Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, December 19th, 2007 | ISSN 1556-5696

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In this week’s eSkeptic (the last of 2007), Dr. Norman Levitt reviews Steve Fuller’s book entitled Science vs. Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution (Polity Press, 2007, ISBN 0745641229).

Dr. Norman Levitt is a professor of mathematics at Rutgers, New Brunswick, where his salary is a modest fraction of what the football coach is paid. He writes frequently for Skeptic and other publications on the relation of science to culture and politics. He is the author of Prometheus Bedeviled and Higher Superstition (the latter joint work with Paul R. Gross) and he is one of the editors of The Flight from Science and Reason.


The Painful Elaboration of the Fatuous
Norman Levitt Deconstructs Steve Fuller’s Postmodernist Critique of Evolution

book review by Dr. Norman Levitt

The Intelligent Design movement begets intellectual monstrosities with doleful regularity, but Steve Fuller’s new book, I think, occupies an especially odd place in this teratology. Fuller, be it remembered, is a professor of sociology of science at the University of Warwick (UK), whose career has been built on a lofty and careless disdain for science itself. That trajectory reached its apex (or, depending on how you look at it, its nadir) when he appeared as an “expert” witness for the defense (i.e., the crypto-creationists of the Dover, PA school board) in the celebrated “Kitzmiller” case. As we know, the upshot of this litigation was that a conservative and conventionally religious federal judge rendered a ruling that not only came down squarely against the pro-ID school board, but savagely excoriated the ID movement per se as without legitimate standing in science or science education. Fuller’s testimony only helped to seal the school board’s well-merited doom.

The book under review is Fuller’s subsequent effort to justify philosophically the position that failed so miserably to sway the Kitzmiller ruling in ID’s favor. It is with frank satisfaction and not a little glee that I can report that it is a truly miserable piece of work, crammed with errors scientific, historical, and even theological, a book that will find approving readers only amongst hard-core ID enthusiasts hungry for agreement but indifferent to the quality of evidence offered in support of their position. Fuller really does make it up as he goes along, laying out arguments that hardly need serious thought to refute in that they are based on howlers and solecisms that collapse under the lightest scrutiny. In this review I also want to consider the defection of Fuller (who all his life has proclaimed himself a progressive and “leftist”) to a cause demonstrably reactionary in all respects. Does this presage a wider convulsion in the academic left that will see a proliferation of equally peculiar misalliances? Academics are often very faddish creatures more terrified by the prospect of missing a bandwagon than by possible shortcomings in their own arguments. Has Fuller identified a true bandwagon with uncanny prescience or merely hopped on board a broke-down old manure wagon?

Abusing Ideas: Randomness, Complexity & All That

First, to the evaluation of Science vs. Religion itself. Merely out of mathematical whimsy, I want to consider Fuller’s very extensive discussion of “complexity” and “randomness.” This, as mathematicians and computer scientists are well aware, is a subject that has been thoroughly studied and analyzed for decades, generating a slew of deep results and fertile conjectures. Fuller, however, shows no awareness of the actual mathematical literature (even though much of it is accessible, at the basic level, to anyone with minimal mathematical skill). Instead, he seems content to take ID-theorist William Dembski as his guide. He attributes to Dembski a maxim to the effect that it is “impossible” to design a true random-number generator because it is ultimately possible to “infer” the algorithm that lies behind it (p. 61). But this grossly misunderstands a basic principle of complexity theory, the insight that in general it is not possible to devise an effective method for distinguishing a random from a non-random stream of data. Indeed, it is easily possible for virtually anyone to devise a simple way of generating such a data stream (making it highly “compressible” or non-random), which will, for all practical purposes, defeat any human attempt to say whether it is or isn’t random or how “compressible” it really is. For instance, just by way of mathematical doodling, let sn be defined as the integer between 0 and 9 that is specified by the formula:

sn = [(pnth digit of the decimal expansion of sin(17/31) ) – 4] mod 10

where pn is the nth prime number.

