Category Archives: philosophy of science

Stanley Fish’s take on science vs. religion

Stanley Fish has a really eloquent column, “God Talk, Part 2“. Nominally about “science vs. religion”, it also speaks to why Wikipedia works and why even for partisans (in politics, in fighting popular pseudoscience or religionism, etc.), really embracing neutral point of view is more effective as a rhetorical strategy than shutting out the views one opposes.

One good bit:

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

As Fish’s own worldview should make clear, none of this should be taken as a defense of (any particular) religion or a rejection of science. But theological, philosophical and historical arguments have done far more to erode religious authority than scientific ones ever did. The ‘rally the faithful’ approach of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins does more harm than good.

[thanks @jayrosen_nyu on Twitter for the link]

Wikipedia in theory

For the last few days I’ve been stewing about one of the article in the recent Wikipedia-edition of the epistemology journal Episteme. (See the Wikipedia Signpost for summaries of the articles.) I don’t find any of them particularly enlightening, but one just rubs me wrong: K. Brad Wray’s “The Epistemic Cultures of Science and Wikipedia: A Comparison“, which argues that where science has norms that allow reliable knowledge to be produced, Wikipedia has very different norms that mean Wikipedia can’t produce reliable knowledge.

I guess it’s really just another proof of the zeroeth law of Wikipedia: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

Part of my problem might be that last year I blogged a comparison between Wikipedia’s epistemological methods and those of the scientific community, but came to the opposite conclusion, that in broad strokes they are actually very similar. But more than that, I think Wray’s analysis badly misrepresents both the way science works and the way Wikipedia works.

A central piece of Wray’s argument is scientists depend on their reputations as producers of reliable knowledge for their livelihoods and careers, and so their self-interest aligns with the broader institutional interests of science. This is in contrast to Wikipedia, where mistakes have little or no consequences for their authors and where a “puckish culture”, prone to jokes and vandalism, prevails. Wray writes that “In science there is no room for jokes” such as the Seigenthaler incident.

The idea that scientists are above putting jokes and pranks into their published work is belied by historical and social studies of science and by many scientific memoirs as well. James D. Watson’s Genes, Girls, and Gamow is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are many examples I could use to make that point. And science worked much the same way, epistemologically, long before it was a paid profession and scientists’ livelihoods depended on their scientific reputations. (I don’t want to over-generalize here, but some of the main features of the social epistemology of science go back to the 17th century, at least. See Steve Shapin’s work, which is pretty much all focused, at least tangentially, on exploring the roots and development the social epistemology of science.)

Likewise, the idea that Wikipedia’s norms and community practices can’t be effective without more serious consequences for mistakes seems to me a wrong-headed way of looking at things. On Wikipedia, as in science, there are people who violoate community norms, and certainly personal consequences for such violations are less on Wikipedia than for working scientists. But for the most part, propagating and enforcing community norms is a social process that works even in the absence of dire consequences. And of course, just as in science, those who consistently violate Wikipedia’s norms are excluded from the community, and their shoddy work expunged.

For a more perceptive academic exploration of why Wikipedia does work, see Ryan McGrady’s “Gaming against the greater good” in the new edition of First Monday.

Wikipedia’s epistemological methods

A colleague of mine recently asked me about Wikipedia’s policy on sources and evidence, Wikipedia:Verifiability (WP:V). In short, the threshold for including content in Wikipedia is that it be “verifiable, not true”. Truth alone, without appropriate evidence that fits with the Wikipedia community’s standards, is not enough to justify adding something to Wikipedia.

You can interpret this in a number of ways. For some, it’s an embodiment of post-modern notions of truth and subjectivity (people disagree about truth, so we don’t let people simply add what they know to be true, instead relying on authority). For others, it’s just a practical concession to the sociological nature of Wikipedia, in which some people are more objective and more capable than others (and those are the people that know how to leverage authority effectively). The Verifiability standards could also be taken as a fundamentally rhetorical, rather than epistemological, policy: communal standards of evidence ensure a basic level of apparent reliability, since readers can be pointed straight to relevant authorities. (Citizendium, in contrast, as has looser evidentiary standards and relies in part on the personal authority of its Authors and Editors.)

From an academic standpoint, there are plenty of relevant sets of literature that bear on the problems that Wikipedia’s evidentiary standards and policies attempt to deal with. But from my own perspective as a historian of science, I think the parallel to scientific epistemology and evidentiary norms is an interesting one.

