Tuesday, October 25, 2005

How's the inventory in the (scientific) marketplace of ideas?

Scientists, as much as any other people of reason, have an interest in creating a bustling marketplace of ideas. So, you might suppose that their attitude toward scientific theories, and even toward the wild ideas that aren't yet theories but suggest new directions, would be the more the better. And, you might be especially puzzled by the reluctance of scientists to support the "teach the controversy" position on the continuing Intelligent Design versus evolutionary biology contretemps.

Certainly, this is a view you might come to from the testimony of sociologist Steve Fuller in the Dover case. Here's how it was reported in the York Daily Record:
Fuller said intelligent design is a scientific theory that should be taught in school.

But during cross-examination, he said intelligent design — the idea that the complexity of life requires a designer — is "too young" to have developed rigorous testable formulas and sits on the fringe of science.

He suggested that perhaps scientists should have an "affirmative action" plan to help emerging ideas compete against the "dominant paradigms" of mainstream science.

The pool of peer reviewers is smaller than it has been because, as scientific research gets more and more specialized, there are fewer people in that specialty and even fewer of them are willing to peer review pieces, Fuller said. Consequently, grant money also goes to fewer researchers, he said.

"People don't want to judge the validity of a scientific theory based on who is talking about it and promoting it." ...

Fuller told the court that one of the problems of science is with the very definition of "scientific theory," which is the idea of well substantiated explanations that unify a broad range of observations. He said by requiring a theory to be "well substantiated," it makes it almost impossible for an idea to be accepted scientifically.

Let us grant that scientists can be creatures of habit, and that they can be suspicious of new ideas, just like anyone else. Let us also grant that there are ways in which actually-executed peer review departs from the ideal. And, let us grant that new ideas (especially the wacky-looking ones) may require some time before the scientific community can get a good read on whether they will amount to anything.

Does all this mean that there ought to be affirmative action in the Halls of Science for "emerging" and/or seemingly crackpot ideas?

First off, even if the answer to this question is "yes", it's not at all clear that a high school science classroom (most of whose denizens will not grow up to be scientists) would be the best place for this. The point of science pedagogy at this level is to convey something about our current understanding of various facets of the physical and natural world and, more importantly, about the methodology used to come to this understanding. Alternative paradigms probably pack more punch in later science classes (I'd say past the introductory level of college instruction or, even better, in one's first foray into research as an undergraduate). You need to really understand the dominant paradigm to be able to appreciate alternative to it. And, at least when I was a student, undergraduates and graduate students had enough of a taste for iconoclasm that they could be counted on to give most of the alternative paradigms on offer a good looking over. They might do this while the boss's eyes were averted — but this just reinforces my sense that the newish scientists are much less in the thrall of authority or tradition than Fuller seems to be suggesting.

Indeed, given the lore within different scientific disciplines about scientists who made great discoveries (and won prizes and stuff for doing so) by questioning the conventional wisdom of their field, you better believe there is a cachet associated with doing research at the paradigm's edge. It may not be the project you're working on that is the easiest to fund. It may not be a line of research that colleagues in your department think the most of (since they're busy doing research on other edges of the paradigm). But you bloody well keep looking to see if there's anything to it, because you would hate for some other young pup to be the one to convince the community of science that this alternative paradigm is the real deal.

And, while there may be instances where a more serious look at an alternative paradigm is called for, scientists will require at minimum that the alternative paradigm points the way to actual research that could be done to test it or solve live scientific problems with it. The requirement is not, despite what Fuller seems to suggest, that the new paradigm have all the answers. But, it has to fit with enough of the evidence and show real promise of solving outstanding problems that there's a sensible way to use it to guide scientific research. An idea that can't do that isn't ready for this particular marketplace of ideas.

Ed Brayton, also responding to Fuller's testimony, puts it rather well:
Fuller is of course correct to point out that there have been scientific revolutions in the past that have overturned much of what we thought we knew about the world. But those revolutions were the result of scientists actually doing science - building theories and models, testing them against the data, publishing the results for their peers to see and arguing over the results to reach a consensus - not by hiring PR firms and lobbying legislatures and school boards.

Finally, as for ID:

  • Not a new idea

  • Not especially helpful in guiding experimental research (else where are all the experimental reports of research guided by it?)

  • Both potentially iconoclastic and politically popular (at least among governmental folks and people with private think tanks that have lots of money to giveto researchers) -- thus, there's no reason to think mavericks wouldn't be pursuing it if they felt like it.

So, I'm not really feeling the need for ID affirmative action.

Of course you want scientists to be open minded. But, isn't that what all this scientist-on-scientist career competition is supposed to ensure? (If not, could we maybe ease up on the tenure-track-red-in-tooth-and-claw business?)

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