(Please note that this formula has no mathematical importance; it’s purely off the top of my head.) It is very easy for anyone knowing a bit of first-year calculus plus a bit of computer programming to write a program to generate this sequence using a couple of dozen lines of code, at most.

However, if I hand you, say, the first 3,000,000,000 terms of this sequence without giving you the generator as a program or purely in words, it will be impossible, for all practical purposes, for you to tell me whether this is a “random” sequence or a “compressible” one (it is, in fact, highly compressible), and still less possible for you to specify a generating algorithm.

Such phenomena are not mere computer-laboratory curiosities. In celestial mechanics, for instance, a deterministic classical process may generate a string of parameters that is indistinguishable from random despite its deterministic genesis. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of “chaos theory.” But in the context of I.D. “theory,” the effect is to refute the naïve notion that design by an intelligent agent is always discernible.

Fuller, despite devoting a full chapter to “complexity” and expatiating therein on chaos theory as well, shows virtually no sign of any real familiarity with this mathematics. His exposition jumps from one topic to another, from one thinker to another, mathematical or otherwise, without any demonstration that they should be linked other than by some vague connection to “complexity” in some sense or another. This deliberately discards the precision and rigor that the introduction of mathematical discourse is meant to ensure in the first place. The whole point of this chapter, one gathers, is that the emphasis on “complexity” by Dembski and Co. underwrites, to Fuller’s way of thinking, the legitimate scientific status of ID theory.

To give just one example of the fatuity to which this leads, Fuller swallows whole the idea that computer simulation of “lifelike” complexity requires that the “design” of that phenomenon must already be embedded in the “intelligent design” of the hardware and software involved. This goes wildly astray, as mathematicians incomparably superior to Dembski (John Conway, inventor of the Game of Life, for instance) will gladly testify. The point of such models is that they emulate the posited key features of the standard evolutionary model, that is, the action of a simple selective process on randomly-generated variation. It has to be noted that the variation involved may indeed be as random as seems possible in the universe; it need not be created by a pseudo-random number generator built into the program, but can be taken from unconnected external phenomena, e.g., radioactive decay or the total take at a Las Vegas casino. What emerges in the end from this completely un-designed input is “complexity” that mirrors that of organic processes. The “intelligent design” involved merely involves mimicking the mindless mechanism postulated by Darwinian theory, not creating novelty in that aspect of things. This constitutes an in silico test of the fundamental Darwinian thesis. These computer experiments have enormously strengthened the hypotheses that in nature what we think of as organic complexity arises from an algorithmic mechanism simple to describe historically iterated time and again as it acts upon random variation.

It is almost superfluous to add that Fuller has done little to come to terms with Dembski’s most trenchant critics, actual experts in complexity and information theory, such as Mark Perakh and Jeffrey Shallit, the latter of whom has justifiably damned Dembski’s work as “pseudo-mathematics.” Nor has Fuller been very accurate in describing Dembski’s intended program, which is to demonstrate “mathematically” that the evolution of complex life via natural selection is literally impossible. But to acquaint himself with this now-voluminous literature would violate one of his favorite axioms, viz., that a “social epistemologist” needn’t actually understand science in order to belittle it.

Evolutionists as an Old Boys Club

A similar farce plays out when Fuller tries to address the larger question of the supposedly contentious nature of evolutionary theory within the scientific community itself. In the World According to Fuller, evolutionary theory never really got past the stage of being a “well evidenced ideology” rather than a “properly testable science” (p. 123). What he is saying, in effect, is that the claims from all branches of biology and related science that they have contributed to a vast stream of convergent evidence verifying the essential precepts of evolution are in great measure delusional. He seems to think that biology, as a constellation of disciplines, is some kind of socially-constructed freemasonry in which assent to basic Darwinian principles constitutes a ritual formula necessary to make one part of the brotherhood rather than a cognitively-justified inference from hard evidence. More, he seems to think that evolutionary thought is mere ideological window-dressing, contributing nothing to the “hard science” behind molecular biology and the like.

