how the stuff of pseudoscience legend is made

September 21, 2009

Bad science and misinformation about complex scientific topics generally spreads in one of two ways. One is by popular internet memes which are so easy to debunk, taking them on is like bringing a small tactical nuke to a knife fight. The other method is much harder to deal with and it startes when an expert in a particular field with a successful track record and a gift for eloquence, sandwiches something borderline nonsensical in an otherwise a valid train of thought. Here’s an example from literary critic James Wood who decided to throw in this bit of pseudoscientific pontification in his work on the mechanisms of fictional storytelling…

It is amusing to watch evolutionary biology tie itself up in circularities when trying to answer the question, ‘why do humans spend so much time reading fiction when this yields no obvious evolutionary benefits?’ The answer tend either to be utilitarian — we read in order to find out about our fellow citizens, and this has a Darwinian utility — or circular: we read because fiction pushes certain ‘pleasure buttons.’

As Jerry Coyne points out in his reply to this statement, the question of why we read fiction hardly bothers the field of evolutionary biology night and day. If anything, this statement seems to be a simple case of an expert reaching into a subject he hasn’t really studied and speaking out his depth. Even a humble science writer can answer what he presents as a great dilemma. Humans read because the side-effect of the mutations which shaped our modern brains allowed us to create and interpret symbols as well as gave us an imagination. By reading fictional tales, we’re indulging our imaginations which doesn’t have to provide any kind of evolutionary benefit. Our oversized, over-clocked ape brains already do that.

Unfortunately there are areas of evolutionary research that focus on trying to give meaning to every cough and sneeze, searching for elaborate explanations of why certain eye colors evolved in their current distribution and shade, or why we invented such things as sexual positions. This approach is almost like intelligent design in its zeal, ignoring the random nature of certain evolutionary changes and frequently leading to little more than glorified navel gazing, both metaphorically and in at least one case, literally. In the rush of to get answers to obscure questions, evolutionary psychologists and philosophers tend to forget that “it just happened this way” is a perfectly acceptable answer as far as nature is concerned.

But don’t be surprised to see Wood’s erroneous sentiment in creationist literature sometime down the line as some supposedly definitive blow to the theory of evolution. He’s a public intellectual with a rich vocabulary and great skill when it comes to communication. And there’s nothing budding pseudo-scientists like more than a quote from very intelligent people to go with their talking points, even when the people in question clearly don’t understand the topic at hand but decide to sound off anyway. Unlike the urban myths e-mailed back and forth to no end, these eloquent quotes are very difficult to shake off and their falsely profound tone makes them an extremely catchy slogan to a myriad of devoted promoters of bad science and anti-scientific attitudes.

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  • Gene Callahan

    “Humans read because the side-effect of the mutations which shaped our modern brains allowed us to create and interpret symbols as well as gave us an imagination.”

    Well, that explains that then.