May 16 2006

Wanted: ‘Godwin’s Law’-type rule for science

(I will be traveling for the next few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

Mike Godwin coined a law (now known as Godwin’s Law) that states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

This makes sense. As the discussion drags on, people start running out of fresh or relevant arguments, begin repeating themselves, lose their tempers, reach for something new to say, and Hitler/Nazi comparisons inevitably follow.

But Godwin’s rule has been extended beyond its original intent and is now used as a decision rule to indicate that a discussion has ceased to be meaningful and should be terminated. In other words, as soon as the Hitler/Nazi comparison is brought into any discussion where it is not relevant, Godwin’s rule can be invoked to say that the discussion is over and the person who introduced the Hitler/Nazi motif has lost the argument.

I was thinking that this might be a good model to follow in finding a resolution to the interminable discussions over whether so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory (ID) is a part of science. My rule would read as follows:

“As soon as the advocates of any theory go to legislative or other non-scientific bodies to get their theory labeled as a science, they have lost the argument and their theory is automatically declared to be not a science.”

Why do we need such a rule? Because ID advocates are the latest in a long line of people who have tried to bypass the normal processes of science by going outside the scientific community to implement their agenda.

The historical record of such attempts is not pretty. The Roman Catholic Church attempted in 1616 to ban Copernicus’ theory. The Soviet Central Committee tried in 1949 to dismiss Mendelian genetics as pseudoscience. Louisiana and Arkansas passed legislation in the 1980s to force the teaching of so-called ‘creation science’ in science classes and were overturned by the US Supreme Court. Even more recently Kansas tried to ban the teaching of evolution and failed. All these attempts ended as debacles for their proponents but in the process wasted the time and energy of huge numbers of people.

ID advocates, like their predecessors in having failed to convince the scientific community of the merits of their case, now argue that the scientific community is conspiring to unfairly keep their theory out, and that this is why they need to appeal to legislative or judicial bodies to get their way. In making this argument, they reveal a profound misunderstanding of the way science operates.

The agenda of scientists is not a secret. It is, simply, to have good science. And few will deny that science has delivered the goods in spectacular ways. It has achieved this by allowing the scientific community to achieve consensus as to what is the best paradigm to govern research activity in any given field at any given time.

This does not mean that individual scientists always make the best decisions in any given situation. It does not mean that scientists are incapable of making mistakes. It does not mean that scientists don’t have philosophical and scientific prejudices that color their views. It does not mean that scientists cannot be arrogant or pig-headed.

But despite all this, no reasonable person will dispute the point that science has been extraordinarily successful. This happens because scientists, whatever their other views and attributes, need to have good science because that is what is important to the health of their profession. Good science is in their best self-interest.

Good science would not happen if outside bodies were the arbiters of what is science, since they have their own agendas and can thus be pressured to make decisions on political or other grounds. So if ID advocates are successful in their efforts, they would be threatening the very foundations of science’s success.

In their opposition to such legislative intrusions, scientists are similar to artists and craftsmen. Would anyone argue that legislatures should decide on what constitutes a good painting?

In the long run, academic communities in scientific disciplines, despite their wide internal divergences, know that they must serve as the judges of what is good for their field and take that responsibility seriously. This is why the elaborate mechanism of peer-review, despite its faults, plays such an important role and why scientists, despite their differences in nationalities, religions, ethnicities, languages, ages, and genders, repeatedly arrive at remarkable levels of worldwide consensus on what is good science and what is bad science, and what is science and what is not science.

As the philosopher of science Barry Barnes says in his T.S. Kuhn and Social Science, (1982): “In science…there is no basis for validation superior to the collective contingent judgment of the paradigm-sharing community itself.”

But the proponents of ID, like their predecessors, just don’t get this and keep trying to have outside agencies legislate what scientists should and should not do. These discussions, like those on internet discussion boards, can drag on and on and waste the time and energy of everyone concerned since, if history is any guide, the net result is to revert to the original situation where scientists decide what science is.

So let’s invoke my rule and declare that ID is not a science. Then we can get on with real work.

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