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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Page 2 of 5   « 1 2 3 4 5 »
gingoro - #24318

August 2nd 2010

That may be so but I suggest that softer language is more likely to change someone’s mind.  Calling a spade a spade is fine but it is not necessary to call it a manure shovel. 
Dave W

conrad - #24321

August 2nd 2010

Glen I like your comment or Richard Wegener.

He predicted Plate tectonics.
That is DAY THREE. [or half of it.]

But no one wants to argue with Richard Wegener whereas thousands of people want to argue with Darwin about a detail of Day SIX.

Many people in this controversy are not really studying the creation story.
Because some parts of it they totally omit.
They have this stylized argument that is based more on the Scopes trial than either scripture or science.


it clearly has to do with plate tectonics AND LIFE!

Recently the smokers around the mid-oceanic rifts have been suggested as the places where life originated.
So perhaps plate tectonics and the first life DOES GO TOGETHER.


conrad - #24336

August 2nd 2010

Well Gringo,.... Beagle lady was referring to a “God of the gaps”.
Bugs hide in gaps.
It is not a beautiful simile but it is not totally inept.
Get off her case!

    Buck Up!  Beagle lady. Don’t get stung by criticism. We all get it.

  I guarantee you that you haven’t said any more stupid things than I have said….

  .. and I am a really great guy!!!!!! .... [I keep telling you!]

katz - #24342

August 2nd 2010

Mike Behe compared himself to Einstein on the Colbert Report.

There’s room for an interesting essay about egotism and the leaders of the ID movement.  Their insistence that they are more knowledgeable than the experts on a topic, their belief that science is a big conspiracy to squelch the brilliant ideas that they’ve come up with and other scientists are afraid of, their view of themselves as revolutionaries and defenders of truth in a dark world…

Gregory - #24344

August 2nd 2010

”Kuhn (no scientist) did us no favors by exaggerating revolutions and, worst of all, suggesting substantial incompatibilities across “paradigms”.”  - Glen Davidson

Actually, Thomas Kuhn held 3 university degrees in physics from Harvard University. Sure, there are a few people with degrees in a natural-physical scientific field who should not be called ´scientists.´ I have no problem calling Kuhn a ´scholar, who was trained in physics,´ since his teaching was more in philosophy and history departments.

Or are you saying you didn´t know Kuhn had a PhD in physics from Harvard, Glen?

katz - #24345

August 2nd 2010

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.’

But IDers use the two concepts interchangeably.  They seize on an unanswered question and trot it around as an unanswerable question (unanswerable by conventional science, that is).  Then, when in due time it gets answered, they find another question.  Certainly they have yet to pose a question that actual scientists consider unanswerable by normal scientific methods.

Gregory - #24346

August 2nd 2010

HornSpiel wrote #24289:
“all you [Karl] say really only applies to the hard natural sciences”

Yes, it seems to me that this is what Karl had in mind and this is what ´science´ means to many if not most people involved in ´science and religion´ discourse. Science = natural-physical sciences [NPS].

Personally, I´ve dropped the terms ´soft´ and ´hard´ as unfruitful. Positive science in contrast to reflexive science is more apt these days.

The social sciences [HSS] differ from NPS in more than ´intelligence´, but also add values, intuition, emotion, meaning, purpose, ethics and other teleological ideas.

This is why trying to “push evolutionary theory out of the hard sciences into the realm of the social sciences” is an absurdity. People have tried this already, to be sure. Even Dembski accepts ´technological evolution´ [based on TRIZ], which is ironic and laughable. But, no thanks, we don´t want anymore ´process philosophy` [i.e. evolutionism] in HSS. Seeking another equi-balance instead…

Is ´smashing a vase´ meant to be ´making a breakthrough´? No breakthrough in HSS happens like in Karl´s [odd glitch] scenario because it differs from NPS´s positivistic and instrumentalist knowledge.

Glen Davidson - #24347

August 2nd 2010

I have no problem calling Kuhn a ´scholar, who was trained in physics,´ since his teaching was more in philosophy and history departments.

Or are you saying you didn´t know Kuhn had a PhD in physics from Harvard, Glen?

