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26.11.04

Scientific Authority

Timothy Burke has an interesting post up trying to explain why so many Americans believe in creationism. I quite agree with his point in the first half of the post: creationism versus evolution is a proxy battle for a much larger cultural and philosophical struggle. Indeed, it's an appealing place to fight that battle since the seeming uselessness of either theory in most people's everyday life makes it easier to choose one's position for strategic, rather than evidential, reasons (and don't doubt that many lay believers in evolution adopt Darwin's theory more to show their rejection of religious fundamentalism than because of a real understanding of the science).

I'm less in agreement with Burke's second point, which is that the history of quackery by scientists has damaged the public's faith in science, and therefore scientists need to get their own house in order. I agree that a lot of quackery has been produced and endorsed by scientists over the years. But I don't think the solution is to more rigorously police the public face of science, so that the public isn't exposed to theories that we're not really really sure are true. Of course scientists need to hold each other to rigorous standards of evidence, and it's good to be cautious about publicizing results, particularly if they're likely to cause alarm or become oft-repeated factoids. But I'm wary of the underlying premise that the public face of science must become more authoritative and univocal.

The best-known rebuttal in the evolutionist's arsenal -- "saying evolution is just a theory is not a criticism of it, because all science is just theories" -- goes to the heart of the matter. Creationism is appealing because it offers fixed, final answers. Science, on the other hand, is not just a competing set of factual findings. It's also an attitude of skepticism and openness to revision of even the most dearly held views. Burke's proposal would make the scientific method a special tool to be used within the scientific community, which is later discarded in order to make infallible pronouncements to the lay public. That seems to play into the epistemological assumptions of the creationists.

Indeed, the consequences would be even worse than at present if quackery were to happen to gain the stamp of approval of a Burke-ified scientific establishment. It's entirely possible for the scientific community to form a consensus that is catastrophically wrong. In a situation in which the public is exposed to the potential pluralism of science, it's possible to shift to a new theory when the quackery of the old one becomes apparent. But if the public is conditioned (even more) to treat scientific pronouncements as gospel, the impacts on public trust of saying "oops, we were wrong" are much greater. It may even create an incentive for science as a whole (rather than just individual scientists) to cling to old theories, since it has already staked its reputation on them.

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