Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Two

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June 21, 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 Two

The first part of this series can be found here.

My blog about the importance of taking scientific consensus seriously generated some heated response from several directions, most noticeably over at Uncommon Descent, the Intelligent Design blog run by William Dembski. This is a critically important issue for the Intelligent Design community because its whole approach to origins requires that it set aside scientific consensus in favor of alternative views accepted by less than 1% of practicing biologists. ID requires that there be some criteria other than consensus for the evaluation of what constitutes “science.”

A variety of arguments are provided to support this, which I would like to examine over the next few months. I will start with the historical argument first.

Dembski writes: “If the history of science is any indicator, every scientific theory has faults and is eventually abandoned in favor of a better, more accurate theory. Why should we expect any different from evolutionary theory?”

I find it hard to understand what Dembski means by this. He speaks of every theory. If he had said some theories, he would OK. But every theory? Over two thousand years ago Greeks developed, to consider one example, a theory that the earth was round and not flat. Their reasoning was quite ingenious and included observations like the shape of the earth’s shadow on the moon during an eclipse, and the way a ship appeared to sink down as it sailed out to sea. This theory seems quite secure to me and unlikely to be abandoned. In fact this idea is now a simple fact, as photographed from space.

Two millennia after the enduring success of the round earth theory, Copernicus developed a theory that the earth was moving. To be sure, this overturned a theory that the earth was stationary, but are we really supposed to believe that the motion of the earth will be “eventually abandoned” in favor of a “more accurate theory”?

Let’s take a stroll through science and look at some of the central ideas: electrons and protons have equal and opposite charges while neutrons are uncharged; radio waves travel at the speed of light; the orbits of electrons are fixed to certain positions and cannot be anywhere in the atom; stars shine by fusing nuclei; the universe is expanding; disorder increases through time. These theories once seemed speculative and controversial but now they represent the consensus of the scientific community. Are we really being asked to believe they will one day be overturned?

The history of science does not suggest that theories are abandoned. Scientific progress occurs most commonly when theories are refined and extended. Physicists did not abandon Newton’s theory of optics in the 19th century--it was extended and refined with the discovery that visible light, radio waves and infrared radiation were all part of a continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Similarly, the “solar system” model of the atom was not abandoned when it was discovered that the nucleus had both protons and neutrons in it. And that nuclear model was not abandoned when it was discovered that protons and neutrons are composed of quarks.

So how about evolution? Is it reasonable to hold out hope that it will one day be abandoned? The situation with evolution is quite the reverse. Evolution has been around for over 150 years and remains within the broad outlines traced by Darwin in The Origin of Species. During that period it has become steadily stronger and more successful at explaining the natural world. When DNA was discovered, for example, it fit evolutionary theory exactly, confirming Darwin’s intuition about how natural selection had to work. And when the mapping of genomes of multiple species began a few years ago, the data confirmed the ancestral patterns that had been developed based on comparative anatomy and other approaches.

The consensus that exists now about evolution is close to 100% of research biologists. Comparative anatomists, geneticists, cell biologists, paleontologists, embryologists and every other sub-field of biology have all compared their data with each other and found that evolution ties it all together and makes it into a remarkably coherent system. This conclusion is so broad and based on so many different technical fields that I cannot imagine how a layperson could even begin to understand it well enough to decide that all these experts were wrong.

Thomas Cudworth, also on the Uncommon Descent blog, is appalled at my consensus argument, which he summarizes as “everyone should defer to the majority of evolutionary biologists simply because they are the certified experts.” Leaving aside the fact that “certified expert” is not a label in use in the scientific community, Cudworth is properly stating my position. A simpler way to put it would be like this, however: People who know a lot about a subject are more likely to be correct when they speak about it than people who know very little.

Is a challenge really being made to this statement? Are we really to believe that it is acceptable to put the conclusions of people who know very little ahead of those who know a lot? If I, a physicist who took my last biology class in 1975, decide to challenge Francis Collins on a question of genetics, should anyone listen to me, just because they like my “science” better? (Please don’t, if I go off the rails and do something like this.)

And why is this “everyman science” proposed only in the area of biology? Can we apply Cudworth’s argument to physics and astronomy? If I can find three trained astronomers who are absolutely certain that astrology is valid, does this mean we should consider setting aside the consensus view from tens of thousands of other astronomers who think the opposite? If I find three psychologists who believe the stories of alien abductions, does that idea become worthy of consideration? How about three historians who deny the Holocaust?

