Today we're going to crack open a bestselling book from a prominent author and read all sorts of pseudoscience. Gee, haven't heard that one before, have we? Sometimes it seems that the more popular a cultural phenomenon, the further away from true science it's likely to be. Today's target is a purveyor of claimed science that disputes the scientific consensus on the origin of species. And, in scientific circles, this author is a pretty easy target: Ann Coulter.
Obviously, Ann Coulter is best known as a political figure. She has a very clear, very well known political stance, and you can agree with it or disagree with it. Not what we talk about here. What I want to talk about is Ann Coulter's science, the information she presents in her best-selling books that purports to be factual and educational. In one of her recent books, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, she attacks evolutionary biology, but using only logical fallacies stemming from unfamiliarity with the scientific method to support her points; and urges a religious creation story to be taught in schools instead, even though creation and evolution are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Coulter's attacks on evolution center around the usual creationist arguments. Predictably, she hasn't come up with any original ones. She generally relies on these four:
That evolutionary biology is a godless religion with Darwin as a prophet
That evolution fails to explain things it has nothing to do with, like the origin of the universe
That predictable gaps in the fossil record invalidate all other evidence
That hoaxes such as Piltdown Man cast doubt upon legitimate evidence
I respect anyone who has a valid point and argues it intelligently, whether I agree with it or not. But too often, the points you hear trumpeted the loudest are argued only with logical fallacies, straw man arguments, explaining an unknown with another unknown, or just plain good old fashioned nonsense. Ann Coulter may well have numerous valid political arguments and can probably debate them most intelligently, but when she turns instead to science, all she finds in her bag of verbal ammunition is the latter — a cornucopia of unsupportable drivel. This is what happens when you choose to make your opinions about science dependent on your religious convictions.
We hear this when the Kansas Board of Education notes that in two separate places (I Kings 7:23-26 and II Chronicles 4:2), the Bible reports a circumference as three times a diameter; and so the board votes on officially redefining pi as exactly three point zero. This is the type of science Ann Coulter wants our future scientists and engineers to work with. When the courts, the media, schools and parents disagree with this flagrant attack on reason, Ann Coulter attacks them as godless enemies. [Note: Although the Kansas board has never actually voted on this, a few fringe Christian groups have continued to lobby school boards across the US to do so ever since the concept was first published as an April Fool's joke!]
A far more fascinating and useful lesson for our students would be Archimedes' exciting calculation of pi using a circle and hexagons, without the benefit of algebra, trigonometry, or even decimal notation, and he did it in 250 B.C. This was the type of human achievement that we should be proudly celebrating, understanding, and emulating. This was an example of true inspiration of the human spirit. But it wasn't in the Bible, so vilify it. Label it as blasphemous and tear it out of our textbooks. Pi equals three, and we'll hear no more about it, despite the fact that you can't find a single circle anywhere on the planet whose circumference can be measured as exactly thrice its diameter.
How does Ann Coulter, who's obviously very smart and knows what she's doing, justify her science? Does she really believe it, or is she another P.T. Barnum, saying whatever her fans will buy at the cash register? If it's the latter, fine, I can understand that. If it's the former, and she really believes what she espouses, something's wrong somewhere. Very wrong.
Finding evolutionary biology to be invalid as a science because it has nothing to do with the origin of the stars is a logical fallacy, and someone as smart as Ann Coulter should know that.
Finding evolutionary biology to be invalid as a science because some hoaxsters once tried to make money exhibiting a fake skeleton they built is a logical fallacy, and someone as smart as Ann Coulter should know that.
Finding evolutionary biology to be invalid as a science because some examples of one foundation of its evidence are buried under millions of years of rock and can't reasonably be expected to ever be found, despite the fact that other foundations of its evidence such as genetics, resistant bacteria, and observation are perfectly intact, is a logical fallacy, and someone as smart as Ann Coulter should know that. The crime lab doesn't throw out all the DNA evidence, blood stains, and the murder weapon just because many of the fingerprints were wiped clean.
Finding evolutionary biology to be invalid as a science because it's about speciation and not other subjects, like the origin of life, is a logical fallacy, and someone as smart as Ann Coulter should know that.
Finding evolutionary biology to be invalid as a science because we learn new information and incorporate it to improve our theory over time, like you're supposed to do with all theories, is a logical fallacy, and Ann Coulter should know that.
Finding evolutionary biology to be invalid as a science because you want to pretend that it's about worshipping Darwin rather than about studying and explaining speciation, or even to pretend that anything about the theory forbids you to think God intended it to happen this way, is just plain stupid and laughable and I'm really sorry for anyone who feels that antagonistic against our natural world and against the learning process.
One reviewer notes that Ann Coulter writes "with a keen appreciation for genuine science." But her "genuine science" seems to have no supported theory of its own, and instead consists merely of attacking mainstream science with a transparent collection of hoary devices such as ad hominem, special pleadings, observational selection, non-sequiturs, slippery slopes, and straw men.
Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, and it was generally correct in its fundamentals. But it was also massively incomplete compared to what we know now, and he was also wrong in many of his conjectures. This is to be expected of any pioneering work. Little or none of Darwin's specific theories of the mechanisms of natural selection survive in their original form. But Ann Coulter characterizes this treatment of Darwin as absolute devotion to a prophet which allows no challenges to the official religion. I wonder how she expects the rest of us to characterize her science.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Ann Coulter, Scientist." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
9 Oct 2007. Web.
8 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4069>
References & Further Reading
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
Gratzer, Walter. The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2000. 1-344.
Gross, L. "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology." PLoS Biology. 18 Apr. 2006, Volume 4, Number 5: e167.
Han, S., Mao, L., Gu, X., Zhu, Y., Ge, J., Ma, Y. "Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing." Social Neuroscience. 3 Jan. 2008, Volume 3, Issue 1: 1-15.
Harris, S, Kaplan, J.T., Curiel, A., Bookheimer, S.Y., Iacoboni, M., Cohen, M.S. "The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief." PLoS ONE. 1 Oct. 2009, Volume 4, Issue 10: e0007272.
Laverghetta, A., Stewart, J., Weinstein, L. "Anti-intellectualism and political ideology in a sample of undergraduate and graduate students." Psychological Reports. 1 Dec. 2007, Volume 101, Number 3: 1050-1056.
Miller, J.D., Scott, E.C., Okamoto, S. "Public acceptance of evolution." Science. 11 Aug. 2006, Volume 313, Number 5: 765-766.
Ruse, Michael. "Is Evolution a Secular Religion?" Science. 7 Mar. 2003, Volume 299, Number 5: 1523-1524.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "PUBLIC PRAISES SCIENCE; SCIENTISTS FAULT PUBLIC, MEDIA Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago." The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: Survey Reports. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 9 Jul. 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2009. <http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/528.pdf>