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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R Hampton - #13743

May 14th 2010

Rich, you claim that: “if macroevolution *has* occurred through neo-Darwinian means, this has nowhere in the literature been demonstrated.”

But “macroevolution” has been demonstrated (cited in peer-reviewed journals, recorded in lab experiments, etc.) in the same way that the age of the Earth has been determined. Even so Intelligent Design proponents, like Young Earth Creationists, can not accept the evidence not because the Science is bar or flawed, but because it challenges a particular interpretation of the Bible.

Even so, you contradict yourself with in a previous statement: “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. “

Without the means to empirically distinguish between natural and supernatural processes, or between active intervention and random causation, any “tell-tale characteristic” that supports ID also supports Evolution with equal validity. Therefore you have no reason to argue against “neo-Darwinism”.

Rich - #13744

May 14th 2010

R Hampton:

No, macroevolution has not been demonstrated.  You need to study Aristotle and Aquinas and Euclid to learn the proper meaning of the word “demonstrate”.  Macroevolution is a plausible hypothetical process which fits in with a number of facts of geology, geography, genetics, etc.  But it cannot be “demonstrated” without bringing in an axiom of naturalism which begs the important questions.  I can accept macroevoluton provisionally without needing to make the false claim that it has been demonstrated.

Second, even if we regard the existence of the *process* as having been demonstrated, it has not been demonstrated that neo-Darwinian *mechanisms* are adequate to account for any of the major transitions.  I’ve already established this here and in other Darwinian venues, where not a single Ph.D. in evolutionary biology has ever provided the mechanisms I’ve asked for. (continued)

Rich - #13745

May 14th 2010

R Hampton (continuing):

Third, your final inference does not follow.  Your reasoning is confused, probably in part because you slide carelessly from “evolution” to “neo-Darwinism” without noticing.  Reading the technical ID literature I specified, and thus learning from Ph.D.s with knowledge of biochemistry, genetics and mathematics how to think out questions of design and chance in relation to biology and evolution, should remove your confusion. 

Your remark about the Bible shows complete ignorance of intelligent design theory, which does not depend in the slightest on revelation.  You should not be commenting on intelligent design if you are capable of uttering a statement as misinformed as that.  Do your homework.  And with this reply, I feel I’ve discharged my intellectual debt to you.

R Hampton - #13746

May 14th 2010

“even if we regard the existence of the *process* as having been demonstrated, it has not been demonstrated that neo-Darwinian *mechanisms* are adequate to account for any of the major transitions”


“it doesn’t matter whether [specified complex information] was implemented by purely natural means, purely supernatural means, or a combination; it has the same tell-tale characteristics”

If the tell-tale characteristics are the same, then intelligent design and evolution offers exactly the same ability to account for major transitions. You tied their fates together.

R Hampton - #13747

May 14th 2010


Evolution does not depend in the slightest on revelation ... except when Stephen Meyer SPECIFICALLY claims it does (see post #13519). So if I can’t comment on intelligent design, then Meyer can’t comment on Evolution.

Unapologetic Catholic - #13748

May 14th 2010

“We’ve wandered off the topic of Dr. Giberson’s posting.”

You’ve actually demostrated the topic quite well.  The topic is, “What level of expertise do you have to posess to even be qualified to express a meaningful opinion on biology?  “Armchair expertise” doesn’t cut it.  The ID-specific books cited above are to “science” as “The Da Vinci Code” is to the Bible.  (Yes, I’ve read them all).  Aristotle and Aquinas both made rather huge biological errors known to anyone who has read either.

If you think you’re qualified just pass this easy undergraduate biology exam:  http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Biology/7-88JFall-2007/Assignments/index.htm

If you’re capable of handling that exam then you might be capable of having a knowledgable opinion attacking the prevailing science of evolution.

If you can’t handle such basic problems then your opinions on biology are as likely to be accurate as Dan Brown’s on theology.

