The narrative goes like this:
- The famous, brilliant scientist So-and-so hypothesized that X was true.
- X, forever after, became dogma among scientists, simply by virtue of the brilliance and fame of Dr. So-and-so.
- This dogmatic assent continues unchallenged until an intrepid, underdog scientist comes forward with a dramatic new theory, completely overturning X, in spite of sustained, hostile opposition by the dogmatic scientific establishment.
Michael White summarizes a common trope in the media and elsewhere; there’s often a misleading attempt to shoehorn the gradual advancement of science into a more dramatic story of sudden breakthoughs — especially by that mythical underdog fighting against the wicked establishment. It’s not true. Even Charles Darwin, a fellow who did advance a revolutionary story, was himself a respected member of, and working within, the scientific establishment of his time. Even the most radical new idea must incorporate and extend the existing body of evidence; good science does not spontaneously emerge out of a vacuum.
The context for this narrative in this case is the Joan Roughgarden story. She has been claiming some strange things, about her role as a transgendered outsider scientist who has identified deep flaws in Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, but I’m afraid her claims are absurd. She does offer an interesting perspective, but what she is primarily opposing is a simplistic version of sexual selection that neither Darwin nor any contemporary scientists have ever accepted — she is basically cobbling up the underdog narrative, and has been getting a fair amount of attention for it.
The article does mention a comment from me on the subject that is actually the mildest thing I said: I do have a more thorough assessment of Roughgarden’s hypothesis from 2004 that is much less polite.
So mainstream journalists play this game with scientists, and some scientists play it up as well; but the real masters are the creationists. It’s all they’ve got: rhetoric that tries to put them in the role of the brave, noble, clever underdog trying to overcome the stifling influence of a stagnant scientific orthodoxy. It’s even more false, but it does appeal to the media.
Can we just get something straight? Science builds on past discoveries. You don’t get to cherry pick what bits you want to include in your theory — successful new theories don’t throw away old evidence, they extend and strengthen and reinforce, and offer new insights. There may be new theories that follow the theory of evolution … but they will all incorporate the basic facts of earth’s history — its age, common descent, the relationships between species, etc. — and will not be any more appealing to creationists than what we’ve got now.