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Self-Image as a Bulwark of Darwinian Orthodoxy


Carrying on the wonderful legacy of the noble Chuck Colson, the guys at BreakPoint -- John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas -- are some of the more insightful commentators we know on the passing scientific scene. Stonestreet has a nice one this week ("Sensationalist Science"), noting the distorting role that pride plays in research, leading to some recent embarrassments.

Last month, psychology suffered a major blow when it was reported how often studies in the field fail the test of reproducibility -- better than half the time, in fact. Stonestreet asks:

Why are so many scientists apparently exaggerating and misinterpreting their findings? [Benedict] Carey [in the New York Times] points to what the scientists themselves describe as "a hypercompetitive culture across science that favors novel, sexy results and provides little incentive for researchers to replicate the findings of others, or for journals to publish studies that fail to find a splashy result."

In other words, sensationalist science is its own undoing. But there's more to it. Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, tells the Times that many senior researchers bristle at the thought of a younger, less experienced scientist critiquing their work. "There's no doubt," he said, "that replication is important, but it's often just [seen as] an attack, a vigilante exercise."

In other words, the real flaw in a lot of research isn't technical or methodological. It's just old-fashioned human pride. And it's not restricted to psychology or the social sciences. Dr. John Ioannidis, director of Meta-Research at Stanford, hints that the peer-review climate could be even more toxic in other fields, like cell biology, economics, neuroscience, clinical medicine, and animal research, calling the reliability of science itself into question.

Stonestreet draws a couple of appropriate conclusions for BreakPoint's Christian readers and listeners, including:

[T]his should remind us that science doesn't have all the answers. In fact, the more political, ideological, or lucrative the stakes, the more likely those "splashy results" are to be fish stories. And Christians know the reason: because inside every white lab coat and bow tie is a fallible human being, just like you and me.

The only thing this leaves out is an aspect of pride, and that is: prestige. In the context of evolution, it's all-important. It's not possible to exaggerate the place of self-image as a bulwark of Darwinian orthodoxy. Experience has taught us, again and again, how often otherwise thoughtful people refuse to consider alternative understandings of life's origins because that would potentially lead them down a socially uncomfortable path.

Yes, for scientists there are real professional dangers that go with opening your mouth to say something critical of the reigning evolutionary theory. Even for the tenured scholar, and all the more so for the untenured and the graduate student, a great deal of looking over your shoulder and anticipating damnation goes with the thought of admitting that Darwinism faces serious scientific challenges, or that evidence of design in nature might conceivably be worth a look.

Some folks in other professions -- journalism, notably -- face similar pressures, potentially impacting careers in very practical ways.

For many others -- not scientists but lay people -- it's the cloud of prestige around certain ideas, not the evidence or arguments behind them, that really matters. That's why Darwin defenders so typically respond to ID not with evidence and arguments of their own but with emotional manipulation based on their listeners' self-image.

The strategy has evolved with the times. It used to be that Darwin skeptics were tarred predominantly with language suggestive of religious fundamentalism. Hence the popularity of conflating intelligent design with creationism, resulting in the fanciful chimera of "Intelligent Design Creationism." More recently the tactic has shifted somewhat, with Darwin advocates making increased use of the weaponized terms "science denial" and "science denier." Here the idea is to subtly associate skepticism with something not just embarrassing but utterly vile -- Holocaust denial.

So, yes, as John Stonestreet says, pride plays its unacknowledged but important role in science discussions. Boy, does it ever.

Image: � lolloj / Dollar Photo Club.