On quoting scientists-2: When is a quote evidence, and for what?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I myself use direct quotes quite often and attribute them to the source whenever I can. Why?

One reason is simply style. Using quotes make for livelier reading. Inserting quotes set off differently from the rest of the text breaks up the visual monotony of the page, the way that dialogue does in fiction, and introducing the different rhythm of a new writer keeps the reader on her toes.

Another reason is to acknowledge the source of an idea that I am using. In writing a scholarly paper, one is obliged to track down the original source of an idea, not merely the person who brought it to your attention, but in blog writing it is acceptable to quote secondary sources.

Another reason is to introduce readers to other writers whom they may not have heard of before.

A fourth reason is that there are a lot of good writers out there who often express what I want to say much better than I can, so I use their words. I prefer to give direct quotes whenever possible rather than paraphrase because that leaves less room for unintentionally distorting their views. I cite the source whenever I can so that readers can check for themselves the full context of the quote if they think I am misinterpreting the words.

Why is that famous people are quoted more often than unknown people? It may often seem as if the authors of the quotes are being used as authority figures merely because of their fame, and the quotes themselves are evidence for some point of view, as if the beliefs of famous people have more weight. This is not necessarily so. It is more likely that people who are prolific and/or well-known and/or good writers get quoted more often because they have written more and are read more than obscure or poor writers.

Does the fame of the author give them more credibility? Yes sometimes, but only so far as what they say reflects their detailed knowledge of their subject. For example, when I make assertions about fields about which I have no direct knowledge, I like to quote the words of scholars or people whom I have confidence have actually studied the issue and have a reputation for presenting their subject with appropriate scholarly caution. This naturally skews the quotes in favor of well-known scholars since then I do not have to go through the dreary exercise of first establishing the quoted person’s credentials in the field. Quotes by Richard Dawkins on evolution and Albert Einstein on physics have to be taken very seriously. Dawkins on physics and Einstein on evolution, not so much. Sarah Palin on evolution or physics, not at all.

Why do we take the words of scientists and other academic scholars seriously when they are talking about their own fields? Because academia works by peer review. The peers of scientists who are in a position to independently check their work would strongly challenge them if they were saying wrong things about the science, and in the absence of such critiques one can assume that they are expressing the consensus views of their field, even if there are some scientists who disagree with them.

The fact that there are some scientists outside the consensus does not weaken the consensus claims unless the theory really is experiencing a crisis, and it is usually fairly obvious when that is the case. As an example, in physics there are still some scientists who dispute the theory of relativity or the big bang, but those theories remain the consensus views of the community. There is no crisis there. When the consensus view among physicists is that the structure of the entire physical universe has the potential to be explained and understood using mathematical laws without any supernatural intervention, one has to take this view seriously, unless one can provide evidence against those consensus views. Assertions by religious people and theologians of the existence of supernatural forces simply do not carry anywhere near the same weight.

So when Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins or any working biologist describes biological phenomena and the science behind it, their words definitely have greater credibility than those of non-biologists. The consensus view amongst biologists is that all the biological complexity that we see around us could easily have come about mainly by natural selection without any hidden mechanisms or supernatural intervention. As physicist Sean Carroll says:

Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas.

It is because of this consensus amongst biologists that we take the idea of evolution seriously, and discount supernatural explanations.

But we take academic scholars somewhat seriously even when they venture a little further afield, outside their narrow fields of expertise. The reason for this is that the most important thing to a working scholar is his or her credibility in the eyes of other scientists, and the more well known they are, the more effort they put into protecting that. This makes most scientists cautious about saying things about any subject that will earn them the scorn of their peers.

So serious scientists who need to express an opinion in a field outside their own specialty will usually check with scientists in that field to make sure they are getting the science right. I am currently reading Richard Dawkins’s latest book The Greatest Show on Earth where he marshalls all the evidence in favor of evolution. In the process he talks about radiometric dating and continental drift, which lie in the fields of physics and geology and are outside his range of direct expertise. But it was clear to me that he had consulted knowledgeable people in those fields before he had used those arguments as evidence because it would be embarrassing for a scientist to err about any area of science.

Next: What about when scientists talk about god?

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