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Bad Science, Worse Philosophy: the Quackery and Logic-Chopping of David Foster's The Philosophical Scientists (2000)

 

1. Who is David Foster?

Richard Carrier

 

David Foster received his technical training at King's College London and has the degrees of M.Sc. and Ph.D, retiring in 1993 from a career as a scientific consultant. He has written at least seven books, and to my knowledge the most recent is The Philosophical Scientists (1985, now out of print, but a 1993 edition is available from Barnes & Noble Books, ISBN 0-88029-624-0), which Gert Korthof has ably critiqued on some of the finer points of biochemistry (Does Protein Specificity Destroy the Theory of Evolution?).

This book was drawn to my attention by a fellow net-surfer who stumbled upon my articles on the web. What did I think of Foster's book, he asked. I had not heard of it. But the description sounded familiar. Why? Because it incorporates a bit of creation science that I have bumped into time and time again, but could never trace to a source: the so-called 'improbability' of life evolving by chance, calculated to mathematical precision and garbed in the simplest scientific facts, 'irrefutable proof,' it was always said, that Darwin was wrong. "Where do you get those figures? How were they calculated?" I always asked. No one who cited them knew. I can hardly answer a claim when I do not know where it comes from or how it was arrived at.

Foster's book was the key. Not only does he do this math himself, showing exactly where this stuff comes from and how it is calculated, but he cites an earlier work which contains the very statistic that I had always heard but could never trace: the improbability of life evolving by chance calculated as:

1 in 1040,000

This impressive statistic was developed by two authors in a book I had often seen but never read. I had dismissed it as pure quackery, as wild and implausible science fiction masquerading as honest scientific speculation, with math to 'prove' it. The book is called Evolution From Space, written by Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe (Dent, 1981) [See Addenda B]. The book, I already knew, proposed that it was so improbable for life to evolve on Earth that it had to come from outer space. Of course, that DNA would develop somewhere else in deep space, billions of years earlier, and then float trillions of miles through a complete vacuum soaked with charged particles and gamma radiation, somehow defying the Hubble expansion effect, to accidentally fall on Earth, and then cause the development of life, is even more improbable than life simply evolving on Earth in the first place. It is not surprising that even Foster shies away from this ridiculous theory, but not as vehemently as one would expect (cf. pp. 171-2).

Even though I had now traced the source of a much-used claim that had vexed me for quite some time, I had also been asked to review Foster's book specifically. Willing to oblige, I read it, and was so astonished at the many and bizarre errors, as well as some astonishing gaps in basic scientific knowledge, that I was amazed that Foster's work could be accorded any respect at all. His statistical treatment of specificity in biochemistry is not entirely bad, but it is entirely misguided. So, as Korthof notes, it has its share of errors, though the attempt is commendable and has the merit of at least being tried. However, this one nice bit of work in Foster's book suffers from the fallacy of irrelevance. At no point does he logically connect this mathematical work with the process of natural selection, yet he claims to have shown a contradiction between them. Such a non sequitur is Foster's most common error.

The book gets progressively worse and more bizarre as you read it, until you end up with Foster claiming that God, who is the Void, produces matter by curving space, which is Pure Thought, and thereby uses the sun to transmit secret messages to the Earth, causing DNA to form and change spontaneously, through a series of metaphysical stages reminiscent of 4th-century neo-Platonic mysticism. Although there are a few scientific mistakes that are appalling, even more disappointing is the logic of Foster's arguments, and how his persistent logic-chopping refutes itself. What you read here may in fact be useful not just for addressing those who cite Foster, by name or anonymously, but by all those who attempt to make similar arguments. It may also be educational in itself, as Foster's fallacies make excellent textbook examples that would be quite useful in any logic or philosophy class.

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