Geez, whatever. 

Would it be possible to just mention such trivia, or do you have to pretend that it’s some big deal that you Googled something, or perhaps could have answered that on Jeopardy?  I’m wondering what his Ph.D in physics has to do with his exaggerations regarding “paradigm shifts.”

The fact is that Kuhn was a philosopher who exaggerated discontinuity in science.  That he didn’t actually practice science likely played a role in that.  You’ve added nothing to such matters, only distracted from them.

Glen Davidson

Gregory - #24350

August 2nd 2010

Fact: Kuhn had a PhD, an MSc and a BSc in Physics from Harvard University.

If that doesn´t make Kuhn a qualified ´scientist,´ maybe he should have gone to Little Pond Community College of Sciences instead to so qualify?

Glen wrote: ”Kuhn (no scientist)”¨

I simply corrected you, Glen, without the help of Google (some of us have actually studied Kuhn quite rigorously). Do you stand corrected? Or do you wish instead to call Kuhn *merely* a philosopher, as if he has no knowledge or only a little knowledge of ´scientific practice´?

I admit he is a significant figure on the topic(s) Karl is raising in these threads. But there are bigger figures too…

& there simply *are* discontinuities in doing *all* science, unless no human choices are involved.

Do you want to discuss ´exaggerations regarding paradigm shifts´ with someone who thinks Kuhn´s theorizing is flawed partly because it is based primarily on ´changes´ over-time in the field of physics, not in anthropology, economics, aethetics, etc.? We would probably agree on several ways to think in a post-Kuhnian manner, Glen.

It remains that calling Kuhn a ´scientist´ (of the philosophical variety) or a scholar trained in physics both are accurate.

Gregory - #24360

August 2nd 2010

Or why don’t people give their views of ‘value’ in terms of education, sciences & knowledge?

Of course a person doesn’t have to go to Harvard, Cambridge or TsingHua Universities to be ‘hired’ as a ‘scientist’ (one’s official title) in a very simple laboratory. For that matter, a person could have been educated at a small, local university & still come up with an idea or experiment that could ‘revolutionize’ a field of the sciences. Some even argue that a person doesn’t need ‘high school’ to be able to perform ‘science’ these days & the manual labour aspect of ‘doing science’ attests to this. Still, educ&training; helps.

How does one ‘perform’ one’s ‘science’? Alone or in a team? Does history & philosophy of science (HPS) help us to understand what is going on & what has gone on ‘in science’ around the world throughout history? The HPS doubters are a passionate few in numbers.

O.k. then Glen. If you won’t call T. Kuhn a ‘scientist,’ then what would you call him in relation to his physics education, knowledge & prof. experience? Science saavy? Science literate? Scientist wannabe? Intermediate scientific knowledge? A mere philosopher of science (with perhaps your tongue, and also gingoro’s, in cheek)?

conrad - #24362

August 2nd 2010

Greg I think I heard this discussion on ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
Scarecrow did not need a brain,..... he just needed a degree.

Gregory - #24363

August 2nd 2010

Yeah, right, conrad. In other words, qualifications count for what…?

And what about ‘special’ fields (that it takes a very long time to ‘master’)?

...or for that matter;

What does a completed degree give him or her that the knowledge he or she gained in the learning process didn’t already confer?


gingoro - #24364

August 2nd 2010

“A mere philosopher of science (with perhaps your tongue, and also gingoro’s, in cheek)?”

If one follows the trend of this series Kuhn was a layman (with a Phd in science) and should have kept quiet and let the pros decide the consensus on POS.  These pros probably would disdain to do a lick of real science but could speak authoritatively never the less. 

I happen to think that Popper was a great POS but that many people have taken him too literally or other wise misunderstand him and therefore downgrade his efforts.  Kuhn had a point as well and a revolution in viewpoint makes a big difference in spite of what people might say.  I have lived through a few sea changes at work and things can and do change considerably over a short period of time.  By the way the Logical Positivists did not impress me much. 
Dave W

Nick Matzke - #24370

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.