WP:V works in ways that are closely paralleled in scientific (and historical) method as it is actually practiced. Communities of scientists have various norms (mostly unwritten) for what does and does not constitute legitimate evidence for making novel scientific claims. These norms are highly context dependent, and can include (for exclude) experiments, reference to the work of others, reasoning and rhetoric, visual evidence, artificially simulated data, etc., depending on field and venue. Verifiability in the traditional scientific sense of experimental repeatibility is actually very rarely a consideration in science (and in fact, many philosophers and historians of science have argued that repeating experiments is rarely possible and almost never desirable… the questions instead are, do the results accord with the results of related experiments?, can we build on these results?, etc.)

Science, as scientists are increasingly willing to admit in recent decades, is about what is verifiable rather than true in a similar sense to WP:V, since experimental science is increasingly conducted in largely artificial physical contexts. What happens in the lab is hoped to be a faithful reflection of what happens in nature, but the whole point of the lab is to isolate certain parts of nature so that they can be studied without all the complicating factors…and sometimes those complicating factors mean that a given experimental result may actually only be “true” for the very peculiar and artificial set of circumstances tested. The analogous situation on Wikipedia is when a seemingly reliable source is wrong; all the Wikipedian can do, without other sources to compare it to, is either limit claims to “source X says Y” (instead of just claiming Y and citing X) or ignore the source altogether. On Wikipedia we also hope that what the sources says accords with reality, but (for sociological rather than technical reasons) editors can’t go out and probe reality in its full complexity and must stick within the (negotiable) norms (which, like in science, are tailored to try to maximize the chances of accord between evidence and reality).

WP:V, and Wikipedia’s approach to sourcing and evidence more broadly, is just a different set of evidentiary norms, suited to a different group of people with a different purpose.

"The End of Science"?

The Final Frontier, by John Horgan

This article caught my fancy. Despite a few caricatures of the “postmodern” perspective used to avoid all that troublesome analysis by people who spend their career’s studying how science works (a misreading of Kuhn, followed by “But the postmodern stance is clearly wrong”, accomplishes this nicely), and the always problematic move of a categorical distinction between pure and applied science, Horgan has a keen eye for the big picture of modern science and its place in the trajectory of history.

Actually, from a Kuhnian perspective, the “end of science” phenomenon is something that demands explanation. Although the current pantheon of mid-level and high-level paradigms has not been around for that long in years, many current theories have survived the scrutiny of many more man-years and research dollars than their predecessors. Much of it comes down to a question Horgan alludes to in the article: To what extent is the universe set up in ways we can understand it? As Horgan points out, it takes a measure of faith to believe that the universe is ultimately rational and comprehensible. Up through the middle of the 20th century, scientific progress seemed to justify that faith; deciphering the genetic code and establishing the central dogma of molecular biology are prime examples pointing toward a fundamental unity of knowledge. But contingency has been replacing unity as the theme of scientific progress: increasingly complex (and seemingly arbitrary) theories in physics; increasingly specific and non-universal discoveries in biology and chemistry. The issue of whether we can expect and hope for another round of over-arching theoretical breakthoughs is very tied up in the ideologies of science.

Case in point: Horgan’s discussion of neuroscience was paralleled in the Terry Lecture panel discussion. Plantinga (the philosopher) expressed the same sort of scepticism about a materialist explanation for consciousness that Horgan does, and seemingly for the same reasons (though perhaps with a theological component as well). Krauss and Miller were fully and unreservedly confident that consciousness will eventually be reduced to matter and motion, so to speak.

John Horgan, a science journalist who sometimes calls himself “The Scientific Curmudgeon” (an enviable title), also has a blog: Horganism.

Terry Lectures: "The Science and Religion Debate: Why Does It Continue?"

Yale University’s annual Terry Lectures took place September 14 and 15. The topic was nominally “the science and religion debate”; actually it focused on American creationism and intelligent design. There were talks by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, biologist Kenneth R. Miller, and historian Ronald Numbers, followed by a panel discussion moderated by journalist Margaret Warner.

Robert Wuthnow – sociologist of religion – worldview: [unknown]

I missed his talk, but I gather that Wuthnow argued that many or most Americans do not engage with conflicting religious and scientific beliefs that they hold. Thus, there is actually much less conflict between science and religion than we should expect, given the diversity and prevalence of logically inconsistent views (held in some cases by the same person simultaneously).

Lawrence M. Krauss – cosmologist, popular author, and anti-ID activist – worldview: atheist

Krauss gave a talk that was apparently written for his normal anti-ID public lectures; there was nothing particularly new or interesting for followers of the ID debates and political goings-on, but he was an entertaining speaker. From the historian’s perspective, there were numerous nits to pick, the main one being his frequent invocation the Scientific Method and how it inherently precludes what ID is trying to do. To the historian of science, speaking of a single Scientific Method, and especially using such a defintion to make transhistorical proclamations about what science inherently is, is generally one of the first warning signals of scientism. He did make the boilerplate method-based anti-ID arguments, but he also added a warning of the dangers of the intellectual imperialism of science vis-a-vis other disciplines. Overall, though, it was more of a mobilize the base talk than an analyze the debate talk.

