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When Is a Rejoinder Not a Rejoinder? The Disappointing Evasion of Karl Giberson

In my column of May 18, I sharply criticized Dr. Karl Giberson for an earlier column on Biologos, which in my view argued for a dangerous subservience to scientific consensus.

Dr. Giberson’s article generated quite a lot of controversy on the Biologos site, where two posters named “Rich” and “gingoro” argued firmly (but politely) that Dr. Giberson was being one-sided and one-dimensional in this thinking about scientific consensus and specialist insight.

Now, over at Biologos again, Dr. Giberson has written a rejoinder of sorts.

I say “of sorts,” because it answers virtually none of the questions, and responds to virtually none of the criticisms, posed by myself or the two Biologos commenters.   He responds to no points from the Biologos critics, and to almost none of my arguments; his most substantive comment is a side-argument responding to a statement by William Dembski.

Beyond his reply to Dembski, his article consists of a more intransigent restatement of his original “blank check” endorsement of scientific consensus, coupled with multiple, motive-mongering digs against ID.  The digs against ID are irrelevant because, except for some framing comments at the beginning and end of my article which were not part of my argument, I didn’t even mention, let alone champion, ID, and neither did the Biologos commenters.

So here is the situation:  Three intelligent people (one of whom, “gingoro,” appears to be more of a TE than an ID proponent) wrote thoughtful, careful critiques of Dr. Giberson’s first article, expressed in polite language, not even defending ID, and not even primarily attacking Darwinian evolution, but simply questioning Dr. Giberson’s overly deferential attitude toward expertise and consensus.  All three have basically been snubbed.  The time they put into thoughtful, carefully-worded replies, replete with examples and reasonable arguments, appears to have been wasted.  Dr. Giberson’s mind was apparently already made up, and he didn’t want to be bothered to consider a new viewpoint on the subject.  This is not exactly what I would call model behavior in a scientist.

Aside from the fact that Dr. Giberson failed to answer the overwhelming bulk of the objections to his original article, his rejoinder is filled with errors and bad arguments. 

Let’s start with an error of fact:

“My blog about the importance of taking scientific consensus seriously generated some heated response from several directions, most noticeably over at Uncommon Descent, the Intelligent Design blog run by William Dembski.”

Uh, Dr. Giberson – Bill Dembski hasn’t run this blog for over a year and a half.  It’s owned now by Barry Arrington.

Dr. Giberson continues:

“This is a critically important issue for the Intelligent Design community because its whole approach to origins requires that it set aside scientific consensus in favor of alternative views accepted by less than 1% of practicing biologists.”

First of all, the critics didn’t argue in favor of Intelligent Design or any other “alternative view” regarding evolution; second, ID does not “set aside” scientific consensus, but merely claims the right to question it and criticize it, a right which Dr. Giberson apparently thinks that neither ID proponents nor anyone else should have.

“The consensus that exists now about evolution is close to 100% of research biologists.”

About the fact of evolution, or about the mechanisms?  Dr. Giberson is not clear.

“Comparative anatomists, geneticists, cell biologists, paleontologists, embryologists and every other sub-field of biology have all compared their data with each other and found that evolution ties it all together and makes it into a remarkably coherent system.”

Regarding the mechanisms of evolution, this is simply false.  Just to give one example, the work of Eldredge and Gould precipitated a major debate within evolutionary biology, when they introduced the notion of punctuated equilibrium.  Gould spoke of “the dirty little trade secret” of paleontology, i.e., that the fossil record did not show the gradualism insisted upon by classical neo-Darwinism, but instead showed long periods of stasis followed by periods of very rapid change.  This led to a number of unsettling theoretical questions, a couple of which are stated by evolutionist Dr. Donald Prothero:

Traditional Neo-Darwinists come from a reductionist viewpoint that cannot see species as entities, even after all the evidence that has accumulated. The opposing camp sees the world as hierarchically ordered, with each level having its own reality. As long as this fundamental difference in worldview underlies the argument, neither side will convince the other, even with the clearest possible examples.