The information required to be an expert and to understand the subject is not secret, however.  It’s readily availble, and after years of full time study, any person who applies himself could become qualified to express an imformed opinion in the field of biology.

Marshall - #13749

May 14th 2010

Hi Rich,

You appear to be using “macroevolution” to mean macroscopic changes, rather than evolution past the blurry species barrier. Macroscopic changes have been demonstrated resulting from mutation (the studies that grew extra legs and antennae on fruit flies are but one example). If this is what you mean by macroevolution, RM+NS are two of many observed, demonstrated mechanisms of it.

I still don’t know which mechanisms you see as being undemonstrated and distinct to macroevolution. Mutation, natural and sexual selection, genetic drift and sexual recombination have been observed and experimented with. They do not stop working when a population speciates.

The dichotomy you suggested between evolutionary biology and empirical, experimental biology is evidently false. Threads here have discussed empirical results and experiments from evolutionary biology. You’ve said that “when I speak about evolution, I offer a qualified position, not a rousing yes or no”. Yet earlier, you called it “bunk” and claimed to have no respect for it. If you were attempting to come across as an impartial, neutral skeptic, you probably should have done so in a place where you hadn’t already revealed your true feelings.

Rich - #13750

May 14th 2010


Remember that I told you that I express myself much more precisely than most people who write about evolution, ID and TE.  It was neo-Darwinism (or evolutionary biology, insofar as it is dominated by neo-Darwinism) that I called “bunk”, not “evolution” as a process. 

I grant you mutation, sexual selection, genetic drift, sexual recombination and all the rest.  Now show me how those things turn hippos into whales.  If you can’t show this, and you can’t cite a single biologist who can show this, why do you believe these causes are adequate?

The legs/antenna mixup is a bad example.  They are already coded for, and they merely show up in the wrong place.  That’s developmental error, not macroevolution (the evolution of viable new body plans, systems and organs).  Let me say that you will never understand the difficulties with neo-Darwinian theory until you do some serious reading, of books you will never hear praised on Biologos.  Read both of Behe’s books, and both of Denton’s.  They’ll blow your mind.  Happy reading.

Rich - #13751

May 14th 2010

Un. Catholic:

I think it was on another thread that I called your bluff on both science and theology.  At that point you retreated from the conversation.  Your statements about biology here continue to lack specific contents, and thus indicate continued bluff.  And if you’ve read the ID books you claim to have read, you have very poor reading comprehension skills, because you don’t appear to understand the arguments in them.  Show me that you know something by composing one intelligent post that is a coherent theoretical argument in philosophy, theology or evolutionary biology, instead of partisan Darwinian blathering about my alleged lack of qualifications.  Then I will listen.  If you can’t do this, cede the floor to those who have spent 40 years qualifying themselves to be in on the discussions.

beaglelady - #13753

May 15th 2010

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.

A theology of creation I seek is based on both the objective reality of nature and Christian truth.  I really don’t care what you are looking for.

beaglelady - #13755

May 15th 2010

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.

I do have an interesting quote for you (and I hope I type it correctly) from John Polkinghorne’s latest book,  Theology in the Context of Science

Classical theology pictured God as the cause of all things through the working of a primary causality, mysteriously active in and under the apparent secondary causalities
exercised by creatures. As a result, the history of the world came to thought of as resembling the performance of a predestined score written in eternity. Open theology pictures
God as in providential interaction with divinely ordained natural processes and with the divinely allowed acts of free agents. On this view, the history of the universe is understood
  to resemble an unfolding improvisation in which the Creator is ceaselessly at work to bring about a harmoniously resolution of the great multi-part fugue of creation.