Alvin Plantinga – philosopher of religion – worldview: Calvinist, supporter of the philosophical idea of intelligent design, though not the ID movement and its claims of the scientificity of ID

Plantinga argued that evolutionary biology does not necessarily conflict with theism. In doing so, he divided modern evolutionary theory (rather perceptively, I think) into six distinct claims/theories: the Ancient Earth thesis, the Progress thesis, the Descent With Modification thesis, the Common Ancestry thesis, the Darwinism thesis (i.e., mutation and natural selection), and the Naturalistic Origins thesis. One might add a few more items in terms of alternate mechanisms and such (and quibble with the label “Progress” for the trajectory of evolutionary history) , but that covers main elements pretty well; Plantinga noted that with the exception of Darwinism requiring Descent With Modification, these are all logically independent.
He went on to claim that the theistic doctrine of creation is compatible with all of these theses–the caveat being that claiming positively that evolution is an unguided process, in which God plays no part (even an undetectable one), is a “metaphysical add-on”, an assertion of ontological naturalism rather than simply methodological naturalism. I think the audience expected that he would defend intelligent design (as a viable scientific hypothesis), and interpreted some aspects of his talk uncharitably, but this was mostly cleared up during Q&A.

Kenneth R. Miller – biologist, textbook author, author of Finding Darwin’s God ( a response to Darwin’s Black Box) – worldview: Catholic, anti-ID

Miller, as rumored, is a superb speaker and (in the words of one of my colleagues) “a virulent Catholic.” His talk was basically a selective look at recent goings on with the Intelligent Design Movement, mainly focused on various ways in which he as been there to combat it. The Dover trial, public lectures in other problem regions, his appearance on The Colbert Report, the use and misuse of his textbook, etc. Like Krauss, Miller partly aimed to relay the details of the ID happenings, and partly to dispel any doubts about its intellectual vacuity. Miller also had a significant section at the end devoted to explicating the compatibility of (Catholic) theism and modern scientific theories.

Overall I liked what Miller had to say and how he said it (he did far less trampling over the history and philosophy of science than Krauss), but I felt his treatment of the defense witnesses at the trial and the Discovery Institute’s role to be somewhat disingenuous, or at least misleading. He pointed out the statements of all three expert witnesses (Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, and Steve Fuller) to the effect that the meaning/definition of science should be revised, getting rid of methodological naturalism as a strict requirement. But rather than attempt any philosophical attack on that position, he quoted Behe to the effect that, in his proposed definition, astrology would fall within the realm of science. The problem is that for hundreds of years, astrology was a science; it was not abandoned by natural philosophers because of concerns about the definition of science, but rather, because philosophers became convinced that its (testable) predictions were worthless. To greatly oversimplify, it was falsified; it would remain wrong (I think the ID witnesses would agree) even if it were re-admitted into the scope of “science.” Of course, whether or not ID could be tested (or has already been falsified) even after setting aside methodological naturalism is a separate question. But using the astrology example (from the mouth of Behe) was an underhanded way to avoid either of those questions.

Like most ID critics, Miller fails to take the cognitive aspects of intelligent design seriously (as opposed to the theological and poltical aspects). Typically, critics first identify ID with wholesale anti-evolutionism, then proceed to summarize several of the many lines of evidence that clearly suggest the reality of evolution (i.e., descent with modification and common ancestry). Yet what gives ID most of its intellectual traction is (in some forms) its compatibility with a great portion of evolutionary biology. Miller quoted Behe’s denunciation of “Darwinism” from the intro Darwin’s Black Box, but ignored his claims to accept common descent. Plantinga pointed out that a sympathetic reading would suggest that Behe meant what Plantinga called “unguided Darwinism,” but Miller preferred to read an internal contradiction in which Behe accepted common descent yet totally rejected evolution.

I think it takes at least an advanced undergraduate level biological training to understand why the extant intelligent design arguments break down (without simply accepting an argument from authority, which is actually probably a reasonable thing to do); the reigning assumption is that it should be obviously to anyone who’s taken a year of high school biology (assuming evolution was on the curriculum). Thus the self-appointed defenders of science consistently underestimate the level of genuine intellectual interest and open-mindedness on the part ID proponents, and correspondingly overestimate their ideological motivations. Maybe my own first-hand experience with the ID movement (at the University of Oklahoma) was an anomaly, but I think the ID movement wouldn’t exist without a fair number of people who are interested in the intellectual aspects of ID more than the political-theological aspects. I’m also convinced that there is a lot more diversity of opinion within the ID movement than what is represented, for example, in the Wikipedia article, which fully equates ID with the Discovery Institute.

