Karl Giberson’s Dangerous Defense of Scientific Orthodoxy
|May 18, 2010||Posted by Thomas Cudworth under Intelligent Design|
Last month, I noted with pleasure that Dr. Karl Giberson appeared to have extended an olive branch to ID people, and I wrote a reply here in a similar spirit. It seemed to me then that Dr. Giberson was showing a breadth of mind and a listening attitude that was unusual among theistic evolutionists, and I genuinely wanted to encourage it, and to encourage ID supporters to respond graciously to his overture.
I am disappointed to report that this month, Dr. Giberson has taken two steps backward for his previous step forward, and has displayed a narrowness of mind of exactly the sort that has provoked ID/TE frictions in the past.
I am referring to his Biologos column, published on May 10, 2010, entitled “Would You Like Fries With That Theory?” The condescension toward the common man implied in the title is matched only by the condescension toward the common man (and others) frankly expressed in this article.
In the article, Dr. Giberson sternly rebukes those critics of “scientific orthodoxy”, whether that orthodoxy be neo-Darwinian evolution, anthropogenic global warming theory, or something else. He accuses critics of orthodoxy of attempting to short-circuit the scientific process, by putting the data carefully gathered by scientists into the hands of vulgar laymen who are totally unqualified to interpret it.
Dr. Giberson, being a TE writing on Biologos, focuses on evolutionary theory. He apparently finds the reigning neo-Darwinian theory sound, and he apparently thinks it is totally reasonable that the layman, and even the specialist in other scientific disciplines, should simply accept it, on the grounds that only the specialists in evolutionary biology are qualified to judge.
It is important to note here that Dr. Giberson, being a physicist and not a biologist, is not pushing neo-Darwinism on his own authority; rather, he is deferring to the authority of his biological colleagues. Of course, he has every right to defer if he wishes; but he thinks everyone else should defer to them, too. And not because their theory seems reasonable and supported by the evidence – on Dr. Giberson’s argument, no one outside of evolutionary biology is qualified to judge that. No, everyone should defer to the majority of evolutionary biologists simply because they are the certified experts. He is of the view that science cannot progress unless this procedure is adopted. Every specialist must respect every other specialist’s “territory”, and no external criticism, even by other Ph.D.s, let alone laymen, is appropriate or even reasonable. That is the gist of Dr. Giberson’s argument.
As an example of lay incompetence to evaluate scientific data, Dr. Giberson mentions fossils. How can a layman, even a very intelligent layman, be qualified to examine or interpret fossils?, he asks. I can answer that question, with an example.
Defenders of neo-Darwinian evolution have laid out a series of fossils which, in their view, indicate an evolutionary progression between an ancient land mammal, probably an ancestor of the hippopotamus, and modern whales. In this progression, one can notice more finlike appendages versus more leglike appendages, more streamlined bodies versus chunkier bodies, etc. If we apply Dr. Giberson’s way of thinking, neo-Darwinians have the right to say: “We have proved that whales evolved from this ancient land mammal via the processes of random mutation and natural selection.” And if any lay person says: “I’m not convinced”, Dr. Giberson would presumably dismiss this person as biologically untrained and not entitled to an opinion.
Not so fast, Dr. Giberson. It may be true that an intelligent lay person will not know as much about comparative anatomy as an evolutionary biologist. But one does not need to be an expert on comparative anatomy to venture this criticism:
“You biologists have shown us a fossil sequence. You have given prima facie reasons for an evolutionary narrative, based on what could be interpreted as a gradation of forms. But what this sequence of forms does not show is the mechanism. In other words, even if this sequence represents a true genealogical sequence (which is far from certain, with only five or six fossil forms), it does not demonstrate that neo-Darwinian processes (random mutation and natural selection) were the driving power which turned one form into another. It cannot rule out other, non-Darwinian, naturalistic explanations; further, it cannot rule out even interventionist explanations in which God steered or guided the transitions from one form to another. Thus, it does not establish the hypothesis that a primitive hippopotamus, by means of neo-Darwinian mechanisms, evolved into modern cetaceans.”
This objection is entirely sound; it is logical, rational, and from a philosophical point of view, dead-on and irrefutable. And one does not need even a freshman biology course to raise it. One simply has to be aware of the claims of neo-Darwinian theory, and to be intelligent enough to notice the discrepancy between what the theory claims and what it has actually established. Thus, we find that Dr. David Berlinski, a philosopher and historian of science, has raised this very question about whale evolution. What would Dr. Giberson say to Dr. Berlinski? That, despite his formidable intellect and undoubted grasp of modern scientific thought, he is not qualified to speak, because he lacks the union card of a doctorate in biology?
