Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Five

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August 16, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Five

Science, as I have been insisting in this series of blog posts, is a consensus enterprise. Generally accepted scientific ideas are those that have achieved a wide currency by successfully persuading everyone that they are very likely true. Such persuasion takes several forms:

  1. Peer review assures that the most knowledgeable experts will have had a look at the ideas before they were published.

  2. Repeatability assures that other researchers, with slightly—or even significantly—different setups can duplicate the ideas. If your magical, new, I-could-win-a-Nobel-Prize, particle doesn’t show up when the physicists in Moscow duplicate your experiment, then too bad for your new particle and your Nobel Prize.

  3. The vast network of interlocking ideas already in place provides a powerful collective intuition about what sorts of new ideas are most unusual and in need of careful inspection.

Ideas championed by small bands of isolated outsiders should be viewed with suspicion and challenged with a very reasonable question: If these ideas are so compelling, how come so few really knowledgeable scientists accept them? And why are their champions outside the scientific community?

The response to these questions takes one of two forms: If you agree with the ideas being proposed by the outsiders, then you accuse the scientific community of willful ignorance and irrational stubbornness. You cherry-pick history for few examples where scientists were too dismissive of new ideas, or too confident in current ones, or too gullible in the acceptance of things they wished were true. You then present those examples—Piltdown Man, peppered moths, the Miller-Urey experiment—as if they were typical examples of how unreliable the “assured results of modern science” really are. If you disagree with the ideas being posed by the outsiders then you simply note that these ideas come from outside the scientific community and assume that, if they had any merit, they would be inside the community already. After all, science has a wonderful track record of success. Every time you power up your computer, almost all of the physics of the 20th century is stunningly confirmed.

A common strategy employed by outsiders who don’t understand how science works is to highlight how many times the scientific community has had to abandon “assured results of modern science,” as Al Mohler so dismissively labeled scientific consensus in his infamous address on why we need to believe the earth is 10,000 years old. The implication is that, if you wait long enough, the “assured results” of today will also collapse like the “assured results” of yesterday, making room for the ideas that you like better.

If we are perfectly honest, we have to admit that there is truth to this. During every major, and even minor, transition in science there are people who hold to traditional views; there are egregious examples of tenacious, seemingly irrational, loyalty to the status quo. The most famous example would be Albert Einstein, who went to his grave insisting that “God does not play dice with the universe,” when, as we now know, almost every physicist on the planet had been dragged unwillingly by the evidence for quantum mechanics to the unsavory conclusion that God does play dice with the universe. And there are countless other examples. Lord Kelvin wouldn’t accept the emerging evidence for an ancient earth at the end of the 19th century. Galileo wouldn’t accept Kepler’s calculations that showed that the planetary orbits were elliptical, rather than circular. Fred Hoyle wouldn’t accept the evidence for the Big Bang and developed a whole other theory to oppose it, one that seemed less “supernatural.”

There is no simple way, of course, to know when an idea is past its prime and in need of discarding. Such ideas do not start to get mold around the edges like cheese past its prime. We have been told for decades by anti-evolutionists from William Jennings Bryan, to Henry Morris and Ken Ham, to the senior fellows at the Discovery Institute, that evolution is past its prime and needs to be discarded. William Dembski, in his review of Saving Darwin, scolded me for being “loathe to admit that Darwin is passé.” I was wasting my time trying to save poor Darwin, whose coffin was finally ready to be lowered into the ground.

Ideas do have to be discarded from time to time. So how can we tell if evolution is such an idea, now past its prime, and living only on the tenacious life-support it receives from die-hard true believers? Here are some general indications that evolution has been misdiagnosed as terminal by the anti-evolutionists:

  1. The “disagreements” within evolutionary biology are signs of health, not illness. They occur between people who share a significant conviction that evolution is true in general and they are arguing about the particulars. Probably the most famous such debate of the past half-century was Stephen Jay Gould’s endorsement of “punctuated equilibrium” over the more traditional “gradualism” of most other theorists, like Richard Dawkins. This debate was offered as evidence that there was serious dissent with the scientific community about evolution—a preposterous conclusion. This debate was not about evolution at all; it was about the rate at which evolution occurs. Gould thought that evolution sped up and slowed down to a much greater degree than many of his peers. This is no more a debate about evolution than Mohler’s disagreement with BioLogos about how to read Genesis is part of a debate about the existence of God. The lesson here is to be careful to distinguish between a minor debate over a detail, and a major debate over a theory.

  2. If the explanatory territory of a theory is growing, the theory is in great shape. And we know from the explosive mapping of genomes, and other developments that more and more territory is coming under the explanatory umbrella of evolution. This evidence mounts daily.