With respect to Miller in particular, this is picking nits. Mostly, he presented things in ways that, though clearly polemical, were factually defensible and not very distorted. I was actually surprised at how large a role religion plays in Miller’s scientific worldview; I don’t know how much I agree with his philosophy/theology of science (which actually matched up almost totally with Plantinga), but I enjoyed presentation (especially the way it got Krauss riled up).

Ronald Numbers – historian of science and religion, former president of the History of Science Society – worldview: non-religious (apostate 7th Day Adventist; husband of an evolutionary biologist)

Numbers talk was fine as far as it went, but it was basically just a history of science and religion in the Anglophone world over the last 200 years; intelligent design played only a minor role, and there wasn’t really anthing original or surprising (from the perspective of a historian of science) in the talk. He’s a great historian, so I was disappointed that he didn’t actually have anything novel to present about ID. I did get the chance to have dinner with Ron (along with another grad student and a couple faculty) the night before, which was very enjoyable.

I was hoping the Terry Lectures, in the printed version that will be published by Yale, would finally provide a scholarly, insightful, and fairly neutral resource for improving ID-related Wikipedia articles, but sadly that won’t be the case. However, the panel discussion should make interesting material for a historian of science and religion 50 years down the road.

The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I just finished a delightful (and fairly concise) book, The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Hanne Andersen, Peter Barker, and Xiang Chen (“ABC”, I’m told they’re called). These three have been working together for about ten years to create philosophical system to revive the essence of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

Despite Kuhn’s huge, multi-discipline-changing influence, there weren’t (and aren’t) really any intellectual schools of philosophy, sociology, or history of science built around his ideas. Philosophers have never fully shaken free of the need to create a philosophy of science that can be used to demarcate science from non-science/pseudoscience and to categorically separate obsolete theories from reality/truth/currently accepted theories; Kuhn’s incommensurability threatened to make that simply impossible. Sociologists liked Kuhn, but wanted to take it further; only the most extreme advocates of the Strong Programme actually suggested that cognitive/intellectual/empirical/real-world factors were irrelevant altogether, but they generally attempted to explain as much of science as possible in terms of social structure and individual and group interests. Historians also liked Kuhn’s work, especially at first, but could not accept it as a general account of scientific development; historical counter-examples of gradual change are easy to find, like the Copernican revolution (ironically, the subject of Kuhn’s earlier work).

The premise of ABC’s book is that the mature version of Kuhn’s ideas (as opposed to the version in Structure) is historically justifiable and matches up well with developments in cognitive psychology that describe how humans make sense of the world. Revolutionary science happens when scientists (or scientific communities) have to disrupt the dynamic categorical hierarchies (called “frames”) by which they make sense of the world. They take the idea of frames straight from cognitive psychology (as developed by Lawrence W. Barsalou in the ’80s and ’90s), and supposedly they are a pretty good representation of the way humans actually think. Depending on the what aspects of the frames are disrupted, revolutionary change is science may or may not involve incommensurable theories. But incommensurability, in Kuhn mature philosophy and in the frame theory version here, is much less drastic than in Strucuture. In fact, by ABC’s analysis, the shift between geocentrism and heliocentrism did not involve incommensurability; the crux of the “Copernican revolution” was actually Kepler’s idea of orbits, which replaced the orbs (spherical shells) that provided the cosmological basis for Ptolemaic astronomers, Averroist astronomers, and Copernicus and his early adopters (who actually rejected his heliocentrism as well). Both revolutions and incommensurability, in this account, become matters of scale; it depends on how high up the hierarchy the disruptions occur.

Reading Structure was basically what got me into the history of science, and I’m hoping it comes back into fashion. I’ve periodically attempted to restructure the argument into a form that is actually defensible historically without being very very selective about which cases to apply it to. Mainly, this consisted of dividing up science into expansive hierarchies and finding revolutions of differing scale everywhere. Thus, it’s gratifying that the (only, as far as I know) science studies professionals who still take Kuhn seriously have fitted Kuhn to history and the realities of scientific practice by means similar to mine (though, obviously, in a much more sophisticated way, and with the support of some interesting empirical evidence).

