At Philosophers’ Playground, Steve Gimbel ponders the pedagogically appropriate way to label William Dembski:
I’m wrapping up work on my textbook Methods and Models: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science and have run into a question. …
The evolutionary biology track’s final piece deals with William Dembski’s work on intelligent design theory. Therein lies the question. The way the exercises are laid out is in three parts labeled The Case, The Scientist, and Your Job. The second part is a brief biographical sketch (a paragraph, just a couple sentences about the person’s life). Not every case study has a bio — for the discovery of the top quark, for example, there is no “The” scientist — so the question is whether I should have one for Dembski.
On the one hand, having it seems to beg the question I am asking the student — is it science. By labeling him “the scientist” in the text is to send a signal to the student. At the same time not doing so seems to send the same sort of message in the opposite direction. It also seems to be a political statement whether I do or don’t. If he had a Ph.D. in biology or had done some other work, that would make it easy, but he has a Ph.D. in mathematics and another in philosophy and teaches philosophy at Southwest Baptist Seminary. He did have an NSF research fellowship at one point, but then so have many philosophers whom I would not call scientists. His arguments are aimed at the discourse within evolutionary biology, that is, he sees himself as doing science and it is his clear intent to do science. Is that enough to be a scientist? Would being a mathematician with a professional interest in complexity theory, applied statistics be sufficient? Does the applied nature, the world-pointing orientation of those field make one a scientist? What is a scientist and is William Dembski one?
That question of who is properly counted as a scientist resurfaces yet again.
In this particular case, we have some issues we’ve seen before: Is a specific kind of degree what makes someone a scientist? (If so, must it be a Ph.D., or might a bachelors or masters degree in a scientific field do the job?) Does mathematical training count as scientific training? (What if that training focused on the application of mathematical methods to scientific questions? If that doesn’t count as science, do “scientists” who focus on theory and whose work looks an awful lot like mathematics really count as scientists?) Or, is being a scientist a matter of actually doing scientific work, regardless of what degrees one might hold? Must that work be conducted under the auspices of a recognized scientific employer (e.g., the physics department of an accredited university, a pharmaceutical company, a government laboratory), or might it be done independently (e.g., in one’s garage)? Is there a minimum level of intellectual engagement in the work that is required to make one a scientist rather than just a laborer in the service of scientific work? (If so, what’s the threshold of intellectual engagement that must be met?)
I reckon, though, that the Dembski case raises another set of relevant questions. The worry, I think, is that Dembski gives the appearance of being a scientist without really being a scientist. If he were to get another Ph.D. in biology, and to manage to get hired by a
philosophy biology* department in an accredited university, would that make him a scientist? Or would his commitment to intelligent design and irreducible complexity, and his open skepticism about methodological naturalism, still disqualify him as a real scientist?
What makes someone a real scientist? It can’t just be a matter of whether their claims are right or wrong — plenty of folks whose status as scientists is uncontroversial have made incorrect claims, and even clung to theories that ended up being overturned or abandoned.
Let me suggest an answer without sketching out all the details: The crucial impediment for Dembski as far as counting as a scientist is that he does not interact with the body of scientific knowledge, and with the scientists who produce knowledge, in the right way. While the questions he takes up may fall in the rough category of scientific questions, and the methods he uses may bear some resemblance to scientific ones, he is not exposing his claims to the level of critique that one ought when one is doing science, nor does he seriously engage with the objections raised to his work by scientists. He seems not to accept the same methodological ground rules that others understand as necessary for good scientific work, and so seems to be engaged in a very different kind of practice when it comes to generating and evaluating claims.
Indeed, Dembski makes it somewhat easier for us to suss him out as different from scientists by being pretty vocal about his gripes with naturalism.
My hunch is that there are a good number of people out there doing scientific work and paying lip-service to the methodological ground rules that we take to be definitive of scientific work but making exceptions of themselves to these rules, at least some of the time. These “scientists” may do a very good job of persuading non-scientists of their expertise and credibility, and may even persuade other scientists except, perhaps, in instances where they are caught making up data to support the conclusions that they know in their heart are true, or failing to engage with criticisms of their findings raised by other scientists, or so forth.
Maybe what this means is that being a scientist is an ongoing labor, not the achievement of a status that will persist with no further effort, and that one’s success at being a scientist is a matter of degrees. Otherwise, if “scientist” is a success-term that conveys something about how well the person so labeled adheres to the shared norms of the community engaged in a certain kind of knowledge-building activity, there may be fewer people deserving that label than degree conferrals and employment rolls might lead us to expect.
As far as Steve’s pressing question — whether to label Dembski as “The Scientist” in the textbook exercise he’s writing — my own inclination is to pose that very question to the students using the textbook, giving them a precis of the factors that might support either of the two judgments on how best to label him. Failing that, maybe he should be labeled “The Theorist”.
By the way, go check out Steve’s description of how he’s structuring his textbook — it’s pretty cool.
*Thanks to Physicalist for noticing I didn’t type what I meant to here, and for letting me know so I could fix it.