Steve Fuller – Science

Historian and philosopher of science Steve Fuller has long embraced his role as a public intellectual. As part of that mission, he testified in the 2005 Dover school board trials, arguing that intelligent design could legitimately claim scientific status. He has since written two books on the intelligent design controversy. Science, his latest effort, is part of The Art of Living series. It is ostensibly an exploration of what it means to “live scientifically,” but is more accurately described as an argument for the necessary connection between science and theology.

Fuller’s central argument should be no surprise to those familiar with his previous commentary on intelligent design. It is a two-pronged pragmatic argument. On the one hand, Darwinism is dispensable: most work in biology does not rely on Darwin’s theory of evolution (think molecular biology). On the other hand, religion is indispensible for scientific progress: without believing that the universe has been designed to be intelligible to humans, there is no motivation for scientists to attempt to comprehend it. However, in Science Fuller goes further than this. He also claims that a designer with intelligence resembling our own is the best explanation for the success of science.

Fuller’s main argumentative strategy is historical counterfactualism. This operates in two ways. First, he argues that if, for example, Epicurianism had historically been the dominant philosophy in Europe rather than Christianity, science could not have been as successful as it was. While many have argued for a close connection between Christianity and science in Europe’s history, it is quite another thing to argue that there is a necessary connection. One of the more interesting parts of this argument is Fuller’s endorsement of Thomas Henry Huxley’s claim that if Darwin had preceded Newton, Newton would not have had the motivation to pursue his work because he would have had no reason to think the human mind was specially equipped to understand the universe.

Jumping from historical connection to necessary connection is not an easy move to justify, nor does it seem to be a move favored by most historians. Huxley argued that scientists convinced by Darwin’s “metaphysically leveling” view of the world would need to find a new motivation for doing science; he was not saying that science was necessarily doomed. Fuller never directly confronts the problem of making this jump.  He does, however, address how his argument can be reconciled with the fact that many modern scientists are atheists. In Fuller’s view science retains its theological underpinnings in its quest for universalism. If science were truly pursued in the Darwinist spirit, Fuller argues, explanations would stop at local validity. Since Fuller’s argument rests on scientists’ motivations, this implies that scientists theorizing on a grand scale must be at least subconsciously theists.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFw8jpV56dY

Fuller discusses ID and the role of motivation in science.

The other way counterfactualism operates in Science is through Fuller’s habit of speculating about his historical subjects’ psychology. Often this is benign, as when Fuller claims that if Newton were alive today he would be disappointed that we value his work despite his theological conclusions rather than because of them. But sometimes it seems silly, as when Fuller claims that Galileo would have found the US National Academy of Sciences comparable to the Vatican.  And sometimes it verges on deceptive. Fuller claims that “while in possession of Mendel’s original papers, Darwin could not fathom why Mendel might have supposed that something as apparently mysterious as life’s generative principle could be subject to rigorous mathematical laws” (p. 49). Historians seem to agree that, although Darwin was in possession of Mendel’s papers, those papers were never cut, and thus Darwin could not have read the copy of Mendel’s work in his possession. Fuller makes it sound as if Darwin read Mendel and could not fathom his work. But what Fuller must actually be claiming here is that if Darwin had ever read Mendel then he could not have fathomed him.

Although Science is argumentative, it isn’t structured as an argument. It is structured as an exploration, and it contains many different arguments, each in some way related to the connection between theology and science. One of Fuller’s most provocative side arguments is that the intelligent design movement is part of a wider anti-establishment movement he calls “protscience.” The prefix “prot” comes from “Protestant” and indicates an analogy between protscience’s rejection of scientific authority and Protestants’ rejection of papal authority. According to Fuller, protscientists are not anti-science, but are revolting against the scientific establishment and insisting on a more personal relationship with science rather than accepting the word of scientific elites.

The three main groups identified as part of the protscience movement are AIDS activists, climate change skeptics, and intelligent design advocates. I found this grouping troubling. Steven Epstein’s story of AIDS activists refusing to accept the authority of medical researchers, successfully educating themselves, and ultimately reshaping national medical policy struck me as a heroic tale of democratizing science.1 These activists fit Fuller’s anti-establishment portrayal perfectly: they weren’t anti-science, but they didn’t trust that the established medical community was properly serving their interests. They informed themselves and were able to interact with professional scientists on an equal footing. In contrast, neither climate skeptics nor intelligent design advocates productively interact with professional scientists. Rather, they appear to fight them using any rhetorical strategy available and often don’t seem particularly well informed. I have a lot of trouble accepting Fuller’s collection of these groups under the same banner. I don’t reject it outright, but I need more convincing.

A major point of frustration when reading Science is the lack of citation. The main text contains no references; only the “Further Reading” chapter gives any information about Fuller’s sources. This might have been mandated by the series editor, but it is out of step with current common practice even for science writing aimed at a general audience. It is often difficult to figure out whether a position Fuller attributed to some historical figure reflected historical evidence, or whether Fuller was putting his own words in his subject’s voice, as in the Galileo example.

