When Is a Rejoinder Not a Rejoinder? The Disappointing Evasion of Karl Giberson
|June 23, 2010||Posted by Thomas Cudworth under Intelligent Design|
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.
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.