Would You Like Fries With That Theory?

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May 10, 2010 Tags: Design

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

Would You Like Fries With That Theory?

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.


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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Rich - #13617

May 14th 2010

Marshall (part 3):

I try to write a good deal more carefully than most people who write about ID, TE, and Darwinian evolution, so you should watch my exact words if you want to know what I think.  I never said that anything was “beyond evolution” (your #13606).  I have expressed doubt whether *Darwinian mechanisms* are capable of explaining evolutionary change.  “Evolution” is a *process*; mutation and natural selection are Darwinian proposals for mechanisms to drive this process.  One can believe in evolution without believing that it was driven by Darwinian means.  There might be other natural processes, or there might be combinations of natural and supernatural processes, or the process might be entirely driven supernaturally.  No one should assert that certain natural processes are capable of driving evolution unless he can prove that the particular natural processes proposed have the power to effect the necessary transformations.  But Darwinists regularly assert that their mechanisms can create whales and bats and men, without providing any proof that their mechanisms can do anything beyond lengthening finch beaks.  Darwinism grossly over-claims and under-explains.


Rich - #13620

May 14th 2010

Marshall (part 4):

You asked how fixed I thought “kinds” were.  I never mentioned the topic.  But I’m willing to believe that kinds are infinitely elastic, if someone will *show me the mechanisms*.  And “mutation plus natural selection” is far too broad to be a mechanism in a sense useful for empirical, testable science.  And as a working example is worth a ton of theory, I’ve proposed that someone explain to me a set of mechanisms that can turn a proto-hippo into a whale, a proto-shrew into a bat, etc.  If someone could convince me of a set of plausible transformations in even one such case, I’d concede that analogous explanations were likely possible for all the other cases.  But Darwinists have yet to establish even one case.  How can it be that a theory which is sold to the public as “as certain as gravity or the existence of atoms” cannot establish how even one major evolutionary transition was or even could have been accomplished?


Rich - #13623

May 14th 2010

Marshall (part 5): 

I’m not railing against Darwinians for not being able to give me the recipe for a whale.  I recognize that it is a formidable task, and I’m quite willing to give them time, centuries if necessary, to come up with all the detailed genetic mechanisms.  All that I ask is that they stop demanding that the public accept their hypothesis as fact, when by their own admission (when they are talking honestly among themselves, rather than posturing for the cameras at courtroom trials, or writing nasty book reviews about ID books on Amazon.com or in The New Republic), *they can’t come up with the goods*.  I’m asking for the bluffing, the exaggerating, the attempt to conceal ignorance of mechanisms underneath mountains of jargon the public can’t follow—I’m asking for all of this to stop, and for Darwinists to start behaving like real scientists, and to admit what they don’t know, and to acknowledge that what they don’t know includes the specific causes of most of the major macroevolutionary changes.


Darren - #13637

May 14th 2010

Rich, you seem to be conflating two rather different aspects of evolutionary science. There are two major parts to this. One is whether whales are descended from land-based mammals, and the second is what are the mechanisms by which such a transition occurred. The evidence for the first is excellent and compelling to anybody who wishes to examine it. There is a vast body of data that converges strongly on the conclusion that whales are descended from land based mammals. The evidence for the mechanism, precisely what changes occurred etc, is much more difficult to examine as the data we have simply makes it very difficult to say what are the exact step-by-step changes that occurred. We might never in fact be able to do this. I’m sure you will agree though that the notion that an event happened is much more amenable to scientific investigation than exactly how it happened.