  3. When theories get shaky, senior scientists with established reputations will step forward and articulate the concerns. This is a “statesmanlike” role that leaders in the scientific community take seriously. In the late 1980s there were some unresolved issues with the Big Bang theory and a leading cosmologist wrote an editorial in Scientific American calling attention to the issue and warning that if new data did not rescue the theory, it could collapse. Fortunately, the new data showed up on cue and the Big Bang survived. If there were wholesale problems with evolution, there would be senior evolutionists stepping forward and highlighting the problem. And they are not.

In the final analysis, there is no simple way, at a moment in time, to evaluate the exact strength and staying power of a theory. But there are ways to evaluate the claims that a theory is collapsing and none of the claims that evolution is collapsing can withstand that scrutiny.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Charlie - #25743

August 16th 2010

Nice support for why the theory of evolution is strong and will not erode away.  What about support for Christianity?  Why will its explanations for question like how did life begin not erode away?  Like genome sequencing for evolution, can anyone think of evidence mounting for Christianity?  Also, do Christians also put their beliefs on the chopping block when its explanations get “shaky” (i.e. conflict with scientifically supported theories)?


beaglelady - #25747

August 16th 2010

Charlie,

Christianity is not a scientific theory.  Science cannot tell us about God, miracles, purpose, etc.  I think that science can tell us whether certain passages of scripture can be taken literally.


Jimpithecus - #25749

August 16th 2010

“A common strategy employed by outsiders who don’t understand how science works is to highlight how many times the scientific community has had to abandon “assured results of modern science,” as Al Mohler so dismissively labeled scientific consensus in his infamous address on why we need to believe the earth is 10,000 years old. “

This is becoming not just a young earth creationist ploy.  It is being used increasingly by the PR wing of the Discovery Institute and also on related blogs such as “Uncommon Descent.”


nedbrek - #25751

August 16th 2010

Charlie, the proper comparison is not evolution vs. Christianity.  Christianity provides a way of looking at the world (which not all Christians take advantage of).

Without Christianity, you have no reason to be reasonable.


Bilbo - #25754

August 16th 2010

Hi Karl,

Unfortunately, you did not define “evolution.”  If you mean common descent, then Behe, at least (though not most of the other leaders of the ID movement),  not only accepts it, but even argues for it.  If you mean that the main mechanism is random mutation, then not only the ID movement but Lynn Margulis deny it.  In fact, she claims that neo-Darwinism is dead.  Mike Gene, though he accepts neo-Darwinism, does so because he thinks evolution was front-loaded, making the success of Darwinian mechanisms more likely.

But aside from the question of evolution, there is the question of the origin of life.  Robert Shapiro and Leslie Orgel both ruled out RNA as the initial genetic material.  And recent papers have ruled out self-organization theories.  In effect, this leaves origin of life researchers with nothing to explain the origin of what is obviously advanced nano-technology.

The problem with modern science is that it refuses to allow teleological explanations.  As long as it does it will be spinning its wheels on the origin of life problem.  I don’t mind being told I’m not scientific.  But I resent being told that I am irrational, which is what you are implying.


matt - #25755

August 16th 2010

I don’t agree with the reasoning in this article. I think it is important for people to think for themselves. It seems like there is a fear in society about being wrong, and being called ignorant - and I think this fear is a bad thing. I’ve met several people who feel uneasy with the idea of relativity, and I think that is an okay thing. I think there is something to the theory, but people shouldn’t accept it just because scientists say so.

I think science ought not to be a consensus enterprise.


Bilbo - #25756

August 16th 2010

Further, Karl, every single member of Biologos has theological objections to ID.  So get off your high horse and quit pretending that all you want to do is defend science.  That’s dishonesty.


Arthur Hunt - #25757

August 16th 2010

Bilbo,

I’m pretty sure you are not understanding Shapiro or Orgel.


Bilbo - #25759

August 16th 2010

Yes I am understanding them, Art.  Shapiro thinks and Orgel thought that the RNA world was an intermediate state between the initial form of life and its present form.  Both rejected it as the initial form.  Shapiro thinks a metabolism first (self-organization) model is more likely.  Orgel thought some other genetic material was first.


Trey - #25762

August 16th 2010

@Matt
“It seems like there is a fear in society about being wrong, and being called ignorant “
I disagree. Science is an elitist system, where the most educated and experienced get the most say-so, and people don’t like elite systems. There is a general mistrust of politics and science because so many people feel excluded from them, and a tendency to reject their elite consensuses for personal theories.

“...but people shouldn’t accept it just because scientists say so.”
There’s nothing wrong with forming your own opinion and rejecting science, you are free to do so. But when you do, you are not doing science, and you are not getting closer to the truth. Truth will always be in the possession of those who have spent time and energy seeking it, and will therefore always be somewhat specialized. You cannot democratize truth.
Trey


Bilbo - #25765

August 16th 2010

Hi Trey,

Modern science categorically rejects teleological or supernatural explanations, not because they know those explanations are not true, but because they don’t fit into a test tube.  So if teleological or supernatural explanaions are true, science will never be able to find that out, no matter how long they look.


beaglelady - #25768

August 16th 2010

Modern science categorically rejects teleological or supernatural explanations, not because they know those explanations are not true, but because they don’t fit into a test tube.  So if teleological or supernatural explanaions are true, science will never be able to find that out, no matter how long they look.

