Anthony Grafton’s humanities pitch

Anthony Grafton, a some-time historian of science whom I idolize after hearing (and seeing) him speak but once, has a brief article on Slate about how great a certain class he co-teaches is. It’s almost inspiring enough to make me think that the humanities matter even when they don’t have much to do with the history of science. But what I really like about it is the reading selection philosophy Grafton describes: the most interesting and provocative books possible, period.

I’m as big a fan of the Enlightenment as anyone, in theory. Unity of truth, and all that. But it actually kinda sucks as an educational philosophy. Enlightenment ideology is no match for the utter disunity of knowledge in vivo (be it scientific, historical, philosophical, or what have you). Much more effective, I think, is a cherry-picking approach that aims at sparking the interest of students. You don’t learn enough in a classroom to really put knowledge to use, anyway. But if you find something worth learning more about, maybe one book or one idea is all it takes to push you in the right direction. Life is too short to read boring books (and grad school doubly so).

Fortunately, I’m in the most interesting of all possible fields, where even the lesser work is worth reading. But it always baffles me how so many others in other humanities find their esoterica worth pursuing.

Incidently, when I Googled to make sure “esoterica” was a word, I found a scholarly journal by that name, which seems to be about what JQSMP would be if the humor were removed.

more Intelligent Design fun

To go along with the mess I posted last night, check out this bit of the blogosphere:

1. The Dilbert Blog: Intelligent Design, Part 1

Scott Adams writes with clarity about the problems of coming to sound conclusions about ID, and about problems of bridging between expert knowledge and public knowledge.

2. Pharyngula: Scott Adams is a Wally

PZ Myers attacks Adams.

3. The Dilbert Blog: Intelligent Design Part 2

Adams proves his point, echoing a lot of what I said in the post last night (before I posted it, as it turns out). I feel like I have a fairly good understanding scientifically of why ID fails, but it took a lot of effort to reach that point, because of precisely the problems Adams discusses.

4. Telic Thoughts: You might be a bullshitter if

Steve Petermann discusses Adams’s post in the context of the philosophy of bullshit, implying that the anti-ID side is the worse offender in this regard. You may get that impression if all the pro-ID stuff you read is Telic Thoughts (which is the least ideological source of pro-ID arguments), but there is definitely enough misrepresentation on the ID side as well. Particularly, the ID leaders claim to be trying to establish a scientific, non-religious ID theory, yet they take advantage of and encourage the religiously motivated school board actions.

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.

PageRank at last!

A few weeks ago, my blogs finally achieved Google PageRank. They went from 0 to 3; quite nice. I also get hits pretty regularly from search engines now, mostly searching for information on running Daggerfall with DOSBox. And when I first found Reddit, I submitted a link to my entry that linked to the Katrina interview video; I got about 800 hits over the course of about two weeks, and I think a lot of people bookmarked it; that entry has PageRank 4. These days, Dogpile pulls up 75 hits on the major search engines, while Google has 151; most of the increase is from my posts on sundry other sites, particularly Slashdot (where I like to inject the history of science into everything I can; it’s nice when you can assume you know more than everyone else… I definitely wouldn’t push the historical arguments I use on Slashdot with real historians of science.)

sleepovers are fun

I was at a conference in Minneapolis last weekend, which was tons of fun. I showed up without anywhere to stay, and luckily some fellow Yalies (Julia Irwin and Shae Trewin; thanks!) took me in for the first two nights.

It was nice getting to just hang out with people for long periods of time; that’s something there isn’t usually much time for in grad school.

It’s also been cool staying with people in New Haven when I have late class. I’ve stayed with Julia and Steve, Lloyd Ackert and his wife and daughter, and now with another grad student in my program, Todd Olszewski. I think sleepovers should be part of the normal social order; it’s a chance to get to know people that you might see all the time in another context but never know much about casually.

HSS – History of Science Society meeting

I was at the History of Science Society Meeting in Minneapolis from Thursday through Sunday. Very exciting.

It was a really good conference. This year was the first time in quite a while that HSS had a co-meeting with the Society for the History of Technology. Apparently there was bad academic blood between the two organizations. More likely, they just thought historians of technology were boring and methodologically simplistic. I joke, I joke.

Non-academic highlights include: belly-dancing and falafel, Indian buffet (twice), plenty of beer, finding out that coffee is good if you put enough cream and sugar in it (I bought a coffee maker today, after my good experience with coffee there), Mall of America (the ultimate cathedral of capitalism; definitely recommended).

Society for the Quasi-Historical Study of Modern Pseudo-Science:
I decided a few weeks ago that I’m going to really work on this idea I’ve been kicking around for a while now, the Quasi-Historical Study of Modern Pseudo-Science, and I’ve started recruiting other people to help me. Rana Hogarth and I are going to co-edit a farcical journal that explores the intersection of modern science and technology with traditional pseudo-sciences. Things like high-energy metaphysics, evolutionary cryptozoology and biophysical alchemy simply don’t get the scholarly attention they deserve. As Matt Gunterman put it, this will be like if the Daily Show were a history of science journal. Matt is going to do the website once we grooving.

