This episode has brought out lots of rancor and strong statements from many points of view. To try to understand what’s going on with this controversy, let’s compare it to the game of soccer. As a first approximation, consider that soccer has clearly defined rules (or what the purists call “laws of the game”)—like limiting the number of players you can have on each side to 11, and the (confusing-to-newcomers) rule of offsides. But you might play a pickup game in your backyard and decide to use only five players per team, and maybe not worry about offsides. You’re still kicking the ball with your feet and trying to score a goal. What you’re playing is recognizably soccer.
But some people might reasonably object, “You’re not really playing soccer, because you’re not following the laws of the game.” The reason they could say this is that there’s an official governing body for soccer—FIFA—and it determines the laws of the game. Others might play very similar games, but it is only the real, authentic game of soccer if it has been sanctioned by FIFA.
Too many scientists in a controversy like this one act as though there is some comparable governing body for science—some organization that determines the rules according to which science must operate in order for it to count as science. But there is no such organization. There are other kinds of organizations, like journals and professional societies, which are free to make their membership rules according to whatever criteria they wish. They could say, “we’ll only publish papers on astronomy” or “we’ll only publish papers on radio telescope astronomy” or even “we’ll only publish papers on radio telescope astronomy by people over six feet tall with more than 10 letters in their last names”. No one is preventing anyone from starting a journal like this last one and calling it science. The question is whether enough other scientists will care about the results published in such a journal in order to make it a viable enterprise.
Now, we might refine this analogy a bit. Technically, FIFA governs and sanctions only what is known as “association football.” A case could be made that association football is really just one variety of soccer, and soccer itself has no strict and abiding definition. Are we really going to say that the pickup game in your backyard is not soccer because you’re using only five players? Or that NCAA soccer is not really soccer because the substitution rules are different from FIFA’s laws? That doesn’t quite seem right.
And so it might be argued by groups who want to keep God and the supernatural in science that what they’re doing is close enough to the “association football” to be called “soccer”. I suspect, though, that most scientists would view the YEC/OEC/ID variety of “science” more like a different game altogether. By invoking the divine in their scientific work (or simply “design” for the ID proponents) it’s as if they’ve shown up at a soccer league in the park (is that the equivalent of open access journals like PLOS One where you have to pay to have your article published?) and started to play another team. But then partway through the game, one of the YEC/OEC/ID players picked up the ball with his hands and ran into the goal yelling, “Touchdown! Give me six points.”
“Whoa!” says the other team, “You can’t do that here. You’ve stopped playing our game and started playing football.”
“Well,” says our YEC/OEC/ID player, “‘Football’ is actually an ambiguous term; the rest of the world calls what you’re doing ‘football’. And besides, it is obvious that this game is meant to be played with hands, because we all have hands! It’s just your purist [read: secular] bias to say we can’t play like this with you.”
Imagine how that would go over at the park, and I think you’ll get the idea why some PLOS One editors said, “retract the paper or I quit”—or by analogy, “Play like I want or I’m taking my ball and going home!”
OK, no analogies hold up perfectly. And in this situation, the competing scientific “games” are not just games that some people might prefer over another. They make claims about how the world really is. As such, science is a results-driven business. Yes, there are some social aspects to what scientific theories are currently accepted, but by and large science is amazingly self-correcting and good at getting at the truth of the natural world. Those who claim we don’t have to pay attention to science because it changes all the time have to ignore the things that scientists have figured out which no one expects to change anytime soon (e.g., heliocentrism, germ theory).
So, to really be scientific, the YEC/OEC/ID approaches need to do more than just convince a bunch of people to pay attention to them. They need to show that they are achieving results and solving problems that the rest of the scientific world cares about. If their journals published papers that did that, then they might garner some respect and be recognized as legitimate scientific operations. But the problems those journals are trying to solve (like, can we reconcile what we observe in the universe with our commitment to the claim that the universe is only 6000 years old?) are just not that interesting to other scientists. (Of course, they are interesting to lots of non-scientists in the church, and therefore get enough support to continue, but that is different than being recognized as legitimate science.)
But what if some group of scientists is able to show that by referring to the Creator or a Designer in their scientific papers, it solved a lot of problems that many scientists are interested in? Then they might legitimately have a claim to be treated as scientists, and we’d see the boundaries of what counts as science shift. There have been times that the consensus of scientists has changed. Astrology used to be considered within the mainstream of scientific practice, but the study of the mind was not. Now most people think that situation is reversed. Gravity was once considered by many scientists to be an occult force and not properly scientific because it didn’t conform to the mechanistic expectations they had for science. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a scientist who doesn’t think the study of gravity is properly scientific.
So it is ludicrous to sit where we are now and think we can decree once and for all times what is and isn’t science. One of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers, W.V.O. Quine (himself, not sympathetic to theism of any sort) saw this more clearly than most. He said, “If I saw indirect explanatory benefit in positing sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator, I would joyfully accord them scientific status too, on a par with such avowedly scientific posits as quarks and black holes.”
So, the takeaway: the PLOS One paper referring to the Creator broke the “house rules” of what is currently the biggest and most successful game in town. Anyone who’s not happy about that can form their own league, see if anyone else is interested in playing their game, and then show how it achieves better results. I’ve not been persuaded yet that such results are forthcoming. I’m keeping my scientific money on mainstream science for showing how the natural world works… and I’m going back to watching the UEFA Champions League round of 16.