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Karl Giberson's Scientism Refuses to Die, but It Should

Writing here yesterday, Bruce Chapman was kind enough to mention that our recent article "How a Scientific Field Can Collapse: The Case of Psychiatry" has been getting around. For example in the Huffington Post, physicist Karl Giberson criticized us for it. Giberson, theistic evolutionist and co-founder of BioLogos, includes in his critique a stirring appeal to scientism -- you know, that outmoded, pre-Kuhn, pre-Feyerabend, pre-Polanyi, pre-Lakatos, pre-Laudan, pre-van Fraasen, pre-Cartwright, pre-(the list goes on), 1930s-era philosophy of science that refuses to die in lower-grade science textbooks ("Evolution's Refusal to Die").

Yet defending the notion that Science is the only objective path to truth, on the grounds that it is self-correcting, requires ignoring many relevant subjective, sociological, political and rhetorical factors. Let's take a look at what Giberson has to say. He writes:

Science -- and this includes evolution -- is a self-correcting enterprise. I know little of psychiatry, but I am not shocked to discover that critical voices have emerged and are being heard. This is the norm for science. Seemingly secure science is often modified -- think Newtonian physics -- and entire fields even disappear, like phrenology (studying personality via bumps on the skull). (Emphasis added; italics in original.)

Not necessarily. As we've already demonstrated, Science can and does perpetuate myths. Science can and does ignore falsifications. Giberson continues:

Anyone who understands the scientific community knows it to be full of renegade individualists only too eager to overturn the status quo. This aggressive self-examination is the reason why we now understand the world so well -- why we know the behavior of nature in such excruciating detail that we can build a phone capable of extracting a tiny bit of information from a database on the other side of the planet.

Karl_Giberson.jpgImpressive. Evolution is now like smartphone science!

Has no one acquainted Giberson with the fate of so many who played the role of "renegade individualists" in "the scientific community," who challenged Darwinist dogma and paid for it with their careers and reputations? There's more than just an earnest search for truth going on in many scientific institutions, especially when high-stakes ideologies are involved. There's a lot more emotion attached to Darwinism than to smartphones. The philosophical baggage tied to Darwinian theory makes it a unique case, representing a more entrenched consensus than phrenology ever did.

Watch for Falling Fallacies

It's on the matter of "self-correcting science," though, where Giberson really pounds his pulpit. His critique is marred by a number of logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks we should be aware of. For instance, he commits the "bandwagon" fallacy by declaring that "virtually all evolutionary biologists ... would be mystified by the claim that evolution was dying, or even feeling poorly." Isn't that a surprise! Evolutionary biologists think evolution is doing well!

Giberson adopts the "us-versus-them" strategy in which all scientists are arrayed against the "cultural warriors" whose unscientific "blogs" (as opposed to journal papers) are where the "anti-Darwinism" critiques are waged. The "anti-Darwinists" are out to promote their own cultural biases, but "scientists," as Giberson portrays them, merely want to advance our knowledge of nature. He thus prompts his readers to discount anyone who doesn't think evolution is doing well. Readers can enjoy "respectable publications like New Scientist" but not the words of Darwin critics, whose works, by implication, are automatically disreputable.

In the old "association" gimmick, Giberson lumps all Darwin critics into a hodgepodge of figures from George Macready Price to William Dembski, from Lady Hope to Phillip Johnson. No one in that pool has any business criticizing Darwin; after all, Johnson is a lawyer, not a scientist. The lot may be "renegade individualists" but they are not on the correct side of the wall where the "scientific institutions" are (at least, the ones that matter). So on one side of the wall are the culture warriors exercising strategies for lay people; on the other side (that scientific utopia), real scientists engage in "aggressive self-examination" to be sure they "know the behavior of nature in excruciating detail," enough to build smartphones and phylogenetic trees -- a curious juxtaposition, given that smartphones are built by intelligent design.

In line with standard Darwin Defense Team tactics, Giberson never defines evolution. One doesn't hear him saying, "By evolution, I mean the common ancestry of all living things, achieved by an unguided material process." Leaving "evolution" undefined allows him to lump Darwinism with more intuitively obvious meanings like change over time, or modification of finch beaks. That way, he can group evolution with smartphones, as in "Science -- and this includes evolution...." Since everyone feels good about smartphones, those good vibes get transferred over to Darwinism. Criticize Darwinian theory and you may as well chuck your iPhone in the trash. In another tried-and-true association ploy, Giberson says, "Evolution is no more ill than heliocentricity, atomic theory or quantum mechanics is ill." How many times has this been said: "Evolution is a fact, like gravity." Feel those vibes!

Picking Up the Remains

After sifting out the fallacies, what remains? Not much. Mainly, it's just the myth of self-correction. If evolution were as unhealthy as its critics claim, Giberson basically says, scientists would have let it die long ago. Since "virtually all evolutionary biologists" consider it healthy, that must be so.

The point of our article about psychiatry, though, was that long-standing pseudosciences like psychiatry, after over a century of acceptance within the scientific community, can and ultimately do collapse, meaning they never were true sciences to begin with. It may take a little longer with Darwinian evolution, but so be it.

Giberson ends:

The historical lesson is clear, even if the anti-evolutionists can't see it: Science is open to correction. In the event that evolution does become a "theory in crisis," we will read about that in Scientific American, Nature and Science, not the blogs of the anti-Darwinian culture warriors.

This could be simplified to, "If Darwinian evolution is a theory in crisis, you will hear about it in pro-Darwinian publications." So he ends with a catch-22. The very institutions that refuse to publish criticisms of the consensus are the only ones he will accept as authoritative. No wonder he thinks evolution is in "robust health."

Our Challenge

What we wish Giberson would have done is take a good hard look at the 14 criticisms of Darwinian evolution we listed that run parallel to psychiatry's troubles. If he is "not shocked" that critical voices have emerged and are being heard in psychiatry's case, he should take note that the very same kinds of criticisms are being leveled, and have been leveled, against Darwinian evolution. He distorts our point:

The article lists many of the problems of psychiatry -- long history of failure, ignoring critics, reliance on a book, etc., etc. -- and then claims that similar maladies afflict evolution -- failing to explain the Cambrian Explosion, exalting Darwin and the Origin of Species, refusing to hear or publish scientific critiques of Darwinism, etc., etc. Psychiatry is collapsing, and evolution is just like psychiatry, so it should be collapsing also.

We did not say evolution is just like psychiatry. We said, "To the extent that these kinds of criticisms should debunk psychiatry as a science, they should also debunk Darwinism as science." We emphasized that truth is more important than popularity: "Having a degree in science, belonging to a scientific society, or getting one's ideas published in a journal are no guarantee you are 'getting the world right' when it comes to describing entities as complex as human behavior or the biosphere." Can he agree with that?

Since Giberson mentioned three of the failures of Darwinism on our list, but did not defend Darwinism against them, let's have him elaborate on one of them: the Cambrian explosion. We hope he will read Stephen Meyer's book Darwin's Doubt, due out on June 18 (pre-order here for a major discount through May 31), where the long history of this failure is described in detail, along with all the comeback arguments and attempts to solve it. If Giberson cannot truthfully say, after considering the evidence, that Darwin got the world right on that major point, maybe he should question evolution's robust health himself. A true scientist will desire to follow the evidence where it leads.

Image credit: Wikipedia.