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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 - #13863

May 15th 2010

beaglelady:

With a 1250-character limit, I have to take shortcuts.  If I have to write “hippo-like animal” or “hippo ancestor” for “hippo”, or “shrew-like animal” for shrew, it gets cumbersome and takes up precious characters.  You can take it for granted that, after 45 years of studying evolutionary theory, I realize that it is not literally a modern hippo that is meant as the whale ancestor, and that I know that the bat would have descended not literally from a modern shrew, but from an ancient shrew-like animal.  So I’m asking you to cut me some slack, and mentally enclose “hippo” in scare quotes whenever the context demands it.  I’m not making an error; I’m just trying to be economical.

In any case, the hypothetical hippo-like ancestor was a *land* mammal, so all the problems highlighted by Sternberg apply.  I already gave everyone the link for the Sterrnberg video.  No one here should be talking about whale evolution until they have watched it.  The problems he raises simply *must* be addressed by neo-Darwinian theory.


Rich - #13864

May 15th 2010

beaglelady:

I didn’t mean to be insulting.  I picked up the impression, rightly or wrongly, that you held rather firm views on naturalistic evolution, and my point about the hippo was this:  when I mentioned the hippo-whale connection, you reacted with surprise as if that was a new notion to you.  Yet everyone I debate with knows of this hypothetical connection; it’s old news.  So it was as if you weren’t up on some of the standard assertions that neo-Darwinians make.  And that made me wonder if you knew the neo-Darwinian position well.  So my question was, in essence, do you feel you know enough to have a well-reasoned position regarding Darwinism, ID, and TE?

If my expression had too much bite, please accept my apology.  I’ve tried to put it less sharply above.  So now:  do you feel you are still at the learning stage regarding the basic positions and arguments of ID, TE and neo-Darwinism, or are you claiming sufficient expertise to maintain one position and refute the others?


Rich - #13865

May 15th 2010

beaglelady:

I see that you are Episcopalian.  I’m from the Anglican tradition myself, though I see it as fast going down the tubes. 

So, if I may be mischievous, are you a “Gene Robinson Episcopalian”, or some other kind?  Which Prayer Book does your Church use?  And what do you think of the Southern Cone?


beaglelady - #13868

May 16th 2010

I’m not in favor of ordaining non-celibate gays as priests, as I believe in old-fashioned morality.  We use the 1928 bcp.  If parishes wish to realign that’s fine with me.  Many denominations are going through similar turmoil these days.  My own church is thriving;  the people are all over the map in their opinions yet we all get along.  I live in Connecticut but take the train to NYC every Sunday and it’s well worth it.

Have you considered the Traditionalist Catholic Church? They reject Vatican 2, the pope, etc.


Rich - #13869

May 16th 2010

beaglelady:

1928 BCP?  I’m impressed.  Do you use it every week?  Where I’m from the bishops and clergy and seminaries conspired together to do everything short of making the 1959 BCP illegal.  They pushed it to the fringes, and in my diocese forbade any parish from being “Prayer Book only”, though they didn’t forbid any parish from being “Book of Alternate Services only”.  So insipid modern liturgy slowly pushed out the beautiful older language.  Many Anglicans who liked the older service were forced to switch parishes, if they could find one where the BCP was ever used.  Anyhow, now my diocese has authorized same-sex blessings, the clergy are increasingly very liberal females, you can’t find the King James Bible in use for love or money, and the Church bears no resemblance to the one I grew up in.  The Southern Cone is looking pretty good.


beaglelady - #13874

May 16th 2010

Yes, we use the 1928 bcp every week, and the lessons are usually read from the KJV.  The language is elegant and beautiful and seems especially fitting for lovely St Thomas. However, I don’t have a problem with the 1979 bcp (one of my dogs shredded my personal copy)  and I use other translations of the Bible for my own use.

One thing I can’t stand is when modern liturgists “castrate” the prayers, hymns, etc.  Jesus referred to God as “Father” and that’s good enough for me.


Rich - #13880

May 16th 2010

beaglelady:

Amen to your remarks in your last paragraph.  If only there were churches like yours in my Diocese!  New York is a bit of hike for me (like about 500 miles) on a Sunday morning.  Anyhow, thanks for the personal digression.  Also, I’ve heard Polkinghorne speak on a podcast, and he’s very gracious and very balanced in his statements, and doesn’t operate by the go-for-the-jugular rules of engagement that seem to goverrn the conduct of many prominent partisans in the TE/ID/Darwinist debates.  Probably has to do with the fact that he’s British.  He’s one of the few prominent TEs that I could do business with.  I’m sure your event will be a success.


beaglelady - #13887

May 16th 2010

Did you notice that St. Thomas has webcasts of its choral services, available both live and on-demand on its website

Our choir of men and boys is excellent and I think you’d enjoy the services.

(St Thomas runs a choir school for boys.)


Rich - #13889

May 16th 2010

beaglelady (13874):

I’d like to borrow one of your dogs, to shred a few copies of our Book of Compulsory and Dictatorially Imposed Services —oops, I meant to say Book of Alternate Services.

Anyhow, back to evolution. 

(Actually, it should be back to Dr. Giberson’s article, though it seems either that Dr. Giberson has forgotten that he ever wrote the piece, or that he has no intention of replying to reasonable criticism, so probably this thread is dead, and the detailed arguments about evolution, design, etc. would be best picked up elsewhere.)


tj - #14038

May 18th 2010

Well spoken!  Dr. Waltke would have been better served if he had been more aware of current scientific data as opposed to evolutionistic orthodoxy.  There is a difference between evolution and science.  Science can be done in a lab.  Experiments that are repeatable and verifiable.  When it comes to evolution, both creationists and evolutionists have the same facts, but then the interpretation starts.  We have to guess what happened.  It is like the science of forensics. 

As Christians, we have an eye-witness account of creation – something that evolutionists do not have so they have to do a lot of guessing.  We, however, can be free to rely on that eye-witness account that the Creator gave to us.  Creationists interpret the facts through that lens.  Evolutionists interpret the facts and observations they make through their lens which rules out the supernatural.  Waltke, as a Christian, would do well to pay attention to the eye-witness account of the Creator than to the ever-changing guesses of evolutionists. 

Gilberson says that “WISDOM” is a more common term for scientific orthodoxy, but I think a more accurate term for scientific orthodoxy the way Gilberson uses it is “evolutionary orthodoxy”.


A. Edgar - #14040

May 18th 2010

One need not look any further than the financial disaster we are experiencing to understand how pernicious group think is on what is true and what is false. All the highly educated financial experts, who formed part of the consensus, were telling us how great things were and how great they would continue to be. The few discrepant voices that were ringing the alarm bells on the impeding financial disaster were silenced, mocked and ridiculed as ignorant. Who was right at the end?

I am an educated person but recognize that an education is not guarantee for wisdom. A PhD after a person’s name means nothing without wisdom.


Rich - #14054

May 18th 2010

Re:  Further discussion of Dr. Giberson’s thesis

Dr. Giberson, for whatever reason, has chosen not to defend his article above against serious, polite criticism.  Thus, while we have discussed many interesting side-topics on this thread, we have not been able to thrash out the main subject in proper depth.  For those who are interested in continuing the discussion of the proper role of “experts” in science, I see there is a thread up at Uncommon Descent tied specifically to Dr. Giberson’s claims above.  Some here may wish to join in.


karl Giberson - #14588

May 22nd 2010

Rich, et al:

I am currently in Europe doing some speaking on science and religion.  I have every intent of following up on this topic but it will not be for a few more weeks.


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