Martin Rizley - #13666

May 14th 2010

Dr. Giberson,  I think you are missing the real reason why so many Christian laymen who are not specialists in science feel that they can challenge the claims of scientists who deny such things as the special creation of Adam and Eve, the world-destroying nature of the Flood, and the repopulation of the earth from the three sons of Adam, etc.  It is not that they regard themselves as competent to ‘take on’ the scientist on his own terrain by resolving all the scientific issues involved in this controversy.  That would indeed be foolish, just as it would be foolish for a person who has read a beginner’s level book on anatomy to think that he can perform brain surgery.  Rather, Christian laymen feel confident to deny the scientist’s denials of biblical history because they see this as primarily an issue of authority.  Who has greater authority to speak conclusively regarding matters of past history?—Moses writing under divine inspiration, or the scientist who has all the tools of modern scientific research available to him, but who lacks divine inspiration?  (continued)


Martin Rizley - #13667

May 14th 2010

For the Christian laymen, that is a ’no-brainer’—obviously, Moses speaks with greater authority when he speaks about what has taken place in the history of this world created by God and ruled by Him—a world in which God’s sovereign will, not natural law, ultimately determine what takes place.  The authority of the scientist is not absolute, but the authority of Moses speaking under divine inspiration is absolute.  Scientists may accurately describe the operation of the demonstrable; but they cannot define the limits of the possible, for they speak with a limited authority regarding a limited area of reality only—whereas Moses speaking under divine inspiration speaks with authority on all matters that he addresses.  Moreover, no one who reads Genesis 10, for example, the so-called “Table of Nations”, can doubt that Moses addresses matters of history, and not only matters of theology.


Rich - #13672

May 14th 2010

Darren (#13637):

I don’t accept your argument, which is essentially that we can know that an alleged evolutionary transition happened, without having proof that any natural mechanism is adequate to bring it about.

If we were talking about observed events, rather than inferred events, the case would be different.  If every time a magician stared malignantly at someone, that person dropped dead, we would rightly infer that the magician was the cause of death, even though we didn’t know how the magician did it.  But in macroevolution we are not talking about observed events.

In macroevolution, neo-Darwinians look at a modern whale, and say:  “Random mutations plus natural selection must have turned a land animal into the whale somehow, so the only possible debate is over the exact evolutionary pathway.”  Do you not see the difference?  That’s like saying, every time *anyone* is found dead, that a magician must have come by and stared malignantly at the person, even though we have never met a magician with such power.  How do we know the magician exists?  And how do we know that macroevolutionary mechanisms exist?  It’s assuming precisely what needs to be proved.


Rich - #13673

May 14th 2010

I see that Martin Rizley has joined us, bringing the topic back around to Dr. Giberson’s post, which is a good thing.

*I’m wondering where Dr. Giberson has been all this time*.  We’ve tried to give him thoughtful answers, but so far he has been unable or unwilling to engage.  I have noticed that several other Biologos authors have chosen not to engage with commenters.  I think it is very unwise for Biologos writers not to reply to at least their more thoughtful and polite critics.  It will eventually cause people to drift away from the site.

I would point out to Dr. Giberson that his complaint about “non-experts” meddling in science can be turned back on theistic evolutionists.  Only a few theistic evolutionists have advanced degrees in theology, or for that matter any formal training in theology.  Yet they frequently make pronouncements about what the Bible teaches, what Christianity teaches, etc.  This makes them guilty of exactly the lay behavior that Dr. Giberson protests when it comes from non-scientists.  Are we going to get a column from Dr. Giberson telling Miller and Collins to stop presumptuously making theological statements, and to leave theology to the experts?


Marshall - #13675

May 14th 2010

Hi Rich,

I think there’s a semantic issue in our discussion. I’ve spoken about “biologists” studying “evolution”, which includes many mechanisms including mutation and natural selection; you speak about “Darwinists” asserting “neo-Darwinism” in which mutation and natural selection are the mechanisms. If you are arguing that a subset of evolution can’t explain every transition, we agree. Evolutionary theory has adapted to incorporate new insights; like most live scientific theories, it has progressed since the time of its founders.

In macroevolution, neo-Darwinians look at a modern whale, and say:  “Random mutations plus natural selection must have turned a land animal into the whale somehow, so the only possible debate is over the exact evolutionary pathway.”

In geology, neo-Wegeners look at a modern mountain and say, “Friction plus gravitation must have turned a flat plain into a mountain somehow, so the only possible debate is over the exact plate movements. Maybe that helps to show how odd and oversimplified your phrasing looks to me. (cont.)


