Saturday, May 02, 2009

How Not To Fight A "Culture War"

There has been an interesting and often heated discussion about "methodological naturalism" taking place at Uncommon Descent. After more than 350 comments, the dispute about what "methodological naturalism" was, and how long scientists have been practicing it was resolved in the way that most such discussions are resolved: with the participants agreeing to disagree.

I think it would be interesting for both sides in the debate around methodological naturalism (MN) to consider why this term has become so widely used in recent times. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the entire concept of MN only became "solidified" following Paul de Vries' coinage of the term in 1983. Also for the sake of argument, let us concede that prior to that time the use of "non-natural" assumptions was indeed legitimate for at least inspiring scientific research (as, indeed, history shows us was clearly the case). Let us then further assume that the current application of MN does indeed exclude any reference to "non-natural causes", either in the design of experimental tests of hypotheses or in their interpretation.

One might then reasonably ask, "What happened in the early 1980s that prompted such a dramatic shift in the perception of scientists, so dramatic that it led most scientists to reject what had previously been allowable: that is, the use of "non-natural" hypotheses as an inspiration for scientific research (if not necessarily also in the interpretation of the results of such research)?

I believe that if one examines what was happening the early 1980s vis-a-vis evolutionary biology, the answer to this question is obvious: the rise of "scientific creationism" (especially of the "young Earth" variety) as a political force in the U.S., culminating in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)'s decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (
482 U.S. 578
) in 1987. During the 1960s, American science was promoted very vigorously, both by the U.S. government and by scientists themselves, as a reaction to scientific advances by the Soviet Union (particularly the launching of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite). Part of this promotion involved the formulation of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) protocol and its associated textbooks (the "blue", "green", and "yellow" versions). All three versions stressed evolutionary theory as providing a foundation for the biological sciences. This was virtually the first time since 1925 (and the conviction of John T. Scopes for having violated Tennessee's Butler Act by teaching evolution in a public school classroom) that evolutionary theory had been so prominently featured in biology textbooks that were widely promoted in the American public school system.

This caused an immediate negative reaction among American evangelical Christian groups. Legislative bans on the teaching of evolution similar to the Butler Act were either reinstated or promoted in several states. At the same time, Henry Morris and other "scientific creationists" founded and promoted the "scientific creationism" movement, which sought to provide scientific evidence for their version of "young Earth creationism" (YEC). Not much actual science was done by these self-described YECs, but strenuous political efforts were undertaken to have their YEC reinterpretations of existing scientific information incorporated into public school curricula in several states (most notably Arkansas and Louisiana).

In reaction to these efforts by YECs, the scientific community partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and allied organizations to bring such efforts to the attention of the SCOTUS, with the intention of having them outlawed as violating the first amendment to the US constitution. These efforts were ultimately successful, as both laws banning evolution from public school science classes and the attempts to insert YEC in public school science classes were struck down as unconstitutional by the SCOTUS. These events, and not the subsequent rise of Intelligent Design (ID), are the context within which the adoption of MN by the scientific community in the 1980s can most effectively be viewed.

From my interactions with them, I have found that some ID supporters are very strongly in sympathy with the YECs, and view ID as a way of getting their version of YEC back in the public schools. This was clearly the case in the Dover Area school board's 2005 attempt to provide students with alternative biology textbooks incorporating ID, as shown by the sworn testimony by several of the members of that school board and other members of the board who were present at meetings at which this plan was discussed and approved.

However, in my interactions with other ID supporters (and especially the members of the Cornell IDEA Club and some commentators at Uncommon Descent), I have come to understand that a significant fraction of ID supporters do not accept that YEC is a legitimate empirical science, nor support it's incorporation in public school science curricula.

The dispute that has occurred in this thread (and similar recent disputes elsewhere) seem to me to be examples of people "fighting the last war" rather than dealing with the situation as it exists today. ID supporters who are not YECs need to understand that most evolutionary biologists lump the two together, partly because of the behavior of the Dover Area school board and similar, more local situations in which YECs have persisted in pushing their views into the public schools. At the same time, evolutionary biologists and their political supporters need to understand that there is no necessary connection between YEC and ID, nor are they united in their conviction that YEC and ID must be incorporated into the public school curriculum today.

A recognition of the political contexts within which both evolutionary biologists and Intelligent Design supporters have come to their positions, and what these contexts imply about the value of possible further actions would be valuable for both sides in this debate. I have had many ID supporters say privately to me that Dover was a disaster for ID, and especially for its quest to be accepted as a legitimate empirical science. I have also had many evolutionary biologists express to me their opinion that there is essentially no difference between YEC and ID, a viewpoint that I have learned through experience is clearly in error.

Ergo, I have concluded that the most effective way to move forward in this debate is the way I have been conducting it since the mid-1990s. That is, to invite supporters of both sides of the debate to make presentations in my evolution courses and seminars at Cornell and to conduct such debates in public forums such as this website. Ironically, I find this venue to be much more congenial to such debates than places like AtBC, in which character assassination is the order of the day, rather than the last resort of people who are either confused about their own position or uncertain about its logical force.

And so, I recommend that all participants in this debate avoid name-calling and ad hominem arguments. For each committed commentator on both sides of this issue, there are many thousands of quiet observers who are trying to come to their own conclusions about the issues being debated. While mud-slinging is fun, it's fun in the same way that smoking or drinking heavily is fun; it provides short-term personal gratification, but in the long term it undermines everything one is trying to accomplish.

I believe that clarity should be our goal, not necessarily agreement. If we come to clarity about our positions and agree to disagree, then we have accomplished a great deal more than we would have accomplished if our goal was simply to attack our opponents' characters or to question their personal motives. Going forward I will do my best to pursue this course of action, and recommend that all who genuinely wish to come to clarity on these issues and, by doing so, help the "silent watchers" of this forum to do so as well, treat each other as colleagues (in the "collegiate" sense of that word) in their pursuit of what they perceive to be the truth, rather than as enemies in a culture war.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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