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Would You Like Fries With That Theory?

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May 10, 2010 Tags: Design
Would You Like Fries With That Theory?

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

Anti-Darwinists love to ridicule the concept of “scientific orthodoxy,” suggesting that it represents the unsupported collective opinion of many scientists who are basically just “voting” on things. Going against it is considered to be evidence of independent thinking and even courage.

A blogger at Uncommon Descent challenged Bruce Waltke’s “high regard for ‘current scientific orthodoxy’” and scolded Beliefnet columnist Ron Dreher for wondering how a leading academic like Waltke could get in trouble for simply noting that he thought the scientific consensus should be taken seriously.

The blogger went on to pose a most curious question: “Can we no longer confront the data on our own?” The answer to this is so obvious that I am surprised it would even be asked. The answer is “no.” Of course we cannot confront the data “on our own.”

To confront scientific data “on our own” would imply that we have scientific training and experience in whatever area we are looking at. If you say you can interpret fossil data on your own, for example— as biochemist Duane Gish and legal scholar Phillip Johnson tried to do—I would like to give you a brief quiz on fossils: Where might you find a fossil if I asked you to go fetch one? How much of a fossil skeleton is typically present? How do you figure out the age of a fossil? What exactly is a fossil? What parts of a skeleton are most likely to be missing or incompletely fossilized? How do you decide if bones found together are from the same organism?

If you cannot answer simple questions like these then you cannot confront fossil data “on your own.” And fossils are the simplest part of the evolutionary picture. Interpreting genomic data, with its complex biochemical, statistical, and historical underpinnings is not remotely possible without the relevant expertise.

My field is physics. I cannot imagine what it would mean for a layperson to deal with the data of physics and draw their own conclusions. Physics is particularly hard because of the math. If you don’t understand differential equations, then you simply cannot understand quantum mechanics. You can certainly look at the colored lines in a spectrum and somehow imagine that they come from electrons jumping back and forth in the atom, but that is a far cry from understanding what is going on. I earned a math degree en route to my Ph.D. in physics, but I never did learn enough math to understand quarks. I have to rely on specialists in that area.

Furthermore we rarely—if ever—apply this “Professor Everyman” style of reasoning to, say, medical diagnoses. If our child is sick we want our doctor to share the collective wisdom of the medical profession with us and tell us what to do, not hand us some charts and say “Here are the facts. Let me know what medications you want me to prescribe. Or if you think surgery is required.”

The only time we hear calls to stand up and challenge “orthodoxy” is when we don’t like that orthodoxy.

Evolution, Big Bang, and Global Warming are all places where uninformed lay people presume to challenge the scientific community. We hear calls to present both Intelligent Design and evolution to high school students and let them make up their own minds. Is this really a serious proposal? How can this possibly work? Questions that leading scientists with Ph.D.s have explored and debated for decades are to be presented to 17-year-old high school students to adjudicate during a 50 minute class right after lunch?

I need to meet these amazing students.

Professor Everyman would have us believe that the “scientific orthodoxy” or “consensus” is just an opinion poll. Scientists all believe the earth is billions of years old; they all like pepperoni pizza; and they all think blue is a great color. We can be lemmings and go along with the crowd or we can think for ourselves, and order sausage pizza, prefer green, and believe the earth is 10,000 years old.

To go along with the majority in this case is caricatured as abandoning your own thinking in favor of blindly accepting someone else’s. This kind of independent thinking would have rescued poor confused Bruce Waltke, for example, who needed to be “familiar with the current scientific data, rather than the current scientific orthodoxy.”

Unfortunately, only trained specialists can be familiar with scientific data. There are thousands of scientific papers published every month. Even if you focused on one small subfield—say fossils—it would take you years to get to the point where you could deal with the data directly and draw your own conclusions. Even scientists typically do not handle the data directly except in their own small area.

We must understand how the much-maligned consensus emerges in science. Take the age of the earth as an example where a well-defined “orthodoxy” exists. Nobody gathered all the geologists together and asked them “How many of you think the earth is: a) ten thousand years old? b) ten million? c) one billion; d) 4.6 billion? and then counted hands, as though they were choosing a venue for the Christmas party.

The age of the earth was a matter of some controversy for well over a century. Used to dating it at ten thousand years using the Bible, geologists came to understand that it was much older. At first the numbers were varied and uncertain; different dating methods yielded different results. There was no consensus.

