David Berlinski makes a pompous fool of himself again about science and evolution

April 30, 2018 • 9:15 am

I’m not sure how David Berlinski manages to make a living, but he does live in Paris, which ain’t cheap. Although he’s a Senior Fellow with the ID Creationist Discovery Institute, that can’t pay much, and his science books, including A Tour of the Calculus (1995), The Advent of the Algorithm (2000), Newton’s Gift (2000), and Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics (2005), can’t bring in that much dosh. (As Wikipedia notes, “Berlinski’s books have received mixed reviews.”) However, his 2009 book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions remains at #41 on Amazon, a remarkable spot, but explained of course by those believers hungry to find problems with atheism. And he’s also written fiction, including several detective novels, so perhaps that’s what keeps him in croissants and fancy suits.

Berlinski, as he does in this video, claims he’s a secular Jew, therefore making him the only creationist I know (or anti-evolutionist, if you want to be charitable) who isn’t religious. I’ll take him at his word, but one overweening trait, which simply exudes from this 30-minute interview on Fox News with Mark Levin, is pomposity.

If you want to see just the juicy bits, where he makes the most ridiculous pronouncements with his characteristic hauteur and insouciance, just watch the first 14 minutes. During that time he makes these points:

  • Atheism has replaced a “forbearing and tolerant agnosticism” that has led to derision of religion, which is 5,000 years old and deeply revered by many. (He apparently thinks this derision is a bad thing. But of course slavery was also practiced and justified for equally as long. Duration and acceptance do not mandate respect.)
  • Science has no answers to “The Big Questions” like “why is there something instead of nothing?” (the answer that “it was an accident” is fobbed off by Berlinski as “failing to meet people’s intellectual needs”, which of course is not an answer but a statement about confirmation bias); “where did the Universe come from?”; “how did life originate?”; “what are we doing here?”, “what is our purpose?”, and so on.

Apparently Berlinski doesn’t like “we don’t know” as an answer, but as a nonbeliever I’d like to know his answer! He has none; all he does is carp about science’s ignorance.

  • Berlinski apparently agrees with Levin that there’s no substantive evidence for anthropogenic global warming. Instead, he imputes the scientific consensus to the desire of scientists to get federal money.

The evolution bit begins at 9:40, and here Berlinski says these things:

  • Darwin’s view that species can change into other species is analogous to alchemy: a form of transformation for which there’s no evidence. He uses the stretching of the giraffe’s neck, a Lamarckian principle, as one that still characterizes Darwinism. That’s just wrong.
  • Darwinism is a “secular doctrine comparable to the Book of Genesis” and an “ideology”. Darwinism, he says, “is not a scientific theory but a collection of anecdotes.”

What ignorant statements to make! Anecdotes? Has he read my book? True, Darwinism can’t answer the question, “Why don’t cats rule the world?” or “Why aren’t women born with tails like cats?” (yes, he asks these questions to denigrate evolution), but just because we can’t answer why evolution did this and didn’t do that does NOT mean that there’s no evidence for evolution or natural selection. Just read my damn book, which is not a “series of anecdotes”. Evolution can predict things that have been found (intermediate forms existing at certain times; presence of mammalian fossils on Antarctica, dead genes in the genomes, etc.)

Here Berlinski, by saying that Darwinism is a “myth” that either makes up stories or can’t answer everything, simply misunderstands the nature of the field. Is evolution an “ideology”? No more than “quantum mechanics” or “organic chemistry” are ideologies.

After the 14 minutes, he goes on to denigrate atheism, evolution, and “the academy” for its antitheistic attitudes, and then takes a whack at progressivism.  He also claims that there’s a qualitative gap between human beings on one side and “the rest of the animal kingdom on the other.” In the end, his views of human exceptionalism and the supposed inadequacies of Darwinism leave me with the question, “What is Berlinski’s own explanation for the questions he raises?” If he says, “I don’t have one,” then why does he criticize scientists for saying, “I don’t know”? He argues that he’s an agnostic because he can’t prove that God does not exist, but yet I suspect that Berlinski wouldn’t be agnostic about Santa Claus, for which there’s equally little evidence. What even makes him think there’s the possibility of a God? The fact that there’s something instead of nothing? In that case his suspicion that there could be a God simply comes from questions that science hasn’t yet answered.

