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Francis Collins' Hear-No-Evil, See-No-Evil Approach to Persecution of ID Proponents

Last week I discussed an interview with Francis Collins in Books and Culture where Dr. Collins wrongly called intelligent design (ID) unfalsifiable. Before offering more critiques of the interview, I want to say that in some respects, I have found Francis Collins' voice to be a welcome addition to the debate over evolution and ID. I am very much in agreement with Dr. Collins on certain issues, such as the evidence for design from the fine-tuning of physics and the frailties of Darwinian explanations for many higher aspects of the human psyche and behavior (i.e. our moral and religious urges). Collins is of course entitled to disagree with ID in biology, but I'm becoming saddened by the charged and inaccurate rhetoric he's increasingly employing to express that disagreement.

In the recent interview with Collins by Karl Giberson, the two adopt some less-than-charitable and inaccurate rhetorical devices highly similar to those used by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE): Collins calls ID "outside of science" and Giberson calls ID "anti-evolutionist." ID is neither of those two things. Given that there are highly credentialed ID proponents who are practicing scientists and accept many core tenets of evolution (like change over time in both lower and higher taxa, and even common ancestry), it would seem that Dr. Collins and Dr. Giberson have misstated the nature of ID.

But perhaps the most unfortunate rhetorical tactic that Collins and Giberson repeatedly employ is the classic NCSE talking point (used in "Expelled Exposed") that those who claim there is discrimination against ID proponents in the academy are somehow imagining the persecution. In particular, Collins says:

Stating this is a convenient way to float the idea that evolution is a conspiracy that is about to be exposed. That's the idea behind the movie Expelled, which tries to make that same case -- that there is a conspiracy to squash the truth. That viewpoint totally misunderstands the nature of science. Anybody who has lived within the scientific community would immediately -- regardless of their worldview -- rebel against the idea that science would be able to sustain such a conspiracy. Scientists are all about upsetting and overturning things. And if you're the one who's discovered how to overturn evolution, you're going to win the Nobel Prize!

The position that people on the outside of science -- like the creationists and the people in the ID camp -- have adopted, that such a conspiracy could actually exist for more than thirty seconds, completely flies in the face of the realities of the sociology of the field of science. It's an insult.

One might have hoped that Collins would express more sensitivity toward the plight of scientists facing intolerance and discrimination due to their unorthodox views--especially since one of the most egregious cases of such discrimination happened to a former colleague of his at the National Institutes of Health, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg! As two separate federal investigations have documented, Sternberg was made the target of a vendetta by angry ID-critics because he had the courage to allow a pro-intelligent design technical article to be published in the scientific journal he edited after it passed peer-review.

Contra Collins, it doesn't take a "conspiracy" to explain the pattern of discrimination against ID proponents in the scientific community. In many other fields, this phenomenon is well recognized: it's often called institutionalized discrimination or institutionalized bias. And it's not very nice to tell victims of such institutionalized discrimination that they are merely imagining a "conspiracy."

For example, imagine telling racial minorities who felt they were facing discrimination from an industry in the 1940s that they were merely inventing a "conspiracy." Or imagine telling women who faced discrimination in a field in the 1950s that they were just paranoid and imagining a "conspiracy." We all know from history that institutionalized discrimination and intolerance can be very real and powerful forces shaping personnel decisions within an established system. There are good historical examples of such, and accepting this requires no "conspiracy."

The truth is that if you ask historians of science, you'll find that the notion that scientists can be systematically intolerant of those who challenge reigning paradigms is not necessarily all that controversial. As Thomas Kuhn observed long ago:

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.

(Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Ed, 1970, Univ of Chicago Press, pg. 24)

Collins wants to paint the scientific enterprise as if it were perfectly open to dissenting or unorthodox opinions, but prominent science writer Nicholas Wade recently observed in an article on a New York Times science blog that scientists are often pressured to conform and not speak out against the prevailing view:
The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You're an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of "expert" they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you'll bear the less comfortable label of "maverick," which is only a few stops short of "scapegoat" or "pariah."

(Nicholas Wade, "Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers," New York Times Blog, July 23, 2009.)

Wade's article is worth reading because he frankly shows how there are serious, credible academics who are also very concerned about pressures to silence dissent from majority scientific viewpoints. Wade concludes:
Conformity and group-think are attitudes of particular danger in science, an endeavor that is inherently revolutionary because progress often depends on overturning established wisdom....The academic monocultures referred to by Dr. Bouchard are the kind of thing that sabotages scientific creativity....What's wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of skeptics.

(Nicholas Wade, "Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers, New York Times Blog, July 23, 2009.)

Indeed, Collins might wish to keep in mind that ID proponents aren't the only ones to observe that defenders of the neo-Darwinian paradigm don't exactly welcome dissent. As I recently noted, even materialists have recognized it is "dangerous" to critique neo-Darwinism. As Günter Theißen of the Department of Genetics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany wrote in the journal Theory in Biosciences in 2006:
It is dangerous to raise attention to the fact that there is no satisfying explanation for macroevolution. One easily becomes a target of orthodox evolutionary biology and a false friend of proponents of non-scientific concepts.

(Günter Theißen, "The proper place of hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology," Theory in Biosciences, Vol. 124:349--369 (2006).)

If materialists who challenge neo-Darwinism face dangers (partly because they become suspected of advocating intelligent design), imagine the intolerance faced by scientists who DO support intelligent design!

Similarly, the leading American evolutionary scientist, Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould, explained why a Collins-esque view of scientists as perfectly objective robots is naive:

Our [scientists'] ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective 'scientific method,' with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots, is self-serving mythology.

(Stephen Jay Gould, "In the Mind of the Beholder," Natural History, Vol. 103 (2):15 (1994).)

Clearly it requires no conspiracy to make the sociological observation that scientists are human, that they don't always approach the evidence in a perfectly rational fashion, and that they can be intolerant of new ideas that challenge the reigning paradigm. In some cases, this leads to outright discrimination, as was the case with Guillermo Gonzalez where his department chair instructed voting faculty to view Gonzalez's scientific support for as ID a litmus test that "disqualifies him from serving as a science educator."

There are many pitfalls faced by those who dissent from the majority scientific viewpoint. Expelled shows in case after case -- providing much documentation -- that ID proponents have faced unfair discrimination in the academy. Collins makes no attempt to rebut that documentation, instead sweeping it all aside by falsely labeling it a "conspiracy" theory. Given Collins' thoughtfulness in many other areas of this debate, I hope he will choose to abandon this inaccurate and damaging rhetoric in the future.