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Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

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July 19, 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 Three

We often hear about the virtue of “teaching the controversy” when it comes to origins. The strategy is to lay out various options to students--options on which “experts” disagree--and let them make up their minds. This proposal appeals to America’s sense of fair play. America, from the days of its founding to its dynamic entrepreneurial culture of today has always celebrated the ability to break free of traditional ideas and boldly go where nobody has gone before.

The anti-Darwinians would have us view evolution the same way the founding fathers viewed the yoke of British colonialism. Just as the heavy hand of Britain had to be removed, so the yoke of Darwin must be cast aside as well, if we are to be truly liberated to find the truth. And what better way to find the truth than to have the options laid out in front of us, like the entrees on a menu waiting to be selected, or the candidates on a ballot waiting to be elected to office?

Despite the generous tone of such a proposal, it is a recipe for the production of widespread scientific illiteracy. Sending the message that we can “choose” our preferred science from a roster of options undermines the entire concept of science for it makes science seem like politics. Science is nothing like politics. Politics, at its best, is all about trying to create a society where people will be happiest. And the criteria for that change from time to time. Once upon a time women could not vote and that seemed OK. Now it is not OK. Once upon a time, education was not universally available and now it is. Politics is all about figuring out how things should be, based on how we would like them to be.

Science is the opposite of this. Science is about finding out how the world is whether we like it or not. And the lesson of history is that science is often not what we want it to be. Galileo’s arguments for the moving earth were not greeted with a chorus of “Amens” by his colleagues in Rome. John Donne expressed the concern of that generation when he wrote that this “new philosophy casts all in doubt.” Galileo’s ideas became the consensus slowly because they were true, not because they made people happy, or got selected by the majority from a roster of options.

The same thing is true of the Big Bang theory. Countless scientists went on record opposing the strange idea that our universe emerged in some kind of transcendent explosion beyond the reach of science. The Steady State Theory was developed by some leading cosmologists specifically to oppose the Big Bang because many scientists did not like it and wanted it to be false. But facts are facts and gradually a consensus emerged that the Big Bang was true.

In a more interesting development, we have watched “scientific racism” gradually be undermined by advances in genetics. It was once believed that certain races, like Australian aborigines, Africans, or Native Americans were demonstrably inferior. The textbook from which John Scopes supposedly taught evolution made this claim explicitly. But scientific advances in our understanding of human origins destroyed the foundations of these racist notions. All scientists though, did not welcome these advances. Racism runs deep and it was hard for some people to accept that their racism was based on an irrational and ultimately immoral prejudice and not on science.

But, once again, a consensus emerged that “race” does not have a biological basis. Many scientists are justifiably proud that science has dealt such a blow to humanity’s greatest social plague. This happened, though, through the achievement of consensus, as opposing viewpoints were undermined and the reluctant holdouts gradually came on board.

The same is true for evolution. Darwin’s ideas were not met with universal and unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, his key idea of natural selection was ignored for decades because most biologists thought it was too feeble to do the work Darwin assigned to it in The Origin of Species. The consensus about evolution that exists among biologists today took about a century to achieve. Thousands and thousands of reluctant, often brilliant, frequently cranky, scientists had to “come around” to Darwin’s view.

This is the meaning of “consensus” in science. Thomas Cudworth, on the Uncommon Descent blog, describes the embrace of consensus as “prostration before a self-selecting clique of experts.” This he says, “is repugnant to good science, to good philosophy, to the ideal of the university, and to the ideal of an open, free and democratic society.”

This does not make sense to me. Tens of thousands of biologists at thousands of universities spread around the planet are hardly a “self-selecting clique of experts.” And what does “self-selecting” even mean in this context? I would love to “select” myself to a tenured position at Harvard but I am unaware that such an option is available to me. The claim that the standard methods of science are “repugnant” to a “democratic society” is, alas, completely true. If only we could “vote” on what we wanted to be true, rather than have it imposed on us by the way things are.

Science is anything but democratic. Mother Nature casts the only vote and it is the job of science to determine how she voted. She votes only once and never changes her mind.

The scientific community is filled with creative, obstinate, and highly independent personalities. Anyone who attends a scientific meeting can see this clearly. Scientists dress strangely, have irregular hair, and are often socially odd. They can be abrasive and obnoxious. They despise convention and disrespect tradition. If there is any group that would be unwilling to bow before a “self-selecting clique of experts”, it is scientists.

A scientific consensus represents a hard-won victory over every imaginable sort of opposition. We should not set aside such consensus just because a tiny group of articulate outsiders offer us some ideas that we might like better. The ID movement has people with Ph.D.s to be sure. And a few of them have conventional scientific posts. But their pleas that we set aside scientific consensus must be ignored.