I was fantastically successful at finding interest among grad students and young professors; if even half the people who expressed interest in contributing articles actually do, we should definitely be able to put out the inaugural volume of the Journal for the Quasi-Historical Study of Modern Pseudo-Science (JQSMP) by this time next year or a little later. I hope to get articles in by the end of next summer, then have a few months for peer-review and revisions and publish by Winter 2006. The range of expertise among the potential contributors is simply outstanding. Once we’re further along, I’m going to pitch Anthony Grafton for a radioastrology article; how sweet would that be?. A taste of what’s to come:

Ornithomantic Models for Long-Term Weather Prediction
Hydrid Car(d)s: Tarot and Auto Industry
Incorporeal Statistics and the Paranormal Distribution


  • Piers Hale – Super rad Australian with a green dragon tattoo on his head. He’s a cultural historian who’s moving into history of science via the popular end of early- to mid-20th-century evolution debates, particularly George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Possible JQSMP contributor.
  • Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis – Author of Unifying Biology and one of the few people who work on evolution during and beyond the Modern Synthesis. Her book was important for me as I framed the research topic I will probably work on for my dissertation (essentially how the splitting of biology departments between molecular and organismal affected the intersection of evolutionary biology and biochemistry). I saw her last year but never introduced myself. This year I met her and told her about my likely project; she was so excited about it! Her reaction really made me feel like I have the thread of something interesting and important, and hopefully I’ll stay in close contact with her when it comes time to do more work in that direction. I’m supposed to email her with more details. It was also really gratifying that she agreed with my assessment of the pedagogical (and hence intellectual) split between evolutionary biology and the biochemical/molecular disciplines: the reason why Intelligent Design arguments get as far as they do among biochemists is that they never learn (or get indoctrinated with, ID proponents might say) evolution in their training. Google turned up an interesting exchange between her and the Panda’s Thumb crowd.
  • Leandra Swanner – Radiant and clever historian of astronomy and physics at Oregon State (one of four gals from OSU at the meeting – Katie, Rachel and Erica were the others). She’s getting her masters this year and is applying to Yale (among many other places, along with her husband – same problem Faith and I had) for next year. Possible JQSMP contributor.
  • Luis Campos – Finishing Harvard grad student applying for the Yale job (and got at least as far as an interview at HSS; more news on the Yale search soon). He works on connections between radium and origin of life research, and Julia and I had lunch with him and like him a lot. Very clever chap, and very excited about history of science – my kind of guy.
  • Roger Turner – 3rd year grad student at Penn, with a big red beard. He gave a really excellent talk on the shift from US meteorology from a craft discipline to a more rigorous, scientifically based discipline after WWII, thanks to the massive number of military weathermen that were trained for the war. Possible JQSMP contributor.
  • Gabe Henderson – Grad student from Iowa State, does 20th century astronomy. We ended up in a lot of sessions together… clearly he has good taste in topics.
  • Warren Dym – A hoopy frood who knows where his towel is. A sarcastic and fun U.C. Davis historian of early modern mining (or leprechauns, according to Julia) who knows a whole lot about divining rods. I almost stayed with him at a nearby youth hostel (instead of the floor of a hotel room). Possible JQSMP contributor.

I also had nice chats with my OU professors Katherine Pandora and Stephen Weldon, and saw Peter Barker’s great session on early modern science where Katherine Tredwell gave a superb talk on the spread of Melancthon’s natural theological view of astronomy in England. I told Pandora about my thoughts on using Wikipedia for classroom assignments after her talk about reaching “Mr. Everyman” with new technology, and Weldon told me about (OU grad student) Sylwester Ratowt’s history of science blog Copernicus Sashimi (nice URL, too). Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the OU kids there.

On a related note, it looks like there’s great competition for the OU job. Of course, I’m rooting for Lloyd Ackert (a true Brewer-Patriot if ever there was one).

Lamarck Giraffe:
I wore my shirt to the Dark Side of Lamarckism session, and the reactions were extremely disappointing. I got one comment on it after I had been chatting with one of the presenters for a while, but no one came up to me afterwards asking about it or anything. People at Yale seemed to have a really great reaction to it, especially the kids in Ole’s class (maybe because he explained the joke of it to them). Maybe the new design I’m working on (more news on that soon) will go over better at the next conference I go to.

Pre-HSS Roundup

The proprietor of SciLitera, a science, literature and culture website under development, contacted me about my review of Dava Sobel’s The Planets (which he read on Amazon, where it is now one of the Spotlight Reviews). He wants to put it on his site as well as possibly other reviews or articles in the future, and I would get a share of the (probably negligible) ad revenue. It’s nice to be noticed. (The 13/13 helpful votes on Amazon is also gratifying.)

I’ve submitted the NSF GRFP application for the last time. Hopefully it will go better than last time.

Meanwhile, classes are getting the better of me and soon the papers I have due before the end of the semester (for classmate review) will be raining down misery upon me. We’re through the short papers in Narrative History. My last paper was fun; I reconstructed a heliocentric/geocentric dialogue between a Galileo character and a Bellarmine character (mostly from correspondence) to show the irrational side of Galileo and the rational side of the Church position, basically to support a Feyerabendian view of the way science works (i.e., “anything goes”). It went over well. For my final paper in that class, I’m going to be writing about Kepler, and basically trying to illustrate all my favorite history/sociology/philosophy of science ideas though a very selective narrative of his life.