But when scientists don’t agree, they work energetically—and generally amicably—to find out what is wrong. Research is done to gather more data; papers are published highlighting the disagreements and asking tough questions. More data is gathered. Conferences are held to address the problem. Very bright young people eagerly go into this field because it is obviously in need of fresh thinking. More data is gathered. Young whippersnappers brashly challenge their elders. Fogeys with their heels dug in gradually become marginalized. More data is gathered. Slowly the discrepancies begin to disappear under a mountain of fresh data until the reasons for the differences vanish and a consensus emerges.

The consensus on the age of the earth not a “consensus of opinion” but a “consensus of data” and a “consensus of methods.” We now understand that there are multiple ways to measure the age of the earth and they all converge on the same value.

To understand science is to understand this process—to appreciate just how much effort is expended over the course of a century as thousands of scientists from different disciplines, different countries, and speaking different languages, gather data and work vigorously until they all get onto the same page—and reach a “consensus”— about what is going on. To suggest that this “data” can be simply handed over to non-specialists so they can make up their own minds is profoundly miss the point of science.

There is a more common term for “scientific orthodoxy” that is widely used in other areas. It is wisdom.

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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Rich - #13533

May 13th 2010

R Hampton (13523):

I see that, like most TEs, you cannot refrain from amateur theologizing, and from standing in judgment upon the theological views of ID people (which are not monolithic and have to be taken individually, but that’s another matter).

You write:

“Also, the ID movement and (as well as the YEC folk) misconstrue the purpose of divine intervention.”

So you presume to know the purpose of divine intervention, and then you proceed to set forth your own interpretation of Christian theology.  You of course have the right to believe what you wish, but who appointed you the judge of correct Christian theology? (continued)

Rich - #13536

May 13th 2010

R Hampton (13523 continued):

Also, your term “intervention” prejudices the case.  “Intervention” into nature suggests that the world is already up and running, with its structure and basic contents and rules and laws established.  But those who believe that God took a *direct* hand in Creation (as opposed to working only indirectly) don’t suppose that the laws and structure were fully in place until the *end* of the process of Creation, so the term “intervention” is inappropriate.  One might speak of someone as “intervening” in the motion of a clock by holding back the minute hand; but no one would say that the clockmaker was “intervening” when he put the clock together in the first place.  It might well be that God’s hands-on activity was necessary to get nature started, but that after that, it could run by itself, by means of the powers with which God endowed it.  (And no, this is not denying divine concurrence with and sustenance of nature and its laws after the Creation.)

What most TEs seem to affirm is that God *never* engaged in any hands-on activity during Creation.  How do they know this?  Why are they so much more willing than ID people to say what God must not or would not have done?

R Hampton - #13540

May 13th 2010


Neither Behe nor Meyer use the argument that “No one alive can account for the origin of the bacterial flagellum with a full evolutionary pathway” as proof of Intelligent Design or disproof of Natural Evolution. Only people fundamentally opposed to evolution require scientists to be omniscient in order to accept their discoveries.

Meyer (9/28/01) - Is Darwinism compatible with religion, as the series [Evolution, 2001] claims, or not? It all depends upon which type of religion ‘even which type of Christianity’ is under consideration. PBS’s spokesmen for Darwinism can accept religion that has accommodated itself to Darwinism and its essential claim, namely, that undirected natural processes fully account for the origin of the living world. Such religion may affirm the existence of God, but only as a spectator of the Darwinian process that otherwise performs the real work of creation. On the other hand, ‘Evolution’ rejects ‘even ridicules’ traditional theistic religion because it holds that God played an active (even discernable) role in the origin of life on earth. In short, good religion accommodates Darwinism, bad religion rejects it. But that implies, of course, that the real religion of this series is Darwinism.

R Hampton - #13543

May 13th 2010

“What most TEs seem to affirm is that God *never* engaged in any hands-on activity during Creation.”

TE’s - unlike many American Christians in the wake of Karl Barth - have never rejected Natural (General) Revelation as the equal and complimentary to Divine (Special) Revelation. Each informs the other. Thus much can be known about God through his Creation.

As I explained, Creation lacks the ability to do or be anything else but what God intended. Only people with souls have free will (hence the need for God to intervene and offer Salvation).

Furthermore, we have abundant evidence from all the scientific fields that this universe, and everything within, evolves. Does a fertilized egg does need divine intervention to grow lungs or a brain and eventually become an adult human being? No. Does that diminish the role or power of God? Again, no. Likewise the universe does not need divine intervention to form accordingly. Such is the creative brilliance of God.

