A physicist’s latest attempt to justify scientism reveals a deplorable ignorance of history, logic and philosophy of science.
Tom Solomon, astronomer and physicist at Bucknell University, makes a valiant attempt to defend scientism (the view that ‘science’ is exceptional and superior to any other search for knowledge). In his article on The Conversation, “Scientific theories aren’t mere conjecture – to survive they must work,” he begins by expressing his frustration at public distrust of Big Science.
The theory of evolution also shows a mismatch: Whereas there is virtually universal agreement among scientists about the validity of the theory, only 33 percent of the public accepts it in full. For both climate change and evolution, skeptics sometimes sow doubt by saying that it is just a “theory.”
The issue is not whether a scientific theory is settled, but rather whether it works. Any successful scientific theory must be predictive and falsifiable; that is, it must successfully predict outcomes of controlled experiments or observations, and it must survive tests that could disprove the theory.
The “prediction” test, unfortunately, is known to philosophers of science as the fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” The “falsifiability test,” further, requires more nuance after the collapse of logical positivism to survive Quine’s and Kuhn’s insights into the nature of actual scientific practice: i.e., anomalies rarely falsify popular theories. Currently, for instance, dark matter has failed every test thrown at it for the last few decades. What is the reaction of the scientific community? Keep building more sensitive detectors (e.g., Phys.org) and keep thinking of more bizarre particles that “might” exist. They might find it some day, but they are not quick to accept falsification. An even worse example is wide acceptance of “multiverse theory” to avoid the implications of cosmic fine-tuning (see Guth Goof in the Darwin Dictionary).
Similarly, evolution has proven resistant to both falsification and prediction, resting as it does on Darwin’s House of Cards – the title of journalist Tom Bethell’s recent book. Speaking of falsification, Karl Popper told Bethell personally that he had not changed his opinion that Darwinism was an unfalsifiable research program, and therefore did not qualify as a scientific theory. Tom Solomon seems unaware of this important historical judgment by the father of the falsification criterion.
Wide acceptance comes from repeated, different experiments by different research groups. There is no threshold or tipping point at which a theory becomes “settled.” And there is never 100 percent certainty. However, near-unanimous acceptance by the scientific community simply doesn’t occur unless the evidence is overwhelming.
Solomon leaves out important social considerations about scientific consensus. His description sounds nice in theory, but in actual practice, the herd instinct is strong in Big Science, just as it is in any other common-interest association. There are conflicts of interest, influences of strong personalities, and fears of bucking the consensus. Highly-charged matters like climate and evolution are especially prone to social pressure (see the film Expelled). There are notable cases in the history of science when the consensus was wrong, even intolerant of considering alternate views (see National Geographic‘s recounting of the case of J Harlan Bretz).
Even for cases when the consensus is correct, Solomon’s argument rests primarily on authority and bandwagon. He does not consider cases where the lone maverick was right against the consensus. One weeps for Semmelweis’s vain attempts to get doctors to wash their hands, or Pasteur’s lonely battles to get the consensus to disbelieve in spontaneous generation. We’ve covered many such cases over the years, and we feel that Darwinian evolution is perhaps the greatest example of an unfalsifiable, unpredictable, fact-challenged web of belief that the consensus holds to with rigor and intolerance – not because of the evidence, but despite it, because they embraced (or have only learned) the naturalistic worldview. It would be hard to think of any other theory that has seen more rescue devices employed to save it from falsification.
Solomon continues. He compares Darwinism to Einstein’s relativity (the Association Fallacy):
Like relativity, the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection has been tested extensively. The body of experimental data that supports evolution is overwhelming. Of course, the fossil record supporting evolution is impressive and complete. But evolution has also been tested in real time with populations of organisms that can mutate and evolve over measurable time scales.
Evolution has been subjected to many falsifiable tests and has emerged unscathed in every one. Yes, evolution is a “theory” – it is a theory that works and works very well, an overwhelmingly successful and correct theory.