Scientists also assume the natural world is comprehensible.  If God is messing with our minds and creating false memories neither the faithful nor the faithless would know about it.


Mike Gene - #25770

August 16th 2010

Karl:

Probably the most famous such debate of the past half-century was Stephen Jay Gould’s endorsement of “punctuated equilibrium” over the more traditional “gradualism” of most other theorists, like Richard Dawkins. This debate was offered as evidence that there was serious dissent with the scientific community about evolution—a preposterous conclusion. This debate was not about evolution at all; it was about the rate at which evolution occurs. Gould thought that evolution sped up and slowed down to a much greater degree than many of his peers.

True.  Unfortunately, in their quest to frame this as a problem about evolution, the creationists have drawn attention away from the real issue.  As I explained before, the traditional interpretation of “gradualism” has always been the strongest expression of the non-teleological viewpoint.  Evolution that “speeds up and slows down” can be fitted more easily into a perspective of evolution being under some form of control.  From a physiological viewpoint, it sounds like sympathetic vs. parasympathetic evolution.


Mike Gene - #25772

August 16th 2010

Karl:

When theories get shaky, senior scientists with established reputations will step forward and articulate the concerns. This is a “statesmanlike” role that leaders in the scientific community take seriously.

When it comes to the Modern Synthesis, Carl Woese (who certainly qualifies as a senior scientist with an established reputation) has already taken on this role.  I briefly highlighted that here.


beaglelady - #25773

August 16th 2010

There’s nothing wrong with forming your own opinion and rejecting science, you are free to do so.

Not exactly in practice. You are not free to deny your children medical care.  If your child has epilepsy you can’t refuse medical treatment and instead find a practitioner of voodoo or exorcism.


Gregory - #25775

August 16th 2010

Hi Bilbo,

Not sure how many times it needs to be repeated before you´ll accept the point.

You wrote:
“The problem with modern science is that it refuses to allow teleological explanations.”

So, let me remind you again. Teleological explanations *ARE* already present in ´modern/contemporary´ human-social sciences.

Can I please ask you to confirm if you understand this or not?

Thanks,
Gregory


conrad - #25779

August 16th 2010

I come from the same town as William Jennings Bryan so I defend him sometimes.

He did not say evolution was bunk he just said the Bible was more important in shaping a decent world.

  The Darwinians of that era were moving toward Frederich Neitsche in anticipating a superman and discarding all sympathy for the “unfit”.
Bryan saw this as an approaching danger AND IT WAS.
THE SCOPES TRIAL WAS IN 1924 AND HITLER TOOK OVER GERMANY IN 1932.
BRYAN’S VISION WAS NOT FAULTY.

Darwinian evolution and eugenics were very much in bed with each other in 1924.

Clarence Darrow the lawyer who ostensibly made a fool of Bryan in the trial, had just finished the Loeb-Leopold trial in Chicago where his clients were spared the death penalty by his closing argument BLAMING “TOO MUCH EDUCATION” IN DARWIN AND NIETSCHE AS THE CAUSE FOR THEIR HEARTLESS KILLING OF LITTLE BOBBY FRANKS.

Bryan was not allowed to give his closing speech. [Darrow arose and changed his client’s plea to guilty just as Bryan was about to speak.]

So the great debate never happened.
I have a copy of the speech Bryan was planning to make,[purchased through a rare book dealer.]

It was totally reasonable. 86 years of spin does not change the words.
They are great!


David Thayer - #25783

August 16th 2010

Genesis 1, Genesis 1, Genesis 1…...............turn the page, please! If you have proven the argument, evolution or creation, creation or evolution, why does the battle still rage?  Spend some of your intelectual poweress on something you can maybe handle, like say perhaps a cure for a disease. (Maybe the common cold.) By the way, how are we coming with that?


GodsOwnDNA - #25786

August 16th 2010

Bilbo

You say, “Modern science categorically rejects teleological or supernatural explanations”. Because science does not deal with the supernatural. If it did, you would have to call it something else. It stops being called science the moment you dabble with anything other than natural phenomenon.


nedbrek - #25794

August 16th 2010

Trey (25762) “But when you do, you are not doing science, and you are not getting closer to the truth. Truth will always be in the possession of those who have spent time and energy seeking it, and will therefore always be somewhat specialized. You cannot democratize truth.”

Perhaps this is the difference in thinking here.  I believe one cannot find truth apart from God.  God is truth, those without God can only grasp at truth, or find it by accident (or steal/borrow it from Christians).


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