More is at stake here than the reality of species, however. If species sorting is real, then the processes operating on the level of species (macroevolutionary processes) are not necessarily the same as those operating on the level of individuals and populations (microevolutionary processes). In other words, macroevolution may not just be microevolution scaled up.

Source:  http://www.theeway.com/skepticc/archives09.html

It’s clear that evolutionary biology has been filled with disputes regarding the mechanisms, and that the different branches of biological science (which Dr. Giberson paints as living in perfect harmony) have had some serious disagreements over the proper way to think about evolution, and that traditional neo-Darwinism is not regarded by all evolutionary biologists as an unassailable fortress.  Dr. Giberson’s words give an inaccurate picture of the field of evolutionary biology by portraying it as a field virtually without internal tension.

Continuing, Dr. Giberson says:

“This conclusion is so broad and based on so many different technical fields that I cannot imagine how a layperson could even begin to understand it well enough to decide that all these experts were wrong.”

Yet when “laypersons” decide that all these experts are right, and talk up neo-Darwinian evolution in pulpits, in newspaper editorials, in book reviews, on blogs, and in books published by trade presses, Dr. Giberson and the Biologos people never seem to object.  They never seem to say to Rev. Barry Lynn or Jason Rosenhouse (a mathematician, not a biologist) or Barbara Forrest (a philosopher, not a biologist) or Michael Ruse (a philosopher, not a biologist):  “Excuse us, guys and gals, thanks for your endorsement, but you really aren’t qualified to speak here, and we don’t need the help of biologically challenged laymen and quacks like yourselves to demonstrate that neo-Darwinism is true.”  Indeed, some TEs have been willing, in staged tag-team debates against ID people, to pair up with these “unqualified” people.  So there appears to be a double standard.  Unqualified people who bow to the Darwinian consensus are enlightened; equally educated people who refuse to bow are non-specialists who aren’t entitled to an opinion.

Dr. Giberson finally gets around to addressing my post here:

“Thomas Cudworth, also on the Uncommon Descent blog, is appalled at my consensus argument, which he summarizes as “everyone should defer to the majority of evolutionary biologists simply because they are the certified experts.” Leaving aside the fact that “certified expert” is not a label in use in the scientific community, Cudworth is properly stating my position. A simpler way to put it would be like this, however: People who know a lot about a subject are more likely to be correct when they speak about it than people who know very little.”

I thank Dr. Giberson for his near-tautology, but I would remind him that near-tautologies are rarely profound.  Yes, of course it is true that, other things being equal, people who know a lot about a subject are more likely to be correct than people who know only a little about it.  But this needs qualification.

For one thing, academic egos and vested interests can cause people who know a lot about a subject to be less than entirely honest about weaknesses in their theories; for another, even aside from such bad motivations, experts can simply be wrong.  In the Middle Ages the majority of people who knew “a lot” about medicine believed in “bleeding” patients.  And at various times the people who knew “a lot” about nature believed in four humors, phlogiston, crystalline heavenly spheres, and the cosmic ether.  So does it follow that no one should have criticized any of those views?  Is that what Dr. Giberson would have counseled, had he lived in those centuries?  If so, he would have been one of those holding back science rather than advancing it.

Dr. Giberson goes on to say:

“Is a challenge really being made to this statement? Are we really to believe that it is acceptable to put the conclusions of people who know very little ahead of those who know a lot? If I, a physicist who took my last biology class in 1975, decide to challenge Francis Collins on a question of genetics, should anyone listen to me, just because they like my “science” better?”

By this reasoning, no one should listen to Dr. Giberson when he challenges Michael Behe, who knows biochemistry far better than he does, or Richard Sternberg, who knows evolutionary biology far better than he does.  Yet Dr. Giberson has no hesitation in rejecting their arguments.  Once again, a double standard appears to be operating.

Then, he writes:

“And why is this “everyman science” proposed only in the area of biology? Can we apply Cudworth’s argument to physics and astronomy? If I can find three trained astronomers who are absolutely certain that astrology is valid, does this mean we should consider setting aside the consensus view from tens of thousands of other astronomers who think the opposite? If I find three psychologists who believe the stories of alien abductions, does that idea become worthy of consideration? How about three historians who deny the Holocaust?”