Finally, at 30:24, he lumps me in with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins as “windbags”. Well, so be it, but I maintain that I’ve expelled a lot less wind than Berlinski!

As a secular Jew, his schtick is to kvetch and kvetch, which, combined with his Buckley-ian imperious attitudes and mannerisms, are taken by ignoramuses as “wisdom.”

h/t: Dave

68 thoughts on “David Berlinski makes a pompous fool of himself again about science and evolution

  1. Apparently Berlinski doesn’t like “we don’t know” as an answer …

    “Tolerant agnosticism” only goes so far, I guess. Also seems odd for one who claims the fossil record is “vexed.”

      1. “I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

      2. And it should be everybody’s favorite answer about many things. For most of our history we in fact did not know about much of anything regarding the nature of the universe and our history and place in it.

      3. “Science is questions which may never be answered. Religion is answers which may never be questioned.”

        But science asymptotically patches up its deficiencies in explaining life, the universe, and everything, thus driving religionists into a progressively more constrictive “god of the gaps” pseudo-explanatory corner.

        1. I am not a scientist, but the way I see it – the more science advances the more ‘gaps’ seem to appear. We know a lot more about the cell (or the universe), its intricacies and wonders, and this for me (and others) raises more questions instead supplying more answers.

          So I never understood how science ‘closes the gaps,’ as it seems to open more as it progresses!? 🙂

          1. Progress in science often produces yet more questions but there’s a sense in which the new questions are smaller than the ones that get answered. A couple of centuries ago, we didn’t know anything about where species came from. The questions that come after are about the details of how specific species arose. Thirty or forty years ago we didn’t know there were planets outside our own solar system. Now the question is to find the nearest earth-like planet.

  2. He’s much the most sophisticated of these types though. One example. He points out that mathematical physics has existence and uniqueness proofs, such as the nexus between the inverse square law and elliptical orbits. Biology has no such result. It sounds impressive. But so what? History has no such results. Solid state physics has no such results. Linguistics has no such results. In fact only parts of mathematics and physics do. But to those unversed in math and science it sounds good, and unlike the claims many of his ilk, it’s actually true.

    Mixed reviews don’t mean poor sales. I think he sells a lot. My library has several of his books.

    1. That was … specious. The usual plaint is that biology has no laws, which is wrong, there are population genetic laws such as Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and Hamilton’s rule.

      Okay, so I have not seen it done and I have little time to search or attempt. (Huge student holiday here.) But a HW equilibrium must exist and is unique – since crossings will get you there – as far as I can see.

  3. Many of the gentleman’s faux-learned attitudes would be improved were he to read “God: The Failed Hypothesis” which points out that we do know why there is something rather than nothing and that we can explain why the hypothesis of a god is not needed anywhere. The universe is not fine-tuned as their own claims refute (The universe is designed for intelligent life … but we are the only intelligent life in it … wtf?)

    These effing apologists keep bringing out hoary old arguments, zombie arguments that died a long time ago, but they keep claiming “They live, they live!” a la Dr. Frankenstein.

  4. “Duration and acceptance do not mandate respect.” Well said.

    Berlinski likes to sound as if he is using sharp tools of intellect. It’s like someone asked him to build an iPhone equipped only with papyrus and palm leafs.

    I think I can summarize his position: unanswered question = God. Done.

  5. I have to ask – Is this what happens to highly educated folks who never find anything to do? Where else would he be employed than by something like the Discovery Institute? Covered up in Pompous criticism of things he does not understand with no known answer himself.

    1. As much as they distrust evolutionists on very basic principles, they certainly shouldn’t trust any of that complex gobbledy- gook about gene therapy. Crispr -,cas9, ,,bom bom bom.

