Sometimes, I feel very sorry for Paul Nelson. He’s one of the few creationists who actually tries to engage his critics, and I think there’s a very good reason for that: when creationists try to emerge from the hothouse environment of their “think-tanks” and institutions of ignorance, when they stand before audiences that weren’t bussed in from the local fundamentalist church, they tend to get bopped hard. There is a good reason for that, of course —it’s because they say such remarkably silly things. The exceptional thing about Nelson is that he keeps on saying such silly things.
And he’s done it again, in an article full of misconceptions and half-truths about how science works. It’s a sincere attempt to express his beliefs, I will grant him that, but dang if it isn’t astoundingly wrong from top to bottom. Jason Rosenhouse has already flensed it once, so I’m left with little but a few bones to crack, but hey, that’s fun, too.
First, the half-truths. Nelson is dismayed at the one-way door of science: arguments and evidence against creationism are accepted on the one hand, but on the other, supernatural explanations are not accepted.
On the one hand, Charles Darwin had refuted the theories of special creation of the early 19th century — and thus such theories were testable, not least because they had been tested and falsified. On the other hand, however, the strong positivism that permeated the atmosphere of the 10th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, the home of the history and philosophy of science program at Pitt, often held that “supernatural” explanations were untestable in principle.
But if such theories were untestable in principle, why did so many of my professors, from both philosophy and biology, talk at length about data that did or did not support Duane Gish’s creationism, or “scientific creationism” generally (au courant at the time because of the various “balanced treatment” cases in US federal courts). If Gish’s arguments could be countered by evidence, then the dialectic of science was already fully engaged. Whatever evidence can challenge, evidence can support. Right?
Wrong. Duane Gish made testable claims about the world, and that they were evaluated and rejected by the machinery of science does not mean that his other untestable metaphysical claims were therefore also grist for the scientific mill. Nelson has a falsely fluid idea of the nature of evidence if he think it can support anything. The moon is made of lime jello! That we can marshal huge amounts of evidence and theory to show that that is false does not imply that there is also reasonable evidence that the moon is citrus-flavored protein.
Much of the rest of Nelson’s argument is taken up with his misconception, an “insight” that science is like a game with arbitrary rules, and that Design Theory is only excluded because it falls outside the foul line of the grand game of Science Baseball, and that if only we were playing Science Cricket it would be a fair idea in play. It’s just an accident of history, a whim of the owners of the teams, that has led to his game being excluded. Why, if only the umpires were using the 1889 rulebook, then the moon would be made of lime jello.
I think everyone can see the flaws in his argument. We aren’t just playing a game, but are trying to understand how the world works. The umpire here is the world around us and his rulebook is reality; you don’t get to change it. If science is a game, it’s one that is trying to test reality, and determine what the actual rules are.
Nelson can whine all he want that his rules are better, or that he knows of a super-secret rule on page 197 that lets him count a strike as a bunt, but it doesn’t change the fact that the umpire has just called him out.
Speaking of arbitrary rules, I have to bring up this one revelation from Nelson’s article. When he was in grad school, he wrote a paper on this subject, and…
When I got my paper back, it was clear that Stein hated it. He gave me a B, a “pass but barely” grade in the program.
Maybe this is where Nelson gets the idea that rules are infinitely elastic and anything goes, as long as you babble enough and ignore all the evidence against it: he’s the product of grade inflation. I assure you, if Nelson took a course from me, I wouldn’t hesitate to give him an “F” if he didn’t meet the standards of the class. Getting a B at UMM in a class means you understand the material very well, not that you “barely passed”.