No one spoke of “everyman science”.  All the examples that were given of critics of neo-Darwinian evolution were highly intelligent people, mostly with Ph.D.s, including science Ph.D.s and even biology Ph.D.s:  Karl Popper, Mortimer Adler, David Berlinski, William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Richard Sternberg, Michael Denton, the physicists and engineers of the Wistar Conference, etc. 

And yes, we can and should apply those arguments to physics and astronomy, where scientists appear to go beyond their technical expertise and engage in speculations or make assertions without proof.  For example, how do we know there is a repulsive force between galaxies?  Do not intelligent lay people have the right to question specialists, and ask them how they know such a force exists?  And when they uncover the fact that the repulsive force (which was no part of the original Big Bang model) was postulated in order to save the model when empirical evidence of accelerating galaxies told against it, do they not have the intellectual right and duty to question the propriety of such ad hoc additions to a theory?  Especially if they are scientists from some other discipline (say, biochemistry) where such ad hoc additions would not be tolerated?

Apparently Dr. Giberson would say no, and would insist that if nine out of ten astrophysicists believe in a repulsive force, then, by an inexorable logic inaccessible to untutored lay minds, there must be one, and we should be good, docile students and zip our lips.  Truly, Dr. Giberson would make an ideal citizen in a totalitarian state, because he encourages all his fellow-citizens never to question authority, no matter how shaky its intellectual basis.

Finally, Dr. Giberson’s examples of astrology, alien abductions, and Holocaust denial are, intentionally or not, demagogical.  He surely knows that the first two examples are repugnant to the intellect and the last one is repugnant to morality, yet he links them with intelligent design as if there is equivalency between the biochemical arguments of Behe and the contents of The National Inquirer, or between the mathematical arguments of Dembski and the historical scholarship of neo-Nazis.  If the examples were careless, Dr. Giberson ought to be more careful, and if they were deliberate, then his debating tactics are beneath the dignity of a professor of physics. 

Dr. Giberson concludes as follows:

“The sad truth of the matter is that the argument made against the validity of consensus in science is selectively applied only to evolution and only because the ID movement has no choice. Its confident predictions of a decade ago that evolution was tottering and would soon collapse have not come true. The consensus remains against ID and so the consensus must be wrong.”

No, Dr. Giberson, the argument is not selectively applied only to evolution.  As noted in your own original article, the scientific consensus is criticized in other areas, e.g., anthropogenic global warming.   And further, as I said above, scientific consensus should always be criticized, where there is reason to do so.  ID proponents have criticized the consensus, not to illegitimately make room for ID, but because there is much to criticize in neo-Darwinian theory.  You of course would not be aware of the weaknesses in neo-Darwinism, since, on your own account, you are not competent in the subject matter; but in fact neo-Darwinism has been criticized frequently not only by ID people but by scientists of all sorts, including evolutionary biologists.  I am surprised that your biologist colleagues at Biologos have not apprised you of this fact.  Perhaps you should ask them why they have kept you in the dark.

All in all, Dr. Giberson’s article is extremely disappointing.  It’s riddled with inconsistencies and double standards; it attacks ID when the issue is not ID, or even primarily Darwinian evolution, but Dr. Giberson’s own extreme views on consensus and expertise; it refuses to move even slightly from his original statement toward a more moderate position (if anything, it is more intransigent than the original); and it ignores 95% of the critical remarks directed against it.  It is a very poor performance.  If this is the best quality of argumentation we can expect from a high-ranking officer of Biologos, I expect that Biologos will have a very little influence upon the general intellectual culture. 

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15 Responses to When Is a Rejoinder Not a Rejoinder? The Disappointing Evasion of Karl Giberson

  1. Thomas Cudworth:

    Thank you for your very good and interesting post.

    Being by nature an anticonformist, I have never had a special reverential attitude towards consensus on general, and scientific consensus in particular, even in my specific field (which is medicine). But I will happily admit that it is a truly democratic instrument to share some conclusions in such an uncertain field of knowledge as science, and especially biological sciences.

