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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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katz - #25803

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.

Truth is truth; theological truth and scientific truth go hand in hand, and consequently, so do scientific and theological objections.  All the physical evidence we’ve found looks exactly as if evolution happened; that’s a scientific objection.  A god who makes everything look one way when it’s actually another way is deceptive; that’s a theological objection.

And talking about Giberson’s theological positions rather than evidence for the scientific health of the theory of evolution, which is what the article was about, is a non sequitur objection.


beaglelady - #25811

August 16th 2010

katz, that’s a great cartoon!


Justin Poe - #25819

August 16th 2010

Jimpethecus,

“employed by outsiders who don’t understand how science works “

and this is a common ploy used by secular scientists in describing creation scientists.  I guess Dr. Andrew Snelling and Dr. Kurt Wise aren’t scientists in your opinion simply because they don’t like fries…..


unapologetic catholic - #25836

August 16th 2010

” I guess Dr. Andrew Snelling and Dr. Kurt Wise aren’t scientists in your opinion simply because they don’t like fries…”

They’re both Young Earth Creationists.  I believe that ID rejects young earth creationism.

But then again, it hedges and actually seems to “wink wink nod nod” at YEC.

That would make ID an “Astroturf” movement.  Just like Big Tobacco, which hired a bunch of researchers to create alleged “scientific reports.”  Were those researchers scientists?  Yes.  Did they sell their souls and produce junk science?  Yes, they did.

So, do Snelling and Wise produce reputable scientific work?  No.


conrad - #25838

August 16th 2010

Young earth creationism is baloney.


Justin Poe - #25839

August 17th 2010

Point proven.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #26253

August 19th 2010

Karl,

I should not take this article personally, but I do.  I contend that the issue of the character of evolution is one of science vs science, Darwin & Malthus vs ecology & Lovelock.  Even if ecology is a new discipline in its impact on the popular mind, it is established enough to raise serious concern about climate change.  If ecology is bogus, then the world is wasting much time and resources trying to fight pollution and CO2.

The issue is simple.  We have two models for bio change, one is by competition and the other by symbiosis and mutualism.  There is much evidence for symbiosis and little evidence for conflict.  We have the theory that population grows faster than the food supply causing an inevitable conflict favoring the “fittest” who survive and bring change.  That is well and good, but is it true or just speculation which sounds right?  I have found no tangible evidence that indicates it is true. 

Malthusianism appears that it is so obvious that it does not need to be tested or it could not be tested.  Now it can by placing all the evidence for Malthus on one side and ecology on the other.  If we can resolve this issue, then trying to come to a consensus should be relatively easy.


Roberto Perez - #26259

August 19th 2010

A religion that depends on a static and literal interpretation of ancient texts ignores that which is divine in humans and instead spends great time and effort defending a hollow citadel of doctrine.  No injustice great or small, no suffering, no fear, no tyranny, will be ever be removed from the landscape of humanity by the mere parroting of a millenia-old text and a fixation on solving theological problems which pale in difficulty to pulling man out of the muck and mire into which we so easily slide.  It saddens me that the Evangelical Protestants strive so hard to replace the divine with the sacred and have erected a wall of scripture between man and god.

Allow me to quote Emerson:
“Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate
religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but
an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious
exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to
expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous
love.”
Ralph W. Emerson, Harvard Divinity School Address, 7/15/1838


Robert Byers - #26356

August 20th 2010

This is just not so in origin subjects.
I watch carefully. Origin subjects are not science ones but still there is a desire to make conclusions in under the prestige of science.
I always find ideas in geomorphology are easily overthrown by new ideas because the old ones are not solidly evidenced. the new ones even are still about evidence but not testable science.
It most certainly is not true that previous ideas were well peer-reviewed with the result of accuracy.
The new classic case is in the mega-flood discoveries of John Shaw and now a host of researchers, non creationists, of how these floods are the origin for much landscapes and not previous ideas of glacial origins. All this after endless peer reviewed research for the longest time of the wrong conclusions.
origin subjects are not science and not given the same scrutinity.


nedbrek - #26391

August 20th 2010

Roberto, do you consider yourself a good person?  That is, if there is a heaven, should God let you in?


Roberto Perez - #26398

August 20th 2010

Nedbrek,

Yes, I consider myself a good person, but there is always room for improvement. That said, ‘a good person’ is a rather fuzzy concept when you look at it.  Good for who?  One runs the risk of being good for nothing if one is simply good for oneself.

I would not presume to suggest that god should grant me access to his heaven.  That’s his call.  However, if I were to be shut out because I failed to accept a particular creed word for word, it would be a poor sort of heaven, and god would be no more than a petty, narrow minded bureaucrat obsessed with lists and forms.


nedbrek - #26401

August 20th 2010

Hello Roberto, thank you for replying honestly.