ABC’s manifesto is found at the end of the book; they call out both philosophy and sociology for not following the methodology of history closely enough. Neither has lived up to David Bloor’s criteria for a satisfying analysis of science :

1. I would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge. Naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will cooperate in bringing about belief.
2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.
3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain say, true and false beliefs. And,
4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to…itself. Like the requirement of symmetry this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations.

Like many people in science studies (including many who don’t adhere to the Strong Programme in general), I take these criteria to be axiomatic. History’s method of explaining science, which relies primarily on historical context, of course satisfies all four. But the scope of its generality is too wide… nothing conceptually separates the history of science from garden-variety history, and cognitive-intellectual content of scientific knowledge has no special status. Thus, the attraction of the theory-oriented approaches of philosophy and sociology. But, as ABC point out, philosophy and sociology have so far not created compelling theoretical approaches that leave enough room for historical context. ABC are convinced they’ve created such an approach, and I think they’ve convinced me. I’ll have to mull it over, but it’s tempting to try to frame my own research in terms of ABC’s reformed Kuhnianism.

Review of The Evolution-Creation Struggle by Michael Ruse

I did a group book review for Beverly Gage’s class on American Conservatism last Spring, covering 4 books that deal in one way or another with the history of Intelligent Design. Best of the bunch was definitely Ruse’s book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. (The others were Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Doubts About Darwin, and the 3rd edition of Ed Larson’s excellent Trial and Error.) In particular, I think Ruse’s book is relevant to all the pronouncements about the status of ID as science/pseudoscience/junk science and the frequent invocations of the mystical scientific method, in the wake of Kitzmiller v. Dover. And since I saw other sites mentioning the book recently, I thought I’d post that portion of the review. I also stumbled across this interesting interview with Ruse on the book.

My review:

Michael Ruse—who cultivates a great oval beard to emulate Darwin—has written about fifteen books, mostly on evolution, and edited about that many more. Ruse has a gift for melting down detailed historical scholarship and reforging it into something grander, capturing the broad themes in the history of evolution. His latest offering, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, demonstrates the historical continuity of thinking about creation, evolution, and the relationship between religion and science, putting Intelligent Design into context as a philosophical continuation of the same questions that partially-overlapping circles of evolutionists and Christians have been pondering and debating for hundreds of years.

Ruse begins by describing the cultural context in which evolution first arose, which is crucial for understanding the tensions and links between evolution and religion, then and now. Ruse argues that though “the eighteenth century did see much scientific activity, and some was certainly pertinent to the issue of evolution,” “metaphysical ideas played as big if not a bigger role in the origins of evolutionism.” Particularly, ideas of progress heavily informed the theories of virtually every prominent evolutionist before the 20th century, with the partial exception of Darwin himself. Ruse compares the spread of evolution after Darwin’s Origin of Species to the formulation of a religion from Jesus’ teachings, with T. H. HuxleyDarwin’s bulldog—playing the part of Saint Paul.

Ruse invokes a tripartite distinction of “pseudoscience,” “public science” and “professional science” to classify early work on evolution, demonstrating a remarkable parallel to Intelligent Design. He describes all the evolutionary theorizing before Darwin, from Lamarck to Robert Chambers, as pseudoscience, because it was derived as much from ideology as from empirical observations. With Darwin, evolution became public science; it was intellectually and empirically grounded, but it had little bearing on the actual practice of science. Even the celebrated evolutionary apologist Huxley, a great innovator in biological education, found room for only half a class on evolution in his two-year, 150-lecture course; while he championed the social and (anti-)religious dimensions of evolution in public speeches, he did not find it relevant for future scientists and doctors. Only with T. H. Morgan, and to a lesser extent Ernst Haeckel, did evolution become the pursuit of professional scientists, somewhat separate from ideology and metaphysics.

Ruse is thus more forgiving than most of the fact the Intelligent Design springs from religious ideas and has not been conducive to novel experimental work. Though ID is at best public science, if not pseudoscience, that does not preclude professional science in the future. Ruse is skeptical of its future potential as well, as he sees the retreat from methodological naturalism as a “science stopper,” but his commitment to a historical approach precludes the typical facile demarcation of science and religion as entirely separate entities, with ID consigned to the latter. In nearly a century and a half since Darwin, the relationships among religion, concepts of creation, and evolution have taken many forms, but religion and evolution have never been entirely distinct.

Ruse addresses the historical role of evolution as a secular religion, especially for the group of scientists who established the core modern evolutionary theory (neo-Darwinism or the synthetic theory of evolution) in the 1930s and 40s. A complicated set of connections grew up gradually among evolutionary theory, Christian theologies, secular and religious humanism, and theories of creationism. Of particular importance was, and is, the distinction between premillennialists and postmillennialists. Most creationism, particularly the tradition of creation science and flood geology, derives from premillennialist, fundamentalist Christian theology. Ruse also claims that for many evolutionists, such as Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, “evolutionism entail[s] its own brand of postmillennial theology.”