While reading Science I was trying to identify Fuller’s target audience. It clearly isn’t academics, and the text is too argumentative to be aimed at those mainly interested in the historical connection between theology and science. A plausible guess is that Fuller is aiming at those already amenable to intelligent design. While peppering the text with anti-atheist slights, Fuller is consistently flattering towards intelligent design advocates, portraying them as making an informed and principled choice of intelligent design as a way of reconciling science with their personal beliefs without resorting to naive creationism.

This led me to wonder why Fuller is pursuing this intelligent-design-boosting project at all. Most of Fuller’s career has been devoted to critiquing scientific practice through social epistemology, not to discussing theology. Fuller has traditionally been concerned with knowledge as social power, the relationship of individuals to society, and the governance of science, not with the existence of God. In this context I find Fuller’s protscience argument fascinating, not because it valorizes intelligent design advocates to the democratizing science movement, but because it valorizes the democratizing science movement to intelligent design advocates. What a coup if Fuller could recruit the intelligent design movement to his own anti-establishment project! Whether this was Fuller’s intent or not, I suspect that if Science has a lasting impact this will be it.

Overall I found Science to be a provocative, if often frustrating, tour of the relationship between theology and science. At only 146 pages, and with Fuller’s eclectic and digressive style, many of his arguments felt less than complete. I would particularly like to see more from Fuller about protscience. Finally, academic readers will have to avoid knee-jerk reactions to Fuller’s unpopular stance and loose appeals to history, and take Science as an accessible introduction to his thoughts about science and religion.

This review is forthcoming in Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science.

Spontaneous Generations

  1. Epstein, Steven. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1998.

20 Comments

  • Steve Fuller Reply

    First, thanks for the sympathetically critical review. However, I want to put a couple of points in focus.

    Yes, I believe that a large part of the legitimacy of science rests on its motivation. My reasons for this are made clear in the first chapter, namely, that science’s actual track record – in a strict balance sheet sense of costs and benefits – presents an incredibly mixed bag. Of course, we tend to concentrate on, if not exaggerate, the positive cases and excuse if not otherwise ignore or disqualify the negative cases. However, without the additional assumption that we are in a metaphysically privileged position to make sense of all of reality – which is a view that is consistently backed only by (Abrahamic) theology and its secular derivatives (e.g. Kant) – then it is far from obvious why we should be valorising a project that increasingly places us and the planet at risk. I say this as someone who is pro-science but also against double standards.

    Your remark about Darwin and Mendel simply reinforces my original point. In fact, I believe that Darwin was ill-disposed to cut the pages mainly because Mendel wrote in German and possibly because he already knew that Mendel was trying to show that heredity had a more exact mathematical structure than Darwin himself believed possible. Given Darwin’s general aversion to math, I doubt that even if he could read German properly, he would have seen Mendel’s results as relevant to more than limited aspects of agriculture. My point in all this is to dislodge any sense that Darwin and Mendel were natural intellectual bedfellows. I don’t doubt that Darwin could literally understand what Mendel was doing – I only doubt that he would see it as having the sort of relevance to his own project that today’s ‘Neo-Darwinian synthesis’ would seem to suggest.

    As for Protscience, you need to take the historical precedent more to heart. The Protestant Reformers did not ‘productively interact’ with the Catholic Church. They broke away from it, typically with the help of dissident priests and theologians. Epstein’s AIDS activism example ends up more like how the Church dealt with the mendicant orders (Dominicans/Franciscans) that arose in the 12th century in response to papal corruption – these freelance Christians were eventually assimilated into the mainstream, staffing the first universities. True Protestants have variedly significantly over the terms for any reconciliation with Rome. But most aren’t in any rush because Rome is seen as providing only one more take on the common Biblical legacy, and quite likely a fallen one. Much of the ambivalence, sometimes bordering on suspicion, that Protscientists have toward science’s normal peer review process (i.e. that it’s quite possibly rigged and prejudiced) may be analogue here.

    In any case, it’s clear that Wikipedia, complementary medicine and intelligent design are, in their own way, are in the business of creating a parallel universe of scientific authority that draws selectively on the establishment. It’s simply not correct to say, especially in the case of intelligent design, that proponents ‘don’t seem particularly well informed’. It is much more a battle over what counts as a relevant expertise than whether one is expert, especially given that the ultimate points of disagreement largely concern explanatory questions. Intelligent design actually proposes to treat organisms as (divine) artefacts. If that point is taken seriously (which is to say, literally), then engineering and information theory acquire an epistemic centrality that they do not otherwise have in Neo-Darwinian thought. (Admittedly, I find that when critics talk about ID, I am never sure whether they really mean the stuff that the main ID supporters say and talk about, or idiot versions of warmed over creationism that are trotted out even by people who should know better like Michael Ruse.)

