The Sciences

Bad History of Science from ID Proponents

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNov 16, 2009 8:45 PM

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In my 2005 book The Republican War on Science, I wrote somewhat mockingly of ID proponents as follows:

ID theorists, apparently, have a very high opinion of themselves, believing they are fueling a scientific revolution of Copernican proportions. ID proponent Michael Behe has even written that the alleged discovery of design in nature "rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur and Darwin."

Indeed, ID proponents regularly fling around the idea that they are on the leading edge of a scientific "paradigm shift," about to dramatically change the course of science by reimporting appeals to a designer into a framework that had previously been dominated by an ideology of "scientific materialism." Alas, this depiction of IDists as scientific revolutionaries is highly dubious. It's very easy to for anyone to blithely say they're causing a paradigm shift, especially as the claim is probably irrefutable except with the benefit of hindsight. The hard part is actually delivering the scientific goods. In ID proponent Stephen Meyer's latest book, Signature in the Cell--which I've been reading because I've agreed to appear with Meyer on the Michael Medved show today at 4 ET--we find the "paradigm shift" argument used once again--but with a dubious new twist. Meyer, trained as a historian of science, makes an argument that focuses on the medium in which an alleged paradigm shift in science is conveyed:

Since World War II, scientists have stressed the importance of publishing their work in specialized peer-reviewed journals, but throughout the history of science "paradigm-shifting" ideas and theories have typically been presented in books, including many that we might now call "trade press" (rather than academic) books. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, books allow scientists to make sustained and comprehensive arguments for synthetic new ideas...books have often been the go-to genre for presenting and evaluating new arguments for synthetic interpretations of a relevant body of evidence. Perhaps, the best-known example of this form of scientific discourse was provided by Charles Darwin himself, who famously described his work in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection as "one long argument." There, Darwin proposed a comprehensive interpretation of many diverse lines of evidence...Other scientists such as Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and Lyell as well as a host of lesser figures have used books to advance scientific arguments in favor of novel and comprehensive interpretations of the scientific evidence in their disciplines.

Set aside the hubris of this for a moment (Meyer is essentially saying that his popular, non peer-reviewed book is capable of causing a paradigm shift, and is likening it to Darwin's "one long argument"). Just focus on the history of science argument about books versus scientific papers as repositories of deep insight. I have to say, I find this argument deeply misleading. Throughout much of the history of science, specialized scientific journals didn't exist in the form in which they do today. Neither did specialized "science" itself--the word "scientist" to denote a profession didn't even exist until the 19th century. And so of course, sweeping argumentative books were often used to advance scientific arguments. Copernicus was an early scientific test run for the printing press, and surely wouldn't be famous without it. As for Galileo, he didn't just write books, he wrote lengthy Plato-style dialogues--nowadays a rare genre indeed. But if the history of science shows any undeniable trend, it is towards increasing specialization--a trend that itself is virtually synonymous with scientific progress. As printing became cheaper, and scientists became more numerous, specialized journals emerged even as scientific fields divided and subdivided. And this was, for the most part, a good thing--for it allowed scientists in different disciplines to home more carefully in on problems, and to speak about them in a shared language addressed to a kindred group of specialists. Granted, such developments also made science less accessible to the broad public. But in terms of advancing knowledge, it was definitely a gain. That's why Meyer's claim that writing a trade book, today, classes him with Darwin, Newton, Copernicus, et al, is so stunning. It ignores the great progress that has occurred over the course of science's history, which is the very reason that we now have specialized journals. What's more, contra Meyer, we do have a scientific genre today that exists to synthesize a large body of scientific knowledge: large peer reviewed scientific assessments, such as those produced by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academy of Sciences. (Let's see Meyer get his pro-ID arguments endorsed by one of those.) Trade books can be quite scientifically accurate, and quite thoughtful. But today they are largely for popularization--which, of course, is what Meyer is really doing for intelligent design. He's very good at this, and he may win a lot of conservative Christian followers and book buyers; but that is hardly the same as initiating a modern scientific paradigm shift. I highly doubt such an achievement is even possible for ID theorists, in light of the inherent supernaturalism of their position, which makes it fundamentally irreconcilable with modern, naturalistic science. But the fact remains that if ID theorists want to win scientific credibility, the peer reviewed literature (and the peer reviewed assessments) are the only way for them to go--for good historic reasons.

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