Reality Conditions

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Steve Fuller at Crooked Timber Seminar

There is a seminar going on at Crooked Timber on Chris C. Mooney's book The Republican War on Science. I haven't read the book, but it seems to be a careful and thorough documentation of the way the Republican Party is ignoring, distorting or attacking directly the objective findings of science on many areas like enviromental protection, global warming, stem cell research and Intelligent Design, raising a flag of attention about the dangers of the politization of science. I recommend you to go and read the whole seminar.

An "invited speaker" to the seminar not member of the Crooked Timber gang is Steve Fuller. Fuller is an expert in the philosophy and sociology of science who defends a view of science as a "social construction" and actually testified in favor of teaching Intelligent Design in the recent Dover trial, saying he was in favour of "affirmative action for fringe science", and signalling by the way an unexpected (or not) rapprochement between premodern superstitious anti-science and postmodern relativist anti-science. He has been invited to the seminar seemingly to have a voice for "the other side", although this is strange since Fuller professes to be a left-winger; to have a rational Republican defending his party would be more natural. (I'm sure rational Republicans are not as difficult to find as it seems sometimes from this side of the Atlantic).

Fuller is now lecturing in the UK, at the University of Warwick, and came to give a talk here at Nottingham some weeks ago. I went there and heard the talk (called "Theory: You can't live with it, you can't live without it") half-expecting some polemic but substantial philosophical ideas to engage with, perhaps in a blog post. I found instead that there was very little of substance in the talk: nothing to disagree with except for nit-picking details, but nothing memorable either; just some vague considerations on how "theories" that go behind the phenomena and unify them are not in vouge now in the social sciences but still are in the natural sciences. Meh. I also found Fuller to be quite an egaging speaker, who can manage easily to keep an audience attentive by using well-timed jokes and quips.

But in writing, when the resources of direct communication are not available, the defects in Fuller's thinking become clearer. Just go and read, if you can bear it, the piece he has wrote for the seminar and you'll see what I mean. It is long, long, long; it muddles around the issues never spelling them out clearly; it is pretentious and self-important, as well as vain (just at the beginning Fuller recommends Mooney that he would have benefited from reading his books). Although there are more problmes with the piece than that, I will just pick out some places where Fuller is simply wrong:

"Contrary to the democratic image that talk of ‘peerage’ connotes, relatively few members of any science are regularly involved in the process."

In my limited experience, this is quite false: most physics researchers that I know participate of paper reviewing. According to some comments in response to Fuller's post, the situation is similar in other fields.

"Mooney does not take seriously that scientists whose research promotes the interests of the tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical or biotech industries may be at least as technically competent and true to themselves as members of the NAS or left-leaning academic scientists in cognate fields. Where these two groups differ is over what they take to be the ends of science: What is knowledge for – and given those ends, how might they best be advanced? What Mooney often decries as ‘misuse’ and ‘abuse’ of science amounts to his registering opposition to the value system in which many politicians and scientists embed scientific expertise. For example, a quick-and-dirty way to sum up the difference between scientists aligned with industrial and environmental interests is that the former are driven by solving and the latter by preventing problems. The former cling to what is increasingly called the proactionary principle, the latter to the more familiar precautionary principle."

This is an elementary mistake. The questions about matters of fact can be separeted from matters of values or policies, at least to a great degree, and it is a duty of scientists to make clear the distinction. (*) For example if an independent scientific study finds a strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer, and another scientific study paid by a tobacco company finds there is no correlation, then (at least) one of these studies must use wrong techniques of data adquisition or of statistical analysis. There is no way both can be "equally good" as science and just differ in their values as to "the ends of science", because either smoking does in fact contribute to lung cancer ot it doesn't. And I take it that Mooney's argument is that often we can find that the science that supports the industry's position is flawed on objective grounds, independently of its values and ends. Fuller misses all this and just goes on with pomo-relativistic blabber: "I don’t intend to resolve this conflict in scientific world-views here. Both lay legitimate claim to advancing both science and the public interest..."

And when Fuller reaches Intelligent Design, things get worse and worse:

"Yes, a line of descent can be drawn from high school science textbooks espousing Biblical literalism to ones now espousing intelligent design. Yes, there is probably a strong desire, perhaps even a conspiracy, by fundamentalists to convert the US to a proper Christian polity, one that is epitomized by the notorious ‘Wedge Document’ (more about which below) circulating at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank that has become the spiritual home of anti-Darwinism. But just how seriously should these facts be taken? After all, every theory is born in an intellectual state of ‘original sin’, as it actively promoted by special interests long before it is generally accepted as valid. It is therefore essential to monitor the theory’s development – especially to see whether its mode of inquiry becomes dissociated from its origins. So, while intelligent design theory may appeal to those who believe in divine creation, its knowledge claims, and their evaluation, are couched in terms of laboratory experiments and probability theory that do not make any theistic references. "

Oh, my, where to start here? The line about laboratory experiments is just ludicrous: not even Behe and Dembski have claimed to have experiments proving or testing intelligent design. (How could they do them?) All their arguments are theoretical, referring to the impossibility or improbability of some organic structure evolving without a Designer. And they have been shot down, proved wrong, fallacious, and at odds with both true biology and true mathematics, dozens of times already. The idea that ID might ever become "dissociated from its origins" in religion is patently absurd: it exists as a "theory" only and for the sole purpose of providing a religious apologetic and putting back religion in public schools; it is not interested in doing actual biological research or developing into a mature scientific research program. (There was a great post a couple of months ago at The Questionable Authority proving this by a simple method: it compared the number of press releases and other PR pieces of the Discovery Institute to the number of scientific publications, even counting as scientific publications some not peer-reviewed ones. The ratio was 100 : 1 .) The idea that each scientific theory is promoted by "special interests" before it gets accepted is a patent mischaracterization of the actual process of scientific discovery.

