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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John - #18160

June 21st 2010

Regarding Cudworth and the “everyman science,” I’m wondering how man of these people would be prepared to barge their way into a hospital, push all the surgeons out of the way, and take control of the operations being performed.

Consensus is simply an easy way for lay people to assess the accuracy of scientific claims. How many qualified virologists, and research biologists reject the idea that HIV causes AIDS? Well there are certainly a few, but it is an extremely small percentage. The most likely reason for this is that it is not a view supported by the scientific data and those who hold to it probably do so for non-scientific reasons.

That “scientific progress occurs most commonly when theories are refined and extended” is a large reason why ID has made no headway. Its advocates are still largely trying to dispute some things that are explained extremely well by evolution and really established beyond dispute, i.e. human-great ape common ancestry.

whoschad - #18162

June 21st 2010

A great many historians deny the fact the Jesus rose from the dead. Should we go along with their assessment on the matter because they are trained historians? Or are we allowed to disagree?

norm - #18164

June 21st 2010

Good thoughts especially concerning the “layman” passing judgment upon the experts. It seems to be an American attitude that the “common man knowledge” rises above the experts somehow as demonstrated by anecdotal examples that are often marched out for demonstrations.

What is a more challenging issue to me is the idea of higher Biblical scholarship and our dependence upon those to set us straight on how we should interpret the scriptures. If we followed the norm we should have seen biblical consensus develop over all issues relating to understanding the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation but we do not have such at present.  This seems to point out that biblical research and understanding is front loaded with presuppositions that undermine the ability of a higher biblical assessment.  Therefore religious people look around and determine that because of the confusion in biblical research then it must hold true for the sciences as well. After all people are human and so it goes that the biological sciences are infected with the same problems that can restrict their right conclusions.


norm - #18165

June 21st 2010

It is obviously not an apple or orange comparison but people draw conclusions as if it was. The seeds of doubt about evolution probably comes from within our religious culture and experience with the “babelization” of Christianity over the centuries. We simply have a culture of mistrust in all things higher no matter how convincing.

Mike Gene - #18166

June 21st 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 Gene - #18168

June 21st 2010

Also, let’s think of thinking in evolutionary terms. What is crucial for evolution and adaptation?  Variation.  Without sufficient variation, adaptation cannot occur.  Now, consensus is an attempt to erase variation.  If we want our thinking to be able to adapt to new discoveries, isn’t there a point where consensus might hinder such development? 

Can anyone explain how science would be better off if 100% of scientists embraced Hypothesis A vs. 90% embracing A and 10% being skeptical?  It would seem to me that the latter situation is a better state – if A is correct, the skepticism of the 10% will allow the 90% to better nail it down; if A is false, the 10% will increase the odds the 90% see their error.

Headless Unicorn Guy - #18169

June 21st 2010

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.

I don’t.  It’s the YEC Holy Grail—that evolutionary theory will be abandoned and replaced by the TRUTH of Young Earth Creationism—excuse me, Intelligent Design (nudge nudge wink wink know what I mean know what I mean).

You see, ID got hijacked by YEC some time ago, to the point that there are TWO Intelligent Designs going around.

The first is the original Intelligent Design, intellectual and philosophical heir of Renaissance-to-Enlightenment “Natural Theology”.  The idea that motivated the beginning of modern science in the West—that God is knowable and consistent and created a knowable, consistent cosmos and our discoveries are “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”  A longstanding philosophical tradition.

The second is Intelligent Design (nudge nudge wink wink know what I mean know what I mean), the latest coat of camouflage paint for Young Earth Creationism Uber Alles.

Karl A - #18170

June 21st 2010

Good post, sharpened even more by Mike Gene’s (18166) questions.  I also take your (Mike G. 18168) point about the value of dissent and differing viewpoints.  Actually, I don’t see that point necessarily conflicting with the main thrust of Karl G.‘s post; it’s one thing for you as (I assume) a trained biologist to raise questions about the reigning paradigm and another thing entirely for someone untrained in the discipline to airily dismiss it as “just an unproven theory”.  I agree with Norm that it is culturally acceptable in the U.S. to have an unhelpful “expert schmexpert” attitude.

I anticipate someone like Rich reminding us of the danger of falling off into the opposite ditch of not being able to question the word of an “expert”.  Yes, EVERYTHING and EVERYONE is open to question at some level, but arrogant dismissal of heavy consensus opinion is rarely if ever a helpful form of “questioning”.  (Not saying that Rich does that, but we do run across that attitude in people or even in ourselves at times.)

Bilbo - #18172

June 21st 2010


Dembski is an Old Earth Creationist.  So is Stephen Meyer.  Paul Nelson is a YEC.  I’m not sure about Jonathan Wells, Richard Sternberg, or Douglas Axe.  Michael Behe accepts an old earth and common descent, but also thinks there was a great deal of intelligent design.  Just setting the record straight.

Bilbo - #18177

June 21st 2010

Hi Karl and Karl A,

Mike Gene’s questions are excellent.  But there is a further problem in accepting the consensus.  Teleological explanations have been ruled out as illegitimate scientific explanations, based on philosophical considerations.  That means that scientists, by and large, would be unwilling to consider teleological explanations, which means that whatever non-teleological theory that is left wins by default.  This is something that is obvious to any layperson, and acxcounts for much of our skepticism.

beaglelady - #18179

June 21st 2010

es, EVERYTHING and EVERYONE is open to question at some level, but arrogant dismissal of heavy consensus opinion is rarely if ever a helpful form of “questioning”.