Rich - #13546

May 13th 2010

R Hampton:

I did not say that Behe or Meyer used my statement as a proof of intelligent design.  My statement is nonetheless true.  And you are unwilling to face its implications.

You are unable to explain even how a fin became a foot, yet you apparently accept neo-Darwinism as an adequate explanation for the origin of all species!  Why do you accept a theory that has such a poor track record?

I’m not asking you to infer design from the failure of neo-Darwinian evolution.  I’m asking why are you aren’t willing to adopt the position of suspended judgment, and say something like:  “Neo-Darwinism has thus far been unable to give a convincing reconstruction of any major organ, system, body plan or organism; therefore, I will withhold my assent from it, *and will not make any attempt to bring my Christian theology into harmony with it*, until it has a more substantive record of explanatory success.”  Sounds reasonable to me.

Marshall - #13549

May 13th 2010

Rich, by the standard of evidence you’re using, all scientific theories would have to be rejected. We don’t have a complete account of how plate tectonics created every single change (down to the molecules) in any particular layer of strata over the ages, and nor can we have that level of detail for evolution. But, the mechanisms of both theories have been demonstrated, and that is why they are well-accepted even though we don’t have omniscient knowledge about the exact sequence of events in any particular case.

Rich - #13560

May 13th 2010

Marshall (13549):

No, that’s not a fair statement of my objection.

I’ve already said that I’m not demanding the *actual* steps employed in evolution, which are irrecoverable.  I’ve allowed hypothetical steps to be substituted for each actual step.  But even with that freedom, neo-Darwinism comes up blank.  It can’t tell me, in a plausible narrative, at the biochemical/genetic level, how a whale might have been made, or a bat, or a cardiovascular system, or how winged flight could have evolved.

The mechanisms of plate tectonics may well have been demonstrated; I have no opinion on that.  But the mechanisms of macroevolution have not been demonstrated.  Rather, mechanisms of microevolution have been demonstrated, and it’s been assumed that macroevolution is just microevolution carried on for longer.  This is highly debatable, and already some evolutionary biologists question it; see the previously cited article from the theoretical botany journal.

Rich - #13562

May 13th 2010

R Hampton:

For the record, I know some TEs who, on Calvinist/Barthian grounds, either outrightly reject or highly distrust natural theology, i.e., reasoning from nature to God.  Maybe you don’t, but you don’t speak for all TEs.

And if you *do* accept the idea that one might be able to reason from the facts of nature to God, you should have no objection, in principle. to ID’s attempt to infer a designer.  You might disagree with particular inferences, e.g., from the flagellum, but you should have no objection to the project in itself.  But from your objections and your tone you very much disagree with the project in itself.  So I don’t see the coherence of your position from a theological point of view.  You seem to be simultaneously both for and against natural theology.

Rich - #13564

May 13th 2010

R Hampton:

“Furthermore, we have abundant evidence from all the scientific fields that this universe, and everything within, evolves. Does a fertilized egg does need divine intervention to grow lungs or a brain and eventually become an adult human being? No. Does that diminish the role or power of God? Again, no. Likewise the universe does not need divine intervention to form accordingly. Such is the creative brilliance of God.”

In the first two sentences, you’re employing an equivocal meaning of “evolution”; without the equivocation, the parallel between embryonic development and Darwinian processes is seen for what it is—assertion without argumentation.

Your penultimate sentence is also an assertion, not a demonstrable truth, on the scientific side, and on the theological side it’s arbitrary.  Once again a TE poses as a theological authority, with neither Bible nor theological classics in support of the claim.

Justin Poe - #13565

May 13th 2010

Rich- 13423:

I’ve brought up the same point here before but you do it so much more eloquently.  It seems like some TE just pick and choose what to believe out of the Bible.  They claim salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, a miracle that completely conquerors death, yet, some have to think at the same time that Christ couldn’t have possibly spoken to a demon.  Why?  Because it goes against nature, which they hold higher then Scripture.  Quite frankly, I understand the atheist better then I do a TE.  JMO.

Karl A - #13575

May 14th 2010

I’m enjoying the back-and-forth (at this point mainly) between Rich and R Hampton.  I’m seeing a funny symmetry here – it seems that both TEs and IDists (whether a minority, majority or all) make theological claims about how God can and can’t relate to creation.  Rich claims (and could probably produce some good quotes) that many TEs say God’s activity in creation (post-Big Bang I suppose) categorically CANNOT be detectable by scientific means.  While R Hampton produced a quote of Meyers saying that God’s activity in creation MUST be detectable otherwise God is irrelevant. 