Marshall - #13676

May 14th 2010

(cont.) In part 4 of your response, you shared how much common descent you’d hypothetically accept. How much do you presently accept, and to what point do you think those changes can be explained by natural processes? I’m not assuming the answer to both halves of this question is the same, but I’m fishing for some common ground. To the first half, are all humans related through common descent, or all fruit flies, or whales and dolphins, or all bears?

To the second half, what effects of evolutionary mechanisms do you accept? Do you agree that they can bring about beneficial changes to a population (such as nylon-eating bacteria), increasing complexity (such as gene duplications where one copy does the original function and the other is altered to do something else, however inefficiently at first), macroscopic phenotype changes (such as those fruit flies where small mutations in the lab led to extra wings or antennae)? Because I accept the evidence for these things, I see a large difference between saying evolution adequately explains a transition or tainted food explains a person growing wings and horns.


beaglelady - #13679

May 14th 2010

And my earlier question to you remains unanswered:  why is it unthinkable that God would have intervened in the creation of life and species, if you find no problem at all with miraculous healings and raisings from the dead?

God can do whatever he likes, of course, including creating us 20 minutes ago with implanted memories. (Is that unthinkable to you?  Why or why not?)  But I believe that God creates through secondary causes, giving his creation the freedom to make itself.  I think that’s the best explanation for what we see going on.  Otherwise I’d have to conclude that God is an incompetent and sadistic moron, to put it rather bluntly.


Rich - #13681

May 14th 2010

beaglelady (13679):

Thanks for answering my question.

Based on your answer, you believe that God creates through secondary causes because when you look at the world, you don’t see the kind of world that you would create directly, if you were God. 

I’m assuming (perhaps wrongly) that you class yourself as a Christian.  What I look for in someone who calls herself a Christian is a theology of creation which is based on the Bible and on the great theological writings of the Christian tradition, not on what she would do if she were God.

Please provide me with passages from the Bible, the Creeds, the decisions of Councils, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, etc. that indicate that God creates the cosmos, life, species and man exclusively or even primarily through secondary causes.


Rich - #13682

May 14th 2010

Marshall: 

My particular view on macroevolution is irrelevant, since I’m pointing out the internal circularity of the Darwinian “proof”, not advocating a personal theory of my own.  However, I’ve already sufficiently indicated my view.  I’m willing to believe that the genetic material is elastic enough that “bacterium to man” evolution is possible, *if you can show me a worked-out example*.  Show me the recipe for making a whale.  And if you can’t show me the recipe for making a whale, don’t say that “science” has proved that Darwinian processes can produce a whale.  Say only that many scientists have speculated that such processes can produce a whale.  I don’t see why you find the distinction between “speculation” and “demonstration” hard to understand. 

The supplementary evolutionary mechanisms that you mention are in the same boat as the neo-Darwinian mechanisms; they haven’t demonstrated that they can produce major new systems and body plans.  But you are free to use as many of these supplementary natural mechanisms as you like in your hypothetical recipe for the whale.  Produce the worked-out example, and I’ll write you a blank cheque.  Decline the challenge, and it’s no sale.


Gregory - #13684

May 14th 2010

You seem to be already issuing a blank check, Rich, by advocating ´design´as an alternative to neo-Darwinian processes, without saying anything about *how* the design is enacted.

Dembski says that ID is *not* a mechanistic theory, yet you are asking repeatedly for “mechanisms” to explain the developmental pathways.

The fact that you are, quote, “not advocating a personal theory of my own” is a HUGE concession. Sure, we could all sit around in a love-in circle and criticize a scientific theory such as neo-Darwinian evolution. But if you have nothing alternative to offer to it, i.e. if you just offer criticisms, how are you actually moving the conversation forward? Karl Popper is surely one who would applaud your attempt to criticize the predominant theory of the day, but likewise scoff at your suggestion that neo-Darwinian evolution be dismissed unless you have an alternative to present.

Do you *really* think a theory called “intelligent design” can over-turn the neo-Darwinian evolutionary understanding of natural history? You´ve used the terms “designed evolution”, but have given no back up for the “mechanism” of how evolution is supposedly design. That doesn´t offer much help.