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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Gregory - #23299

July 24th 2010

Hi HenryD,

Though I am not an IDist, let me suggest an answer to your question:
“So what’s ID “theory”  good for?”

It’s good for religious apologetics. Not necessarily Christian apologetics. But it implies that (natural) science and/or naturalism has limits and that an ‘intelligent cause’ is an implication that (a) God exists. In response to the chorus of natural scientists who say ‘(natural) science disproves God,’ this is reassuring for some people.

Now, one could say that non-IDist people who are also religious can be effectively apologetic too. Surely I wouldn’t deny that. But the evidence of a significant number of evangelical Christians in the USA warming or heartily embracing ID as a sign that ‘science is not against them’ is an indication of what one ‘good’ thing or ‘success’ of the theory is.

It may be that BioLogos one day exceeds the IDM in this, but BioLogos is not a ‘movement.’

Whether or not actual biologists, a very high percentage of whom are atheists or agnostics are unconvinced about ID *as science* is a different issue. The few Christian biologists I’ve seen, e.g. some posting here, are as hyper-evolutionist as their atheist colleagues. That’s got to say something too.


Rich - #23300

July 24th 2010

John:

Wikipedia is not trustworthy on anything to do with evolution, ID, etc.  Its articles may contain some genuine facts (even Hitler’s and Stalin’s speeches sometimes contained genuine facts), but all the articles are willfully slanted. 

The rest of your comments, which continue to pick away at trivia even after I pointed out that this habit was precisely your dialogical problem, just reinforce what I said.  Where did you say you received your university training again?  I’m thinking of writing to your department and faculty with suggestions for improving their curriculum by adding in some training in logic, respectful listening, avoidance of false accusations, and civilized dialogical manners.

Why don’t you reply to my question about your false claim that I have a web site?  I do not own any web site.  Nor do I blog—except very sporadically—on anyone else’s.  I literally don’t know what you are talking about.  And if you *are* taking me to be someone else, and your rage on these threads has been based on the assumption that I am someone else, you owe me an apology—big time.


Rich - #23301

July 24th 2010

Gregory:

I concur with most of the points in your answer to HenryD (23299).


John - #23303

July 24th 2010

Rich wrote:
“Wikipedia is not trustworthy on anything to do with evolution, ID, etc. ... but all the articles are willfully slanted.”

Then let’s test it empirically against Meyer, as I proposed. A simple matter of fact. I’ll bet you can’t find any slant, willful or otherwise.

“Where did you say you received your university training again?”

At one of the UCs. And you?

“I’m thinking of writing to your department and faculty with suggestions for improving their curriculum by adding in some training in logic, respectful listening, avoidance of false accusations, and civilized dialogical manners.”

Why is my expecting that you test your claims empirically uncivilized, Rich?

“Why don’t you reply to my question about your false claim that I have a web site?  I do not own any web site.”

Do you manage one?

“Nor do I blog—except very sporadically—on anyone else’s.”

I’m talking about a web site, not a blog.


John - #23304

July 24th 2010

Rich:
“I literally don’t know what you are talking about.  And if you *are* taking me to be someone else, and your rage on these threads has been based on the assumption that I am someone else, you owe me an apology—big time.”

What rage, Rich? I am simply trying to understand the mental switch that allows you to be totally irrational wrt accepting or rejecting authorities, but when it comes to putting your money or career on the line, you manage to be perfectly rational, expressing zero faith in your position.

Back to the questions you’ve been ducking:
1) Why won’t you test an ID hypothesis personally?
2) You go on and on about how the extant data support your position, but why are you unable to suggest even a single (feasible) experiment for someone else to do that will test an ID hypothesis?


Rich - #23307

July 24th 2010

John:

Don’t evade this serious charge.  You accused me of having a web site.  I don’t own, manage, run, or co-run any web site.  I never have in my life.  I have—sporadically—blogged on web sites owned by others, web sites where I have zero administrative authority and zero influence on policy and contents.

Several times now you have alluded to a web site of mine, and your words indicate that you have been comparing things I say here to things on the alleged web site, and finding contradictions and hypocrisies of mine based on the comparison.  You’ve spoken of my lab work, of my claims about “extant data”, of my alleged hypotheses and commitments, etc., in ways that suggest that this non-existent “web site” is the source of your characterization.

I HAVE NEVER HAD A WEB SITE.  YOU’VE GOT THE WRONG PERSON.  YOU’VE BEEN MISREADING EVERYTHING I’VE SAID BY READING IT IN THE LIGHT OF STATEMENTS MADE BY SOMEONE ELSE.