Well, he clearly has not been following Creation-Evolution Headlines, where we show otherwise on a daily or weekly basis – from the consensus’s own journals and experts. For a shortcut example, skip down to Stephen Talbot’s comments in our 10/03/15 entry. Solomon reveals a deplorable ignorance of the history of evolutionary thought. He conflates tests of microevolution (not in the least problematic for the most ardent young earth creationists) with molecules-to-man macroevolution. He ignores problems with the origin of life. He thinks Lenski’s bacteria support Darwin, when after decades and thousands of generations, they are still the same species of bacteria. And for him to say that the fossil record supports evolution, failing to point out the Cambrian Explosion (a falsification if there ever was one), is tantamount to a big lie.
These issues are important from more than just a purely scientific perspective. An understanding of evolution is critical for developing any valid strategy for combating the spread of diseases, especially since microbes responsible for diseases can mutate so rapidly. And an understanding and acceptance of climate change theory is critical if we are to take the necessary steps to avoid potential catastrophe from a continuation of the global warming trend.
Here Solomon gets into the fear-mongering strategy, mixing it with red herrings about disease and global catastrophe. He seems unaware that many of the greatest disease-fighters in the history of medicine – William Harvey, James Simpson, Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Howard Atwood Kelly and Walter Reed – were creationists. Medical science was in fact advancing quite well before Darwin, and it survived in spite of Social Darwinism’s atrocities (forced sterilization “to purify the race” and worse) as documented in Jerry Bergman’s book, How Darwinism Corrodes Morality.
Scientific theories aren’t mere conjecture. They are subject to exhaustive, falsifiable tests. Some theories fail these tests and are jettisoned. But many theories are successful in the face of these tests. It is these theories – the ones that work – that achieve consensus in the scientific community.
It’s hard to say this charitably, but such statements convey a middle-school comprehension of history and philosophy of science. It’s important to remember that “science” used to be called “natural philosophy,” and there was no such thing as a “scientist” until William Whewell coined the word in 1833 (against the objections of some). Scientism attempts to reify “science” as some kind of homogeneous entity out there. But are political science, psychology and chemistry on the same level? Do they all deserve the coveted label of science? C. S. Lewis said this:
Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as ‘modern science’. There are only particular sciences, all in a stage of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another.
Scientism also falsely portrays “science” as something external to the human mind, as if a machine could turn a crank on a ‘scientific method’ machine and get objective, reliable output. In truth, all scientific theories, tests, and conclusions are theory-laden and value-laden. What people should really aim at is following evidence wherever it leads, whether that is in biology, history, comparing brands while shopping, or any other human activity. On another occasion, C. S. Lewis said,
If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.
Solomon could have helped his case by pointing to some highly-repeatable types of science like chemical reactions or electromagnetic forces. Even these, it must be noted, are still theory-laden and subject to paradigm shifts. But by using anthropogenic climate change and macroevolution as his prime examples – neither of which are repeatable (there’s only one earth, and only one history of life) – and each of which are highly controversial along political divides – he may only get “Amen!” from those who already agree with his middle-school-level philosophy of science.
Tom Solomon’s rhetoric illustrates the kind of bombast that intimidates laypeople, churches and schools into bowing the knee to the Darwinian consensus. Big Science and Big Media conspire to ensure that only this loudmouth message gets heard, because they know that, historically, whenever a public debate allows the other side a hearing, Darwin loses. This problem was so embarrassing in the era of the Morris & Gish debates that Eugenie Scott warned colleagues not to debate them. Solomon’s article on “The Conversation” would have been much more interesting if it truly were a two-way conversation. It turned out to be an emotional sermon on why the dumb public should trust Big Science. One can hear the echoes of the late novelist Michael Crichton shouting in the halls of Caltech,
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.
That pulls the rug out from most of Tom Solomon’s defense of scientism.
Are you learning through these CEH exercises how to respond to bombastic blowhards? Step 1: Don’t be intimidated by hot air. Step 2: Read and learn all you can about the history and philosophy of science. Step 3: Master the Baloney Detector. Then, after clearly defining your terms and the issue, learn how to formulate questions that bring the blowhard’s hot air balloon down to earth where you can see eye to eye. Then, have a nice conversation.