The sad truth of the matter is that the argument made against the validity of consensus in science is selectively applied only to evolution and only because the ID movement has no choice. Its confident predictions of a decade ago that evolution was tottering and would soon collapse have not come true. The consensus remains against ID and so the consensus must be wrong.


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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Marichi - #18816

June 24th 2010

Basic questions to resolve:

1. What is consensus?  Is it majority view?  Is it super-majority view?  Is it a view that is held universally?
2. How do we determine if consensus exists?  Scientists are not normally scientifically surveyed about scientific beliefs.
3. How do we know that a consensus exists purely because of the evidence? Scientists are humans and thus there is a distinct and psychological and sociological element to science.

Mike, in the absence of any theory to work with, these questions are simply idle speculation.  Unless you can produce a Yogavashishta in response to the Yogasutra…A sutra is never uttered idly, unless the professor intends to end with a bhashya.


NS - #18870

June 25th 2010

Unapologetic Catholic,

“Uncommon Descent is well known for (etc)”

Yes, uncommon descent is known for that. In the same way that evolution is known for being nothing but a scientifically baseless sham propped up by atheists. In other words, what something is “known for” and what is in fact the case about it are often two distinct things.

Behe believes in common descent and evolution (though he believes ‘darwinian’ evolution has an edge) and runs his own blog off a UD subdomain. Their FAQ explicitly admits one can believe in CD and ID, or evolution and CD and ID. I have been commenting at UD for years, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes critically, across a range of topics. I comment there as nullasalus, and you can search their archives freely - see me argue against and on the side of Thomas Cudworth, StephenB, and many others. See critics far less friendly than I do the same, regularly. See pro-evolution, pro-CD ID proponents post.

“Does scientific accuracy enter into this process?”

How do you know what’s scientifically accurate, UC? Are you doing something other than parroting the consensus of your betters? If not, be careful. According to the Biologos-Giberson standard, that’s dangerous thinking.


Marichi - #18873

June 25th 2010

How do you know what’s scientifically accurate, UC? Are you doing something other than parroting the consensus of your betters? If not, be careful. According to the Biologos-Giberson standard, that’s dangerous thinking

Nulla in all the “years” that you have commented on UD, the scientific content of your posts has remained unchanged - it is sparse (if at all) as it was when you started.  UD consists of inane posts that are written around a few lines here and there lifted from some article.  Once in a while utterly discredited and empty ramblings of the likes of Granville Sewell are published.  Given your very poor acquaintance with science you are in no position to question anyone’s ability to follow the scientific literature.


NS - #18891

June 25th 2010

I didn’t question his ability to “follow the scientific literature”, Marichi. I said that if he’s deciding for himself what is and is not “scientifically accurate”, then he’d better be doing nothing more than parroting what the consensus of his betters say (assuming, of course, he’s not in the specific field he’s commenting on - and then, he’d better be part of the consensus.) Otherwise, he’s violating that precious “Biologos-Giberson” standard. As, by the way, are you.

Got a problem with that? Talk to Karl Giberson. It’s his standard. I happen to think it’s inane.

As for you, swamper, I could care less what your estimation of me is. Doubly so since I rarely bother challenging anyone’s science, pro- or anti-ID. I challenge conclusions which go well beyond science and smuggle in philosophy or (a)theology while posing as science. Rather in accordance with Biologos’ on-paper ideal, actually, except I’m willing to point out when some of those “betters” are doing what Biologos objects to Behe & co. doing.

I accept CD. I accept evolution. Neither are barriers to accepting design, even if I’m skeptical whether ID (much like no-ID) is science. There are others like me, even at UD, and that was where UC was wrong.


Rich - #18908

June 25th 2010

Marichi:

Granville Sewell has a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and a faculty position at an actual university (not a Christian college), and has given considerable thought to Darwinian theory.  As one who knows that programs and codes aren’t created by chance, but by intelligent designers, his thoughts are quite relevant to the program-like behavior of the DNA-protein system.  Yet you snipe at him, as so many others here, mostly without scientific accomplishments of their own, snipe at Behe, Sternberg, etc.  Why?

For the record, the level of scientific discussion, at least among the commenters, is far higher on UD than it is here.  I’ve seen many threads at UD of several hundred long comments on the details of genetics, etc., often citing technical literature which the commenters have actually read, whereas most of the criticisms of ID here are polemical slams, backed by quick links pulled off the internet, either not read at all or quickly skimmed without understanding.  The exceptions (Argon, Dennis Venema) are rare.  Thus, this place, to an IDer, feels like Pharyngula, only without the vulgar language.  Here, the uninformed anti-ID prejudice has a polite Christian veneer; but it’s no less uninformed for that.


unapologetic catholic - #18960

June 25th 2010

I thought I’d test the truth of this comment:

“As someone who accepts evolution, common descent, believes in God and Catholicism, who is skeptical of ID (or anti-ID) as being ‘scientific’, and who thinks the ID movement has made plenty of mistakes…”

I flushed that quail quickly.