I’m no theologian, nor philosopher.  Is it a theological/philosophical/epistemological cop-out to take the middle (agnostic) way, that God’s activity in creation COULD be detectable by scientific means?  AKA “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”

BTW, Rich, maybe you’ve already provided quotes and names of TEs in the first category, but I’d be interested if you can dig some up.

Rich - #13582

May 14th 2010

Karl A.:

Sure, God’s activity in creation COULD be detectable by scientific means.  That’s fine with me.  That means that when Behe and Dembski and so on investigate nature for evidence of design, they are not doing anything that is in principle incompatible with Christian teaching.  They may find compelling evidence of design, or they may not; but it’s not heretical to try.

TEs argue that God cannot be detectable by science in two ways.  They adopt a narrow understanding of science as merely the detection of efficient causes of a physical nature, and since “design” is intangible, they argue that its detection is outside the province of science, but belongs to the realm of “personal values”, “faith”, “metaphysics”, etc.  Or they argue theologically in various ways.  Ken Miller argues that the God of intelligent design is a mechanic or engineer, not the Biblical Creator.  Others have argued that if God can be proved by argument, there will be no need for faith.  Others, like George Murphy, have taken the Barthian line that natural theology rapidly degenerates into liberal Enlightenment religion.  (Continued)

Marshall - #13584

May 14th 2010

Hi Rich,

I’m willing to be corrected if I didn’t fairly state your objection, but you did go on to say this:

It can’t tell me, in a plausible narrative, at the biochemical/genetic level, how a whale might have been made, or a bat, or a cardiovascular system, or how winged flight could have evolved.

Are you asking (a) for genetic sequences between two organisms (such as whales and hippos) that quantify the kind of changes required, (b) for studies looking at how some of those changes took place, or (c) a narrative of how every single biochemical/genetic difference between whales and hippos came about in both lineages? The first two have been done, the third is impossible (and fits my analogy last post), but maybe you mean something else?

Also, what different mechanisms are there for macroevolution than microevolution? My understanding is that the mechanisms are the same, though the interaction and results are different due to the isolation of breeding populations.

See the article by Marin Hinz et al., Journal of Experimental Botany,  2006, 57(13):3531-3542.

Can you give the article title? I’m having trouble locating it.

Rich - #13585

May 14th 2010

Karl A:

I find none of these arguments persuasive.  I don’t think that it’s unscientific to infer design if we have patterns of integrated complexity that equal or exceed what human engineers can construct today.  It’s unreasonable to believe that a bunch of swirling atoms would organize themselves into such structures, unless the deck was somehow rigged.  I think the definition of “science” being employed to exclude design inferences is too narrow.

On the religious side, to Miller I’d reply that God is more than a mechanic, but not less than a mechanic, and therefore can reveal his intelligence through nature’s design; to others I’d say, with Aquinas, that design inferences only get us to a generic God, so revelation is still necessary; and to George Murphy, I’d say that, while he himself is a fairly orthodox Lutheran, “liberal Enlightenment religion” is actually far more common among TEs than among IDers who accept a limited natural theology, so obviously natural theology can’t be as damaging as he claims, and obviously a revelation-focused, personalist theology can lead to liberalism, too.  (Continued)

Rich - #13588

May 14th 2010

Karl A (part 3 of 3):

So I don’t find TE arguments against the general principle of design detection persuasive.  But I want to be clear:  I’m not saying that TEs should just roll over and accept any and all claims that design has been detected.  It’s perfectly appropriate to be skeptical about any *particular* design claim that ID people make.  What I’m protesting against is a blanket rejection of design detection as such.  In other words, my arguments here are defensive.  I’m defending ID against unjust criticism, not saying it’s automatically true or that TE is automatically false.

The main difficulty, of course, is that most TEs seem committed to a neo-Darwinian biology, and Darwinian thought at its heart is a rejection of design.  Behe’s acceptance of design arguments is intrinsically connected with his critique of neo-Darwinism.  If TEs had a freer notion of evolution, not so tied to Darwin, there could be more dialogue with ID.  However, I anticipate this problem will soon be solved, because neo-Darwinism is on its last legs, at least as the primary explanation of evolution.  “Designed evolution” is the wave of the future in biology, even if the older TEs have to be dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

Rich - #13592

May 14th 2010


The title of the article is: 

Catching a ‘hopeful monster’: shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) as a model system to study the evolution of flower development

Second, take a look at the Richard Sternberg video that I referenced elsewhere here.  He refers to hundreds, possibly thousands of morphological and physiological changes necessary to turn a land animal into a whale.  Each of these changes would require its own suite of mutations.  So what suite of mutations would produce tail flukes?  What suite would make marine lactation possible?  (Remember, the whole line would die off in one generation unless marine lactation was perfected.)  What mutations would be needed to move two nostrils backwards on the skull to produce a single blowhole?  To create the straining mechanism of baleen whales?  Etc.  In short, what is the recipe for turning a hippo-like mammal into a whale?  Does any Darwinian theorist have more than the slightest inkling of how it could be done?  That’s what I’m driving at.  Does this question not seem reasonable to you?