  6. I think he’s channeling William F. Buckley, Jr. It passed through my mind when I heard him say “chim-pan-zees.”

    1. I just noticed the Buckley reference in the main post. I apologize for not noting it before, but it also makes me feel vindicated.

      1. I first came across Berlinski thirty-some years ago during a “Firing Line” debate where he, Buckley, Behe, and Philip Johnson were matched against Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse, Barry Lynn, and Ken Miller, with Michael Kinsley moderating.

        I dunno, I kinda got a kick outta Buckley — one of my guilty pleasures, I suppose. 🙂

        1. He was always ( except maybe with Vidal) interested in the other side’s arguments, and had a wicked sense of humor. How the conservative talking heads have declined. Now we have Mark Levin …

          1. Buckley was always prepared, and he’d have pretty much anybody — from Eldridge Cleaver to Noam Chomsky to Clare Boothe Luce — on his show and let them have their say. Plus, it was an hour of commercial-free tv (at least when I used to watch it as a teenager on PBS).

            I saw an excellent documentary about the Buckley-Vidal feud a while back, Best of Enemies.

            1. Yes, an interesting and well-done documentary. I was very fond of Buckley and felt no guilt about it whatsoever. I loved the way he would totally demolish someone’s argument and then flash that boyish smile of his, as if to say “You’re toast, but never mind–it’s all in good fun, eh?”

        2. Buckley certainly had his charm. I used to read National Review to “get the other side” but gave up when they hired the noxious John Simon as a film critic and started in on Florence King’s column “The Misanthrope’s Corner”.

          Buckley was always more annoyed by near left publications than far left ones. Of Catholic political publications, he was far more upset with the somewhat liberal “America” than the far left “Commonweal” and among secular publications he was more annoyed by “New Republic” than “The Nation”.

          He had an ego but was also even-tempered.

  7. I get the definition of “kvetch” in context….is there a more specific definition that fits this style of “pontificating”?

  8. “Pompous” and “foolish” is a niche in the entertainment world. Once someone occupies that space newcomers find it difficult to gain entry. Even if they want to.

  9. “Why aren’t women born with tails like cats?”

    That’s the only good question he asks. Give furries enough time to evolve and maybe that will change.

    1. [Paws furr thought/] I smell a rat though. The generic idea is like asking geology why the rocks in a land slide fell as they did.

    2. Actually, humans have the genes for making tails which are almost always inoperative. Very occasionally, a human is born with a tail.

      1. You beat me to it. I recently saw some pictures on the internet of a person with a tail, a female with a horn on her forehead, a child with six digits on each hand (can’t remember about the feet), a male with four legs, etc.
        Unusual conformations happen in human beings but, fortunately, not a huge number are so afflicted.

        My brother and I once discussed the possibility of humans having tails (like monkeys, not cats) and thought of many rather funny advantages including sweethearts walking down the street tail in tail.

        We are fortunate if/when our genes give us anomalies that aren’t visible, or that can be corrected.

  10. I am curious, what context would allow a news channel to show Berlinski spouting anti-science, apparently without much feedback? As “Watch out, here are some ideas we know are wrong”?

  11. Couldn’t agree more with your appraisal of Berlinski!

    The stream of bad arguments he produces with that weary, imperious tone is just so bad for my digestion.

  12. On the point that he makes about “Atheism has replaced a ‘forbearing and tolerant agnosticism,'” it’s actually worse than you describe, I think!

    He seems to be bemoaning the fact that now most scientists are atheistic and don’t pay attention to religion. His implication seems to be that because of this, their explanations will be lacking. This is in contrast to the actual explanation: religion isn’t useful in describing the world!

  13. Why is there something instead of nothing? Because if there was nothing we couldn’t ask the question.

  14. “The Sensuous Curmudgeon” posted the Discovery Institute’s 2016 Federal tax return in his blog on April 20. According to that, the DI paid Berlinski $125000 as a consultant in 2016. So there’s a tidy chunk of income.

