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Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Four

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August 2, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Four

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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conrad - #24410

August 3rd 2010

Back in the 1920s when the Tennessee legislature forbad teaching evolution, leading to the Scopes trial,.. the evolution people were heavily invested in the idea of eugenics.

It was believed that evolution wold lead to a super race.
It was closely associated with Nietzsche and well on it’s way to being the NAZI doctrine.
Stories about Jukes and Kalakaks were spreading and it all looked bad for the “unfit”.
It was to overcome that movement that Tennessee acted.
They may have had every right to be concerned. [There are a lot of Jukes and Kalakaks-type people in Tennessee.]

  But poor Darwin has seen this type of runaway extension of his relatively simple ideas.

I’m sure he never expected this

Mike Gene - #24424

August 3rd 2010

OT: Last week, both Pete Enns and Karl Giberson posted science-religion articles on the HuffPo:



Is there a reason why these could not also have been cross-posted here?

katz - #24436

August 3rd 2010

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.

Aside from once again being an appeal to authority and thus strengthening Giberson’s general argument, none of this qualifies him to talk about science, because science is not philosophy.

katz - #24439

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.

Man, I hate it when people just drop in and say the thing that the entire article was debunking as if they hadn’t even read it.  I’m not sure how much science Robert has done, but since he’s never heard of Hawking and thinks scientists patent things, I’m assuming it’s not much.

Nedbrek is right; virtually every discovery in science (and engineering, and math, and so on) was studied by multiple people and the one who “won” only did so by a hairsbreadth—or didn’t actually “win” at all but ran a better PR campaign afterwards.  Edison and Tesla (everything), Newton and Liebniz (calculus), Watson/Crick and Rosalind Franklin (DNA), Einstein and David Hilbert (general relativity).

Gregory - #24442

August 3rd 2010

Hi again katz,

You wrote:
“No amount of harping on Kuhn’s education will make ID a defensible theory”

I´m not sure where you´re coming from or what your aim is here. I have not claimed that “ID is a defensible theory.”

The way gingoro uses the phrase “a lick of real science” is quite humourous. It´s almost like he equates science = work!

Kuhn was certainly not a ´layman´ in HPS, but rather taught for many years after ´re-skilling´ for philosophy & history rather than ´doing physics´ (it sounds like gingoro is calling Kuhn ´lazy´ or ´incompetent´ for choosing an alternative to physical or applied sciences, yet still in the Academy). The discipline called History & Philosophy of Science was not a common field at the time; he helped it break new ground. (& some will argue, paved the way for a Sociology of Science - SoS - to emerge, which is even more powerful to people than PoS.)

Sure, Kuhn´s ´revolutionary´ logic is involved in Giberson´s posts.

But I agree with Karl:
“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.”

NewsFlash: They´re seeking reVo in the wrong fields!

James - #24443

August 3rd 2010


I’m curious if you think you might be reading too much science into the text? I suppose I could use your same approach for the Koran if I wanted to dedicate myself to the same hermeneutical nightmare…

Mike Gene - #24445

August 3rd 2010

Writing in the journal Science in 1977, Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob offered a crucial insight:

To produce a valuable observation, one has first to have an idea of what to observe, a preconception of what is possible. Scientific advances often come from uncovering a hitherto unseen aspect of things as a result, not so much of using new instruments, but rather of looking at objects from a different angle. This look is necessarily guided by a certain idea of what this so-called reality might be. It always involves a certain conception about the unknown, that is, about what lies beyond that which one has logical or experimental reasons to believe.

“It couldn’t have happened” and “it must be” thinking rarely lead to uncovering a hitherto unseen aspect of a thing.

gingoro - #24449

August 3rd 2010

katz (http://cboye.wordpress.com) - #24436

I am not making an argument from authority.

If you have read Dembski’s books like “No Free Lunch” then it should be apparent that he is applying statistical and information theory to biological digital information.  IMO this is a perfectly valid thing to do.  In the lead article of this thread it was suggested that one needs to know the current thinking in a field before applying or disputing understanding in that field.  My assertion is that Dembski’s background certainly guarantees that he understood the relevant mathematical fields contrary to what was implied in the lead article.  Dembski also writes from a philosophical point of view and he has the academic background to do that.

gingoro - #24450

August 3rd 2010

katz (http://cboye.wordpress.com)@24436

Second the implication in the lead article and in the comments is that Dembski is a fool.  My point is that I doubt that many of the writers of the comments or the lead article have the chops to graduate from leading universities as Dembski has done.  Maybe you have I certainly don’t. 