    As for the background that the audience needs to have, it is true that the book series forbids internal textual notes. And as you seem to realize, the book is not meant as a ‘very short introduction’ to history of science, philosophy of science, or science and religion. It does presuppose that the reader has access to such things, and the concluding bibliographic essay (which is a chapter in length) gives a good sense of how I’m positioning myself intellectually. It is interesting that you write as if academics don’t have a general intellectual side, which is the market that the book series is aiming for. But you may be right. My experience has been that academics – much more than journalists and other generally educated people – are at sea when it comes to evaluating intellectual work that is not packaged in a strictly academic format. (But to be fair, I think you’ve done a pretty good job here!)

    As for how people are supposed to know whether I am putting words in other people’s mouths, well, of course I am! But this is also the conclusion I normally reach of other historians when I follow up the notes to articles published even in Isis. (It is also the source of some of the most acrimonious disputes in its pages.) Direct quotes are routinely wrenched out of context to fit the argument, in which case the question to ask is whether the argument is worth the distortion. Much more could be said about such historiographical matters but suffice it to say that if you want create a false sense of reliability, provide a direct quote. (Someday the guardians of Wikipedia’s NPOV policy will discover this.) The only real value of direct quotation is that it greatly specifies the field of contestation but it should never put anyone’s mind at ease that the truth has been nailed down.

    One epistemological remark is worth making about how seriously one should take the historical facts. If you believe, as I do, that history has a direction, which can be shaped to bring about any number of ends, then you are always in the business of balancing ‘overdetermined’ and ‘underdetermined’ features of history – that is, on the one hand, the idea that even if the facts had been somewhat different, the same general conclusion would have been reached or could have been brought about, and on the other, the idea that certain conclusions would not have been reached, had actions of a particular sort not been taken at a crucial moment. How one strikes this balance in modal judgements is, of course, controversial. But in any case, the need for facts to be as they are (or were) matters more when one is making a case for underdetermination in history. It is quite clear that professional historians of science are most comfortable staking their disagreements on what the facts say, but that effectively privileges an underdetermined view of history. It is one of the few issues on which new-style ‘constructivists’ and old-style ‘historicists’ appear to agree.

    As for my motives, yes, I am interested in enlisting ID in science democratisation but I also think that ID is intrinsically interesting, even intellectually exciting, given how it forces a fundamental rethinking of what science has been and should be about. However, I fear that ID won’t make much progress until it broadens its ideological base beyond conservative Christians (and Muslims), much as Darwinism has vis-à-vis its initial constituency of capitalists and racists. I see myself as contributing to that ideological breadth, which has been mark any successful science, but clearly it requires others as well.

    Aspects of my book are meant to appeal to a relatively untapped audience for ID amongst science fiction enthusiasts, especially ones who have dabbled in computer simulations and systems engineering with philosophical intent, often associated with Darwin-defying ‘transhumanist’ movement. (I pursue this theme in my next book, called Humanity 2.0, due out with Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.) It is no coincidence that many of the ID supporters who do not naturally identify with conservative Christianity are computer programmers and engineers: They are engaged in the sort of work that requires adopting a stance not too far from that of a creative deity interested in imparting intelligent design on some domain, be it by direct or indirect means. (I am impressed by the fact that Norbert Wiener, Herbert Simon and Ray Kurzweil are all Unitarians, just like Newton.) In any case, nothing that either an ID supporter or opponent has argued has ever convinced me that ID is an inherently politically conservative position.

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your reply. And you’re right, I am sympathetic to your overall project.

    Regarding motivation, you have highlighted a difficulty I have with your argumentation. There is an important distinction between motivation and justification. It may well be true that, if as a society we took a step back and rationally considered the costs and benefits of scientific research, we might decide that it was altogether a bad idea, or decide that there’s no justified reason to pursue science unless we posit that the universe was designed in order for us to understand it. But in order to make the motivation argument you need to show that this is a mental calculus that working scientists actually perform. You can’t just show us that Whewell did.

    On protscience, I’m not arguing about the extent to which ID proponents are similar to protestants. I’m worried about the grouping of AIDS activists with climate skeptics and the ID movement. Granted, I don’t know all that much about ID—I’m reporting a feeling of discomfort and a need for more convincing—, but there do seem to be significant differences. When I refer to the ID movement what I have in mind is the political entity spearheaded by the Discovery Institute, which really does seem to take any argument it can for getting more creation-friendly material into the classroom. It’s not really new for a political movement to latch on to some fringe scientific work to forward their political aims. This is how I see the situation with ID. The climate science skeptics are even less defensible (and it was primarily them I had in mind with the “uninformed” remark, though the whole irreducible complexity argument appears pretty bad to me as well). And this isn’t what the AIDS activists were doing. They share a common trait—going against scientific authority—but their differences seem more significant than their similarities, especially if what we’re trying to do is build a political movement we can get behind. But as I said, I’d like to see more.

    Finally, on historical facts. I feel like you’ve made my point for me here. Nobody is going to dispute that citation and quotation are rhetorical techniques. However, in your examples you were able to follow the citations of articles published in Isis! You were able to peek behind the curtains of those articles and see what the author had done. As a reader of Science I was unable to do this. (Or it would be much more labour-intensive at least.)

    I’ll leave it at that. I think your audience remarks are quite interesting.