Rich - #13689

May 14th 2010

Gregory:

If you’ve been carefully following the 100+ posts on this thread, and haven’t just jumped in out of the blue, you will know precisely what I have argued, which makes many of your comments above irrelevant.

I did not say that intelligent design has overturned neo-Darwinian theory.  I said that neo-Darwinian theory has a very poor track record *on its own terms*, i.e., as a scientific theory.  It assures us that it can explain everything from a bat’s sonar to the transmutation of a hippo into a whale, but when asked to document even *one* of these miracles of evolutionary creativity, it goes silent.  And neither you nor any of the TEs here seem to have even the minimal amount of healthy skepticism which would cause an intelligent person to ask:  “If this theory is, as it boasts *ad nauseam*, as certain as the theories of Newton, Mendeleev, Pasteur, etc., why can’t it explain even 1% as much about nature as Newton, Mendeleev, Pasteur, etc. can explain?”


Rich - #13691

May 14th 2010

Marshall:

I didn’t mean to be smart-alecky in my last answer.  I should have written:  “You seem to think that the macroevolutionary capability of neo-Darwinian processes has been *demonstrated*, whereas I regard those capabilities as, in the present state of our knowledge, speculative.”

Sorry if my impatience caused me to slip into bad manners.  I know you are arguing in good faith and I didn’t consciously intend a put-down.


Gregory - #13692

May 14th 2010

And by the way, Rich, have you read Lynn Margulis? She calls herself a “post-Darwinist”. Why do you cite Behe, Sternberg, Denton and Mike Gene and forget to mention a much more decorated biologist who actually *does* get published in mainstream journals speaking about being “post-Darwinian”?

Once again, you seem to be taken in by the thrill of Dembski´s “revolution, baby” chants, and just have your view narrowly set on the single idea of “design”. In my view, you are missing other possibilities in order to side with a “movement” (unless you think ID can be cleanly separated from the IDM and the DI) that involves cultural renewal as part.

You jump back and forth from “neo-Darwinian evolution is incomplete” to a defense of “intelligent design theories”, so it is difficult to have a conversation with you.

Likewise, you don´t like to speak of the ´modern evolutionary synthesis,´ but rather only or mainly about neo-Darwinism. Why is that?

Again, I am not a TE.


Gregory - #13696

May 14th 2010

What are the “mechanisms” of design(ing), in your view, Rich? Or are there none?

Otherwise, you´re just offering fries with no theory, aren´t you?

p.s. sorry if this line of questioning is distractive to your bid to understand what Rich is saying, Marshall and beaglelady


Rich - #13700

May 14th 2010

Gregory:

I’m not an objective judge, but from the high quality of the back-and-forth on this thread (in which you haven’t been a participant, until about 20 minutes ago), I wouldn’t infer that the others here have found it hard to have a conversation with me.

I never spoke of the thrill of revolutions.  Please address the points I make, and stop imputing attitudes and opinions to me.

If you’re not a TE, why are you jumping to their defense, and why is every argument that you make, on this thread and the last thread where we clashed, straight out of the TE playbook?  You’ve argued that I’m to defer to Darwinians because I’m not a biologist.  You’ve argued that speaking of design in nature is offensive to Christian theology.  This is all straight TE.

No I haven’t read Margulis, but I know of her theory about the mitochondrion.  I have nothing against her and respect her criticism of neo-Darwinians.  But what has that got to do with anything that I have argued?  Could you take the time to *plan* your replies, instead of just firing off charges and questions?


Rich - #13701

May 14th 2010

Gregory:

The fact that you ask about “the mechanisms of designing” shows that you don’t understand intelligent design theory.  Intelligent design theory purports to engage in design detection.  One can detect design without having any knowledge of the mechanisms by which the design was implemented.  Design is detected by the presence of specified complex information.  It doesn’t matter if the specified complex information was put there by God, by aliens, or by a human being, and it doesn’t matter whether it was implemented by purely natural means, purely supernatural means, or a combination; it has the same tell-tale characteristics.  Please read Dembski’s *No Free Lunch* from cover to cover (as I have) before you venture any further opinion on intelligent design.  I simply don’t have time to keep correcting people who criticize ID before they have done their homework.


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