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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Glen Davidson - #18205

June 21st 2010

One wonders if the spherical earth really counts as a “theory.”  But perhaps that only barely matters.

Regardless, it’s pretty clear that many theories, including evolution, have stood the test of time.  Maybe all will eventually be abandoned?  Maybe, but Dembski has as much evidence for that as he has of “intelligent design.”

Suppose it were true, though?  What difference would that make when evolutionary theory remains productive and ID remains sterile as always?  It doesn’t really bother me to suppose that evolutionary theory with its mechanisms could conceivably be abandoned—it’s supposed to be if a better idea comes along.

So far, nothing that even explains what evolutionary theory does is in the offing, let alone anything that explains more (without illicit premises) than evolutionary theory does.  That’s what really matters, and it is what “consensus scientists” typically do argue (at least when they have time and inclination to truly discuss the issues), rather than claiming that mere consensus is what counts.

Glen Davidson

Bilbo - #18207

June 21st 2010

Hi Hornspiel,

SETI’s justification for looking for teleological radio signals is different than their criteria of what constitute’s such a signal.  If they found such a signal, they wouldn’t know if it was another evolved life form or not.

Finding reasonable evidence of intelligent design in biological organisms should allows us to infer that it was designed by an intelligence of some kind, without needing to answer the second question of exactly who the designer was.

I’m not into wedges or defending everyone’s agenda.  Find somwone else to pick a fight with about that.  I’m just a layperson skeptical of a certain scientific consensus.

Glen Davidson - #18208

June 21st 2010

Obviously, what should be counted as “science” is and always will be problematic, because in one sense “science” is the consensus of the scientists, and yet consensus sometimes changes when—at first a minority of—scientists recognize that “science” really does not support the consensus adequately and that some other idea is better supported by “science.”

It might, however, be said that only scientists, or the rare self-educated person like Martin Gardner, can challenge the consensus.  Probably that’s true in some sense, yet there is nothing wrong with people ignoring what the “experts” say when it is rather palpably untrue. 

The “experts” (probably not the “depth psychologists” is my guess) knew that feeding the infants was what led to the mother-infant bond.  And then Harry Harlow did his experiments with monkeys and/or apes, showing that the “experts” were quite wrong about that.  Fortunately, most of the “common people” never had given much heed to the nonsense of the previous “consensus.”

The “experts” can be terribly wrong, and I cannot say that non-scientists must accept their opinion.

Glen Davidson

Gregory - #18209

June 21st 2010

“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.” - Hornspiel

No, using evolution to model culture is actually quite naive and unnecessary. Plants (and minerals) don’t ‘think,’ don’t have emotions, don’t confront ethical choices. Human beings do.

Culture is a uniquely ‘human thing.’

Do you protest this, Hornspiel?

I am thus far not persuaded in the least by your ‘outsider’ or uninitiated appeal to ‘analogy’.

Follow this genotype/phenotype route to ‘culture’ and your best role model is none other than Richard Dawkins and his (extended phenotype) ‘memetic’ theory. Please elaborate how ‘controversial’ you think this actually is.

As a linguist and student of ANTHROPOlogy, I respect your search for a new ‘paradigm.’ When it comes (and it is obviously not called ‘intelligent + design”), I hope you will be one person to embrace it.

Glen Davidson - #18211

June 21st 2010

On the other hand, something like the consensus that Harlow overturned hardly helps the IDists and the rest of the creationists.  It shows how wrong a large number of experts can be, which certainly doesn’t help us to understand that a few religiously-motivated cranks should actually be correct.

Indeed, the notion of what an “expert” is ought not to rest solely upon credentials.  However fallacious “arguments to authority” are, the fact is that in a lesser sense we are normally stuck with accepting what “experts” tell us, subject to the understanding that replication of results is expected in science. 

So what would any non-ID scientist go about “replicating”?  There simply is nothing.  ID produces nothing, except moved-goalpost “challenges” to evolution to, for instance, explain every step of the evolution of the cilium, rather than to rest the success of its basic claims upon successful and falsifiable predictions, as every other science does. 

The fact that IDist “scientists” really don’t discuss issues with those not of their beliefs is another mark of non-science.  Their cloistered “discussions” are characteristic of dogma, not of science.