    But that’s what it is, and what it should remain: a tool, a democratic principle, open to discussion and dinamically contestable. By all.

    A consensus which becomes compulsory, or which can be challenged only by special categories of people, is as dangerous in science as in politics, morals, or any other field. Maybe more.

    And one thing I do believe: the best way to show true appreciation and respect, both to people and to ideas, is not to put them on an artificial pedestal, not to tranform them in rigid absolutes. Idolatry is the opposite of respect and love.

    So, while I do not idolize scientific consensus, I certainly respect it. That’s exactly why I challenge it any time I think it’s wrong.

  2. 2

    Its interesting to see a scientist argue that (on the basis of authority) some men’s thoughts about observations which have been made and are being made, are more vital to knowledge than the record of the observations themselves.

  3. This cartoon sums up consensus sciences’ ability to adapt to a newly discovered truth:

    http://www.cartoonstock.com/lowres/wpa0649l.jpg

    and of course Michael Crichton’s penetrating speech:

    I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

    Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

    There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

    I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. . . .

  4. There’s a lot to poke at here, so I’m just going to check this out piece by piece.

    If I can find three trained astronomers who are absolutely certain that astrology is valid, does this mean we should consider setting aside the consensus view from tens of thousands of other astronomers who think the opposite? If I find three psychologists who believe the stories of alien abductions, does that idea become worthy of consideration? How about three historians who deny the Holocaust?

    There’s a problem there: Giberson’s piece is dedicated to a defense of the authority of scientists within their own field. He explicitly uses himself as an example when he mentions how he took his last class* on biology in 1975, and that therefore no one should listen to him versus Francis Collins when it comes to biology.

    But when it comes to astrology, Giberson doesn’t defer to astrologists – despite it being ‘their’ field that’s the one in question. He defers to astronomers. When it comes to alien abduction stories, he defers to – of all people – psychologists.

    So, we should defer to experts in their own field. Unless, you know, we think the field is crazy. In which case we should defer to people in other fields criticizing them.

    It doesn’t add up.

    (* I also find Karl’s gold standard sad. You can learn plenty about biology outside of a class, you know.)

  5. Karl Giberson again:

    The history of science does not suggest that theories are abandoned. Scientific progress occurs most commonly when theories are refined and extended. Physicists did not abandon Newton’s theory of optics in the 19th century–it was extended and refined with the discovery that visible light, radio waves and infrared radiation were all part of a continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Similarly, the “solar system” model of the atom was not abandoned when it was discovered that the nucleus had both protons and neutrons in it. And that nuclear model was not abandoned when it was discovered that protons and neutrons are composed of quarks.

    So according to Giberson it’s a mistake to think that models are abandoned. Instead, they’re simply extended and refined. Just as when a person puts on 200 pounds over their ideal body weight, they didn’t get fat. They have settled into a more rubenesque figure.

    Fair enough. But then Karl goes on to say, regarding ID’s aims…

    So how about evolution? Is it reasonable to hold out hope that it will one day be abandoned?

    But I say it’s a mistake to believe that ID proponents want evolutionary theory to be abandoned.

    They simply want it to be refined and extended.

  6. Reading the comments on that blog, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable betting that more than 5% of the TE’s over there can state the argument of ID with remote accuracy. Most really think that we’re debating whether any type of evolution happened. I’m sorry, but debating common ancestry has absolutely nothing to do with the main thesis of ID. Some IDers are YECs, but not all IDers are YEC’s (just judging off of commentators on this blog, I’d say most not only are not YEC, but they accept common ancestry in some form). Do we need to make a Venn Diagram for them?

    Karl Giberson: Regarding the consensus among evolutionary biologists that all of the fCSI in biology is capable of being formed via neo-Darwinian mechanisms within the probabilistic resources of the known universe, on what evidence do they base their consensus? Considering there are exactly zero remotely successful models exhibiting this, and there is no physical evidence since we don’t have a somewhat continuous record of the genetic history of a single species (therefore being able to track the genetic history, down to each mutation, or something remotely close), I guess 99% just all have a really good hunch that we’re about to stumble into the mountains of evidence and models.