“Thus, this place, to an IDer, feels like Pharyngula, only without the vulgar language.”

Yes, many of us Christians do find ID to be a scam, perpetrated in the name of religion.  ID proponents will have to get used to that.  We are offended at the misuse of religion.

Rich’s comment 18505 is the most cogent explanation of ID I’ve seen.  It is also devoid of content, disguising its lack of content by using mushy undefined words such as “high degree of integrated complexity.”  When pressed, IDists dodge defining terms such as “suitable material adjuncts.”  When pressed, they cannot identify any irreducibly complex biological systems and refuse to quantify the term so anybody else can either.

This place has one thing in common with Pharyngula—a belief that good science is important and has a purpose.  An ID proponent might well feel equally uncomfortable in both places and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Rich - #18968

June 25th 2010

U.C.:

You’ll find non-mushy, detailed discussions of “complexity”, “specified complexity”, “integrated complexity” and so on in many ID books, with very precise mathematical discussions concerning how to quantify complexity.  One such book is *No Free Lunch* by William Dembski. 

ID people too care very much about good science.  That’s why they oppose the sloppy, vague, indemonstrable story-telling called neo-Darwinism.  150 years after Darwin, there isn’t a living biologist who can tell us how a foot becomes a fin, or vice-versa, or how a cardiovascular system could have been formed, or how a reptile could have become a bird.  If physics and chemistry had track records that bad, they would have ceased receiving state funding long ago.

ID people too are frequently offended at the misuse of religion.  That’s why they never utter statements about what God would or wouldn’t have done in the creation of living things.  They don’t think it’s man’s place to tell God what to do.

By the way, how exactly did you “test the truth” of NS’s comment?  It looks to me as if you simply denied it, without any evidence whatsoever.  Care to provide UD post numbers to back up your dismissal, or are you bluffing?


unapologetic catholic - #19027

June 25th 2010

“You’ll find non-mushy, detailed discussions of “complexity”, “specified complexity”, “integrated complexity” and so on in many ID books, with very precise mathematical discussions concerning how to quantify complexity.  One such book is *No Free Lunch* by William Dembski”

I read it.  it’s not there.  You did the best you could in describing ID in yoru comment above.  ID is a string of vacuous meanignless words so equivically defined as to be useless.

here’s more weasel words (not your fault) “very precise mathematical discussions concerning how to quantify complexity”

I agree, a lot of “discussions.”  There is not a single calculation of the CSI present in a single irreducibly complex biological system compared to the calcuation of the CSI present in a non-irreducibly complex biological system.  What is the unit of measure of CSI, anyway? Dembskis? There is no defintiona nd no equation showign calcualations on known biological objects.

But you’re absolutely right—-lots and lots of discussions.


Rich - #19044

June 25th 2010

U.C.:

If you’ve read Dembski’s book, as you claim, you should know that he applies the math to a “known biological object”—the bacterial flagellum.  Perhaps you missed that chapter?

Sigh.  We were doing so well on theology, but you’ve re-adopted your culture warrior attitude, and things have soured again.  But of course, the culture warrior attitude is standard here, so why should I be surprised?  And could anything but the culture warrior attitude be standard, when the whole purpose of the site (as far as I can tell, based on the columns and comments) is to attack YEC and to insult and belittle ID?


unapologetic catholic - #19054

June 26th 2010

“known biological object”—the bacterial flagellum.  Perhaps you missed that chapter?”

Nope.  Quick, what was his answer?  How many dembskis are contained in a flagellum?

Dembski didn’t do a thing.  He concluded that odds of the evolution of the flagellum were high based on erroneous assumptions.  Assuming extreme improbabilty is not the same thing as calculating the amount of “specified complexity.”  Extremely rare events are neither “specified” nor “complex” events.  Supposedly calculating an event’s rarity does says zilch about its complexity.

You can call it culture war you want.  Do you contend YEC is good science?  If it’s not why can’t you say so?  People aren’t evil if they are YEC.  I’ve even stated that YEC is one of many orthodox positons in my own denomination.  So is ID. 

That doesn’t make either idea scientifically valid. I’m perfectly capable of rejecting people’s position regarding science while agreeing with their politics and their religion.  The culture war is your insertion not mine.