Gregory - #13757

May 15th 2010

Hi R Hampton,

As an uninitated to the field in question, let me have a try at this one, since Rich hasn’t responded with the specifics about positive ID while being on the anti-Modern Synthesis ranting:

Marshall is asking what I like to refer as the Dog/Wolf problem. ID lacks any scientific methodology to emprically determine specific kinds. The Dog descended from Wolves, who descended from Foxes, who descended from Leptocyons, and so on, and so on… Wolves and Foxes, while they may look very similar, can not interbreed because of the differences in chromosomes. Are they of the same kind or not, and why?”

They are *not* of the same *kind* because they cannot interbreed. Is that right?

I’ve never read a ‘scientific methodology’ of ‘intelligent design,’ but I guess someone might have one. Perhaps Mike Gene? Or has he given up on calling it ‘science’ altogether, though ‘design’ arguments may still serve a purpose?

Rich - #13758

May 15th 2010


Polkinghorne is a nice guy and a gentleman and well-educated and a thoughtful speaker, and I have nothing at all against him personally.  I’m not even sure I would disagree with anything that’s in the passage you quoted.  But I find it interesting that when you are asked to give a justification for your rigorous naturalism, the only theological authority you can scrape up is a guy who is still alive, and whose “open” theology has been questioned for its orthodoxy!  It’s as if the Bible and 19 centuries of Christian tradition don’t figure into your understanding of Creation at all.

Don’t misunderstand me; it doesn’t bother me if you or any TE holds to a theology which, in historical terms, would be unorthodox.  It would only bother me if you started making negative comments about the theology of various Christian ID proponents, as if you possessed the only legitimate benchmarks of adequate Christian theology.  I don’t claim to possess the “true” theology of Creation myself, and I don’t think it’s easy to formulate a theology of Creation, but I do object to TEs’ throwing around theological criticism of others without providing any historical basis for it.

Rich - #13760

May 15th 2010

Re Gregory’s Comment on R Hampton:

ID is not concerned with the authoritative determination of “kinds”.  R Hampton is confusing ID with “baraminology”, which purports to be a “science” of “created kinds” based on Biblical creationism.  This is part and parcel of his previously-noted failure to distinguish ID from American-style creationism.

ID is empirically based, and is quite content to let “kinds” show themselves, in the fact that parents produce like offspring, and in the natural barriers to interbreeding beyond a certain degree of difference.  It doesn’t impose any theological doctrines on the degree of elasticity which God may have chosen to put into nature.  It doesn’t decree how much variation is possible within the “dog” type, or what interbreeding will be possible.  It says:  look and see.  Thus, there can never be any clash between ID and good observational science.  It’s creationism, with its pre-established dogmas about Genesis, that potentially runs into conflict with the facts of nature.

Unapologetic Catholic - #13762

May 15th 2010

Rich. To you I a
u apolgetic. Catholic not un.catholic.  Someone with the name “Rick” should be careful about getting into a name shortening contest. Since you have failed to demonstrate any proficiency in biology and sneered at the science while quoting Aristole and Aquinas as experts in biology, there’s no need to take you seriously.  You smell like a philosopher out of his league.

Qut while you’re a head.

Marshall - #13763

May 15th 2010

Hi Rich,

If you grant those mechanisms (comment #13750), and accept the studies that show what they can accomplish in the present and in the lab, then there are viable mechanisms for the historical transitions involved in hippos and whales evolving from a common ancestor. At least Behe and others will say that it is just past a certain “edge” that known evolutionary processes can’t work, yet you seem to reject that they can lead to any new body plan, system or organ (which you confusingly label “macroevolution”), no matter how gradual or genetically simple the pathway to get there.

What barrier prevents evolutionary mechanisms from forming a tail fluke, or reducing and deactivating parts of hind limbs, or modifying forelimbs into pectoral fins, or forming the distinctive cetacean middle ear? All those changes can be broken down to small, incremental changes. How are any of those incremental pieces more drastic than what humans have done with dogs, pigeons and cabbage, or what nature has done with bears, foxes and horses? Further, what barrier prevents those incremental pieces from adding up to a large change—to a new body plan or new organ (the tail fluke)?

