Sunday, June 26, 2005

Scientism and Peer Review

Sometimes, scientists who declare a taboo will insist that only they are qualified to discuss and reach conclusions on the matters that they have made their own property; that only they are privy to the immense body of knowledge and subtlety of argument necessary fully to understand the complexities of the subject and to reach the ‘right’ conclusion. Outsiders, on the other hand, (especially non-scientists) are ill-informed, unable to think rationally or analytically, prone to mystical or crank ideas and are not privy to subtleties of analysis and inflections of argument that insiders have devoted long painful years to acquiring.
Yet the history of science abounds with examples that contradict this kind of elitist thinking: amateurs or non-scientists like the Wrights, Edison and even Charles Darwin; and outsiders like John Dalton (the self-taught meteorologist who revolutionised chemistry) and Fleischmann and Pons, the chemists who ‘rescued’ fusion physics.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the taboo reaction is that it tends to have a cumulative and permanent discriminatory effect: any idea that is ideologically suspect or counter to the current paradigm is permanently dismissed, and the very fact of its rejection forms the basis of its rejection on all future occasions. It is a little like the court of appeal rejecting the convicted man’s plea of innocence on the grounds that he must be guilty, or why else is he in jail? And why else did the police arrest him in the first place? This ‘erring on the side of caution’ means that in the long term the intellectual Devil’s Island where convicted concepts are sent becomes more and more crowded with taboo ideas, all denied to us, and with no possibility of reprieve.
How exactly do the guardians of the temple of knowledge impose their taboo? On the face of it, even the suggestion is implausible. Surely scientists, however prejudiced some individuals may happen to be, lack a mechanism to impose their world view on others in any systematic way? In practice, it is the easiest thing iii the world for those who manage the profession of science to declare a subject taboo. For any young scientist to progress in the profession, or even to be employed in science at all, he or she has to conduct research (or to teach what has already been learned from research to students). But to conduct research, the scientist must receive funds from some institu tion or organisation and getting such funds means placing proposals before a number of scientific colleagues who will evaluate them and decide whether or not to recommend that the financial and other necessary resources should be used in this way.
At this stage, the research scientist may be persuasive enough to secure funding or the institution enlightened enough to grant the resources, even for research which apparently flies in the face of orthodox scientific belief (although this happens less and less often today). But the researcher will then encounter the next obstacle which is usually insuperable. To continue to receive funds, he or she must publish their initial findings. A paper has to be submitted to one of a few professional journals where it will be reviewed by distinguished senior scientists from the field. Nominally, these reviewers are the researcher’s scientific peers. In reality they are likely to be academically superior. Even if not senior in rank they are superior in at least one important respect: they decide who gets published and who doesn’t. If they believe the research to be without merit (regardless of the results obtained) they will block its publication. And unless the researcher can get some findings published, he or she will find it impossible to get the grant renewed. Unless there are very unusual extenuating circumstances, non-publication is taken in science to mean experimental failure.
The net effect of this peer review system is that, at any given time, almost the entire research effort of the country is directed into subjects that are tacitly approved by those who comprise editorial review committees of the scientific press. Those review committees are, in turn, frequently drawn from among the more conservative scientists in the community and the system is self-perpetuating from supervisor to postgraduate to undergraduate. For this reason, virtually the only scientific research being conducted anywhere in Britain into taboo subjects is privately funded and is usually carried on in ‘skunk works’ — private laboratories with little or no resources — and its results are privately published usually in short-run paperback or photocopied editions that do not receive general circulation, or reach major libraries.

(Alternative Science: Challenging the
Myths of the Scientific Establishment
by Richard Milton :85-87)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


[I]mperfections are the primary proofs that evolution has occurred (Gould, 1987a, p 14)

The argument from imperfection was developed by Darwin as a response to Paley’s argument from design. Darwin showed that nature contains many examples of odd, non-optimal, imperfect design, and he argued that a capable designer would not use these bad designs. His favorite examples were the odd reproductive organs of orchids. He said such imperfect designs are unexpected from a capable designer, but are the expected result of evolution which modifies available structures for an immediate use in nature.

That argument is a favorite of evolutionists. Some of them, most notably Gould and Ghiselin, built it into an argument of considerable force.

[I]deal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution — paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce. (Gould, 1980, p 20-21)

[Darwin began] inquiring just what sort of empirical consequences one would expect if God had structured each organic being according to the same kinds of standards that an engineer or craftsman might demand. The facts do not bear out the predictions, and insofar as it has a scientific basis, the argument from design is refuted. (Ghiselin, 1969, p 157-158)

If there were no imperfections, there would be no evidence of history, and therefore nothing to favour evolution by natural selection over creation. (Cherfas, 1984, p 29)

The argument from imperfection is Gould’s preferred class of evolutionary evidence. He has devoted many articles and books to promoting it, particularly The Panda’s Thumb. He argues that odd and funny solutions (such as the panda’s awkward thumb) are the major evidence of evolution. He calls this line of reasoning the panda principle.