  • Hrafn Reply

    Hi Steve.

    Yes, it’s me again. You keep on repeating the same old reality-divorced truthiness, I’ll keep turning up to rebut it. If you don’t like it, then you can always wait around for me to die, so you can write a snarky obit calling me a “cyber-fascist”.

    “The Protestant Reformers did not ‘productively interact’ with the Catholic Church. They broke away from it, typically with the help of dissident priests and theologians.”

    But oddly enough, having successfully ‘broken away’, the IDers spend a significant amount of their time whining piteously about the fact that mainstream science is not supportive, but rather unequivocally criticises the fruits of their venture in painstaking detail. This is only one of the many points where Steve’s ‘Reformation’ metaphor breaks down.

    “…it’s clear that Wikipedia, complementary medicine and intelligent design are, in their own way, are in the business of creating a parallel universe of scientific authority that draws selectively on the establishment.”

    It’s clear that Steve Fuller not only does not know how Wikipedia works, but obdurately refuses to be educated on the subject. Wikipedia is not “in the business of creating a parallel universe of scientific authority that draws selectively on the establishment.” This can be seen from guidelines and policies contained in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Fringe_theories , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Identifying_reliable_sources http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_original_research & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view (particularly the sections on Due and undue weight & Giving “equal validity”), e.g.:

    “Wikipedia summarizes significant opinions, with representation in proportion to their prominence. A Wikipedia article about a fringe theory should not make it appear more notable than it is. Claims must be based upon independent reliable sources. An idea that is not broadly supported by scholarship in its field must not be given undue weight in an article about a mainstream idea, and reliable sources must be cited that affirm the relationship of the marginal idea to the mainstream idea in a serious and substantial manner.”

    The Wikipedia that Steve describes is not the Wikipedia that is, but the Wikipedia that Steve wishes it would be.

    No Steve is it is simply PERFECTLY “correct to say, especially in the case of intelligent design, that proponents ‘don’t seem particularly well informed’.” Examples include Michael Behe’s failure to familiarise himself on the body of scientific work on the evolution of the immune system before testifying about how it was ‘irreducibly complex’ at Dover, his having to admit that a graduate student proved him wrong on claims he made about malaria, and William Dembski’s failure to ascertain how SETI researchers actually work before claiming SETI as an application of his ‘explanatory filter’. This is hardly surprising given ID proponents tendency to make claims about fields well outside their own field of expertise.

    “It is much more a battle over what counts as a relevant expertise than whether one is expert, especially given that the ultimate points of disagreement largely concern explanatory questions.”

    This is one of your most dishonest sentences to date Steve. ALL SCIENCE “largely concern[s] explanatory questions.”So there is no reason to treat evolution/ID differently from any other scientific issue, where “relevant expertise” in science is obtained by graduate study, research and engaging your peers through submitting papers for peer review. This is how scientists learn the data that science is expected to explain, and the best explanations available to date for this data. This knowledge is not obtained by simply writing superficial books aimed at the non-scientific public and going on a tour of churches to promote them. If you wish to expound an alternative method whereby people can obtain genuine “relevant expertise” outside the scientific establishment, then you are welcome to do so. But ‘protscientists’ to date, from Granville Penn & George Bugg in the early 19th century, through George McCready Price & Harry Rimmer in the early 20th, Henry M. Morris in the late 20th, to the likes of Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Michael Behe & Robert Sungenis today, have demonstrated themselves to be woefully lacking in this department.

    “If that point is taken seriously (which is to say, literally), then … information theory” would have to overcome the fact that William Dembski’s claims about it are so woefully informal that they were described by a prominent mathematician as “written in jello”. (“There simply is not enough that is firm in his text, not sufficient precision of formulation, to allow one to declare unambiguously ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when reading through the argument. All one can do is squint, furrow one’s brows, and then shrug.”)

    No Steve, when we “talk about ID” we mean the “idiot versions” of “main ID supporters”, such as Stephen ‘Hopeless Monster’ Meyer, William ‘Written in Jello’ Dembski, Michael ‘Of cilia and silliness’ Behe, & Phillip ‘The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth?’ Johnson. (The bynames I have included are not ad hominems, but rather the titles of pieces directly addressing, and rebutting, these “main ID supports” work. Feel free to Google them.)

    For myself, I would take your “putting words in other people’s mouths” more seriously if (i) your sole defence wasn’t a mere ‘tu quoque’, (ii) if you weren’t building your edifice on such a narrow foundation, (iii) didn’t have a rather large axe to grind & (iv) didn’t have a record of maligning the dead in furtherance of your cause. This makes your interpretation of Darwin’s inaction little more than (still more) wishful thinking.

    “Much more could be said about such historiographical matters but suffice it to say that if you want create a false sense of reliability, provide a direct quote. (Someday the guardians of Wikipedia’s NPOV policy will discover this.)” Actually, they’ve already discovered this, and have an article on ‘Quote Mining’. By a surprising chance it cites a movie you appeared in as an example (Ben Stein’s execrable ‘Expelled’).