Marshall - #13606

May 14th 2010

Hi Rich,

I have no doubt there are “hundreds, possibly thousands of morphological and physiological changes necessary to turn a land animal into a whale.” Similarly, there’s thousands, even millions of physical changes that have taken place for a mountain to form from plate tectonics and other factors. What is strange is to ask for a detailed accounting of all those changes in order to accept the underlying theory. I still don’t see how your request is reasonable.

Earlier, when you discussed this with Chris, you mentioned that you had read papers about how individual transitions took place (I believe one was in whales, and another in flagella). Yet, you rejected them because they contained hypotheticals, and they didn’t explain all the transitions. While you sometimes claim that this is all you’re looking for, when it is presented, you appear to want more.

I’m also unclear about what level of evolution you do accept. Do you accept the common descent of fruit flies? What about different whales, including species with one or two nostrils? You seem to be arguing that even this level of difference is beyond evolution, so I’m wondering how fixed you believe the kinds are. (cont.)

Marshall - #13607

May 14th 2010

(cont.) I don’t begrudge you your skepticism, but I don’t see any basis to share it. There is strong evidence that organisms like whales and hippos are related: the genetics, atavistic hind limbs, transitionals, dolphin embryos forming hind limb buds and reabsorbing them, deactivated air-based olfactory genes, atrophied muscles to move ears that no longer exist, etc. The case that they are related is compelling.

Further, evolution provides mechanisms for how those changes can take place. Natural and sexual selection nonrandomly filtering populations, genetic drift, sexual recombination; mutations from single nucleotides to frame shifts; evo-devo and other new areas show how small genetic changes can greatly affect the phenotype (as the article you cited also shows, both with fruit flies and flowers). With the genetic data, we can even calculate roughly how many mutations needed to take place in the two lineages since their divergence.

Sure, there’s still more to learn, and yes, we’ll never know it all down to the exact pathway of each change. But, we have strong evidence that things are related, and observed mechanisms for bringing about changes within those lineages.

Rich - #13613

May 14th 2010


I didn’t “reject” the lone article that was pointed out to me about whale evolution.  But we aren’t communicating re “hypothetical mechanism”.

Suppose a man is found bludgeoned to death.  Someone suggests that it was done with a hammer.  I would accept “hammer” as a hypothetical mechanism for the murder, because hammers are *known to have the power of bludgeoning*.  Now, suppose a man is found with an angel’s wings and a pair of devil’s horns.  Someone suggests that this was caused by a chemical substance in the food the man ate.  I would accept this as a hypothetical mechanism only if the person proposing it suggested a *particular* chemical substance, and gave *reasons* for thinking that *this* substance would have the *particular* effect of producing *horns* and *wings*.  We could test such a hypothesis by feeding people that chemical and seeing if they grew wings or horns.  But if the hypothesis was just “maybe it was something he ate”, there is no way of testing that, and I would call it vague speculation.  (Continued)

Rich - #13615

May 14th 2010

Marshall (part 2):

Now, apply my argument.  Saying that whales could have arisen by “mutations plus natural selection” is vague speculation.  Saying that the whale fluke arose when an identifiable Gene X was knocked out and an identifiable Gene Y was substituted, or that the whale’s blowhole was formed when Genes Q, R, and S, which are *known* to govern the formation of skulls and nostrils, were altered in certain specific ways, is a testable hypothesis.  What I am saying is that the evolutionary literature rarely achieves this level of specificity when it tries to reconstruct the pathways.  And with good reason:  we simply have nowhere near enough knowledge of the genome or of developmental processes to have a “recipe” for any given feature of any animal (blowholes, camera eyes, avian lungs, etc.).  The proper thing to do, then, is make our claims for the power of Darwinian mechanisms very modest, until we know more about the details.  And that means not asserting that we *know* that Darwinian processes could have turned a hippo into a whale.  But Darwinians are incapable of that degree of scientific humility.  That’s my beef.

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