of science Byrd is espousing). He does struggle mightily with distinguishing science from religion, though; according to Byrd, “Darwinism is an atheistic theory that attributes all that we see to chance and natural causes,” and “[t]eaching Darwinism in biology class is tantamount to teaching Atheism 101.” (And no, he really doesn’t get evolution – in particular, he doesn’t get the point about evolution being precisely not a matter of random chance – and goes all in on Hoyle’s fallacy). And as for evidence? Not only does Byrd deny that it’s there, he even attempts to claim that the fossil record is evidence against evolution, mostly because he doesn’t bother to actually look.


Yes, it is, in particular, a disaster that creationism isn’t taught in public schools, especially when it is adopted by so many people Byrd finds admirable for their intellect; and make no mistake, “[i]f it weren’t taught in science classes, most of us would say it takes a complete fool to believe [evolution].” And then, because he is unable to distinguish a scientific theory supported by empirical investigation from a moral theory, he blames being taught the theory of evolution for kids today ostensibly being engaged in “immoral and directionless” behavior (they “wallow with the lascivious hogs”). Indeed, by not using public schools to evangelicize, “we have become a nation of fools.” (Yes, there is an irony there that Byrd couldn’t possibly appreciate.) Indeed, Byrd thinks that teaching science in science classes not only should be but is illegal.


In his letters and columns, Byrd has run more or less the full gamut of intelligent design creationist gambits, including invoking Stephen Meyer as an authority and standard creationist misunderstandings of information. (More or less all of his writings also feel the need to take the effort to point out that “One Nation Under God” is part of the US pledge of allegiance.) Then he quote mines Supreme Court judges.


Diagnosis: Yeah, a fairly typical specimen: He does not understand the theory of evolution, and he does not want to try to understand it, but he does have deep opinions about it nonetheless and will use all his efforts to try to flail against the strawman he has constructed. Given that he is, at least, able to formulate grammatical sentences, there is a bit to learn from his flailings for the rest of us.


*Yes, it’s that point again: the myth of “methodological naturalism”, the idea that scientific research relies on assuming certain metaphysical ideas (about causation, the nature of phenomena, and so on), and is, as such, prevented from discerning other possibilities. The idea is common among denialists and those who desperately want to shield their ideas from scientific inquiry, and it is utterly silly (how would one get any foray into quantum mechanics, or investigate (and refute) paranormal phenomena – which we do – if that were correct?). In reality, science is committed to basic empiricism, the idea that the source of confirmation of hypotheses (including, of course, hypotheses about unobservable phenomena) comes from the observations and patterns the hypotheses predict. And the current hypotheses about phenomena like the origin of life or the universe are accepted because they yield the most successful predictions and explanations of those observations. If you prefer to entertain a “non-natural” hypothesis – fine: What you have to do, then, is to show that it yields better predictions of observable patterns and data. That’s the bar. “non-natural” hypotheses aren’t barred; it’s just that, at present, none of the “non-natural” hypotheses some people like does a good job – or any job at all – in yielding good predictions of data, and certainly not at a level comparable to, say, evolution or the Big Bang. Science doesn’t need to rule out any type of explanation by fiat.

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