Marshall - #13764

May 15th 2010

(cont.) If you just objected that there were certain barriers you don’t think evolutionary mechanisms could cross, that would be one thing. But to dismiss the idea that they could do anything that fits your definition of macroevolution, whether there was a simple, gradual pathway or not, seems ad-hoc. I know the YECs do it because they don’t think there was enough time, but I’m not sure why you do it.

PS: I’m aware that you have claimed many times to write precisely. My problem isn’t that I forgot, but that I read your writing. It was the modern evolutionary synthesis that you called “bunk”, and you’ve conflated that term, evolutionary biology, macroevolution, neo-Darwinism, Darwinism and a few others so that it’s extremely confusing to know when you’re using a specific term to distinguish it from others, when it’s used for pejorative value, and when you’re just thesaurasizing.

Rich - #13765

May 15th 2010

R Hampton:

13746—You’re either still failing to distinguish “evolution” generically from “neo-Darwinian” evolution specifically, or you’re failing to distinguish naturalistic but design-driven forms of evolution (e.g., Denton’s) from naturalistic chance-driven forms (e.g., neo-Darwinism).  ID is not opposed in principle to the former of each of these pairs, but only to the latter.

13747—Your quotation from Meyer is from 11 years ago.  I don’t think that he would argue in the same way now.  But even if he would, Dembski and Behe would disagree with him if he tried to make that position mandatory for all ID proponents.  As I’ve pointed out, ID is a big tent, with many variations.  All agree on the reality of detectable design.  Some believe, as a matter of practical implementation, that design requires historical “intervention”, and others believe that it doesn’t; however, the overall theory, in its current form, is silent on the question of intervention versus non-intervention.  I’ve been defending only the current “core theory” of ID, not anyone’s personal variation.  If you don’t like Meyer’s formulation, that’s no reason to reject Behe’s, which is not committed to interventionism.


Rich - #13769

May 15th 2010

Un. Catholic:

Once again, you lambaste me for alleged lack of scientific knowledge while demonstrating none yourself, and once again you repeat the appeal to authority—the final refuge of those with no argument to offer. 

I didn’t quote Aristotle and Aquinas as authorities on biology, but as authorities on the meaning of the term “demonstration”.  Why is it that dogmatic Darwinists are so often careless readers?

Un. Catholic is shorter to type.  Also, by sheer coincidence, it’s more accurate, since (based on our conversation on another thread) you don’t appear to “unapologetically” uphold Catholic orthodoxy.  Rather, you seem to unapologetically uphold Darwinian orthodoxy, and to expect Catholic faith to adjust itself to that.  This is standard TE behavior:  Darwinism says “Jump”, and Christian theology is supposed to ask “How high?”  I prefer my religion with a little more backbone. 

I think your advice is good.  I’ll quit while I am very much ahead.  ‘Bye.

Gregory - #13770

May 15th 2010

Is Rich really trying to go back in time and defend the ‘fixity of species’? Whales were ‘designed/created’ as whales! Sometimes it sounds like this, but at other times it doesn’t. I’m confused by his educated remarks.

Why does he fail to deal with Dobzhansky, Fisher or Teilhard de Chardin, going instead after easier figures?

As far as I recall, Rich grants 1) old earth, 2) probably common descent(s), 3) ‘evolution’ *is* an acceptable term for biology, 4) homo sapiens probably originated millions, not thousands of years ago, & 5) several evolutionary ‘mechanisms’ in #13750.

Darwin agreed with all of these things, up to 5).

Biology in the 20th century, i.e. post-Darwinian biology, offers new perspectives, including informational approaches (e.g. involving genetic code). Yet the so-named ‘modern synthesis’ is something Rich doesn’t respect, period.

He *seems* to want to add ‘tIDe’, without *any* new mechanisms, into biology and thus to make his mark in that field. Yet without adequate training in biology, impact on the field seems unlikely.

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