Not to mention that refusing to treat a gravely sick child with conventional medicine and going instead with quackery could land you in jail.

HornSpiel - #18180

June 21st 2010

I like Mike’s evolutionary analogy:

Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET), its Theistic Evolutionary (TE) subtype, and ID are competing expressions of the Scientific Paradigm Genotype (SPG) in the Human Cultural Environment (HCE). Clearly SET has an advantage in the broader culture, especially among scientific practitioners. However ID survives and is out competing TE in niche environments where it is paired with conservative expressions of the Human Religious Impulse Genotype (HRIG).

Is it important that ID be expunged and only SET survive, or is it healthy for both to compete? I think ID has improved SET, especially the TE variety, which shares the same niche in the HCE with the Orthodox/Evangelical Christian (OEC) expression of the HRIG.  An arguably negative effect, however, is that ID has reduced the influence of good science in confronting important broader environmental problems.  It also tends to limits the spread of OEC.

Based on this model I would conclude that TE will never compete effectively with ID, when paired with OEC, by showing it is non-viable when paired with scientific practice. Rather , it must show that it is more effective in achieving the goals of OEC than ID.

beaglelady - #18181

June 21st 2010

Teleological explanations have been ruled out as illegitimate scientific explanations, based on philosophical considerations.

Actually scientists have no way of examining the supernatural with the tools of science. E.g. we have scanners for explosive residue but nothing like that for demons (or whatever).

Bilbo - #18190

June 21st 2010

Hi Beaglelady,

SETI thinks it can detect teleological radio signals, and nobody objects.  Only in biological phenomena is an objection raised.

beaglelady - #18193

June 21st 2010

Hi Bilbo,

Have they detected any yet? Are the radio signals of supernatural origin? How can they tell?

Bilbo - #18195

June 21st 2010

Hi Beaglelady,

No, SETI hasn’t detected any extra-terrestrial teleological radio signals, yet.  If you’re familiar with Dembski’s pulsar, you would know that there are ways to make a reasonable inference to a supernatural intelligence.  But ID doesn’t claim that the evidence of design is necssarily supernatural, just intelligent.

Gregory - #18201

June 21st 2010

Hi Hornspiel,


Just curious: where did you get all of these acronyms from?

SPG, HCE, HRIG - these are marginal combinations at best and misleading in many ways. No major figure in this conversation uses them. There is little reason to accept a biologist speaking about ‘paradigms’ because frankly the discussion of paradigms is happening ‘elsewhere’ in other scholarly realms.

HornSpiel - #18202

June 21st 2010


Inference of design in an audio signal would be attributed to ET intelligence, another potentially “evolved” life form. SETI assumes standard evolution is the basis of the ETI. Its limited goal is to see if we can detect it

The ID inference of design in the genome is quite a different matter. With regard to life, it is to me a non-explanation. If we posit that the Intelligence is a Super intelligent Life Form (SILF), then where did the SILF come from? We have no theory or experience of any alternate intelligent life forms, except those found an earth. As far as I know we have not detected any SILF candidates. So ID just kicks the question of the origin of life down the road over a cliff where we have no chance of discovering anything.

The only alternative Intelligence we humans have experience of is the divine. Therefore, ipso facto, the only usefulness ID has is as an apologetic for the existence of God.  Christians, of course claim the the divine is God and is, in fact, super intelligent.

That is one reason why I and many others are skeptical of IDs claims to be neutral to the source of the Intelligence—why the Discovery Institute is simply not being honest. The Wedge document only confirms this view.

Gregory - #18203

June 21st 2010

Karl Giberson wrote:
“ID requires that there be some criteria other than consensus for the evaluation of what constitutes “science”.”

I’m not so sure there *is* a ‘consensus’ on ‘origins of life’ attributable to ‘biologists’. Only totally un-mystical people, disenchanted people, hyper-rationalistic people would bow to biology on the topic of OoL. ID people question the neo-Darwinist ‘pseudo-consensus’.

And ‘origins stories’ by native peoples, by ancient peoples, by non-western peoples? Do these not count? Should ‘they’ sit at the heels of ‘western science’ for legitimacy and worth?

I highly doubt the TE or EC “approach to origins” b/c it applies a process account of origins. They have confused processes with origins. They think a process can happen w/out an origin!

“Scientific progress occurs most commonly when theories are refined and extended” - Karl G.

Yes, this is fair to say. And there are also ‘revolutions’ like Copernicus’ & Einstein’s that happen relatively quickly & fundamentally shift the ‘scientific consensus.’

I am confident of being more an ‘expert’ on this than anyone at BioLogos because the topic belongs in history, philosophy and sociology of science.

HornSpiel - #18204

June 21st 2010


I invented the acronyms for this post, both to save space but also to emphasis how aspects of culture are analogous to the genotypes and phenotypes of biological systems. I realize this is controversial, but using evolution to model aspects culture is IMHO a very useful way understanding who we are, and how and why many aspects of our society change as they do. 

I am not a biologist but a linguist and a student of anthropology. Paradigms for me are intellectual concepts that are fundamental to human society and world views. I am very interested in understanding how we get them, why we hold on to them, and most importantly, how they affect our relationships with each other, to God, and to His creation.

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