I’d like an apology, not just for the error, but for your irresponsibilty in not checking the facts before making an assumption.  And also for the rage and the sneering.  Until I get unqualified apologies for all these things, you won’t get another reply from me.


Gods Own DNA - #23321

July 24th 2010

Rich

You needn’t deny or affirm anything. No one is asking you to. Just listen to what evolutionary biologists have to say. Read original research or news and views articles about them. If you get your material on evolution from behe, denton and sternberg, it will get you nowhere. You said you’ve been reading “about evolution” for 45 years, so I’m assuming you’ve read a decent evolution textbook. If not, get one and do so asap - there are many good ones available.

And what do you mean by “it’s just *assumed* that neo-Darwinian processes can do the job”? The neo-darwinian synthesis has given a coherent model of how macroevolution could have occurred through microevolution. It has survived the test of time because it works.

Watson and Crick proposed the helical model TOGETHER. Crick the physicist-by-training needed Watson the biologist-by-training to ground their data in a biologically relevant manner.

You call the modern synthesis “a theory which regularly overclaims and underperforms”. How can you make such brash judgments? First, you need to respect biology and biologists in general. Biology isn’t an entree in a restaurant for you to order it in a “physics or engineering flavor”.


HenryD - #23322

July 24th 2010

Gregory,

I understand you your point about the value of ID to non-scientists, and I wouldn’t disagree.  Just to clarify, when I said “So what’s ID “theory”  good for?”, I was just thinking in terms of its value to science.


Rich - #23323

July 24th 2010

HenryD:

I wasn’t referring primarily to ID when I spoke of strangling new ideas in their crib.  None of the Altenberg 16 are ID supporters, but many of them are regarded with contempt by the neo-Darwinians, and you can be sure that when it comes to hiring, grant reviews and so on, many neo-Darwinians will be trying to thwart the young disciples of these people, and to put the kibosh on self-organizing theories if they can.  This happens in all academic disciplines, but it’s worst in those disciplines where one theory has an overwhelming preponderance of influence.  The healthiest academic disciplines are those where there are two or more major competing viewpoints, so that no matter what camp you belong to, or even if you are non-affiliated, there’s an intellectual “freedom space” allowing for your views to find their way into journals, receive the odd grant, get a few of your students hired, etc.  This keeps everyone intellectually honest, constantly on their toes.  They know that unproved assumptions won’t be met by the lazy, unquestioning acceptance of the comfortable herd, but will be challenged.


Gregory - #23327

July 24th 2010

Hi Gods own DNA,

I’m not a biologist & probably will never in my life read a biology textbook. This is due to the intellectual “division of labour” in the Academy. I’m sure you can appreciate this.

That said, I have no trouble respecting biology as a field & biologists, if & when they do not over-step their disciplinary boundaries, for example, as E.O. Wilson & the socio-biologists did/do. In such a case, as I’m sure you can understand, especially if you are a biologist or geneticist who does *not* overstep his or her legitimate bounds, there is reason to be sceptical @ eVo biologists. Add to this that most eVo bios are known to be atheists or agnostics and the general public, e.g. in USA, which is mainly religious, has good reason not to trust their extra-scientific rhetoric.

But I wanted to ask a simple question. What would you say is/are the most important contribution(s) that eVo biology has made “that betters humanity” in the past 20 - 30 years? It isn’t that ‘gene’s are selfish’, is it? What’s eVo bio theory actually done?

I’m just trying to guage if eVo biology is improving our lives or if its medical or ecological discoveries that have little or nothing to do with said academic field.


Gregory - #23328

July 24th 2010

Thanks for clarifying HenryD.

As a sociologist of science, I guess I’m not the right guy to answer you. Why? Because I don’t think it is possible to divorce science from who does it, where it is done, why it is done, who pays for it, what it means to people, etc. So, I find the question “what is/has been ID’s value for science?” nonsensical because science doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

But I’m glad to hear that we’re on the same page about ID’s ‘value’ (as apologetics) mainly for American evangelical Christians.

I must admit that even if I don’t accept the trope “ID *IS* science” that the ‘argument from/to design’ is a useful apologetic, not only for Christianity, but for all monotheisms.

Much of this ‘movement’ is brought on from the ID gang reading M. Polanyi & R. Dawkins (who’s anti-religious, unscientific rhetoric, disguised as ‘science’ spurred on P. Johnson) wrt the power of the ‘concept’ of *design*. Dawkins admits: the universe looks designed!

Polanyi goes much deeper, from my light reading of him (e.g. “Life’s Irreducible Structures”), than does Dawkins into the meaning of ‘design.’ I wonder what BioLogos thinks of M. Polanyi’s work?