Yet the argument from imperfection is not evidence for evolution either perfection nor imperfection is evidence for evolution, since evolu is so vacuous it could accommodate both situations. Perfection is not immune from the facile just-so stories of natural selection, even Gould admits this.

But perfection could be imposed by a wise creator or evolved by natural selection. (Gould, 1984a, p 122, my italics)

The argument from imperfection never was evidence for evolution, instead it was used as evidence against a designer.

Creationists traditionally responded to the argument by showing that the alleged “imperfect” designs are, in fact, sophisticated engineering feats that serve a useful, even optimal, purpose. They had notable success in this effort.
Additionally, creationists might argue in the following way. The problem does not begin and end with a single structure, such as the panda’s thumb. If the panda had been designed with a perfect hand then we might wonder why the panda had not been given the motor capability necessary to fully mobilize it. If the motor capability was provided, then we might ask why the panda had not been given the creative intellect to fully apply it. Such a regress continues with this and other structures, and perhaps we would soon be suggesting that pandas should not have been made at all.

A system of life has many requirements. Not every organism needs the most perfect vision, wings, or hands. Not every organism can be at the top of the food chain. A system of life requires organisms with different capabilities and differ ent positions in the overall scheme of things. Perhaps a system of life requires, for its survival, some organisms that are “imperfect”?

One could continue with this line of reasoning, with some success. It could help focus the debate, but it is implausible as a principal solution. It is difficult to argue that pandas, complete with their unusual thumbs, are needed for the system of life to survive.

No, the evolutionists have correctly identified a problem. There are just too many designs that are functional, maybe even highly so, but which are odd nonetheless. The problem of imperfection is real, and to solve it we must approach it directly.
Evolutionists have seen “odd arrangements and funny solutions” in nature and they insist these are paths a sensible designer would never tread. They are mistaken. Not only is it sensible, but message theory absolutely requires it, though at first it will seem paradoxical.

We expect a designer of life to create perfect designs. Yet this expectation itself constrains a biomessage sender to do the unexpected. A world full of perfect optimal designs would form an ambiguous message. In fact, it would not look like a message at all. It would provide no clues of an intentional message. It would look precisely as expected from a designer having no such intentions. Life’s designer created life to look like a message, and therefore had to accept an astonishing design constraint: life must incorporate odd designs.

How can I be so utterly sure on this point? Because evolutionists have (unknowingly) said so. In fact, they insist on it. Every one of them — from Darwin, to Ghiselin, to Could — has emphasized how unreasonable it is for a designer to have created such non-optimal, odd structures. We can rightfully conclude that if evolutionists had the wherewithal to create life, then they would independently go forth and create optimal perfect designs. We can conclude that a world of perfect designs would look precisely like the work of multiple designers acting independently. The biomessage sender created life to look unlike the product of multiple designers, and therefore had to use odd designs.

It is not enough for a biomessage sender to merely include odd designs. All the designs together must form a pattern attributable only to a single designer. Life on earth has such a pattern.

Suppose we examined many separate handwritten documents. How would we recognize they all had the same author? Answer: By the overall pattern, especially the funny quirks and odd imperfections. It is the same with living organisms.

The quirks and imperfections play a key role in the pattern. They unite all organisms into a unified whole, while looking unlike the product of multiple designers. They give life the distinctive look of a single designer. They also make the pattern look like an intentional message, rather than an ordinary design effort.

The concept of “perfection” is loaded with different meanings. Anti-creationists thought of it solely as engineering elegance. Yet message theory indicates a slightly different standard is needed. Biological designs serve a dual role: (1) as instruments of survival; and (2) as conveyors of a message. There is some range between ‘elegant engineering designs’ and ‘designs sufficient for survival.’ Life’s designer used this range to incorporate a message. In this sense, life’s designs are neither imperfect nor non-optimal. They are more aptly described as odd and curious. The argument from imperfection falls down because it used the wrong concept of perfection.

This case illustrates several themes of this book.

• Evolutionary theory never did make a clear prediction on the matter, it just accommodated the data. It can adapt to both imperfection and perfection, since both explanations are available within the evolution ary smorgasbord. Imperfection never was evidence for evolution.

• Imperfection was erroneously used as evidence against a designer.

• The concept that life is a message resolves problems that seemed insoluble in the 1800s. Life was designed as a biotic message, it was designed to resist all other interpretations.

(The Biotic Message: Evolution
Versus Message Theory
by Walter ReMine :26-28)