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #18217

June 21st 2010

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

That’s because SETI is looking for intelligently-produced signals, which in part would be characterized by reduced complexity, while IDists in biology are trying to claim that the known and obvious fact that life is complex is evidence of “design.”

One expects rationality in SETI signals. 

One does not find rationality in the forms and processes of life.

IOW, with SETI we’re looking for known aspects of intelligence, such as its capacity for rational thought, leaps, etc.  ID knows that rationality, forethought, and judicious borrowing do not exist in life, so they try to change the rules to avoid looking for the marks of design, rather to baptize the complexity expected of evolution as being now the mark of design.

Or to put it another way, if we found life, or ET’s effects, we could easily differentiate between it and “wild-type” life.  Archaeologists do not find fossils and think that intelligence made it.  SETI depends upon the distinction between life’s order and that expected from intelligence.

Glen Davidson

beaglelady - #18218

June 21st 2010

But ID doesn’t claim that the evidence of design is necssarily supernatural, just intelligent.

Nope, not supernatural at all, that’s for sure.

Gregory - #18219

June 21st 2010

“Indeed, the notion of what an “expert” is ought not to rest solely upon credentials.” - Glen

Yes, this is a ‘rejection of hierarchy’ type of argument. I am well-aware of such an anti-institution approach to society in our electronic-information, neo-institution age.

Rich misinterpreted Karl Giberson on his first “Would you like fries with that theory?” post. He couldn’t embrace the sociological meaning of Karl’s appeal. He didn’t dare ‘get sociological.’

There can be ‘experts’ who are not awarded degrees by universities in the USA, Canada, Oceana or England. But these ‘experts’ must somehow be ‘legitimized’ to give credit to their knowledge of nature, humanity, culture, etc. People want ‘certificates’ or ‘certification.’

The *reality* shows that ID ‘scientists’ are decorated by some of the top universities in the United States of America. This is undeniable. Who would doubt this?

Is there a problem with United Statesean education? Yes, of course there is. As with everywhere.

How do *fanaticism* and *under-education* impact ‘evangelicals’? This is a HUGE question for BioLogos to address.

Bilbo - #18220

June 21st 2010

Hi Glen,

I wondered when you would get around to attacking ID.  First, to the charge of no replication.  The last time scientists replicated the evolution of the cilum was…when?  On the other hand, after J. Craig Venter synthesized a genome and stuck in a different kind of bacterium, and then observed how it took over the cell, he remarked that there were “philosophical implications” from the fact that the cells were “soft-ware driven biological machines.”  He didn’t bother to say what the philosophical implications were.  I know what I think they are.

Glen Davidson - #18221

June 21st 2010

But ID doesn’t claim that the evidence of design is necssarily supernatural, just intelligent.

Except that Meyer does here—at around 16-17 minutes into the video. 

Now here he’s back to the old ID misrepresentations.

The lack of honest talk from them appears to be their only real consistency.

Glen Davidson

Gregory - #18225

June 21st 2010

There is (supposedly) only *one* opposite for the term ‘natural.’

That is: ‘SUPERnatural’. (Read: Supernatural Britiish Columbia)

This is a misnomer. Non-dialectic thinkers. Anti-wholistic imagination. Narrow. Scientific specializationism. ‘Western.’ Non-global.

But who will accept this? Only freaks of nature? = )

Glen Davidson - #18226

June 21st 2010

I wondered when you would get around to attacking ID.

You have shown nothing wrong in how I addressed ID’s specious “science.”  Yet you call that an attack, while you have no apology for your lack of substance in your drumbeat against evolution.

First, to the charge of no replication.  The last time scientists replicated the evolution of the cilum was…when?

Showing how you so badly misunderstand science.  It is the evidence that is replicable, and as I noted and you ignored:

ID produces nothing, except moved-goalpost “challenges” to evolution to, for instance, explain every step of the evolution of the cilium, rather than to rest the success of its basic claims upon successful and falsifiable predictions, as every other science does.

Yours and ID’s “challenge” is akin to demanding that we replicate the anoxic earth prior to noting that it existed.  Of course it can’t be done, and IDists only demand its equivalent because they can’t challenge the excellent evidence that supports evolutionary

Glen Davidson

HornSpiel - #18229

June 21st 2010

Bilbo and Gregory,

I find it interesting that you seem to be attacking my paradigm on philosophical grounds rather than the substance of my first post here on the relative validity and relevance of the TE and ID positions in Christian thought.