    The only ‘force’ that ID is applying to science is one of repulsion and thus self-ghettoisation into irrelevancy.

    The reason it has not (and most probably will not) “broaden[ed] its ideological base beyond conservative Christians (and Muslims)” is that it has done nothing (and attempted little) to demonstrate any utility (either practical or to further scientific research) except as a Christian (or occasionally Muslim or Judaic) apologetic.

    “…much as Darwinism has vis-à-vis its initial constituency of capitalists and racists.” This claim appears to be more than a little tendentious. The views that these “capitalists and racists” were promoting pre-existed Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, they were hardly his sole (or even his main) “initial constituency” and Darwin himself explicitly cautioned against such interpretations of his work.

    “It is no coincidence that many of the ID supporters who do not naturally identify with conservative Christianity are computer programmers and engineers…”

    …because if your only tool is a hammer, then everything starts to resemble a nail. I would also point out that most of the “computer programmers and engineers” that support ID are themselves conservative Christians. Even the Discovery Institute’s own token agnostic, David Berlinski, only goes as far as supporting ID’s anti-evolution arguments, but does not avow the existence of Intelligent Design or its Designer.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      I’m somewhat dismayed by the tone of this comment. Fuller has staked out a very unpopular position and (along with everyone else) deserves to be treated with respect. Science, and scholarship in general, thrive on disagreement. If nothing else, Steve forces us to examine our own beliefs on ID much more closely. I also don’t think it’s fair to label him as dishonest without much stronger evidence than you supplied.

      Regarding Wikipedia, I think you have made some errors. First, you are confusing Wikipedia’s rules with Wikipedia’s actual operation. The numerous edit wars, dispute banners, and controversies on Wikipedia support the assertion that there is no way to straighforwardly achieve the neutrality that Wikipedia claims to uphold. I don’t see how you can cite Wikipedia’s rules to disprove Steve’s claim that Wikipedia’s rules don’t work. Second, you appear to have misread Steve’s claim, as he clearly wishes that Wikipedia would drop its claim of neutrality, so Wikipedia cannot be operating as he wishes.

  • Hrafn Reply

    “Fuller has staked out a very unpopular position and (along with everyone else) deserves to be treated with respect.”

    ‘Staking out a very unpopular position” is insufficient to merit respect. The internet is chock full of half-baked disregarded positions. To deserve respect you have to be able to mount a robust defence of the position. I don’t think that Fuller has mounted such a defence (and would suspect from your review that you are yourself at best equivocal on the question of whether he has). Yes they ‘laughed’ at Alfred Wegener (metaphorically speaking), but they also laughed at Bozo the clown.

    Further, Fuller well known for showing little respect to his opponents (witness his cheap crack at the expense of ID opponents in general, and Michael Ruse in particular above), so can hardly expect to be treated with kid gloves.

    “Science, and scholarship in general, thrive on disagreement.”

    No, there you are completely wrong. Science thrives on INFORMED disagreement. Ill-informed disagreement adds nothing to its development (and obdurately repeated ill-informed disagreement simply wastes time by requiring repeated correction).

    “If nothing else, Steve forces us to examine our own beliefs on ID much more closely.”

    Given that Fuller has neither added to, nor cast doubt upon, what I already know about ID (which is hardly surprising given that he appears largely disinterested in the scientific issues involved), he does not force me to do anything of the sort.

    “I also don’t think it’s fair to label him as dishonest without much stronger evidence than you supplied.”

    Do you really think his claims about Darwin and Mendel are an honest attempt to assess the degree to which Darwin was aware of the work of a then little-known and largely-disregarded researcher, as opposed to an attempt to create a fanciful and unflattering caricature by recklessly extrapolating from the slimmest of foundations?

    “Regarding Wikipedia, I think you have made some errors. First, you are confusing Wikipedia’s rules with Wikipedia’s actual operation.”

    No I am not. I am all to aware that Wikipedia all too frequently disobeys its own rules. There is probably not a single rule that I haven’t seen disobeyed (often obdurately). Wikipedia’s shear size, and the manner of its creation make this inevitable. I would further postulate that it would most likely (somehow, somewhere) violate ANY conceivable set of rules for the collective creation of an encyclopaedia.

    However, its rules are its consensus stated purpose and means of operation. They are the rules that editors must (by consensus) at least pay lip service to, even when they are seeking to undermine them. It is also difficult to see the consistency between lauding the consensus-agreed content of an encyclopaedia while dismissing as irrelevant the consensus-agreed rules for reaching consensus on the content.

    Does Wikipedia (as a generalised consensus) seek to “summarizes significant opinions, with representation in proportion to their prominence” rather than “the business of creating a parallel universe of scientific authority that draws selectively on the establishment”. Yes it does. Are there people within Wikipedia who dislike the former, and would prefer something closer to the latter (and even attempt to do the latter when nobody’s looking), of course there are. But the fact that the consensus rules state the former, rather than the latter, would appear to indicate that this tendency is not representative.

