Adventures in Ethics and Science

Who’s a scientist?

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.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    August 19, 2009

    Dembski is very definitley NOT a scientist! Rather than looking for answers, as a real scientist does, he starts with his pre-determinded belief that he has “the” answer – and it’s all in the Bible.

    Nope, not a scientist.

    However, please consider Dembski in the future if you write a later post about lying scumbag weasels.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    August 19, 2009

    Failing that, maybe he should be labeled “The Theorist”.

    How about The Lying Sack Of Shit?

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    August 19, 2009

    I believe that you are suggesting is that “scientist” is a role rather than a title. Sort of like “pitcher” or “quarterback.”

  4. #4 Zuska
    August 19, 2009

    I like this notion of “being a scientist” as a process (praxis?), rather than “I am a scientist” as a state one achieves statically and retains forevermore. Interesting.

  5. #5 SteveG
    August 19, 2009

    So, would it be fair then to say that you were a scientist, but that you are not one now? Is “scientist” different from “artist” that way? We do still say that Cat Stevens is the artist who recorded “Peace Train” even though he no longer makes music, no?

  6. #6 Kenny Easwaran
    August 20, 2009

    Maybe it would be better to relabel the corresponding section in every chapter as “The Researcher”, so that using a different term for Dembski doesn’t single him out, if the author doesn’t want to do that. I figure “Researcher” is better than “Theorist” just because many of the people in other chapters probably won’t be theorists, but they probably will be researchers.

  7. #7 Heraclides
    August 20, 2009

    You write “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.”

    This notion, or at least something close to it, has been my view for some time. The (Ph.D.) degree is in essence a declaration saying that you trained to become a scientist at some point in time and were declared fit for that purpose at the time. (But sometimes wrongly, it’s not infallible.) You have to maintain the practice to retain the rights, as it were. Most scientists I know who have left to administration or school teaching or whatever are quite happy to declare themselves a “former scientist”.

    By the same yardstick if the person never measured up in the first place, no dice!

    Same for a medical doctor for that matter. If they cease to practice in a way consistent with evidence-based medicine and accepted medical practice, then they essentially cease to be a doctor, regardless of the certificate. They become former doctors.

    (An unfortunate side-effect if this definition if held too tightly is that very old scientists/doctors who go somewhat astray, shall we say, for “age-related” reasons are perhaps unfairly labelled.)

    Personally I wouldn’t call Dembski a “Theorist”, as strictly speaking he doesn’t have a scientific theory, but a hypothesis or proposal, one he strives to be consistent with religion, something he chooses not to examine critically it would seem. Although it might be push buttons in some readers, I’d be sorely tempted to title him “religious apologist”. (Or Christian apologist.) Somehow it might seem unsightly in a formal text (!), but taken literally there is truth within it?

  8. #8 Physicalist
    August 20, 2009

    another Ph.D. in biology, and to manage to get hired by a philosophy department

    Did you mean hired by a biology dept.?

  9. #9 James E Gambrell
    August 20, 2009

    The proceedures to be used in scientific inquiry are well established. The scientific method is a process not a product. Anyone who follows the established proceedures may rightly be labeled a scientist. The only judgement should be as to whether the individual followed established proceedures to arrive at his conclusions. Opinions and philosophies should be set aside and the individual scientist only be evaluaded on his works.
    James E Gambrell

  10. #10 Physicalist
    August 20, 2009

    Your post (which is quite nice) got me thinking that the social structure of science might be a way of differentiating “scientists” from the (earlier) “natural philosophers.” If we’re not happy calling someone a scientist if she ignores the peer-reviewed publication process, are we more happy to say that one can count as a genuine philosopher even if one eschews peer review, APA meetings, etc. and just develops a systematic metaphysics/epistemology/ethics?

    Of course, almost all definitions are going to be philosophically problematic, and we presumably won’t get rigor without a degree of stipulation. The notion of “scientist” and “philosopher” are presumably both cluster concepts: the paradigm will be one who is active in the right social network, who holds the proper epistemic values, who addresses a specific class of questions using appropriate tools, etc. But obviously this cluster of criteria can pull apart in some circumstances, e.g., if we had a modern-day Newton working in isolation, or in the case of creationists.

  11. #11 ARJ
    August 20, 2009

    Part of the problem is people wanting to think of “science” in black-and-white terms, but it is NOT a monolith; it is a gradient: the physical sciences (and mathematics) are vastly different from the life sciences which are vastly different from social sciences, and pretending that there is a common thread underlying all of them is false; the variables and interactions under study are hugely different and incomparable. Physicists and biologists fool themselves if they think they truly engage in the same methods.

  12. #12 Dan
    August 20, 2009

    If Dembski calls himself a scientist, then call him a scientist.
    The subtext here is that Gimbel considers what Dembski does to be non-scientific or bad science. It’s easier to call out somebody for not playing by the rules if you allow that they’re playing the game at all.

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