Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Four

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August 2, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

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 Four

The history of science is the history of great revolutions. The actors are bold rebels who come charging in, waving new swords and laying waste to the status quo. “Who was that masked man?” ask astonished onlookers as they survey the carnage and drag venerable (but now useless) ideas off to be buried. When the dust settles, a new scientific hero—Galileo, Einstein, Hawking—emerges through the haze, standing—or sitting in a wheelchair—atop the vanquished ideas of what was, just yesterday, settled truths about the natural world. You gotta love the history of science.

Unfortunately, this is not the history of science.

This is what passes for history of science in a “World Civilization” course, or some such superficial survey that leaps from Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein like a child playing hopscotch. This exciting romp is not remotely the history of science, any more than home run moments are the history of baseball.

The history of science is almost entirely a history of the status quo being refined, extended, tested and retested as new technologies become available. It can be quite boring to outsiders. Take the lowly electron. It was a really big deal when the really little electron was discovered. Physicists now understood that charge was not a big gob of electricity but a set of tiny charged particles, every one of which had exactly the same charge. The discovery of the electron is the sort of thing that might get into your survey course but my guess is you have never even heard of J.J. Thomson, who discovered the electron.

In the century since the electron was discovered tremendous energies have been invested in figuring out exactly what it is like. Robert Millikan—you remember him, right?— performed a “famous” experiment getting oil drops to move in an electrical field. It was a clever way to estimate the charge on an individual electron. I spent countless hours as an undergraduate physics major trying to duplicate his result, staring through a tiny scope at dimly lit drops of oil, wondering if the story about Millikan’s assistant going blind doing this was true. In the decades since Millikan originally performed his experiment, it has been repeated every time a new technology made it possible to measure the charge on the electron to a higher level of accuracy. In the back of all our physics books we find a table informing us that the charge on an electron is −1.602×10−19 coulombs. No doubt you have that highlighted in the back of your physics book and have commented on it numerous times.

I mention this mundane example to make a point about the nature of science. Scientists spends most of their time refining their understanding of the central ideas of science, and very little time overturning those ideas. But the long period of refinement is quiet and of limited interest to outsiders who would wrongly perceive that nothing of interest is happening. Only when something disruptive occurs does everyone take notice, like a vase on a mantle falling off and shattering on the hearth. Then we all notice the formerly obscure vase. For a brief and shining moment that vase was truly exciting.

The great revolutionaries in science almost always begin as honest toilers working diligently within the status quo, making modest refinements on existing theories, extending the explanatory domain of a theory into new territory, or solving a puzzle of some sort that doesn’t quite fit into the received wisdom of the community. Virtually all of them fully understand and accept the consensus of the community and then, through some fortunate circumstance, they are presented with the golden opportunity to modify or even overturn that consensus with a radical new idea—they become the revolutionary heroes with the gleaming sword. They get to push the vase off the mantle and watch it smash. Such scientific heroes are almost never outsiders who are not even a part of the scientific community.

The Intelligent Design Movement desperately wants a scientific revolution where it topples the vase that Darwin set on the mantle and smashes it into a million pieces. Followers of ID want to be the Einsteins and the Galileos of a major breakthrough in our understanding of natural history. Rob Koons, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, endorsed William Dembski’s popular book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, with these words: “William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of Information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time. His "law of conservation of information" represents a revolutionary breakthrough.”

I am not sure what Rob Koons thinks of these comments now—he has not responded to my email—but they represent a thoroughly unrealistic view of scientific revolutionaries. William Dembski works at a Baptist Seminary; he teaches apologetics and publishes popular work with evangelical presses and not in scholarly journals. If another Newton arises out of this generation of scientists, he—or she—will not be on the faculty of a seminary writing popular books. I hasten to add that I am also not going to be the Newton of this generation. I work at a Christian College; I teach Science & Religion; I publish primarily popular work. I am nowhere near that vase needing to be smashed.

If this generation gets a Newton, it will be someone working at the heart of the scientific enterprise on ordinary scientific problems. They will hold the consensus view, with their peers, as taught to them by their mentors. They will publish in conventional journals. One day their computerized printout or digital image will have an odd glitch in it—a number will be too large, a speck of light too bright, a graph too asymmetric. They will show it to their colleagues who will puzzle with them. They will repeat the measurements several times until they dare show it to their supervisor, who will be dismissive at first but finally concede that it is worth veering off on this side road for a few weeks. Excitement will build as they work in obscurity for a while and then finally publish something that startles the scientific community, who are initially skeptical but finally come around. Ten years later a key idea has been overturned. Twenty years later they win a Nobel Prize.

That is how Newtons are born.


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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beaglelady - #24263

August 2nd 2010

Another thought—you don’t see the genuine revolutionaries trying to push their ideas into public school science classes before they have done the hard work of science.

This has been a great series of posts.


GPLeague - #24287

August 2nd 2010

Mike Behe compared himself to Einstein on the Colbert Report. Actually quite funny: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/90952/august-02-2007/michael-behe


HornSpiel - #24289

August 2nd 2010

Love your description of science. I am curious though about your self -deprecating remark: I am nowhere near that vase needing to be smashed. Any idea what the vase may be? Or do you simply mean, I suspect, you are nowhere near smashing any vases.

I think it might be worthwhile to point out that all you say really only applies to the hard natural sciences. In the softer social sciences—-anthropology, psychology, linguistics, economics—- theories are more like fashions. Theories come and go much more rapidly and are more susceptible to revolutionary overthrows from the outside. Also many theories and schools of thought can coexist over long periods of time—-all yielding useful results. How are the social sciences different from the natural sciences? in a word intelligence —-specifically human intelligence, but potentially any intelligence.

I think that many in the Intelligent Design Movement would agree that one result of ID, were it to succeed, would be to push evolutionary theory out of the hard sciences into the realm of the social sciences. An unlikely revolution indeed.


Bilbo - #24292

August 2nd 2010

As long as biologists forbid the re-introduction of teleological explanations, they will be stuck with questions that they cannot answer.  All we will get are speculations masquerading as answers.


beaglelady - #24294

August 2nd 2010

As long as biologists forbid the re-introduction of teleological explanations, they will be stuck with questions that they cannot answer.  All we will get are speculations masquerading as answers.

Well, it would be easier to insist that seizures (or any other illnesses) are caused by demon possession.  That’s a science-stopper for sure.  The heck with all this western medicine baloney!


conrad - #24296

August 2nd 2010

I never saw the need to “smash Darwin”.

The creation story is laid out in 6 days.
He may have something to say about days 5 and 6.
But it is not necessarily a statement that the Bible states differently.

BUT FIRST LET US LOOK AT THE FIRST 4 DAYS AND SEE HOW THAT CORRESPONDS TO SCIENCE.
You will find almost perfect correspondence.

“I n the beginning”  ,,,there was a beginning,..[Einstein.]
 
“.. created the heavens and the earth”...... the creation certainly happened,.... [Hubble}

..“But the earth was without form and void”........ yes it is called the Planck epoch.

“.. and God separated the light from the dark”..... Dark matter and dark energy dominate the universe. A creation story from God that did NOT mention them would be highly suspect..

Darwin didn’t say anything that disputed anything the Bible actually says.

The “dust of the earth” IS DNA.

WHERE IS THE PROBLEM?


Alan Fox - #24297

August 2nd 2010

As long as biologists forbid the re-introduction of teleological explanations, they will be stuck with questions that they cannot answer All we will get are speculations masquerading as answers.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of forbidding biologists, would I be right in assuming you would prefer a confident but wrong answer to “we don’t know”?


conrad - #24299

August 2nd 2010

Making young Christians suspicious of science is a terrible thing to do.

They do not have to choose between science and the Bible.

BOTH SAY THE SAME THINGS.


conrad - #24300

August 2nd 2010

Well I perceive this discussion is losing steam.
Please allow me to interject controversy..

The big new thing in science is inflation theory. The idea that early on the universe expanded very rapidly..

Day two of the Creation story is about God creating an"expanse”.

Aren’t those the same things?


gingoro - #24301

August 2nd 2010

HornSpieler@24289
“In the softer social sciences—-anthropology, psychology, linguistics, economics—- theories are more like fashions. Theories come and go much more rapidly and are more susceptible to revolutionary overthrows from the outside. Also many theories and schools of thought can coexist over long periods of time—-all yielding useful results. How are the social sciences different from the natural sciences? in a word intelligence —-specifically human intelligence, but potentially any intelligence.”

Interesting perspective.  Maybe Gregory will respond. 

My training is mainly in math and the physical sciences.  IMO Biology tends to be considerably harder than physics and the HSS are again considerably harder than the biological sciences.  To my mind the HSS are in a similar position to astronomy/physics back at the time of Copernicus and still await the equivalent of a Newton and an Einstein.  This does not mean that good people are not working very hard and making progress, but that the subject matter is enormously complex and difficult.  My hat’s off to the social scientists.
Dave W


Glen Davidson - #24302

August 2nd 2010

Newton credited the giants upon which he stood for his seeing farther.  Now some people think he was just poking at poor short Robert Hooke (a person of more accomplishment than most know), and Newton was not a humble man in any case.  Yet I’m quite sure that he realized he was expanding on, and unifying, Kepler and Galileo, not smashing any vases.

That’s what science really does, and Kuhn (no scientist) did us no favors by exaggerating revolutions and, worst of all, suggesting substantial incompatibilities across “paradigms.”  Einstein himself is considered by many to be the last Newtonian.  Which does point to the fact that quantum mechanics is closer to a paradigm shift than almost anything else in science—which doesn’t change the fact that it integrates with classical mechanics.

To a fair degree, Darwin extended Newtonian science into biology.  Charles’ writings are filled with “laws” that we would hardly call the same today.  In any case, he worked within the broad outlines of science, hardly disparaging anyone’s “pathetic level of detail” while failing to provide any sort of details for his “science” at all.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #24303

August 2nd 2010

William Dembski works at a Baptist Seminary; he teaches apologetics and publishes popular work with evangelical presses and not in scholarly journals.  If another Newton arises out of this generation of scientists, he—or she—will not be on the faculty of a seminary writing popular books.

They will publish in conventional journals.

It won’t be Dembski, mainly because he isn’t expanding science, he’s fighting it. 

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that an outsider of sorts might come up with a great idea and write a book about it.  Meteorologist/astronomer Alfred Wegener did:

In 1915 the first edition of The Origin of Continents and Oceans, a book outlining Wegener’s theory, was published; expanded editions were published in 1920, 1922, and 1929.

Popular or not, I don’t know, but in a hostile science environment one might write a book instead of publishing in journals.  Wegener wasn’t fighting science, yet he was fighting the conventional establis=lshment.  True, the latter had to work out mechanism better than had Wegener, but still…

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #24304

August 2nd 2010

Hm, I don’t know how the first word in my last line got so mangled, should be “establishment.”

Glen Davidson


rick - #24305

August 2nd 2010

@bilbo: “As long as biologists forbid the re-introduction of teleological explanations, they will be stuck with questions that they cannot answer. “

I am rather dumbstruck at the depth of misunderstanding conveyed in this one sentence. “Stuck” with questions? Questions whose answers are not known are the most exciting part of science. It’s what drives science and motivates scientists. No questions left to answer, means the end of science and a scientist’s version of hell.


beaglelady - #24307

August 2nd 2010

I am rather dumbstruck at the depth of misunderstanding conveyed in this one sentence. “Stuck” with questions? Questions whose answers are not known are the most exciting part of science. It’s what drives science and motivates scientists. No questions left to answer, means the end of science and a scientist’s version of hell.

Great answer, rick.  An unanswered question for a creationist is a gap for their little cockroach of a god to hide in.  For scientists, unanswered questions are their very calling. And for a believing scientist such as Francis Collins, finding answers to those questions is a way of worshiping God.


Glen Davidson - #24308

August 2nd 2010

For scientists, unanswered questions are their very calling.

To be fair to Bilbo, he did say “questions they cannot answer,” and not merely point to unanswered questions.  I presume that he means ‘questions they cannot answer in principle.’

Of course it’s the old creationist ploy of saying that we’ve “ruled out” God, design, whatever, when in fact these “solutions” have been considered and led nowhere.  Nor is design or telic answers “forbidden,” we simply have been given no reason to reconsider our previous decision to throw out such prejudices.

So it’s essentially a “have you stopped beating your wife” statement, and faulty for that reason.  But it is not faulty for disparaging unanswered questions per se.

Glen Davidson


gingoro - #24309

August 2nd 2010

beaglelady - #24307
“An unanswered question for a creationist is a gap for their little cockroach of a god to hide in.”
Are you saying that the Christian God is a cockroach or that the creationists by which I assume you mean YEC do not worship the Christian God.  Either aspersion is objectionable!  I agree that the concept of God held by YEC is deficient but that does not make their God a different God than the one I worship.  Your kind of talk will never persuade such folk to modify their thinking, which AFAIK is what BioLogos is all about. 
Dave W


pds - #24311

August 2nd 2010

The history of science is the history of people making comments about what is important and unimportant and making predictions about where science is heading.  The history of science is the history of vast numbers of such people being completely and embarrassingly wrong about many such comments and predictions.  Only time will tell if Karl is right, or embarrassingly wrong, or something in between.


beaglelady - #24312

August 2nd 2010

I’m saying that a God of the gaps approach is disparaging to God.  And a young earth creationist approach turns God into a charlatan who has laced the natural world with deception at every turn.


pds - #24313

August 2nd 2010

Rick,

I am rather dumbstruck at the depth of misunderstanding of Bilbo’s comment.  He is clearly not saying that questions are bad.  His point is about ruling out certain explanations at the outset.


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