Friday, December 02, 2005

She blinded me with Science

I was going to write something about the Darwinism-Intelligent Design (ID) debate, commenting about how both sides seem to be yelling in a language that is alien to the other side, but Scott Adams beat me to it. From here in the islands, the debate over introducing ID in the American public schools’ science curriculum is amusing, to say the least. These Americans, ha-ha-ha. What a country, eh? Here, if the Department of Education says ID would be introduced in science classes, the general reaction would be, “Whatever, dude. What’s for dinner?” Over there, they act as if the very future of the planet depended on the outcome of the debate, and that the world would stop turning if the other side won. What Ive decided to write about instead is about the scientific community as seen by someone from the outside, namely me.

I used to be under the impression that scientists agreed on the definition of science. Boy was I wrong. The definition of science is still a hotly debated topic in the rarefied air that philosophers of science breathe. During the recent Kitzmiller et al vs. Dover School District, the expert witness for the plaintiffs, Robert Pennock, admitted that there is no single definition of science that everyone agrees on. It’s boundaries are fuzzy.

But there is an authority that determines whether or not a theory is scientific or not, and that is none other than the scientific community itself. Make that the mainstream scientific community. They get to say whether you’re in or out. In this way, science is a lot like art. “What is Art?” Philosophers haven’t figured out a definition yet ever since the first Cro-Magnon stenciled his hand onto the wall of his cave by blowing a mouthful of pigment on it, and asked “Ugh. Take a look at this. Is it art?” Art is what the Art Community says it is, that vast network of academics, gallery owners, art collectors, and critics. They get to say whether or not your work deserves to be displayed in the Louvre or flushed down the loo.

Instead of museums, the scientific community makes use of a device called the peer-reviewed journal, a sacred document. Once your work and your name appear within its hallowed pages, you’ll know that you’ve arrived. The scientific community has given you its imprimatur. You’ve been anointed and deemed fit to be called brother. The honor of being chosen to be a reviewer of articles for publication is not given lightly. You have to have solid mainstream scientific credentials, that is, you have to agree with the mainstream opinion, to qualify. And you do not, under any circumstances, abuse this privilege or there will be hell to pay. Consider the case of Richard Sternberg, a scientist who happens to edit a scientific journal affiliated with the very mainstream Smithsonian Institution. Sternberg committed the mortal sin of allowing the publication of a non-mainstream view: an article by Stephen Meyer that was sympathetic to Intelligent Design. What followed was recrimination by the keepers of the flame, seeking to tarnish his reputation.

The mainstream scientists and their followers in the lay community believe—wholeheartedly believe—that science is above petty disagreements and tantrums. It is above the worldly dispute over turf or, heaven forbid, the competition for research grants. It is a noble calling where the pursuit of the truth is paramount. Fame? Bite your tongue! And science is indeed that noble a calling. But alas, science is composed of scientists. And scientists are composed of people. People just as petty and as trivial as the rest of us. I suspect the scientists know and accept this; they just don’t talk about it. Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize winner for chemistry minces no words. In writing about the AIDS establishment he said: “What people call science is probably very similar to what people called science in 1634. Galileo was told to recant his beliefs or be excommunicated. People who refuse to accept the commandments of the AIDS establishment are basically told the same thing. ‘If you don't accept what we say, you’re out.’”* That is basically true of all established scientific beliefs. The lay followers of mainstream science, too, will not hesitate to attack anyone who even hints that their heroes have feet of clay.

I’ve heard it said that there isn’t an overarching discipline to study science. There is a Philosophy of Science, but there isn’t any Science of Science. I beg to differ. We have a science of science. Several, in fact. Sociology is one. Anthropology is another. These discipline are apt because the scientific community is just that: a community. A community with its own rules, with its own culture, with its own way of dealing with other communities with which it interacts. The way a community changes and evolves also applies to the scientific community. You have an established order of things at its core, and competing new orders in the fringe seeking acceptance. The core has its own metaphysical underpinnings; its own paradigm with which it interprets the world; the competing order has another. The established core will do anything it can to protect itself from its competitors in the fringe. It is not a fair fight. The established core has all the advantages. It controls the schools and other avenues of communication. There are battles for control throughout the community, Darwinism vs. ID being just one of them**. Others include the battle between the Fossil Fuel theory of Oil (the mainstream view) vs. the Abiotic Theory of Oil. Then there’s the debate between the causes of global warming or the It’s-all-our-fault theory (the maisntream view) vs. the We-have-nothing-to-do-with-it theory. And so on down the entire perimeter of establishment science. What I'd like to see therefore is a comprehensive study of the scientific community as a community; how it deals with issues within, and how it adapts and changes to pressures from without; and how its rules change in response to these. It might clear up a few things about what science really is.

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*In 'Case not Closed', Chapter 18 of his book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, 1998.

**The Darwinism-ID debate is interesting because of the savvy use of social and political maneuverings, especially by one of the leading advocates of ID, The
Discovery Institute. They have correctly chosen their field of battle in such a way that they can win. They know that mano-a-mano with the establishment, they don't have a chance. The mainstream view controls the scientific journals and as mentioned above with the Sternberg episode, are not shy about making an example out of rogues who dare defy them. What they did instead was take the battle outside. By transforming the debate into an Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech issue, incredibly, they have placed Darwin in the unfamiliar position of having to engage them in public, whereas before they simply ignored them. The general impression now among those outside the scientific community of a battle between 2 equal competitors and not one of a David vs. Goliath.

1 comment:

garden said...

maybe anything resulting from us human beings will inevitably be tainted by the "constant struggle for supremacy". From wrestling to even the pursuit of knowledge. Remember when darwin's theory wasnt so mainstream yet? It had to earn its stripes, so to speak and now, its ID's turn. Its just the cycle of things I guess.

Carmela