And from here on, all the part of the post that discusses evolution and Id just gets things wrong, wrong, wrong. We read that "Mooney’s repeated practice is to ask Neo-Darwinists their opinion of work by intelligent design theorists (but not vice versa). The results should surprise no one. Such opinion may indeed be expert but it is unlikely to be unprejudiced." (Well, isn't the fact that "Neo-Darwinists" as Fuller pejoratively calls biologists can refute rationally every single "argument" made by IDers a good reason to take them more seriously as experts?) There are absurd claims like "Moreover, Darwinism is philosophically ‘robust’ insofar as it has caused philosophers to alter their definitions of science to accommodate a research programme that clearly does not fit the mould of Newtonian mechanics." (If acceptance of evolution required a redefinition of science, I am not aware of it. Didn't Darwin claim to work on orthodox Baconian methods? And what does Newtonian mechanics, a paradigm for research in physics not biology, have to do with this?) Some lines are downright hilarious, such as "Thus, by no means do I wish to dismiss the Neo-Darwinian synthesis out of hand. Its construction has much to teach the social sciences, progress in which has been retarded by the sort of ‘metaphysical’ suspicions that Neo-Darwinism gladly suspends." (The most valuable outcome of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis is serving as role model for possible progress of a kind Fuller would like to see in social science! Never mind having a comprehensive and well-supported biological theory that allows us to understand how species come to be!) There are old creationist canards like there being empirical support for microevolution but not macroevolution. And so on, and on, and on...

It is already 2 am; I am tired of this. I have barely scratched the surface of Fuller's idiocies, but I can't go on. Perhaps tomorrow, if I feel like it, I will try to write some more on this matter.

(*) I am not defending here a philosophical dichotomy between "facts" and "values" like the one generally attributed to logical positivism and that many recent philosophers attack; just an ordinary practical distinction between "finding out how the world is in some respect" and "finding out what we ought to do about that".

UPDATE: Janet from Advenures in Ethics and Science has three great posts on Fuller's piece. In particular the last one says exactly what I try to say in my answer to Brandon in the comments, but in a much better and clearer way.


  • There is no way both can be "equally good" as science and just differ in their values as to "the ends of science", because either smoking does in fact contribute to lung cancer ot it doesn't.

    I agree. I'd add that even considering values alone Fuller is making a very strange argument. He seems to make the mistake of lumping all values together as if they weren't differentiated in any important way. It seems very true that there are values involved in good scientific work. It doesn't follow that just any values will do. That is, it is one thing to say 'Science necessarily involves values because you can't, in the long run, do good scientific work if you don't value things like being informed and reasoning well.' It's another to say that you can put any value you please on the same level and still do good science. Fuller's right, of course, that when people decry the abuse or misuse of science, or bad science, or pseudoscience, they are often protesting the values in which the work is embedded. (E.g., a common protest against ID is that it seems to lend itself to ad hoc or even mendacious reasoning; another is that IDers are always trying to take the easy way out, being more interested in advertising themselves than in doing hard scientific detail work.) But the obvious response to this is that this is because some values are much better for finding out facts than other values are, and some practices fulfill those values (objectivity, rationality, etc.) better than others, at least in the given circumstances. So, even if Fuller were successful in moving the discussion from facts to values, he doesn't seem to do any better with regard to values.

    By Blogger Brandon, at 4:16 AM, March 30, 2006  

  • Brandon, I agree with your points. I think I can understand Fuller's train of thought more or less like this (restricting for simplicity to the ID polemic, although the same could go for the other cases):

    "I am not a trained biologist so I cannot evaluate the arguments for and against ID by myself. Both "sound" scientific enough to me. Mooney is in the same situation and chooses to trust the opinion of the scientists that have university positions, accept the dominant paradigm, publish in the peer-reviewed system, etc. As a sociologist I know that these institutions are not "pure" and include values, just as much as the ID position does. Values are a matter open for discussion and in a democracy we should encourage alternative opinions and value systems to have a hear. Therefore it is OK to teach ID in school."

    The problem in this is that, as you say, some values are better than others for some purposes. In particular, the values accepted by the "orthodox" scientific community such like insistence on testable hypothesis, non-mendacity, respect for empirical data, and so on, are a better set of values than those displayed by the ID defenders, for the purposes of understanding the natural world. And even as an outsider (sociologist or journalist) one can reach this conclusion and evaluate one side of a polemic to be more trustworthy than the other.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 1:06 PM, March 30, 2006  

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