    “The numerous edit wars, dispute banners, and controversies on Wikipedia support the assertion that there is no way to straighforwardly achieve the neutrality that Wikipedia claims to uphold.”

    Nobody who has any substantive experience with Wikipedia (a criteria that, as far as I know, Fuller does not come even close to meeting) would claim its rules to be ‘straightforward’. But then the same claim could be made about any set of rules that attempt to mediate the interests of a large number and wide range of diverse, and often passionate, individuals.

    “I don’t see how you can cite Wikipedia’s rules to disprove Steve’s claim that Wikipedia’s rules don’t work.”

    Where does he make this claim? My interpretation is that he says that it works, but in an entirely different way.

    “Second, you appear to have misread Steve’s claim, as he clearly wishes that Wikipedia would drop its claim of neutrality, so Wikipedia cannot be operating as he wishes.”

    The fact that he has had one disagreeable aspect of Wikipedia’s working brought to his attention sufficiently thoroughly that he can’t ignore it, whilst remaining rose-tinted on it in generality, does not undercut my argument. In any case, (i) Wikipedia does not aspire to any higher conception of neutrality (let alone “claim” it), but rather has far more concrete and pragmatic aims in its NPOV policy (“representing fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources.”) (ii) Fuller’s desire to ‘put words in others mouth’ does not directly violate the NPOV policy, but rather the ‘Verifiability’ and ‘No Original Research’ policies. Allowing such actions would most probably turn Wikipedia into an orders-of-magnitude-greater food-fight than it already is (quite apart from the likely detriment to accuracy of allowing anonymous, often partisan, editors to put words into others’ mouths).

    In fact, speaking from a direct experience that Fuller lacks, the reason that direct quotes are often preferred is that, where a passage is under dispute, it is generally easier to get a consensus around a quote rather than a paraphrase (as the former is less elastic than the latter). Of course an experienced editor will attempt to check the original context of a quote, particularly one that seems in any odd, before committing to such a consensus.

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      I’m not even sure what your beef with Steve’s position is at this point, Hrafn. I ask, at the very least, that you resist your impulse to react vitriolically on this blog, which we hope will be a more cordial and constructive place than most of cyberspace is.

      I take it your major objection to Steve to be his suggestion that ID is, in some way, a legitimate endeavour. Is that right? You seem to think that Steve’s position on this matter is absurd. I am a bit more receptive of his point here, though, so let me say that I know a few IDers (e.g. Denis Lamoureux) who are very well informed and eminently reasonable people, capable of discerning when evolutionary thinking will be most fruitful for biological research, and when intelligent design could be a viable alternative approach. I also know some anti-IDers (e.g. Michael Ruse) who make very poor arguments against the “scientific status” of ID based on a outmoded and untenable understanding of the nature of science. Lots of people make very bad arguments, but I don’t think you’ve demonstrated that Steve’s argument about the legitimacy of ID is one of them. If your beef with ID is that it’s not good science, I think it’s worth noting that the fact that Meyer, Dembski, and Behe have recanted some of their claims about irreducible complexity counts more in their favour as credible scientists than counts against them; they have demonstrated that they aren’t intransigent dogmatists. They are simply people approaching biology from an explicitly theistic perspective, in a way that is (we can now see) actually responsive to criticism.

      But even if they were more dogmatic, what’s the worry here? Can’t we just let one thousand flowers bloom in science and in society? Do we have to smash all the sprouting Intelligent Designers under our boot heels? If so, why? Evolution has been made consonant with the Christian faith many times over, and in many different ways that actually do justice to the fossil and biological record (e.g. Lamarck, Asa Gray, etc.) – what makes the current ID version so illegitimate? It appears you have a history of arguing with Steve on this point in cyberspace, but you haven’t made clear here, on The Bubble Chamber what exactly is so objectionable about ID. Is it a problem for science, for society, or both? Why?

      From the perspective of scientific research, evolutionary biology departments will continue to exist, thrive, and draw on Darwinian principles no matter what IDers do. On the other hand, in anatomy, physiology, and medicine departments, ID-based research may actually lead to some advancement – rather than obsessively hypothesizing about the evolutionary origins of certain bodily systems, ID-based empirical study of bodily systems may immediately yield improved medical treatments, for example, despite not occurring within a Darwinian framework. Claiming that such productive work could never come from ID won’t prove that it can’t happen – only by letting the IDers try to contribute could any supposed ineffectiveness of their program be demonstrated. You say ID is little more than a Christian apologetic, but ID has always been seen this way by the scientific establishment. No one has really given IDers a chance to stop defending their position and get down to making some real contributions (i.e. becoming more than a Christian apologetic), which I think it’s time for.