Bilbo, this is pretty much just trite and insulting to scientists, given how many times over the past 5 years or so you have raised some naive, poorly-researched question about how complex thing X evolved, and how many times evolutionists have shown you that the answers exist, you just didn’t know about them, and/or didn’t understand/remember the answers when you were told about them the previous time.  E.g. immune system evolution.

The biggest problem with God of the Gaps reasoning isn’t when people insert God into some question with an unknown answer.  The biggest problem is when people insert God to answer a question *that science has already answered, but the creationist ignorantly thought was unanswered*.  This is by far the more common situation.  When the miraculous intervention of God is hauled down from heaven to fill in gaps in one’s limited personal knowledge about evolution and biology, you’re going to have big fights with actual scientists who actually know their stuff.

conrad - #24374

August 2nd 2010

Hey Nick
You are singing my tune.
The theologians need to study science.
With all due respect to our founder, most “science” discussions only deal with biology,.. and then the master scientist is considered to be a guy who die 130 years ago and never new what an atom was.

The physics and cosmology should be front and center but zero of that from the “science and theology” crowd.

katz - #24377

August 2nd 2010

No amount of harping on Kuhn’s education will make ID a defensible theory, nor will it undermine either Glen’s or Karl’s points.

In fact, every appeal to authority strengthens the basic thesis of this series, which is that there is authority that can be appealed to as more authoritative than a random person’s opinion.

gingoro - #24382

August 3rd 2010

I thought the main post was a rather crass attack on a fellow Christian.  Sure IMO he is mistaken, but I made the odd mistake or two in my career whereas I assume those throwing rocks have managed without errors.

Dembski should know the background even if it was suggested that he doesn’t.  He has degrees from much more prestigious universities that the one I studied at:

Dr. Dembski is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he earned a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in statistics, and a Ph.D. in philosophy. He also received a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1988 and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1996.  He has done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago, and in computer science at Princeton University.

The universities where he has studied at are in the top 10 in the world on most lists.  I graduated from the University of Waterloo which is somewhere at the bottom of the top 30 or 40.  Maybe some of the people contemptuously dismissing his efforts could indicate where they graduated from, and see if it compares with Dembski’s.

I may not agree with his work but neither would I call him a fool.
Dave W

Robert Byers - #24404

August 3rd 2010

The author of this article is wrong. Many discoverers in science did come charging in. Newton, Einstein, being the most famous but heaps of folks. I don’t know what Hawkings has patented and so that doesn’t count.
great discoveries come from ideas. Ideas don’t evolve amongst many but by definition are the idea of one or another somewhere else.
There is no creativity in science but only discovery of existing things. So there is no reason to not expect a thinking person to get the idea. Teams can do it but even then it must of ben a few people who really thought of something.
Likewise this is why there is error. ideas coming from a few and being accepted by the many means just a few folks being wrong would thrown progress aside. This is what happens in origin issues where ideas contrary to the bible become popular.
Evolution was a sudden charge. It is maintained by very few paid people. it will go out as quicxk as it came in. Sooner then later.

nedbrek - #24407

August 3rd 2010

Robert, I agree that the current notions of evolution will eventually be scoffed at as much as Lamarckian evolution is now (which in fact, may be making a comeback!).  That is modernism - mockery of what came before (just as moderns mock Creation and the Flood).

However, science really isn’t about individuals.  At any given time, there are a lot of people looking at the same problems.  Our rewards system (patents, top job positions, history book mentions) selects individuals.  But, it is almost always a race among many.  If not Darwin, then Wallace.

conrad - #24408

August 3rd 2010

Well ” evolution” was taken a long way past Darwin’s original idea.
He thought it explained how species originated.
In his mind it was little more than selective breeding similar to raising Labradoodles from Labrador retrievers and poodles.

Then it was taken to extremes and used to embrace eugenics and used to explain the creation of the physical world.
People actually ask “do you believe God created the world or do you believe in evolution?”

Darwin had no theory about the creation of the physical universe to compete with the Big Bang or to explain the moon or plate tectonics or the atom or any principle of physics.
  Yet some people seem to think his ideas explained all that.
He only had ideas in the field of biology

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