None of this is backed up by serious analysis of the working methods and logical structure of biology itself. Fuller complacently views the ascendancy of evolutionary thought as a “rhetorical” rather than a “scientific” development. His principal evidence? The paucity of Nobel Prizes awarded for work on evolution! Of course, he never pauses to consider that under the idiosyncratic organization of the Nobel awards, there is no prize for biology as such. Biologists are smuggled in under the “Medicine and Physiology” category, which is just expansive enough to accommodate ethologists like Lorenz or Tinbergen, but not hard-core evolutionary theorists. In all of these pronouncements, Fuller is hard-pressed to hide his scorn for actual scientists who, it is obvious to him, know much less about what they think and how and why than a social theorist like himself who is enormously content to cite his own work endlessly.

Newton, Biblical Literalism & the Misuse of Terminology

Curiously, Fuller is even more careless and dogmatic when dealing with historical and religious matters than when talking about science. For instance, he blithely associates Newton’s secretive Anti-Trinitarianism with the Unitarian doctrine that began to gain popularity late in the Enlightenment, the idea being, I suppose, that Newton’s religiosity is really consonant with a tolerant and latitudinarian attitude toward doctrinal matters. But this flies in the face of the fact that Newton was a grim dogmatist in his religious beliefs, whose only link to “Unitarians” in the modern sense is that both deny the full divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Newton, however, came to his views out of a strict biblical literalism deriving from the Puritan tradition that had driven England to civil war. From his point of view, the lack of direct biblical authority for the notion that Christ is an aspect of the deity condemned that dogma as a corrupt accretion inimical to true religion. Modern Unitarianism, on the other hand, arose from a skeptical attitude toward the literal truth of the Bible and severe doubts about supernaturalism and miracles in general. Newton would have been horrified by it.

This topic may seem to be a mere diversion in any serious discussion of the proper ground-rules of scientific practice, but Fuller makes Newton into a totemic figure for his own rhetorical position. Fuller’s major contention is that seeking to know the Mind of God, in a rather literal sense, trying to discern the root intelligence behind the accessible phenomenology of the universe, is just as good a way of doing valid science as “methodological materialism.” In this respect, Newton, whose religious motivations are beyond question, is the paragon to contrast with the metaphysical materialist Darwin (and, presumably, the vast majority of productive scientists who have lived and worked since Darwin’s day). However, one may freely concede that strong, conventional religious feeling can motivate an individual to do the hard work of science without yielding an inch to the quite different premise that the supposed insights of religion may rightfully dictate the manifest content of scientific work. The latter principle infuses Intelligent Design Theory, as practiced by Dembski, Behe, Wells and the gang clustered around the Discovery Institute under the tutelage of Phillip Johnson. And, conveniently, Newton himself provides a telling example of the intellectual quicksand into which it can lead.

Theistic Eschatology and Bad Physics:
Newton’s Greatest Blunder

Newton’s religious streak led him to take an intense interest in eschatology, that is, the final purpose and fate of the created universe. He devoted as much time to investigations into the divine timetable for the End of Days — the prophesied arrival of the Day of Judgment — as he did to his research in mathematics and physics. But he did so in a traditional manner, that is to say, relying on information supposedly encoded in the Bible, rather than on any novel cosmological insights arising from the revolution he himself had wrought in celestial mechanics. In this sense, at least, we have evidence of the enormous waste of scientific talent and intellectual energy that can be caused by an obsessive concern with religion.

Yet Newton’s religion at one point led him into an even more paradigmatic scientific solecism, one that perfectly illustrates the peril of allowing the content of one’s scientific work to be dictated by one’s religious fervor. Newton, no less than his frankly materialist or Deist successors, was well aware that the cosmological picture flowing from his own achievement left little room for an interventionist God — an activist, miracle-working being whose constant attention is necessary to the steady functioning of the universe. He sensed that his own brilliant ideas constituted an argument for the deus absconditus, a conceptual innovation that was soon to become a standard item of skeptical Enlightenment thought. But Newton’s religious traditionalism, unconventional as it was in some respects, found this notion abhorrent because the impersonal God it cautiously endorsed was a far cry from the Biblical Ancient of Days embedded in his own theology. This led him to argue that his own system of the world must be incomplete and that it must indeed be modified to allow a role for an interventionist God whose intermittent action is necessary to keep planets and comets in their orbits. The key point is that this line of thought did not follow from the mathematics of Newton’s mechanics, nor from any sound new physical insight. It was dictated, rather, by the psychological necessity of reconciling his scientific achievement with his pre-existing religious dogma. It was not only an uncharacteristically unsound idea, but constitutes Newton’s greatest intellectual blunder.