    Of course we shouldn’t suspect that it is simple dogma even though:

    a.) Darwinism was “100% fact”, completely accepted and inarguable before we knew what DNA was.

    b.) If Darwinism fails, so do the careers of most of these scientists, although they would probably be able to adapt to a different field

    c.) For the atheist scientists, their entire worldview hinges on the validity of Darwinism. It can’t fail. Do you really think they’re going to be neutral to skepticism? No, just as I, a Christian, will tend not to be neutral to an argument questioning the nature or existence of Jesus.

    Regarding consensus in general, who cares where an argument comes from? It is the argument, and ONLY the argument, that matters. If it comes from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, their argument will not stand on the merits of the argument alone.

  7. He explicitly uses himself as an example when he mentions how he took his last class* on biology in 1975, and that therefore no one should listen to him versus Francis Collins when it comes to biology.

    And to his example of himself vs. Francis Collins, I say why shouldn’t we listen to him if he has something to say? It’s one thing to dogmatically accept something from an “outsider”. It’s quite another to hear their argument and judge it with reason based on evidence.

    Skepticism is the great driving force of modern science; dogmatic acceptance of consensus thought at least limits skepticism. For what reason this is preferred, I’m unsure. No one is arguing for “laypeople” to become co-editors in scientific journals.

  8. uoflcard:

    Do we need to make a Venn Diagram for them?

    Are you sure they would understand a Venn diagram? I thought those arguments out of mathemathics and statistics were only IDists tricks! :)

  9. uoflcard:

    Karl Giberson: Regarding the consensus among evolutionary biologists that all of the fCSI in biology is capable of being formed via neo-Darwinian mechanisms within the probabilistic resources of the known universe, on what evidence do they base their consensus?

    They obviously consent that there is no need for evidence.

  10. And to his example of himself vs. Francis Collins, I say why shouldn’t we listen to him if he has something to say? It’s one thing to dogmatically accept something from an “outsider”. It’s quite another to hear their argument and judge it with reason based on evidence.

    Well, reading Giberson, his reply is that “reason based on evidence” is downright dangerous. Individuals forming opinions about scientific ideas based on what they personally read and think about? That’s dangerous “everyman science” talk. We may all start believing in holocaust denial, alien abductions and horoscopes at that rate.

    No, we should believe and accept what the consensus of scientists tells us to believe and accept. Of course, how do we know what that consensus view is? I suppose we’ll have to trust the statisticians, since that’s another branch of science. And how do we know when a scientist has spoken outside of his field (as was, so I’ve repeatedly been told, the case when eugenics was all the rage)? Hopefully there’s another group of experts to tell us that too, and whose opinions we should accept without question.

  11. 11

    Karl Giberson responds to comments at Biologos. Why not post something there, gpuccio?

  12. Karl Giberson: Regarding the consensus among evolutionary biologists that all of the fCSI in biology is capable of being formed via neo-Darwinian mechanisms within the probabilistic resources of the known universe, on what evidence do they base their consensus?

    There is no such consensus for the simple reason that anyone who so much as states the problem in terms of fCSI and probabilistic resources is shouted down. Most especially if they attempt to apply (the horror!) actual numbers to the question.

    The only “scientific” consensus about the issue is that Darwinists can be expected–almost to a man–to run away from the very question, insults-a-flyin’.

  13. 13

    Zach Bailey @ 11:

    Would that it were true that Dr. Giberson responds to comments on Biologos. He may give a token reply or two early on in the comments sections under his columns, but certainly he does not respond seriously to substantive disagreements there, which is why I have written the column above.

  14. Zach Bailey:

    I answer here to both your kind suggestions. I am fine posting here. I am here because I believe ID is the real thing. I am not interested in posting elsewhere.

    I have posted on one occasion on Mark Frank’s blog, because Mark is a fine guy :) .

  15. Karl Giberson responds to comments at Biologos. Why not post something there, gpuccio?

    119 comments so far; no response yet.

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