Intelligent Design represents a new mixture of scientific, philosophical and religious concepts, and Ruse does his best to separate each thread of ID for analysis. For each aspect, historical continuity is critical, and The Evolution-Creation Struggle makes sense of ID in terms of the very real and continuing tensions between science and religion without reducing history to the old trope of a war between science and superstition. While the conclusions will not sit well with ID proponents, Ruse separates his philosophical judgments from his historical analysis so that a wide audience will find this book useful.

H-NET Intelligent Design discussion

With all the Intelligent Design news lately, ID has been making the rounds on the H-NET H-SCI-MED-TECH listserv. Instead of writing papers, I got side-tracked by composing some responses to some of the discussion there.

I should start by saying that:

1) I don’t think there is any positive evidence of non-natural causes for science to find in nature (though I don’t completely rule it out), so don’t expect the ID program to be successful in the future.

2) ID is not a significant enough factor in the scientific community to validate including it in public school curriculum, assuming the point of science education is to teach the best science. The efforts to put it in schools are almost purely religiously motivated.

Having said that, I have to respectfully disagree with much of the discussion on H-SCI-MED-TECH, and I don’t think ID is as bad as most of the discussants seem to think.

Michael Roberts writes intelligently on putting ID in historical context, particularly vis-à-vis Paley. His points, with my comments:

1.  “Intelligent Design does not seek to explain
but to appeal to some intelligent designer to
certain things which seem to be beyond explanation
at present. This is what Behe does in Darwin's
Black Box. In fact it is a form of a god of the gaps
argument and he has received much criticism for that.”

The argument of Darwin’s Black Box is closely related to generic God-of-the-gaps arguments, but it does try to go beyond such negative to arguments to make a positive argument for design, particularly by analogy to other observable instances of design. Still, it is largely a negative, gaps-based argument.

2.  ID is not a rewrite of Paley as Paley
sought to explain Design not to appeal to it.”

[and following up on this point in a later email]

“In their understanding of Creation IDCs open themselves
to having a
split-level understanding of Creation, as part
designed and part
not… This is in contrast to the Design
of Paley and Buckland where all is designed.”

This is a serious philosophical and theological tension in ID, and does set it apart from Paley. While this criticism does not necessarily invalidate ID (on its own), it does detract from the potential potency of ID design arguments, which cede modest ground to evolutionary explanations—“a two-tier Creation” is somewhat unsatisfying.

3.  “ID must be put in historical context and
its connections with Young Earth Creationism
and an Old earth Creationism which is sceptical
of evolution. Barbara Forrest is helpful here.
ID may not be YEC but it is always going to bed
with YECs!! As a result they ignore any evidence
of the vast age of the universe and the earth.”

This is valid point, and the connections are indeed important, although ID advocates vary on their age of the earth opinions; many in fact reject YEC explicitly and do not ignore the accepted cosmic and geological timelines. As for Barbara Forrest, I find her (non­-)use of historical context appalling, at least in Creationism’s Trojan Horse. The fact that she co-writes with Paul Gross (of Higher Superstition fame) should be a tip-off that she doesn’t take the history of science too seriously (except as a history of the triumph of pure reason over ignorance and superstition).

4.  [B]e aware of the shoddy scholarship of both
ID and YEC, especially on its history.”

Indeed, although the same complaint can be made about the invocation of history on the part of the anti-ID side as well, while some ID advocates actually do use history fairly responsibly (David Swift in Evolution Under the Microscope, for example). Roberts himself has drawn attention to the misuse of history in anti-ID literature in this excellent review of Tower of Babel (and the review gives a better picture of Roberts’s general take than the snippets above).

Christopher Crenner of University of Kansas complains (rightly) that putting ID into the Kansas education system is simply naked politics, which sort of bypasses the whole issue of realism/social constructivism. With cultural politics dictating science education, we aren’t dealing with the same kind of subtle influence by which the social constructs the scientific; this is the political creating the scientific by fiat. But the core of his objection, it seems, is this:

“The intelligent-design faction lifts out
one central piece from an integrated and
coherent study of the life sciences,
holding it up for special critique.”

