Adventures in Ethics and Science

As promised, here are some more thoughts on Steve Fuller’s contribution to the Crooked Timber seminar on Chris Mooney‘s book, The Republican War on Science. My last post on Fuller’s essay took up his picture of the workings of science, where it seemed to me he was gesturing toward the influence of democratic politics as an antidote to the influence of an elite scientific oligarchy in steering the course of science. In this post, I examine Fuller’s comments on democracy, science education, and the fortunes of Intelligent Design in the scientific community.

In his response to The Republican War on Science, Fuller suggests that there is a struggle around scientific research. However, the struggle he sees is not a matter of political and economic interests illegitimately trying to control science. Instead, it is in part a struggle on the part of elite scientists to secure public funding for their pet projects without taking upon themselves strong accountability to the wishes of the public putting up the funding. And, it is also a struggle on the part of the common scientist (who is not part of the controlling elites) to exert control over the direction of the scientific enterprise. The scientific establishment (i.e., the controlling elites) want complete autonomy and authority, and it is the countervailing pushes, both from within science and from without, that act as “democratizing” correctives.

Fuller notes the importance of education in this power struggle:

Of course, in matters of education, the scientific establishment has never had such an authoritative hold. By the standards of democracies in the developed world, the US is remarkable in lacking a national education ministry capable of enforcing uniform curricula for primary and secondary schools. Curricular guidelines are left to the states, and exactly how they are met – by what textbooks and teaching methods – is typically entrusted to local school districts. All of this is by Constitutional design, reflecting the nation’s origins in religious dissenters who had been disenfranchised in their native Britain. This has given the US a historic reputation for pedagogical innovation and experimentation – instances of which have been both emulated and discarded, depending on their results. However, this tendency has increasingly run up against the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prevents the monopolization of public life, especially public school classrooms, by a single faith. Notwithstanding the logical leap required to move from a prevention of religious monopoly to a prevention of religious expression altogether, this has been the general course taken by the US legal system toward the inclusion of religious considerations in the science curriculum over the past eighty years, since the notorious Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ over the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

Like most liberal commentators who have studied the rise of scientific creationism and intelligent design theory, Mooney can only see the hand of the religious right at work. Yet, there is more to this organized intellectual opposition to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm in biology. Let me concede at the outset some basic facts: Yes, a line of descent can be drawn from high school science textbooks espousing Biblical literalism to ones now espousing intelligent design. Yes, there is probably a strong desire, perhaps even a conspiracy, by fundamentalists to convert the US to a proper Christian polity, one that is epitomized by the notorious ‘Wedge Document’ (more about which below) circulating at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank that has become the spiritual home of anti-Darwinism. But just how seriously should these facts be taken? After all, every theory is born in an intellectual state of ‘original sin’, as it actively promoted by special interests long before it is generally accepted as valid. It is therefore essential to monitor the theory’s development – especially to see whether its mode of inquiry becomes dissociated from its origins. So, while intelligent design theory may appeal to those who believe in divine creation, its knowledge claims, and their evaluation, are couched in terms of laboratory experiments and probability theory that do not make any theistic references. Of course, this does not make the theory true but (so I believe) it does make it scientific.

I’ll return to the claims Fuller makes about the scientific respectability of Intelligent Design (ID) in a moment. First, it’s worth examining the role of education in democratizing science and its operation within society.

There is obviously a way in which local control of schools and their curricula is democratic: by choosing what to teach and how to teach it, local communities decide what is in their own best interests and, in particular, what is in their children’s best interests. Of course, since the U.S. Constitution functions to protect the rights of the minority in the face of majority rule, there are limits to the freedom localities can exercise in setting up and running their public schools. But many would suggest (and I think Fuller is among them) that local control over the school curriculum is generally a good thing. If a school wants to adopt a science curriculum that conforms to the views of the scientific establishment, it may do so. If, on the other hand, a school has a preference for exploring more heterodox scientific views — or perhaps even for de-emphasizing science in the curriculum — that is another way local control may be exercised. To the extent that such local control captures the will of the people, it is another force in the struggle that may pull against, and help moderate the control of, the scientific elites.

However, it seems to me that there is a way in which lack of uniformity in core science curricula may actually undercut the prospects for democratizing the tribe of science. Sound scientific education — education that reflects the methodologies scientists actually use to build new knowledge, and that exposes students to the theoretical frameworks scientists have found most productive in building new knowledge — may be necessary for students to have, as a live option, the possibility of becoming scientists and joining the tribe of science. (It is possible, I imagine, to get an extremely heterodox science education in high school and still manage to become a successful science major, but I don’t know how common this is in actuality.) Certain approaches to teaching science may restrict the recipients of this education to being forces acting upon science from the outside. Ideally, we might want the scientific community to consist of scientists from many different parts of society, so that the interests of society are taken into account in the internal negotiations that steer science.

