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When It Comes to Science, Hank Campbell Says, "Down with Definitions!"


When we last checked in on Hank Campbell of Science 2.0 he was pursuing a strange vendetta against our colleague Wesley Smith and Discovery Institute generally, claiming that we "hate all biology," would "ban biology," think "all biology" is "a tool of Lucifer," and much more along similar lines.

Now Campbell is back with another broadside against Wesley Smith, who Campbell seems to have it in for in particular because Wesley writes a regular blog for the conservative National Review Online and Campbell is under the bizarre impression that a conservative outlook is somehow at odds with entertaining doubts about Darwinian theory. (Tell that to Buckley, Weaver, Kristol, Neuhaus, et al.)

The gist of Campell's new article is that it's a diagnostic sign that you are seeking to "undermine science" if you insist, in scientific controversies, that definitions matter. What a funny idea!

A common technique of activists and people who generally distrust science and want to undermine it is to clog up the discourse with sophistry, like "it depends on how you define X"...

Campbell's occasion for excoriating Wesley Smith on this point is a column that Wesley wrote at NRO in response to a fatuous series of posts at Real Clear Science on "Settled Science that Is 'Controversial,'" including one on the theme "Evolution Unites All of Biology."

Wesley objects to the notion that certain science-related ideas aren't "debatable," that they are simply "settled science." Instead, he reasonably argues, many such purportedly "settled" questions are philosophical or ethical issues under the guise of science:

Evolution is certainly a science issue -- depending on what is meant by the term. When it is used as alleged proof of atheism and materialism -- or disproof of transcendence -- "evolution" isn't science but belief or ideology. 

Campbell replies:

Evolution is only a science issue, Smith declares, "depending on what is meant by the term."


Now, for calibration, keep in mind works for the Discovery Institute, which exists to undermine evolution. It is no surprise he declares evolution is "only a science issue" depending on how you define it. So if you define evolution as some new world order to overthrow religion and impose an atheistic scientocracy, then evolution is not science to you. And you are also a crackpot. Smith does not know many biologists so his data pool is limited but I have never once heard a biologist define evolution as "proof of atheism and materialism" -- yet he says that is what biologists are out to do. It isn't even a straw man, he just pulls something untrue out of thin air and claims to debunk it.

But Wesley Smith's meaning is perfectly clear, and Campbell has completely misunderstood. Of course definitions matter.

Does the term "evolution" refer to changes in the dominant forms of life over the course of billions of years? That's a scientific question, the answer to which indeed seems settled. Yes, life has been "evolving," changing for those great eons, punctuated by explosions of enigmatic discontinuity, understood by advocates of intelligent design to reflect purpose and creativity.

Does it refer to common descent? Another scientific question, but one on which the evidence is more ambiguous. In the Real Clear Science post that sparked this latest round of imprecations by Hank Campbell directed at Wesley Smith, there is no definition of "evolution" given, but the unidentified writer seems to have in mind common descent since he refers to the "evolution of vitamin C synthesis in mammals" as a "particularly amazing example" of evidence that makes "evolution" a "slam dunk."

Or does "evolution" refer to the thesis that unguided Darwinian processes -- chiefly natural selection operating on random variations at the genetic level -- account for the entirety of the course that life has taken in its development?

But that is a textbook instance of philosophy operating under the guise of science. The case for "evolution" in that sense is predicated on naturalism, the presupposition that natural phenomena can only be explained in terms of other natural, material, and unintelligent phenomena -- blind churning -- to the exclusion of any possibility of a designing agent at work. That naturalism is a philosophical doctrine, not a scientific one.

Mr. Campbell seems to be a very silly man. Insisting on clear definitions is a prerequisite of clear thought, which explains why Campbell, who fails to say what he means by "evolution," makes a poor choice of a debating opponent on this issue.

Failure to make clear the meaning of your words is malpractice on the part of a writer. Persistent failure to do so, where clarity would work more to the benefit of your adversaries than to your own, raises the possibility of deliberate fraud. Granting Mr. Campbell the benefit of the doubt, I assume he is merely incompetent.

UPDATE: In a new post at NRO, Wesley Smith instructs Campbell on science and scientism, concluding:

I write these criticisms because I respect science and am concerned that writers like Campbell and Berezow undermine the sector (properly understood) by trying to redefine it into scientism, so as to harness the public’s respect for science in support their policy and ideological preferences.

Image credit: gadgetgirl/Flickr.