This ID proponent’s calculations are far more detailed than Dembski’s:  http://www.revelatorium.com/


Rich - #19067

June 26th 2010

U.C.:

It’s obvious that you didn’t read Dembski’s book as carefully as I did.  (Which is not surprising to me, as in every case we’ve discussed, whether that of ID authors or statements of the Roman Church on evolution, you’ve never read the text as carefully as I have.)

He didn’t “assume” extreme improbability, but discovered it by calculation.  And he knows perfectly well that rarity alone does not produce complex specified information, and in fact makes that point very clearly, early in the book.  He didn’t acquire two Ph.D.s in probability theory by making elementary errors of the sort you are imputing to him.  But of course, if you are his superior in these matters, nothing is stopping you from publishing your refutation of his arguments in scientific or respectable popular journals. 

I never said anything about YEC science one way or the other.  Why should I?  This isn’t a YEC site, but a TE site.  In any case, I’ve clearly indicated I’m not a YEC, and on other threads have spend great lengths of time refuting YEC interpretations of Genesis.  If I’m not a YEC, is it likely that I would think YEC science is good science?  You should be able to answer that one without my help.

Have a good summer.


Fusion Core - #19210

June 26th 2010

I haven’t read all of the comments above, but I think the following link is a good supplement to the point Giberson is trying to make with this article.

http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm


Rich - #19265

June 28th 2010

Fusion Core:

Nice essay by Asimov.  I have no problem with Asimov’s argument, and I agree that Giberson is trying to make out as if scientific theory proceeds like that all the time.  But in I think that is an oversimplification.  In *some* areas of science things proceed as Giberson describes.  That isn’t the case in all areas.  Sometimes important views are entirely junked.  Ether, for example.  So Giberson is oversimplifying the history of science.

Giberson’s major thesis—that only experts in a field can offer intelligent opinions—is wildly wrong.  In every field (and not just in the natural sciences) history shows that major advances have often been made when non-experts with a fresh insight wander into a field and point out something about the forest that the specialists, busily cataloguing the leaves on individual trees, have not noticed.

But Giberson won’t engage on that point, or any point, as his non-replies to serious challenges here indicate.  His two columns on this subject have been sermons on conformism rather than a serious academic discussion of how good science proceeds.  If you want to know about the nature of science, read Kuhn and Feyerabend, not Giberson.


John - #23689

July 27th 2010

Rich wrote:
“Giberson’s major thesis—that only experts in a field can offer intelligent opinions—is wildly wrong.”

This is a wildly dishonest misrepresentation of Giberson’s actual thesis:
“People who know a lot about a subject are more likely to be correct when they speak about it than people who know very little.”

“In every field (and not just in the natural sciences) history shows that major advances have often been made when non-experts with a fresh insight wander into a field and point out something about the forest that the specialists, busily cataloguing the leaves on individual trees, have not noticed.”

None have occurred without empirical testing of the fresh hypothesis, and no one in your camp has sufficient faith and courage to subject an ID hypothesis to an empirical test. By the way, there’s nothing fresh about ID anyway. It fell to Darwin’s fresh hypothesis, now a theory.

Moreover, the “non-experts with a fresh insight” become experts as they produce new data. Your side is too cowardly to do that. It’s all books aimed at the lay public, attempts to get their untested hypothesis taught in the public schools, etc. No science has ever succeeded using the strategies of the IDC movement.


John - #23697

July 27th 2010

Rich to UC:
“It’s obvious that you didn’t read Dembski’s book as carefully as I did.  (Which is not surprising to me, as in every case we’ve discussed, whether that of ID authors or statements of the Roman Church on evolution, you’ve never read the text as carefully as I have.)”

RIch’s Christian humility is amazing.

“He didn’t “assume” extreme improbability, but discovered it by calculation.”

Dembski measured nothing. He has yet to measure anything. I’ve done more to test Dembski’s core assumption, which he falsely presents as fact, than the entire ID movement has.

“He didn’t acquire two Ph.D.s in probability theory by making elementary errors of the sort you are imputing to him.”

He likely got a second PhD because he didn’t produce anything from the first one that persuaded anyone to take him on as a postdoc or assistant professor. Also, how do you know this? Do his thesis advisors agree with you and Dembski?

“But of course, if you are his superior in these matters, nothing is stopping you from publishing your refutation of his arguments in scientific or respectable popular journals.”

Dembski has already been refuted repeatedly. You should be asking Dembski why he doesn’t publish in journals.


Stephen - #23715

July 28th 2010

Rich appears to be suffering from a very common problem among creationists/ID’ers.


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