Wednesday, April 20, 2005

An Appeal to Authority.

Phil Skell, an emeritus Professor of Chemistry (and a National Academy member) from my university, decided to grace our weekly Evolutionary Genetics seminar today. For those of you unfamiliar with Skell, read what PZ Myers has to say about him. The talk was on a new method for determining orthologs for phylogenetic construction (don't worry if I just over-jargoned you, it's not all that important). The point is, the presenter was constructing evolutionary trees.

Dr. Skell's appearance was not new (he showed up nearly every week for an entire semester once), but he hasn't been coming by recently. He never used to ask questions -- he'd just sit attentively not giving any indication whether he disagreed with the material or not. Skell is an interesting character, in that he is not an ardent creationist, just a religious Christian who has issues with evolutionary biology (and it's never quite clear what those issues are).

At the end of the talk, Dr. Skell asked a vague question about reconstructing ancestral states. The grad student who was presenting answered the question correctly, saying that she does not study ancestral reconstruction, she is not the appropriate person to answer the question, but it is an active area of research.

Skell then shifted into "odd-ball mode" and began talking about a seminar he had seen by Nobel Laureate, Eli Wiesel. Wiesel spoke about finding lost religious documents, and that such information may be found in our DNA (either Wiesel knows nothing about genetics or Skell misrepresented Wiesel). He asked the speaker at today's seminar what she thought about this, and I can't remember her answer because I was focusing all of my attention on suppressing my laughter and frustration with Skell. I believe she gave the same answer as above (ancestral reconstruction is not her field) and paid far too much respect to the question than it rightfully deserved.

Skell's tangent from his tangent (the original question on ancestral reconstruction was off-topic to begin with) was the classic logical fallacy of appealing to authority. It is oftentimes used by those people ignorant of the topic they are discussing to make themselves appear knowledgeable by citing some respected source. Ironically, Skell's appeal made him look completely ignorant as Wiesel is not an authority on genetics (let alone evolutionary genetics). It would do right for those "scientists" who wish to criticize (or even comment on) evolutionary research to familiarize themselves with the material to the point where they can ask coherent questions and understand the major issues.


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