Gregory - #23330

July 24th 2010

Just a note to add to DNA re: neo-Darwinism.

First, I don’t hold to the view, as some do, that neo-Darwinism = evolutionary biology. Why? Because there are other theories in eVo biology than just Darwin’s and the field (of biology generally) has come a long way since the 19th century.

Second, what about the post-Darwinist biologists who are in the mainstream, e.g. L. Margulis?

Again, I would fault her for still using Darwin’s name. Why not come up with a new title for her biological approach. Doesn’t she call it symbiogenesis or something like that?

What Rich wrote about self-organization theories is interesting, autopoesis, neo-cybernetics, etc. whether or not they will break into biology (more than already) and how biology today would change as a result.

The name ‘Charles Darwin’ (and I too presented a paper at an int’l Darwin celebration event) is pathetic in my academic field, while some promote ‘universal Darwinism.’ Would you also seek to “go beyond Darwinian evolution,” DNA, or do you think a new ‘framework’ in biology will never be found?


Rich - #23331

July 24th 2010

DNA:

Your physics envy is showing.  I don’t disrespect *biologists* as such.  Good empirical biologists I respect very much.  They contribute useful knowledge to society.  What I disrespect is speculative biologists who bluff, overclaim and bully.  Or who tell me I need to read textbooks, to divert attention from the fact that they can’t explain even 1% of whale evolution in terms of their theory.


Geoff - #23333

July 24th 2010

“None of the Altenberg 16 are ID supporters, but many of them are regarded with contempt by the neo-Darwinians, and you can be sure that when it comes to hiring, grant reviews and so on, many neo-Darwinians will be trying to thwart the young disciples of these people, and to put the kibosh on self-organizing theories if they can.”

Can we have some evidence for this? It sounds very much like a conspiracy theory. Which of the “Altenberg 16” have suffered in the manner you suggest at the hand of the “neo-Darwinians?” Who even are the “neo-Darwinians?”


HenryD - #23342

July 24th 2010

@Rich,

“Or who tell me I need to read textbooks, to divert attention from the fact that they can’t explain even 1% of whale evolution in terms of their theory.”

Not even 1%?  Where does this number come from? 

Also, I would like to second Geoff’s request for evidence that the Alt 16 has suffered in the manner you suggest.  For that matter, who are the Alt 16?  Given the focus on ID, I’m not sure that I could have been expected to understand that we’d switched to talking about a new group when you used the “strangled” phrase.

Again, just out of curiosity, what is your academic field?  I swear I won’t say that you have to be a biologists to criticize biologists.


Rich - #23344

July 24th 2010

Geoff:

Note the tense of the verb.  It was future, not past.  I was making a prediction about a future injustice, not complaining about a past one.  And I’ve been involved in academia for over 30 years, and I know how academics behave; that’s the basis of my prediction.

If you don’t know who “neo-Darwinians” are, how can we talk about evolutionary biology?


HenryD - #23345

July 24th 2010

Oh.  So that would no evidence that the Atl 16 have suffered.


HenryD - #23346

July 24th 2010

Oops.  That should read…that would be no evidence…


Rich - #23348

July 24th 2010

HenryD:

On other threads over the last few months we’ve beaten whale evolution to death, with neither side conceding an inch.  The 1% comes from estimating the number of morphological changes needed to produce the whale (hundreds if not thousands), which the Darwinians refuse even to itemize.  And each of those hundred-plus morphological changes rests on more than one mutation, maybe dozens, maybe more, none of which have been itemized.  So we’re way, way, below 1% in terms of explained steps.  But of course the other side denies that such an account is necessary; they think you can just read the proof off genomics comparisons, without any detailed physical model of how it happens.  I won’t yield this, so we’re deadlocked.

My academic field is multi-pronged, but “religion and science”, with a special emphasis on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of modern science, covers some of it.  Lots of history of science, science classics (including Darwin), heavy philosophical texts re design, chance, necessity, laws of nature, etc.  Recently I’ve spent about five years studying Darwinian, ID and TE writings in great detail, plus the back-and-forth criticism in book reviews, internet sites, etc.


Rich - #23350

July 24th 2010

HenryD:

I didn’t offer evidence that anyone had suffered, because I didn’t claim that anyone had suffered.  But I can tell you with 98% certainty what will happen to a young Ph.D. inspired by Stuart Newman who applies for a job in evolutionary biology where (hypothetically) the search committee consists of Jerry Coyne, Eugenie Scott, and Richard Dawkins.  Theories have very blunt ways of keeping control of disciplines.


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