      I also don’t think Steve ever claimed that Wikipedia explicitly aims to set up an alternative system of epistemic authority – rather, he’s just saying that’s effectively what they’ve done. And I think that’s on the money – Wikipedia is the new “expert” for most people, who 10 years ago might have gone to a researcher or a library firmly “within” the scientific establishment when they needed an epistemic authority. That may not ever have been an explicit aim of anyone directing Wikipedia, but it’s what happened – people can now get “relevant expertise” from outside the scientific establishment, i.e. from Wikipedia. The fact that Wikipedia has a set of rules does not make those rules Wikipedia’s “consensus stated purpose,” any more than Canada’s tax laws make it the “consensus stated purpose” of Canadians to pay taxes. In fact, I doubt Wikipedia has any such “consensus” purpose at all; people who follow rules are generally multiply motivated, and the effect of their rule-following is often quite different than the initial justification for these rules. Wikipedia is a great example of that, where a “parallel universe for scientific authority” has unwittingly been created by a bunch of people who are, more or less, just following some rules for contributing to encyclopedic entries. Another example might be ID, where another “parallel universe” has been created out of the efforts of several people trying to make the Christian worldview compatible with modern anthropological, biological, and molecular knowledge.

      I would also take issue with your claim that, contra Steve, “all science” concerns explanatory issues. For the most part, scientific theorizing is about constructing models. Sometimes these models are explanatory, and sometimes they are not. The explanatory activity is, on many eminently plausible accounts of the nature of science, not the essential part of science. That’s why, I would argue, IDers are, in many many areas of biology, just as capable of constructing useful and informative models as their Darwinist counterparts are.

  • Hrafn Reply

    Following up on the ‘put words in others mouth’ as ‘orders-of-magnitude-greater food-fight’ point. Let’s make a quick thought experiment. Imagine that Wikipedia editors were granted the same latitude that Fuller grants himself. Imagine what words opponents of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin might like to put into their mouths. Imagine what their respective supporters might think of the idea. Multiply each side by many thousand. Now imagine the edit-war that would ensue. Not only would this render articles highly unstable and often wildly inaccurate, but there’s a very good chance that all this editing (often by editors with more partisan passion than experience with Wikipedia markup) would accidentally render most of the article unreadable (often a single missing or misplaced closing parenthesis in markup will render all content after that point invisible). I find it hard to imagine this sort of problem being soluble, short of heavy-handed viewpoint discrimination (Conservapedia allows this sort of thing, is notoriously heavy-handed in restricting contrary views, and tends to be a running joke on the internet).

    I’m not stating that Wikipedia’s rules (as stated, let alone as applied) are perfect. I am however stating that anybody suggesting the wholesale elimination of one of these core rules (and Fuller’s suggestion would render two of them inoperative) hasn’t thought through the consequences. If Fuller thinks he can do better he is welcome to try, either by (i) lobbying Wikipedia to change its policy or (ii) starting his own, competing collectively-written online encyclopaedia (what a sociological and epistemological experiment that would be!). Lacking such empirical results, or any indication that Fuller understands the practical consequences of his suggestion, I don’t see any reason to give his views on the subject any substantive weight.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Well there is an alternative to Wikipedia, Conservapedia. I’m certainly not endorsing Conservapedia, but I don’t think their claim of Wikipedia’s “liberal bias” is completely without merit.

      I do have some difficulties with Fuller’s use of history. I think citation and proper quotation is very important, for example. It is a major strength of Wikipedia. But he’s a long, long way from any sort of academic dishonesty or misconduct, and his positions deserve to be engaged in a constructive—not attacking—manner.

      • Hrafn Reply

        “Well there is an alternative to Wikipedia, Conservapedia.”

        Yes, and I cited it above. It is by no means the only alternative to Wikipedia but is, I think, the one that best illustrates the downside of Fuller’s suggestion.

        “I’m certainly not endorsing Conservapedia, but I don’t think their claim of Wikipedia’s “liberal bias” is completely without merit.”

        I cannot claim that the averaged political bias of Wikipedia’s editors will not have some impact on neutrality. I would however suggest that a larger impact is attributable to Wikipedia’s (attempted) reliance upon the verifiable statements of credible experts, rather than ‘groupthinked’ truthiness and tradition of a narrow constituency, that seems to be the basis of much of Conservapedia.

        “But he’s a long, long way from any sort of academic dishonesty or misconduct, and his positions deserve to be engaged in a constructive—not attacking—manner.”

        Given that Fuller’s MO appears to be to lecture the scientific community in an ‘unconstructive’ manner (being both adversarial and unrealistic), with a manner that is all too frequently “attacking” (being liberally laced with gratuitous ad hominem attacks and cheap shots), and having a basis in an all-too-often loose interpretation of the facts, it is hardly surprising that he receives a chilly and adversarial welcome. This is quite apart from his long-standing association with a bunch (the ID proponents) whose reputation among the scientific community for crass partisanship and lack of integrity I cannot find a sufficiently severe metaphor for — which does not exactly raise his reputation in that community.

  • Hrafn Reply

    Oh, and the reason why historians are allowed to get away with a degree of ‘putting words into others’ mouths’ is, I suspect, that their words are scrutinised by numerous other historians (via peer review, book reviews, etc), many of whom are familiar with the words the ‘victim’ actually wrote. If the ‘put words’ are too frequently and/or too egregiously inconsistent with the ‘written words’ then there is a reasonable risk that the criticism will build up, and the historian in question will find it increasingly difficult to get their words published in academic circles. That is my hypothesis at least — though I’m sure it breaks down in some cases.