  15. I’ve always been intrigued by Berlinski. I think he has mentioned somewhere that early in his career he turned down a professorship at a prestigious university( Stanford?) I can only guess that he thought he was destined for bigger and better things such as public intellectual, but after several decades of going nowhere ( his daughter is more noteworthy than he is with a single article on the metoo movement), he panicked and threw in with the Discovery Institute. Since his first article in Commentary I’ve suspected that his heart isn’t quite in it, and have heard hearsay on the internet which confirms this.

    When I have a moments repose I’ll try to read on of his books( Calc or Alg) I think the same anachronistic phrases, faulty metaphors and stuffy pompousness we all find so irritating when he attacks science and evolution may be charming and endearing when used in the service of explaining a topic he has some expertise in.

    1. I think you might enjoy reading his kind-of sort-of memoir of his graduate student career, Black Mischief, which was published in 1986. Although I agree with all of the criticisms of his intellectual poses & also of his debating style, I have found his writing to be interesting & diverting at times.

  16. I first ran into Berlinski when posting some videos on Evolutionary mathematics on YouTube …noticing his “mathematical arguments against evolution” which are placed there (principally by the Discovery Institute). The flaws in the mathematics itself even exceeds the incorrectness of his basic premises. It is impossible for a trained mathematician to make such blatant errors. He presents these arguments in the guise of an “expert” -to an uneducated and credulous public who desperately wants to disbelieve Evolution. Why does Berlinski do this? The only explanation is is that he does it for the money- he has whored himself out to the Discovery Institute. Jerry believes the wages in all of this are poor – I beg to differ. I did a little digging into the matter. Over five years ago a D.I. Senior Fellows such as Berlinski received around $50K+ a year. I assume that todays benefits well exceed that figure. Berlinski is no fool – and how he justifies his prostituting himself in this way I cannot imagine.

      1. Poor Berlinski. A tenth rate mathematician and a total failure in achieving the status he feels due to himself in academia, and yet such a colossal ego. What psychological release possibly exists for such an egotist, and yet such a personal failure? It is in acting the contrarian, or more accurately described by the Yiddish term- the schmuck. The schmuck – the deliberate troublemaker, trickster and provocative showoff.
        How much it must please Berlinski not only to be the schmuck, but to be PAID to be the schmuck. And what an act he puts on for the credulous fools who want to see science, and particularly Evolution, taken down- who are afraid of what it tells them. For this he plays the role of the brilliant disdainful urbane genius pouring scorn on lesser scientific voices. How it plays to Berlinski’s ego – and to his bank account.

  17. Sometimes anecdotal evidence can be tested and assessed for reliability, and corroborated by supplemental evidence. If you can create a tightly woven web of such evidence from independent sources, than anecdotal evidence is just fine, thanks.

    Disbelief in global warming so frequently comes from people who have a social status to maintain. A great deal of research on it is conducted outside the United States, including one body convened by the United Nations. Early warnings of warming came from European scientists.

    The opening of this show looks an awful lot like the opening of the Colbert Report.

    At least DB doesn’t have Buckley’s affected faux English accent.

  18. Levin is just as bad with his idiocies: “A man asking why his days are short… is not disposed to go to algebraic quantum field theory for the answer”. Indeed not, one would be foolish to do that, but he might go to, say, George C. Williams. The latter gave us a pretty good idea as to why our ‘days are short’.
    Or: “We have a [climate change] community that can’t tell us the temperature within a week.. within 10 degrees”, first of all they (or at least meteorologists) generally can, and pretty well at that in general, but more importantly, the observed trends over longer periods, decades have little to do with daily or weekly forecasts. The pretty narrow margins they give are about average temperatures. Absolutely asinine if they would believe it, but I think it is a deliberate obfuscation.
    Darwin did not really address the “How did life emerge from inorganic matter” another misguided trope..
    The difference between humans and chimps is greater than that between a Chimp and a flower? One does not have to read Frans de Waal of Jane Goodall to know that is profound crap.
    And that on top of all the nonsense Jerry pointed out
    I quit at 18 minutes, it is really too idiotic, wrongheaded and willfully ignorant. Every half minute I want to interject NO! You are telling nonsense! Not correct! And this is why.
    A kind of Gish gallop of inanities.
    I could not bear to see it till the end, but calling Sam Harris, our host or Richard Dawkins “windbags” is a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘projection’ ie. finding, (projecting), your own failings in (onto) others.

    1. “…can’t tell us the temperature within a week within 10 degrees “.

      Did they seriously present that as an argument. It may be difficult to predict next weeks weather (especially if you live in the U.K.) but any nine year old child can successfully and accurately predict that it will be colder in the winter than the summer or that you’d better pack warm clothing if you’re travelling to Iceland and cool clothing if you are heading to Florida! Don’t those guys know the difference between climate and weather?

    2. I was watching this on TV and had to change it; what a disgrace.
      Also, he erroneously claimed that chimpanzees have never answered questions. I have seen videos of chimps, and other great apes, answering questions using sign language. There is at least one great ape, Kanzi, a Bonobo, who can answer using the lexigram. Also, chimps already have invented their own sign language, albeit a primitive and very general one. I have this documentary on DVR,if anyone is interested in the name of it.

  19. The nitwit interviewing Berlinski, Mark Levin, is a piece of work himself. He keeps clumsily trying to push the conversation into his own universal theory—that Darwinism leads right to Communism. Levin’s high point in social service was as a young chief-of-staff for Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general. And Mr. Meese is himself now another Fellow of the Discovery Institute.

  20. I read Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion on the recommendation of someone I know. It was horrible. It was nothing more than a rant that stuck mostly to the ID mantra of “I don’t know so God.” His hubris is mind-boggling. The real theme of the book is “I’m smarter than you will ever hope to be and you are wrong. That’s all you need to know.”

  21. Just wanted to add that in Israel, “Secular Jew” refers to not following rules of food and Shabbat.
    You can be secular and still believe in God. Many people do.

  22. Comparing evolution to organic chemistry is at best ignorant, and at worst intentionally misleading. The doubts surrounding much of the evolution narrative is the lack of experimental data, with the key word being “experimental!!!”. In organic chemistry you can intentionally manipulate your system to create a data set from which a hypothesis can be refined. Looking at previously collected data and saying you have proven a hypothesis is simply bad science. Unless you can deliberately alter an experimental system to both produce the results you expect and to produce a failing outcome, don’t say you’ve proven anything.

  23. If religious believers did not feel that the theory of evolution contradicted their religious beliefs, they would accept evolution as willingly as they accept the theory of gravity or electromagnetism. It’s all about the religion, folks. That is all there is.

  24. Mark Levin is a very learned and intelligent person … when it comes to law, the constitution and U.S. history. When he ventures beyond the scope of those topics, he is an ignorant ass. Well, at least he did admit at the beginning of his interview with David Berlinkski, that he understood virtually nothing about science and mathematics. Yes, that is painfully obvious. Otherwise he would never have interviewed David Berlinksi.

  25. It is the theory of evolution, not Darwinism.

    The only people who use the term Darwinism are those who don’t accept the theory of evolution and want to make it seem as if it were just one person’s arrogant supposition about how things work. It’s funny that they don’t call the theory of heliocentrism Copernicanism, the theory of gravity Newtonism, or the theory of electromagnetism Maxwellism. And yet they call the theory of evolution Darwinism.

    Maybe these evolution haters want the theory of evolution to sound as if it’s just another half-baked social or economic theory. Darwinism, Marxism, Liberalism, Socialism, Fascism. If they all sound alike, they must be connected, right? This is an example of sophomoric and fallacious thinking.

    1. I would be ok dropping “theory” and just going with “evolution” unless it is being discussed in a context where that distinction is relevant. It works for “gravity” after all!

  26. I am a conservative. I watch Fox News. But I also a critical thinker, an atheist and a skeptic. Was there no one at Fox News intelligent enough to advise against an interview with David Berlinski? If anyone did object, their advice should not have been ignored. Intelligent design = creationism. Creationism is a religious presupposition. It should not be taken seriously in any conversation that is supposedly about science. Berlinski and Levin are both light weights in the fields of science and philosophy.

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