Agreed science is not philosophy but IMO philosophical and mathematical understanding do have valuable insights to offer to science.  Here I suspect that we should just agree to differ. 
Dave W

Gregory - #24454

August 3rd 2010

What was implied is that Dembski is *not* a Newton-like figure in our current era (except perhaps for fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant Christians who have most-blindly embraced ID).

“the implication in the lead article and in the comments is that Dembski is a fool.” - Dave W

Please give examples of where you interpret this ´implication.´ I don´t read Karl Giberson saying that about Dembski. One could perhaps think from the message that R. Coons is a fool for exaggerating his claim about Dembski. But nobody has said Dembski is stupid; this doesn´t mean he is not a strange character who has said & done some obviously silly things (e.g. Waterloo remark, self-identifying himself as Chief IDM revolutionary, fart sounds to Judge Jones, Darwin´s head in a vice grip, etc.)

Dembski is not exactly a good role model for ´doing science´ in community. Do you or do you not think Dembski is “the Newton of information theory,” Dave W? Personally, I don´t think he is one of the ´more important´ thinkers of our time. Not by a long shot!

I disagree with Karl about what field it will happen in “if this generation gets a Newton.” Still, I support him also believing Science & Religion is a cutting-edge field.

gingoro - #24455

August 3rd 2010

“Do you or do you not think Dembski is “the Newton of information theory,” Dave W?”

No, not even close.  I find Dembski’s statistics and info theory applications, poor and not convincing.  IMO he has made fundamental errors eg the Shallit/elsberry paper on the web which I do have the background to follow and judge Dembski’s work. 

“Personally, I don´t think he is one of the ´more important´ thinkers of our time. Not by a long shot!” 

Neither do I.
Dave W

Mike Gene - #24457

August 3rd 2010

GPLeague – (#24287):

Mike Behe compared himself to Einstein on the Colbert Report. Actually quite funny:


I watched the video and this is not true.  Colbert himself made the comparison and Behe laughed and clearly denied it.

katz - #24458

August 3rd 2010

My point is that I doubt that many of the writers of the comments or the lead article have the chops to graduate from leading universities as Dembski has done.

That’s an appeal to authority.  You are citing someone with a lot of education and suggesting that this education makes him more qualified to address certain subjects than a person without that education and/or that, because of his education, his opinion should be given more weight or considered more seriously than someone without that education.

John VanZwieten - #24461

August 3rd 2010


What you describe is a legitimate appeal to authority.  Being better educated in a field does make someone more qualified to address subjects in that field.

An appeal to authority is only illegitimate if it claims absolute truth to a statement made by the authority, or if the person’s education/expertise lies outside the field being discussed.

katz - #24466

August 4th 2010

What you describe is a legitimate appeal to authority.  Being better educated in a field does make someone more qualified to address subjects in that field.

I know; appeals to authority are a necessary and important part of informal logic.  I was responding to this statement of gingoro’s, which directly followed the description I quoted:

I am not making an argument from authority.

I am also supporting my argument that people who use appeals to authority (that is, everyone) are tacitly supporting Giberson’s whole point, which is basically a defense of the argument from authority.

John VanZwieten - #24497

August 4th 2010


Ah, nice work then   Sorry that I missed your point.

Chip - #24519

August 4th 2010

In a classic exchange, Nick confidently (and with appropriate levels of exasperation) corrects Bilbo: “how many times evolutionists have shown you that the answers exist, …E.g. immune system evolution.”

So, I did a little digging.  Here’s a representative example of the quality of answer that’s available for a popular audience from http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/Evolving_Immunity.html with ,my emphasis:

So the question is, could the clonal selection system have evolved?  Certainly. …immunoglobulins could have evolved from a TCR-like gene, which does not require secretion.  If that occurred, then the ability to rearrange and the ability to switch forms could evolve in separate steps, with each step offering a selectable advantage.

It remains unclear whether a TCR-like gene appeared first or an Ig-like gene.  However, it is also possible that the ability to rearrange came after the evolution of the alternative splicing pattern… Could this have occurred?  Absolutely.

Chip - #24520

August 4th 2010

Read enough of these articles and a clear rhetorical pattern begins to emerge:  Definitive discussions about current structures and functions (all of which is generally uncontroversial), peppered with hedgey ifs, coulds, mights, and unclears, which attempt to explain how the structures and functions evolved.

John VanZwieten - #24523

August 4th 2010


To counter a “could not” argument (which is what ID examples typically involve as far as I can see) all one needs to demonstrate is “could”, not “did”.

katz - #24526

August 4th 2010


That’s how science works.  We use qualifiers unless we’re absolutely sure about something, and we’re never absolutely sure about anything.  It doesn’t reflect on the soundness of the theory except in the minds of people who are specifically looking for reasons the theory is wrong.

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