One would think that Fuller would at least try to come to terms with this curious history, given that he offers Newton as the paragon of scientific “design theorists”. But he never seems to have heard of it, assuming he is not simply burying it as grossly discomfiting to his line of argument. In any event, given that Newton is the stick with which Fuller intends to beat Darwin, his lack of real knowledge of serious Newtoniana is emblematic of the shallowness of his book.

Ignoring the Politically Obvious

That obliviousness is even more evident in Fuller’s utter failure to come to terms with the political nature of the Intelligent Design movement. He mentions the notorious “wedge” strategy once or twice, but only with an exculpatory purpose. As Fuller would have it, “Just as the ACLU helped to drive a wedge between the teaching of science and theology, the Discovery Institute would now drive a wedge between the teaching of science and the anti-theology prejudice euphemistically called ‘methodological naturalism.’” Aside from the false symmetry of this characterization, this description simply will not wash. The “wedge,” as conceived by the hierophants of the Discovery Institute, means discrediting evolutionary theory as the initial step of a program to re-institute traditional religious precepts (fundamentalist Christian in particular) as the dominant code governing civil and legal affairs in this country. It is a patently reactionary political program, not a philosophical one.

Naturally, this embarrassing fact is too much for someone who, like Fuller, thinks of himself as a left-populist, to admit directly. He tries to get himself off the hook by fulminating against the British National Party, a right-wing sect obsessed with maintaining ethnic and racial purity in the UK against immigrants and such, claiming that its repellent ideology is a direct corollary of Darwinian thought. This is more than a little silly if it is not actually disingenuous. I daresay that if I were given five bucks for every BNP recruit who was prompted to join that mob primarily by his enthusiasm for evolutionary theory, I couldn’t even muster the price of a tank of gas.

But this diversion serves Fuller as an excuse for ignoring the “deep structure” of, say, the Discovery Institute, whose board prominently includes the Christian Dominionist billionaire Howard Ahmanson, a prominent contributor to a legion of far right causes. Equally, it exonerates the very organization that called Fuller as a witness in the Kitzmiller Case, the Thomas More Legal Foundation, which provided pro bono counsel to the beleaguered Dover school board. This outfit, please recall, was founded and funded by pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan, an ultramontane right-wing Catholic who has also established the Ave Maria Law School, hoping to expand it to a full-fledged university dedicated to turning out neo-Crusaders by the thousand.

Movement or Tantrum?

Now I would like to consider the question of whether Fuller’s ideological flight into the embrace of the theocratic right bespeaks a wider tendency within the postmodern academy to trade its vaunted left-radicalism for the honor of riding shotgun on behalf of the new breed of creationist theocrats. Certainly, Fuller is not the first “science studies” scholar to put forth a brief on behalf of creationism. A few other figures, some even more prominent than Fuller, have done so within the past decade. Still, they all seem to have pulled in their horns as soon as it became clear that creationism is not simply the cultural self-assertion of a repressed minority trying to defy the brute scientism of modern society, but rather the tool of a well-funded and deadly serious political movement able to call upon the near-majority instinctively sympathetic to creationist ideas. Fuller, so far as I know, is the only member of this academic clan to have unreservedly taken the plunge, irrevocably committing himself to the creationist cause.

The wider lesson, if there be any, is that animosity to science as such and to its cognitive authority still pervades academic life outside the dominion of the science faculty. The compost that nurtured Steve Fuller and many of his associates in their development of “social constructivist” theory consisted principally of these doubts, resentments and antagonisms. This soil put forth a host of noxious weeds, quite varied, and sometimes taxonomically linked only by the common bitterness they exuded. Each in its own way — literary theory, cultural studies, cultural anthropology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and a long-standing Marxisant approach to sociology — joined the tacit alliance of antiscientific intellectuals whose imprecations grew all the louder even as their influence over the practice of science and public science policy shrank to imperceptibility.