Very well, Dr. Giberson, since you apparently bow before degrees and certifications, would someone with two Ph.D.s in biology, one of them specifically in evolutionary biology, count as “qualified” in your books? How about Dr. Richard Sternberg, who has made exactly the same points about whale evolution as Berlinski? Are you prepared to dismiss him as an unqualified quack, as one of the rubes who demands “fries” with his theories? Since you, by your own argument, are utterly unqualified to discuss evolution, should you not be deferring to Dr. Sternberg’s conclusions? Maybe, in relation to Dr. Sternberg, you are the rube who likes fries with his neo-Darwinism.
And what about the Wistar Symposium? Have you ever heard of the Wistar Symposium, Dr. Giberson? In 1966 the Wistar Institute held a major conference in which a number of brilliant engineers, computer scientists, nuclear physicists, etc. presented mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian account of evolution. They laid these challenges before the greatest evolutionary biologists of the day, including the sainted Mayr. Now as a physicist, Dr. Giberson, you know full well that when it come to mathematics and mathematical modelling, physicists, engineers, etc. generally are far better trained than biologists, and this was even more the case in 1966. So were these scientists unqualified to criticize the neo-Darwinians, because their degrees were not in biology, even though they in most cases possessed far more mathematical knowledge? Were they just lay bumpkins who were not entitled to an opinion?
And what about Dr. Behe, with his expertise in biochemistry, Dr. Dembski, with his expertise in probability theory, and Dr. Denton, with his expertise in medical genetics? Are they unqualified to criticize neo-Darwinian mechanisms? Are they all backwoods fundamentalists, fifth-grade dropouts with contempt for higher scientific education, waving their Bibles and spouting pious slogans? Have they no idea how scientific reasoning works? Are they unaware of the criteria of valid evidence for a theory?
Dr. Giberson’s article is condescending in the highest degree. It basically says: “The experts believe that mutations and natural selection can explain everything from bacterium to man, and anyone who isn’t a biologist should just accept that and shut up. And anyone who won’t accede to this demand is an obscurantist who threatens the practice of good science.”
Not only is this demand based on a false premise, since some of the critics of neo-Darwinian evolution are very good scientists, and more qualified to talk about some aspects of evolution than many TEs are (for example, Sternberg knows more about evolutionary theory than Ken Miller does, or for that matter more than Francis Collins does), it is also dangerous to the idea of the university as a place of the free exchange of ideas, where high-level criticism from any and all quarters should be welcome. It is also dangerous to the fabric of a democratic and open society, because it transfers power to a hieratic caste of experts whose view it is sacrilege to question.
It is also the most horrible model of teaching imaginable. Does Dr. Giberson, when teaching his undergraduate classes, deal with student questions and criticisms by saying: “You’re not advanced enough to make that criticism” or “I can’t successfully refute your arguments, but I know they are wrong because expert opinion rejects them”? How can any teacher hope to encourage students to develop critical intellects, if the student are cowed into accepting that the main outlines of the truth have already been fixed in stone by the experts and no dissent or even honest questioning is permitted? This sets learning back to the days of ancient China, where the examination of the mandarins was basically a test of memory-work. It is an unfit model of pedagogy for a society which traces its roots back to the ever-questioning, ever-debating Socrates.
I of course cannot speak for UD, or for “intelligent design” but only for myself, but I shall speak for myself. I reject Dr. Giberson’s closed-shop notion of scientific knowledge. I think that it is a recipe for specialist smugness and self-congratulation, which insulates scientific specialties from all healthy external criticism and therefore licenses ideologically driven science, or even just plain wrong science, to outlive its usefulness by years or even decades. I think that prostration before a self-selecting clique of experts is repugnant to good science, to good philosophy, to the ideal of the university, and to the ideal of an open, free and democratic society. And I think it shows, once again, how brittle neo-Darwinism is, that, in order to shut out reasonable criticism from very intelligent people, it has to play the professional privilege card. Perhaps if the neo-Darwinians spent more time developing detailed biochemical/genetic mechanisms for the production of new body plans, and less time beating their breasts about their qualifications, they would have more success in convincing both their intelligent critics and the “ignorant” public which Dr. Giberson so haughtily dismisses.