I agree with the “special critique” sentiment, but where did he go to high school? In my high school in Yukon, Oklahoma, the biology curriculum was utterly incoherent, and not just because evolution was either off the menu or so limited that I don’t remember it. High school science in general (and university science nearly without exception) is not integrated or coherent, and at that level it doesn’t necessarily need to be. High school science education isn’t about teaching kids the truth; science changes, and the simplified high school curriculum bears little resemblance to the actual state of the biological knowledge of scientists. Learning a smattering of Newtonian physics or Darwinian evolution doesn’t create responsible members of society, nor have much inherent value, but it may spark an interest in science. And Intelligent Design may do the same thing. ID isn’t any more disconnected from high science than the version of evolution that makes it into classrooms, and whether or not kids are taught a “right” or “wrong” theory (or both) is largely irrelevant. Each theory can enlist much more of the facts (or factoids, if you prefer) of biology than could be covered in a school year, and each could potentially demonstrate the empirical nature of science.

Hypothetical Situation:
Cosmo, a 10th-grader at Podunk High School, goes to biology class. His school board decided to “teach the controversy,” which is a step up from leaving evolution out of the curriculum altogether. Mrs. Benes (who also teaches home economics and coaches girl’s soccer) is ecstatic; now she can show the kids how ID is right and evolution is bunk. So Cosmo gets a head full of Intelligent Design Theory and decides he wants to become a biologist–not to be a culture warrior, but because he finds something he can connect with in (his school board’s version of) science. Most of his classmates also come out of high school “knowing” that ID is right, but they also know that the world isn’t just science versus religion; they know what the theory of evolution is, even if they don’t believe it. Better yet, they understand why it’s a cultural issue, though they are also under the impression that it is a genuine scientific controversy.

Cosmo goes off to college at Crazy-Go-Nuts State, and he majors in biology. He’s surprised that the other biology students don’t know anything about ID, and quickly comes to realize that there aren’t any scientists on campus who agree with it either (except for Professor Vandelay, a physicists who likes the anthropic principle arguments but doesn’t know any biology). He debates his classmates, and at least for his first two years, he wins easily. Like Aristotle’s physics vis-à-vis Newtonian forces, Intelligent Design is in many ways a lot more intuitive than abstract models of genetic changes and ad-hoc theories of co-optation. But the further he gets into science, and the more he reads about the ID debates, the more he realizes how powerful evolutionary explanations are, and the more he realizes the limits and fuzziness of Intelligent Design. He ignores the issue for a while, but he’s always looking for ways to weigh ID and evolution with evidence that isn’t already in the ID/evolution literature.

By the time he graduates, Cosmo is well ahead of the other biology majors at CGNSU (they were mostly pre-med anyway). All that time learning more and more biology (and physics, and math) to decide the whole ID thing for himself paid off, even if he still doesn’t feel like he knows enough to decide for sure between ID (a very weak version, probably encompassing universal common descent) and orthodox evolution. Fortunately he didn’t include his sympathy for ID (it certainly isn’t outright support anymore) in his graduate school application essays; Cosmo is soon on his way to study evolutionary biochemistry at a top-tier graduate school. In graduate school, any remaining sympathy he had for ID quickly evaporates. By the time he is publishing papers, he’s one of vast majority of scientists who simply don’t see ID as any legitimate scientific competition for modern evolutionary biology.

My own intellectual development took some similar turns to the fictional Cosmo; I didn’t become interested in biology until I took biochemistry my sophomore year at OU, but I probably would have had ID been taught in my high school. As a junior (and with a fair amount of biochemistry under my belt, in the class and the lab) I became interested in ID, but with plenty of skepticism and the expectation that a) the holes I saw in evolutionary explanations were probably my own ignorance, and b) ID could only work from a religious standpoint… it was God-of-the-gaps, but if the gaps were real, why not put God in them.

The more I read and learned (at first), the more I was convinced that in fact, there are a lot of recalcitrant holes and that, maybe, ID could be put on a mathematical, probabilistic footing that would make it more than God-of-the-gaps. I didn’t know much biology beyond biochemistry, but the biochemistry/molecular biology side of evolution seemed particularly weak (it still does in many ways, relative to the other realms of evolutionary explanation), and others argued that, in the same way, the more one knew about geology or organismal biology, the more shaky evolution seemed (the Dilbert Blog explains this argument well).

But ID only had the edge to a point. After about 2 ½ years of involvement with the ID issue, including quite a bit of enthusiasm for a while, I was largely back where I started (though knowing a lot more evolutionary biology and biochemistry), as a skeptic of ID. At this point, I don’t think ID is going anywhere scientifically. But it’s also not so intellectually indefensible as critics maintain; its failure is hardly self-evident without deferring to the opinions of the scientific community, particularly for non-specialists.

