Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Arm-Swinging and Yelling

'Intelligent Design' is one of the more politically potent, if intellectually dishonest, weapons in their quiver. ...

Science is not a thing but a process. In particular, it is a cumulative process, fiddling with the model until the next bit falls into place, then fiddling with it some more until the next next bit falls into place, then ... But 'Intelligent Design' won't have it. There are gaps in the scientific model, it correctly points out, and so the model is no good and incomplete and it's time to stop fiddling and factor an Intelligent Designer into the equation.

Michael Bywater, Big Babies, p.147
So Bywater caricatures the reasoning of those who promote Intelligent Design. But that's not my main point. Did you notice how he understands the scientific process? You could be forgiven for missing it. After all, it is the process that is described in virtually every science school book: a gradual process of step by step, incremental progress towards greater knowledge. Slowly the boundaries are moved back and the net is widened. (I remember me and my fellow post-grad research students often saying loudly at the end of lunch break, "Well, can't sit around here all day - I have more boundaries to push back!")

Obviously Bywater has not read Thomas Kuhn. Most people have not.

Kuhn realised after reviewing the history of science and its major steps forward that, far from serene gradual change, progress was made by a series of undignified lurches. The interesting bit is the phase before the lurch, rather like when a person is off-balance. Will he go back on to the path he was on, or will he stagger off in a new direction? There is a lot of arm-swinging and maybe shouting before the next step is determined. In the same way, science often gets to a point where the old way of thinking doesn't seem to work any more. There is too large a body of collected data that says the old paradigm is not valid. Science for a while is off balance while a new paradigm is sought. The transition is marked by shouting and arm-swinging as schools of thought in the scientific discipline slug it out. Finally, a definitive lurch is made and calmness is restored. A new paradigm prevails.

The reason there is slugging out at all is that hitherto most people get comfortable with the existing paradigm. Within it, science is marked by gradual progress: the gentle filling in of gaps in understanding, the gradual extension of the field of its application. If you are an advocate of the paradigm then for you, science is gradual. But, when you then believe that all scientific progress is gradual, and always has been, and you set about convincing others that it is so, then you are attempting lock out real future progress which necessitates a paradigm shift.

I don't really know if this is one of these transitional periods for the science of origins. But it does seem as though there is a lot of arm-swinging and yelling going on, and an amateur like Bywater is one of them.

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