    There does not however appear to be such a strong case that Fuller’s extrapolation would be subject to a similar corrective feedback loop. Do sociologists care what historians write about them?

  • Hrafn Reply

    Mike:

    How would you address a hypothesis that stated that “climate change skeptics, and intelligent design advocates” are more closely analogous to AIDS denialists (who deny that HIV causes AIDS) than to AIDS activists? There would appear to be greater commonality, both in terms of tactics and advocates, between them and the former, than with the latter.

    AIDS activists were seeking practical improvements to their quality of life and life expectancy, not an answer to “explanatory questions” that fitted their preconceived worldviews. How do such concerns align with climate change skepticism or ID?

    • Hrafn Reply

      I would further like to suggest the hypothesis that “climate change skeptics, and intelligent design advocates” are more closely analogous to Conservapedia than to Wikipedia. The former shares with CCS/ID an often adversarial relationship to mainstream science, whereas Wikipedia’s relationship to mainstream science is largely supportive.

      Neither Wikipedia nor AIDS activists ‘broke away’ from (in terms of outright and/or obdurate rejection) mainstream science, in Steve’s Reformation metaphor (it was Conservapedia and AIDS Denialists that did so). How then are they ‘protscience’?

  • Steve Fuller Reply

    People can make what they wish of Hrafn’s comments. It’s too bad that someone who spends so much time attacking me in cyberspace doesn’t seem willing to take credit for his work by revealing his/her identity. In any case, anyone interested in my views on Wikipedia, which are largely positive (Hrafn’s existence notwithstanding), may have a look here: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/fuller5/English

    • Hrafn Reply

      Given that I’ve been pervasively ‘Hrafn’ on the internet for fifteen years now, and the fact that Steve wouldn’t recognise my ‘real name’ if I used it, I don’t see how my failure to ‘reveal’ it is relevant to the conversation.

      The question was not whether Steve’s views of Wikipedia were “largely positive”, but rather whether (i) they are consistent with observable reality & (ii) this observable reality supports (a) lumping together Wikipedia along with Steve’s other candidates for ‘protsciencehood’ & (b) applying Steve’s ‘Reformation’ metaphor to Wikipedia.

  • Steve Fuller Reply

    I suppose, Hrafn, the reason to know your identity would be to contextualise your remarks. After all, you appear to be fighting a war of one against one. I may not be alone in thinking that you don’t quite get what you reference, how academic knowledge works or, for that matter, what I’m on about. However, knowing your identity might explain this dissonance, proivding greater receptiveness to your point of view. Of course, you’re a Wiki-master but if Wikipedia is meant to support scientific expertise, it’s got a funny way of conducting business.

  • Hrafn Reply

    I would further point out that a better metaphor for Wikipedia would be Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press. They have the commonalities of making knowledge more easily available, and a lack of any other overarching ideological agenda. A stronger case could be made for calling Wikipedia, and the open source movement generally, ‘Gutenauthorship’.

  • Hrafn Reply

    I made a lengthy rebuttal of Steve Fuller’s last post, but it has been deleted, along with an email calling my posts “unconstructive and hostile”.

    I would point out that Fuller’s unsubstantiated fantasy about Darwin’s thoughts about Mendel (above) is “unconstructive and hostile”.

    I would further point out that his ‘obituary’ to Levitt (cited in my deleted post) was “unconstructive and hostile”.

    I would still further point out that his calling me “Wiki-master” (above) is “unconstructive and hostile” (as is the entire containing post, which is merely a series of baseless ad hominem attacks — but somehow avoided deletion).

    I would suggest that Fuller is pervasively “unconstructive and hostile” in his engagement of opponents, and that this engagement pervasively lacks the “respect” that Mike demands be shown for him.

    I will admit to ‘hostility’ towards Fuller — his obnoxious abrasiveness and egotism makes this hard to avoid. I have however made numerous ‘constructive’ points about flaws in the descriptive utility of his ‘protscience’ category, and the factual basis for his claims.

    Given that Fuller is himself wholly unwilling to address these ‘constructive’ points, and I am unwilling to pretend an unearned “respect” for somebody I hold in well-earned contempt, it is probably best if I leave now.

  • Steve Fuller Reply

    Again, Hrafn, I agree with you about the Gutenberg point, but it applies to the internet more generally as a source of alternative knowledge – not just to Wikipedia. In fact, this is what Protscience is all about. I’m sorry you can’t see this common ground. But in this regard, it’s interesting to note that when I made the point about the ‘internet as 21st century printing press’ with regard to revolutionising knowledge in Richard Dawkins’ ‘Enemies of Reason’ TV series, Dawkins intoned (in a voiceover, not at the time he interviewed me) that internet-based epistemic authority was a threat to rationality/civilisation/etc. Given many Wikipedia enthusiasts appear to be in awe of Dawkins, I’m surprised they’ve given him a free pass on this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *