The editors-in-chief of Synthese, a leading philosophy journal, published an unusual disclaimer in the print-version of a guest edited special release of the journal. Basically, they apologised that some of the papers in the "Evolution and Its Rivals" issue fell short of the standards of professional discourse that would be expected by readers.
"We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards."
Demarcation lines and warfare warfare often go together - but do we need one to define science? (Image source here)
The guest editors took this badly, and a heated discussion has followed (see here and here). One philosopher, Brian Leiter produced a blog post "Synthese Editors Cave in to Pressure from the Intelligent Design Lobby: Philosophers Should Boycott Synthese." The special issue was concerned with intelligent design and creationism, and all the papers were contributed by critics - some outspokenly hostile. The most extreme example of unprofessionalism came from the philosopher Barbara Forrest, whose hatchet-job on another philosopher Francis J. Beckwith, was triggered by his claim that the teaching of intelligent design in public schools is constitutionally permissible. The Synthese Editors-in-Chief have offered Beckwith the opportunity to respond in a future issue of the journal. The Forrest paper has been the subject of comment here and here.
This blog considers another case of bully-boy behaviour masquerading as scholarship - the paper on demarcation by Robert T. Pennock. Those most opposed to intelligent design (ID) and creationism have typically maintained that a clear line can be drawn between science and non-science, and ID and creationism are declared to be outside the boundary of science. In this essay, Pennock choses to talk down to one of his peers in the world of philosophy. An example is as follows:
"When we look empirically at what scientists and science educators themselves say science is, then we see immediately that they all ignore Laudan and clearly operate on the idea that there is a real distinction between science and non-science. Indeed, the evidence for this view is so pervasive that it is hard to see how one can take Laudan's incredible pronouncements as anything but indicating a cavilier [sic] disregard for the balance of evidence and a foolhardy disengagement from what should be the subject matter of philosophy of science. I can here only give an outline of some of some of what Laudan had to ignore in his anti-demarcationist screed."
A bit of background may help those not familiar with the demarcation debates between philosophers of science. Some have argued strongly that science can be distinguished from non-science by a number of criteria (these are the demarcation criteria). Examples of some of these criteria are falsifiability (science involves testing hypotheses to establish whether they are consistent or falsified), and the ability to make predictions (with hypotheses being a form of prediction). After claiming that ID and creationism fail against these criteria, the conclusion is drawn that ID and creationism should be excluded from science and treated as sectarian religion or as political activist movements. However, the giant fly in this ointment is that some other philosophers of science find that all the proposed criteria fail under close scrutiny because disciplines that are widely regarded as legitimate science would also have to be excluded. These philosophers regard the demarcation issue as dead. Pennock defends the demarcation approach and Laudan has championed the other side.
Before looking at these issues more closely, it is worth noting that Pennock appeals repeatedly to the scientific consensus. This is apparent in the quotation given above and it is pervasive in his paper. This strikes me as surprising for a philosopher to be so impressed by the majority view - philosophers are supposed to reach conclusions by the use of reason, without giving weight to how many people support a particular position. Here is another example, this time relating to methodological naturalism (MN) - the view that the methodology of science should assume that all causes are natural (i.e. excluding intelligent causation):
"there is good reason to think that MN is accepted by a large majority of philosophers of science and is probably as close to a settled consensus as is possible in our profession. In any case, as will be discussed in detail in the next section, there is excellent evidence that it is all-but-universally accepted as a tacit ground rule of science among scientists, which is the more relevant standard."
The controversy surrounding the disclaimer was the subject of a philosophy blog here, inviting comments. One of the respondents was Larry Laudan, who has long arguing that the 'demarcation problem' cannot be solved. Laudan refrains from commenting on whether the editors were pressurised to issue the disclaimer, but declares that their statement "was not only in order but essential as a matter of professional ethics." He goes on to identify himself as the target of Pennock's vitriol:
"I will limit my comments to a single paper by Robert Pennock from the issue in question. In the course of some twenty pages, he alleges that the work of a fellow philosopher is "almost willfully naive and misguided", that it "can only be described as histrionic and ill-considered" and that it "continue[s] to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science". He goes on to endorse the proposal that the philosopher in question should be excluded from 'the conversation of mankind' because said author "ha[s] lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way". Those of you who have read Pennock's paper will know that I am not a wholly disinterested party here, since all his barbs are directed specifically at yours truly. But I think I can lay aside self interest long enough to say that discourse of this sort has no legitimate place in any serious journal of philosophy (most especially the suggestion that those who disagree with Pennock should be excluded from 'the conversation of mankind')."
We need to recognise that Laudan is writing as a philosopher of science, and the stance he takes does not imply he is an ID supporter. Nevertheless, he presents demarcation arguments as a slovenly contrivance that leads to a cardboard front for the enterprise of science. He offended many of his colleagues by commenting negatively on the testimony of Michael Ruse at the 1981-1982 McLean v. Arkansas legal case:
"The victory in the Arkansas case was hollow, for it was achieved only at the expense of perpetuating and canonizing a false stereotype of what science is and how it works. If it goes unchallenged by the scientific community, it will raise grave doubts about that community's intellectual integrity."
This blog does not attempt to address Pennock's 30-page defense of demarcation. However, it is worth pointing out that methodological naturalism and demarcation are inextricably linked in the minds of Pennock and many others. If science is defined as a discipline that considers only natural explanations of phenomena, then ID and creationism are excluded from science by definition (as are archaeology and forensic science!). Here is Pennock again, commenting on a (2000) statement by the National Science Teachers Association on the nature of science:
"Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world. Other shared elements include observations, rational argument, inference, skepticism, peer review and replicability of work. [. . .] Science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge."
"In another statement on the teaching of evolution, NSTA explicitly rejects creation science and ID on the grounds that they are not science for just such reasons. One can find dozens of similar statements from both scientific and science education organizations that in more or less direct ways articulate a presumption of natural regularity and the requirement that science appeal only to naturalistic explanations."
The absurdity of this position is that this mutant version of science is methodologically incapable of detecting intelligent design even if it were "in your face" design. This is the ultimate circular argument, carrying no more authority than a novel. If there is to be any meaningful discourse about design in nature, we have to have tools and methodologies for detecting design - and that is what ID has offered as a way forward.
Can't philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited
Robert T. Pennock
Synthese, Volume 178, Number 2, 177-206 | DOI: 10.1007/s11229-009-9547-3
Abstract: In the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover Area School Board case, a federal district court ruled that Intelligent Design creationism was not science, but a disguised religious view and that teaching it in public schools is unconstitutional. But creationists contend that it is illegitimate to distinguish science and religion, citing philosophers Quinn and especially Laudan, who had criticized a similar ruling in the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas creation-science case on the grounds that no necessary and sufficient demarcation criterion was possible and that demarcation was a dead pseudo-problem. This article discusses problems with those conclusions and their application to the quite different reasoning between these two cases. Laudan focused too narrowly on the problem of demarcation as Popper defined it. Distinguishing science from religion was and remains an important conceptual issue with significant practical import, and philosophers who say there is no difference have lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way. The Kitzmiller case did not rely on a strict demarcation criterion, but appealed only to a "ballpark" demarcation that identifies methodological naturalism (MN) as a "ground rule" of science. MN is shown to be a distinguishing feature of science both in explicit statements from scientific organizations and in actual practice. There is good reason to think that MN is shared as a tacit assumption among philosophers who emphasize other demarcation criteria and even by Laudan himself.
Luskin, C. Synthese Opposed the Disrespectful Methods of Intelligent Design Critics, Evolution News & Views (May 20, 2011)
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