Good is defined by God, He sets the standard.  How can we know that standard?


Roberto Perez - #26410

August 20th 2010

Nedbrek,

I get the feeling that you are trying to sell me something that I have no interest in purchasing. I have read through some of your blog postings and have a good idea where you are coming from - you have an entire section devoted to ‘heresy’.  We waste much valuable time debating how many angels can dance on a pinhead and if it really took six days to create the universe.  We build temples and ‘megachurches’ and pepper them with fine furnishings, put on our Sunday best and suffer through interminable sermons delivered by those no better than any among us and yet claiming to be ‘pastors’, as if the rest were but mindless sheep.  And still millions suffer needlessly.  Still there is hunger amidst a bounty of food.  Still we murder and still we oppress. And still the world overflows with scoundrels who would guild their crimes by claiming that they were following ‘the will of god’.

Our thread has veered away from the topic of this article, and out of respect to other readers, I suggest that we table the discussion.  I go in peace, and peace be unto you.


nedbrek - #26413

August 20th 2010

Roberto, heresy can be a good thing.  By properly identifying what is wrong, we isolate what is right.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #27274

August 27th 2010

for Mike Gene #25772

Thank you for the link to the article that led me to the paper by Carl W.

I am glad that there are others who are finally waking up to the truth.

You might be interested in my new book, DARWIN’S MYTH:  Malthus, Ecology, and the Meaning of Life, which explores this issue from the scientific, philosophical, and theological perspectives.

I think explains many of the reasons we have failed to give this issue adequate critical investigation and why we need to do it now.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #27276

August 27th 2010

For all,

Here is another link to another paper on evolution which points to the weakness of Darwinian natural selection.

http://bristol.academia.edu/documents/0094/1038/2010-SahneyBentonFerry-BiologyLetters.pdf

Ecology has invaded evolution big time while Darwinists like Dawkins are writing best selling books about an outdated concept.


Rich Blinne - #27420

August 28th 2010

Roger @ 27276,  perfect example of what Karl is talking about. When the lead author of the paper, Sarda Sahney,  was asked about the sensationalist headlines the media was concocting, she said, “We are not in any way suggesting Darwin was wrong.”


Roger A. Sawtelle - #27423

August 28th 2010

Rich,
Rich,

Thank you for your comment.

Scientists are not always the best people to interpret the theoretical impact of their findings.  In some ways this is good, because she should not have been out to prove Darwin right or wrong.

Scientists are afraid that questioning any aspect of Darwin’s Theory will give the opponents of evolution some basis for doubting the whole idea.  This sadly is the sorry state that we have come to.  People are more concerned about protecting our turf than looking for truth.

For a scientific theory to be a scientific theory, it must contain some verifiable, testable content.  If Darwin’s view of natural selection does not, which is the view of some, then it is not a scientific theory.  If it does, then every study that covers that ground must confirm or question that theory.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #27424

August 28th 2010

Part 2:

If Sahney’s study does not confirm Darwin’s view of natural selection, then it is either wrong or Darwin’s theory is.  In my considered opinion her study does not confirm his theory of conflict as the basis for natural selection and the growth of the number of species.

Now the defenders of Darwinism point to hundreds of peer reviewed studies supporting it.  I accept the reality of evolutionary changes of life forms.  However, I have been unable to find evidence of one study that confirms Malthusian natural selection, and many casting doubt on it such as the one we are discussing.  If you are aware of such or if you are able to find evidence of this in Sahney’s paper, please let me know.


Rich - #27493

August 29th 2010

To Rich Blinne and Roger:

I know nothing about the Sahney paper or how it may have been misrepresented in the media,  but it is true that among younger evolutionary biologists—and most of the people I’m talking about here, by the way, are *hostile* to ID, so control those knee reflexes, Rich—there is an increasing tendency to criticize the neo-Darwinian model of evolution.  This does not mean entirely throwing out everything said by Darwin or his successors.  It does mean, however, that increasingly we find biologists who find Darwinian theory unsatisfying in significant ways.  The position of the critics ranges from “we need to supplement neo-Darwinian mechanisms with some others” to “neo-Darwinian mechanisms are much less important than other mechanisms which we have yet to properly articulate, and those other mechanisms, rather than neo-Darwinian ones, are the main drivers of macroevolutionary change”.  The major question addressed by these critics is that of the origin of biological form.  These critics do not form a partisan bloc; they disagree among themselves; but all of them think that evolutionary theory has come nowhere near an adequate account of biological form.  References forthcoming.


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