Put another way: If a community feels that some of its core interests are in conflict with the interests of science, that community may decide to put in place a science education that better reflects its interests, even if the scientific establishment complains that the curriculum does not accurately represent scientific knowledge or methodology. But, that community is gambling that it is better (from the point of view of protecting those core interests) to possibly prevent its youngest members from joining the community of science than it is to present science as seen by the scientists. Such a community appears to fear that its core values can survive an encounter with scientific education as advocated by the scientists. The core interests of the community can be defended, but only by engaging in a kind of deception about science. This also means that the pressures the community exerts on science from without will be based on the view of science fostered by eliminating the scientists’ version of what science is about.

We will still have different groups engaged in a struggle — but the struggle will be based on sub-optimal information. Democratization might be more effective with better information rather than worse.

Now, what of ID? Fuller argues that the origins of a theory might be driven by unscientific (e.g., religious) notions, and that that in itself does not disqualify the theory from attaining scientific respectability. That claim seems right to me. Certainly, Newton’s theoretical struggles to understand gravity may have been influenced by his theological struggles to understand the trinity. Where a theory comes from is not an issue if that theory can go on to prove its scientific mettle in explaining, predicting, and helping us manipulate the phenomena.

But Fuller goes so far as to say that ID has shed its theistic origins to become a scientific theory. As such, the scientific community ought to be busy developing it and using it to guide research, but the stranglehold of the scientific establishment is keeping it down. Indeed, Fuller suggests that Darwin’s theory was in a similar position a century ago to that ID finds itself in now:

Contrary to the accounts usually given of Darwin’s reception, what was provocative about Origin of the Species was not the prospect that a theory of plant and animal species could also explain humans, but the exact opposite: that a theory so obviously grounded in the explanatory framework of laissez faire capitalism could be generalized across all of nature. Thus, Darwin’s toughest critics came from the physical and biological sciences, not the social sciences.

The ascent of Darwinism makes one wonder when the theory passed from being a well-evidenced ideology (say, like Marxism) to a properly testable science.

If Fuller’s account is true, evolutionary theory had to run the gantlet of the criticisms raised by physical and biological sciences. This suggests that the very fact that physical and biological scientists now raise criticisms to ID does not in itself mean that ID cannot prove itself to be a respectable scientific theory. However, the fact remains that evolutionary theory has earned its respectability by its performance in the scientific arena, not the arena of public opinion. Evolutionary theory is productive in guiding actual empirical research. Indeed, it makes claims that are independently testable, and thus, falsifiable. (Philip Kitcher’s discussion of tenrecs on pp. 50-53 of his book Abusing Science shows nice examples of this, and a working biologist could likely point you to many others .)

If ID is to be taken seriously by the scientific community, then surely ID must first meet a similar burden.

So far, the demostration that ID could productively guide scientific research is still wanting. But in the meantime, pressure has been brought to bear on the scientific establishment to take ID seriously. However, rather than coming from rank-and-file working scientists, this pressure has come primarily from forces outside the tribe of science. Fuller writes:

At most, intelligent design theorists are guilty of opportunism, exploiting substantial differences of opinion already present in the Neo-Darwinian ranks, which the parties themselves think should be discussed in peer-reviewed publications rather than in the media, courtrooms and classrooms.

Here, Fuller skates rather quickly by a salient point for those who would seek to influence science from within or without: there are certain kinds of demonstrations that move the tribe of science, and others that do not. Demonstrations which put up empirical evidence, successful predictions, coherent explanations — which speak to a theory’s ability productively to guide scientific research — are persuasive to scientists. Since such demonstrations are meant to be the sort of things other scientists could check for themselves, whether by checking their logical structure or bringing additional data to bear, they are put into a public space (such as the scientific literature) where all the scientists in the tribe of science can weigh in on them — including scientists who are inclined toward other views. Indeed, those other views are part of the scientific dialogue, but they, too, must meet the evidentiary burden to be taken seriously.

The media, courtrooms, and classrooms do not, as a rule, impose the same evidentiary burden on competing theories that the tribe of science imposes. These fora may provide claims that sway lay persons, but scientists as scientists require more to be convinced. To the same extent that it would be arrogant for the scientific establishment to tell local communities what their interests ought to be, it seems arrogant for non-scientists to insist that scientists relax their standards and accept a theory that has a great deal of public support.

Whether or not ID has, or will someday, put up the required evidence to achieve scientific respectability, Fuller asserts that there is a live research program that ID is guiding. He writes:

… there is a positive programme behind intelligent design theory, though its proponents have not been as vocal about it as they might. The programme requires some imaginative thinking about ‘anti-naturalism’. We need to pick up on the idea of ‘instantiation’ mentioned above. A scientifically tractable way of thinking about ‘supernaturalism’ is in terms of the same form, end or idea being realized in radically different material containers. However, some of these containers may be better suited than others for what they contain. Converting this general point into a programme of theoretical and practical problems renders ‘intelligent design’ scientific. (Herbert Simon’s classic The Sciences of the Artificial can be thus read as a secular tract on intelligent design as a metatheory for all science.) Now, if we further suppose that humans have been created in the image and likeness of God – or less provocatively, that reality is in some deep way human-like – then it becomes easy to think about life itself from a design standpoint. Our technologies are then lesser versions of the divine technology responsible for all the world’s creatures. By the same token, we can treat these creatures as prototypes for technologies we might develop to enhance human dominion over nature. Perhaps the most obvious of numerous historical examples is the study of birds for aviation technology. (More Unitarian Christians, like Joseph Priestley and perhaps even Isaac Newton, might say we converge with God at that point, but I offer no opinion on the matter). In short, the biological sciences would become an advanced form of engineering, corresponding roughly to fields currently known as ‘biomimetics’ and ‘bionics’, which draw very heavily and fruitfully from contemporary biology but without any theoretical commitment to the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.