The anti-science of the contemporary academy is a late and petulant echo of Spiritualism, Anthroposophy, Theosophy, Forteanism, and a dozen other cults that once appealed to the culturally fashionable. But now they are bound up in the knotty and constipated jargon of journals and seminar rooms and lack the high spirits that made the original versions pleasantly whimsical. Anti-science in today’s university whines and grumbles when it is not busy bedecking itself with the pseudo-virtue of today’s eco-Puritanism: the Animal Rights Movement, fulminant opposition to genetic engineering, Deep Ecology, and so forth.

It is easy to mock this development and hard not to scorn it. But perhaps a little sympathy is in order, providing it stops well short of indulgence. Basically, one is dealing here with a community of people who, by common standards, are quite intelligent and imaginative, and certainly diligent enough to carve out large areas of discourse for themselves wherein their assumptions and modes of analysis remain in the saddle for decades at a time. This is not a trivial achievement, think what we may of the fundamental soundness of the enterprise. We can’t really speak of a Ship of Fools here, but rather a flotilla of somewhat unhinged idealists who still can put up a pretty good fight. Yet, ultimately, they are cruelly and fatally hemmed in by their inability to come to terms with the deepest and most penetrating ideas that our civilization, or any civilization, has yet been able to generate: the ideas of science and mathematics.

Further, they must confront the practical significance of the barrier that separates them from first-hand knowledge of science, engineering, and economics. Fields like these are vital to the formulation and critique of public policy and interact with our political institutions to a vast extent. They are the conceptual fuel that drives modern society. The vagaries of literary theorists or cultural anthropologists, by contrast, hardly leave a trace on wider public concerns. They could easily fade away without anyone outside the faith taking much notice.

Ultimately, then, we shouldn’t be startled by the alienation of academic non-scientists from science and technology, nor by the churlishnish with which they address such issues. Steve Fuller is merely an extreme case, an outlier. He represents what a widespread attitude may become when infused with mega-oses egotism and self-regard, and when maximally saturated with the desire to belittle and condescend to the much-hated scientific community. Fuller has perpetrated a dreadful book, but as a tantrum, it is exemplary. He may draw some cautious admiration from his colleagues for the operatic brio of his histrionics. But it seems to me doubtful — and this is a very good thing — that any large segment of the science-studies community, nor of the larger “academic left” will join him in the attempt to find comrades-in-arms in such venues as the Discovery Institute or the wider Intelligent Design movement. Figures like Johnson, Dembski, and Behe, not to mention Ahmanson and Monaghan, burn all too visibly with a searing desire to inaugurate a Godly polity that will be as intolerable to the postmodern left as to conventional liberals or secularists. These guys are just too scary, even for those academics who have heretofore flaunted their disdain for orthodox science. Fuller, I’m afraid, will just have to go it alone.


Shermer v. Douglas Jacoby: Does God Exist?

debate photo

On June 23, at the 2007 International Apologetics Conference, Dr. Michael Shermer debated the existence of God with international Christian speaker Dr. Douglas Jacoby. This debate is in ten parts. Videos 2–10 are located just below the first one. WATCH the videos >

3 Comments »

3 Comments

  1. Anita says:

    I have only one complaint, and that is that if you’re taking the (p_n)th digit in a decimal expansion, you don’t need to use mod 10.

  2. Reader says:

    @Anita: He’s subtracted four, so if he didn’t mod 10 that could produce a negative number.

    Nice essay. The part beginning with “Each in its own way — literary theory, cultural studies, cultural anthropology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and a long-standing Marxisant approach to sociology — joined the tacit alliance of antiscientific intellectuals…” Gets a bit broad and runs into its own anti-anti-scientific tantrum without much to back it up. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one sentence without a footnote or two.

  3. Anita says:

    Sorry, you’re absolutely right. I retract.

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