Book Club Channel
On the Integrity of Science: A Response to Bill Dembski
Saturn's anomalous path suggested that there was something wrong with Newton's theory, to be sure. And astronomers at the time worried about that. But the Saturnian anomaly suggested only that Newton's theory might not be a perfect explanation for everything; it did not suggest in any way that Newton's theory was not the best explanation for most things. And the resolution of this famous anomaly was, of course, the discovery of the planet Uranus, which tugged on Saturn every time they passed each other, giving it the puzzling wobble they were worried about. When the influence of Uranus was considered, the anomaly plaguing Newton's theory disappeared.
Anomalies typically work like this in every scientific theory; they are small puzzles inviting scrutiny, and almost never pointers to some wholesale replacement theory. And anomalies typically get resolved, as was the case with Saturn, within the larger framework of the very theory that they once appeared to contradict.
I wonder if Bill may have absorbed a widespread misunderstanding about anomalies from the anti-evolutionary community of which he is a leader. This misunderstanding is rooted in two closely related fallacies: the "lawyer" fallacy, and the false dichotomy. Fallacies, as we study them in Logic, are not just mistakes in reasoning. They are particularly seductive mistakes in reasoning that are easy to miss. The false dichotomy emerges when we mistakenly assume that there are only two options on the table. If there really are just two options available to us then evidence against one actually serves as evidence for the other. This is why negative campaigning in the United States is so effective. A politician can get elected with an argument that amounts to nothing more than "The other guy is terrible!"
The anti-evolutionary community has long framed the origins conversation as a false dichotomy: we have to choose between godless evolution or creation/intelligent design. If this really is the choice, then an anomaly that undermines evolution could be interpreted as pointing in the direction of intelligent design. But without the fallacious assumption of the dichotomy the anomaly says nothing in particular. It simply calls attention to itself, like Paris Hilton.
The "lawyer" fallacy is a variation on the false dichotomy and has long been a part of the anti-evolutionary movement. Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, published in 1991, was remarkably similar to Norman MacBeth's Darwin Retried, published two decades earlier. Lawyers, at least the ones we watch on TV, live in a world that is artificially black and white. They stand astride a dichotomy of "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt versus innocent." The task of the defense lawyer is to provide "anomalies" that will provide the jury with reasonable doubts about the prosecution's "theory." The defense lawyer is not required to provide a replacement theory. He can be entirely successful by simply destroying the best theory and leaving the prosecution with nothing to replace it.
Science does not work like this. If anomalies in science worked like they do in jurisprudence, there would be no scientific theories of any sort. Virtually all scientific theories have anomalies and, when they are being born, they arise slowly from under a gigantic pile of anomalies, like a rescue worker climbing out of the rubble of a collapsed building.
Bill and I have dramatically different perspectives on the significance of anomalies. I think anomalies in science are far too subtle to be lifted out of their context and evaluated as stand-alone bits of evidence. Bill writes, for example, "The issue is not who's doubting Darwinism, but what are the arguments for and against it and whether they have merit." I completely disagree with this statement. A scientific theory could have ten major evidences in its favor and two anomalies contradicting it. To adjudicate such an example is complicated. Not all evidence is equal and it requires deep experience and wisdom to make the appropriate evaluation.
Karl W. Giberson (Ph.D.) is a leading voice in America's creation-evolution controversy and the author or coauthor of four books on science and religion, including Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists Versus God and Religion (with Mariano Artigas), Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story (with Donald Yerxa), and Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, which was included in the Washington Post's "Best Books of 2008" list. Giberson serves as professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, directs the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, and is executive vice president of The BioLogos Foundation, which he helped launch.