If Fuller is right that ID has a program that goes beyond saying, “evolution can’t have made X,” there is a better chance that it might guide actual research, the better eventually to prove its scientific mettle. And, as Fuller describes this positive program, it seems that it should be entirely possible for scientists to fly under the radar of the scientific establishment to pursue such research. Given the theoretical commitments as Fuller suggests them — that these advanced forms of biological engineering could be pursued with no reference whatsoever to evolutionary theory — there would be nothing anti-evolutionary about them to tip the enforcers of Darwininan dogma off to the fact that support was being gathered for an upstart theory. Indeed, Fuller himself argues (in a slightly different context) that scientists ought “simply to try harder within the existing channels”. This would seem to be good advice for those pursuing upstart theories as well.

Finally, as a card-carrying philosopher of chemistry, I need to address a passing comment of Fuller’s:

Darwinism is philosophically ‘robust’ insofar as it has caused philosophers to alter their definitions of science to accommodate a research programme that clearly does not fit the mould of Newtonian mechanics.

Casual readers might take the claim that evolutionary biology does not fit the mold of Newtonian mechanics as a strike against evolutionary theory. Indeed, some philosophers have regarded physics as the mature ideal up to which all other sciences should try to live. But simple examination of successful theories in many scientific disciplines makes it quite clear that not all good theories look like Newtonian mechanics. Evolutionary theory is not a special case here.

Edited to add: Kieran Healy adds his own critique of Fuller, which intersects with mine in a few points but adds his sociological expertise in valuable ways.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    March 29, 2006

    Curricular guidelines are left to the states, and exactly how they are met – by what textbooks and teaching methods – is typically entrusted to local school districts. All of this is by Constitutional design, reflecting the nation’s origins in religious dissenters who had been disenfranchised in their native Britain.

    Religious dissention origins had nothing to do with it. It was entirely a matter of reflecting existing practices. The states at the time were still the States, and the Constitution was the great compromise, the means by which we could have a single nation yet keep the States thinking of themselves as mostly autonomous entities as they had in the years of the revolution and Articles of Confederation (and their time as independent autonomous colonies subject to Britain).

    So the states had the police, not the feds; the states had their internal commerce laws, with the feds only (originally) having power over that which crosses states’ borders; the states had their schools, something the feds stayed out of until “no child left behind”.

    Education was just one of many things the Constitution left to the states, all of which were done to prevent states from seceeding as they worried the central government was getting to powerful and controlling. In fact, education is covered only under Article 10, as its not specified at all in the main document.

    Then there’s logistical pragmatism. The only two countries bigger than us that tried a nationwide education system were communist (Soviet Union, China) where the system was developed as more a means of control. Most other countries with nationwide education systems are smaller than the average American state.

  2. #2 Allen MacNeill
    March 30, 2006

    Throughout all of this, it has occurred to me several times that the underlying problem in the ID vs evolution debate has centered around what could be called the “adaptationist program.” As Lewontin and Gould pointed out in their “spandrels” paper (http://www.aaas.org/spp/dser/evolution/history/spandrel.shtml), much of evolutionary biology from Darwin on has been shot through with a kind of “adaptationist ideology”, in which the only things of interest are adaptations resulting from selection. Will Provine has pointed out that this focus, in a sense, simply replaces the God of the Bible with a “god” of natural selection.

    What the last three decades of evolutionary biology at the molecular level have showed us is that the vast majority of evolutionary change is non-adaptational. Jukes, Kimura, Ohta, and others have conclusively shown that most of what happens at the genome level (and much of what happens at the proteome level) is non-adaptive. This new paradigm for evolution has been entirely ignored by “intelligent design theorists” and for good reason: since it clearly isn’t adaptive, then for a “designer” to have intervened to produce and/or guide it would argue that the “designer” is a kind of metaphysical dadaist who delights in pointlessness. Hence the insistence on the part of many IDers that there is no such thing as “junk DNA”, nor even non-adaptive DNA (such as pseudogenes, transposon-derived regions, cDNA from retroviruses, etc.)

    The relevence of this to the current discussion is this: by teaching students that evolution is all about adaptation, we miss some of the most interesting developments in recent theory and research. These developments decisively argue against the ID position and bring evolutionary biology much closer to the “modern” paradigm of quantum mechanical physics, in which “pointlessness” and randomicity underlies all of macroscopic reality. To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, the genome is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.

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