It isn’t a significant scientific controversy, but “teaching the controversy” in public schools is also not the end of the world. The fact is, a whole lot of biology makes sense without evolution… that’s why I could go through an undergraduate program in biochemistry without hearing a word about evolution (and even in core biochemistry graduate courses at Yale, it is mentioned on occasionally). Neither teaching ID nor neglecting evolution is going to make the United States fall further behind as a leader in science… if anything, I think ID might get more kids into science. And even if, as practicing scientists, they still disbelieve evolution (as a moderate number of molecular biologists, biochemists, and physical scientists do), it doesn’t make them bad scientists (although it would make them bad evolutionary biologists). After all, most biologists think in terms of classical physics (when they think in terms of physics at all), but it doesn’t make much difference to biology.

Moving on, Hall Triplett writes:

“"Intelligent Design" has been around for
centuries, only not in the form of a
scientific theory. It is a redesign of
the old ontological argument for the
existence of a supreme being. It was
presented by various philosophers as an
essential element in the philosophy of
religion until Kierkegaard refused to
accept it as essential and took his
famous leap of faith instead. It was
thoroughly debated in this century
between Father Copleston and Bertrand
Russell. The issue needs to be exposed
as ancient theology with only a new
scientistic name. It has a history,
just not in science.”

The problems with Triplett’s dismissal of ID here are manifold… critically, the history of “ancient theology” coincides significantly with the history of science. Design arguments of basically the same form as ID have been prominent from Plato to Descartes to Newton to Maupertuis to Kelvin to the modern exponents of the anthropic principle (including, apparently, Owen Gingerich), and from Linnaeus to Aggasiz to Osborne, through the Creationists and Creation Scientists of the 20th century, to the irreducible complexity folks. Trying to apply information theory (with very limited success thus far) to traditional arguments from improbability and analogical arguments is what perhaps sets ID apart from the traditional design argument. But the real weight of ID is that we simply know much more about the natural world than natural philosophers and natural historians did in Paley’s time, and if anything, Paley’s premise only got stronger the more we learned about the structure of living organisms. Of course, the theory of evolution also provided an alternate avenue of explanation which has been highly successful at explaining much of the seeming design in nature. It is a near consensus among biology experts that in fact, the evolutionary explanations are much better than the design arguments. The design argument stronger than it has ever been; it is only relatively weaker. That is why it takes an expert to decide between them.

For historians to suggest that ID is invalid a priori because it isn’t science is basically to abandon historicism in favor of political expediency; the modern definition of science (which assumes natural causes are the only causes that can exist) is a very modern invention, and the boundaries between science and not-science have never been particularly stable. It’s one thing to say, as either a scientist or a secularist or just a citizen concerned with church/state separation, “you’re a Creationist, and I’ve got to stop you.” It’s quite another for a historian to say, “you’re a Creationist, and because modern science says Creationism isn’t science, it must never have been science.” I don’t mean by that to completely conflate ID and Creationism; politically they amount to about the same thing today, intellectually there are significant differences both now and historically. Maupertuis, for example, argued extensively against mainstream 18th century natural theology; his position was—similar to ID—that, while looking to nature could demonstrate the existence of a designer, it could not help illuminate the characteristics of the designer… it couldn’t make the leap Paley and many before and after him would try to make, to equate the apparent designer with the God of the Bible. Every point on the spectrum between natural theology and philosophical naturalism has been part of what was considered legitimate science at some time.

As historians weighing in on the modern debate, I don’t think we can simply equate ID to earlier design arguments and judge it therefore as bad science (or bad theology masquerading as science). What we can do is, to the extent that we trust/endorse/believe in/accept modern science, defer to the judgment of scientists. If (as humanists still struggling with the limits of social construction and relativism) we can’t feel comfortable going along with the scientists for the sake of their expertise, we should withhold the verdict on ID, at least as far as its scientific value. Of course, that does not preclude fighting ID as a political movement and keeping it out of schools (though as I argued above, bad science in education doesn’t necessarily mean bad science education, from a pragmatic viewpoint).

I know many of my fellow historians of science will disagree strongly with a lot of what I’ve written here… please leave comments and criticisms.

Against Method

I started reading Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method recently, and I’m appalled that I haven’t read it before. I find myself agreeing with almost everything Feyerabend says, and even better, I feel like he shares my view of what’s important about the history and philosophy of science (and by implication of what he leaves out, what isn’t).

One beautiful quote:
“…the increasing separation of the history, the philosophy of science, and science itself is a disadvantage and should be terminated in the interest of all these three disciplines [and I would add, the interest of scientific laypersons and society in general]. Otherwise we shall get tons of minute, precise, but utterly barren results.”

When I’m teaching introductory history of science classes, this will be the second book on the syllabus, right after Structure.