The difference between my views and Dawkins’ is that he insists that memes exist only as physical material entities. He rejects the notion of epiphenomena, such as the soul or intelligence, as anything other that illusions of material origin and causation.

My Christian perspective, however, requires me to believe in the reality of the soul, of free will, and that my intelligence, if you will, is a real causal factor in reality. And this is, in fact, the way social scientists do do science, for the most part. We study culture as an epiphenomena of the human spirit, intelligence, cognitive apparatus call it what you will.  Not as a manifestation of electro-chemical reactions in the brain. This is one reason you find a curious resistance to evolution by otherwise atheistic scientists like Chomsky. See for instance the recent book by Jerry Fodor et al.

Rich - #18232

June 21st 2010

beaglelady (18181):

Do you read carefully before you disagree with someone on a point?  You wrote:

[Bilbo:] Teleological explanations have been ruled out as illegitimate scientific explanations, based on philosophical considerations.

[beaglelady:] 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 made no mention of the supernatural.  He spoke of “teleological explanations”.  If you do not know what “teleological” means, I suggest you look it up before objecting to “teleological explanations”.

beaglelady - #18236

June 21st 2010

Bilbo made no mention of the supernatural.

He didn’t have to.

Bilbo - #18237

June 21st 2010

Hi Glen,

First, I didn’t bring my headphones with me to the library, so I don’t know what Meyer said.  What were his exact words?

Second,  SETI is looking for a narrow-band radio signal, because:

a)  There is no known natural cause for them (Discontinuity, gap, “leap”).
b)  It would make sense to use them, since they take less energy to produce (Rationality).

Third, Shostak has admitted that after finding a “simple” signal (like a continuous whistle, they would look for a complex signal, producing more information, such as a mathematical pattern. 

Fourth, my use of the word “attack” wasn’t a criticism of you, just a description of what you did.  If you don’t like the word “attack,” substitute “criticism” or whatever else you like.  As far as lack of substance in my “drumbeat against evolution,”  I didn’t think this was the appropriate thread to produce substance.  But it is the thread to point out why it could be rational for a layperson not to accept a non-teleological explanation for evolution or the origin of life. 

Fifth, yo say it is the “evidence that is replicable.”  You mean the evidence that the cilium evolved by non-teleological means?  By all means then, replicate it.


Bilbo - #18238

June 21st 2010


Sixth,  yes there is irrationality in cells.  But if that counts against design, then certainly all the rationality in the cell counts for it?

Seventh, but I was showing you that ID is in fact replicable.  Venter replicated a genome, using “four bottles of chemicals.”  And it then struck him that there were “philosophical implications” from doing so, and from the fact that cells are “soft-ware driven biological machines.”  He didn’t say what the philosophical implications are, but I think they are that ID is true.  What do you think he meant by “philosophical implications”?

Glen Davidson - #18240

June 21st 2010

Third, Shostak has admitted that after finding a “simple” signal (like a continuous whistle, they would look for a complex signal, producing more information, such as a mathematical pattern.

First off, that wasn’t what I was discussing.  I’m well aware that alien intelligence might give us a complex signal, the point I’m making is that it would actually be rationally produced, unlike anything in “wild-type” life.  No one in SETI research is just looking for complexity, let alone anything as meaningless as CSI or “specified complexity.”  They’re looking for actual evidence of intelligence instead.

Fifth, yo say it is the “evidence that is replicable.”  You mean the evidence that the cilium evolved by non-teleological means?  By all means then, replicate it.

And you replicate a supernova explosion—or begin to deal honestly with what is actually stated in these discussions/science.

You just repeat the goalpost move of IDists that is used to avoid the fact that we don’t have to replicate every event to have replicable science.  That you persist in such a misrepresentation is not to your credit.

Glen Davidson

Bilbo - #18241

June 21st 2010

As far as who IDists believe the designer is, most of us believe that God is the designer (though I think demons bio-engineered things like the malarial parasite).  We just think the evidence is insufficient to prove that.

Bilbo - #18242

June 21st 2010

Sorry, Glen, I don’t understand why you criticize ID of not being replicable, but then react the way you do when I turn the tables, and ignore the fact that Venter replicated a genome.  So again, what do you think the “philosophical implications” were that he was talking about?

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