Professor Steve Fuller is known as a prolific author whose analysis of the scientific enterprise is iconoclastic. He was famously involved as a defense witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005) trial, for which he has received a great deal of flak. The essay cited below provides an explanation of his involvement and a challenge for other qualified people to ensure that their voices are heard.
"I believe that tenured historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science - when presented with the opportunity - have a professional obligation to get involved in public controversies over what should count as science. I stress 'tenured' because the involved academics need to be materially protected from the consequences of their involvement, given the amount of misrepresentation and abuse that is likely to follow, whatever position they take."
Why are so few willing to follow this advice? (Source here)
Those who want to read specific comments on the trial should read the essay. My interest here is in the broader issue of what science studies brings to the discussion of origins. Fuller is dissatisfied with the limited scope of the discourse to date because the dominant voices have functioned as "underlaborer[s] to science". He points out "two types of public exemplars" that have been associated with science studies:
"On the one hand, there is the Michael Ruse figure who supplies a historical and philosophical hinterland to the dominant scientific paradigm so as to complement its purely empirical success with a broader cultural and conceptual grounding that will appeal to those unfamiliar with the technical science. On the other hand, there is the Robert Pennock figure, more typical of the younger generation, who outright collaborates with established scientists in their research, providing a running legitimizing narrative in co-authored articles published in technical and popular forums. In both cases, the science studies scholar functions as an underlaborer to science, as opposed to a true metascientist."
Science studies need to rise above partisanship and develop robust contributions to knowledge that do not need the endorsement of the 'scientific consensus' to justify their validity.
"A metascientist evaluates science from a standpoint that does not presuppose the legitimacy of the dominant paradigm. He or she starts by asking why we pursue science in the first place - the question of ends - and then turns to consider the extent to which the normal pursuit of science satisfies those ends. This is the role I have tried to exemplify. [. . .] The approach is 'constructivist' without being 'relativist' in the way these two terms are normally understood in epistemology."
These social epistemological principles are then applied to the origins controversy. Fuller is interested in this debate because it presents so many important and interesting issues needing rational discussion. However, Fuller finds that far too much bigotry has been expressed and has concluded that something needs to be done to raise the level of debate.
"In terms of the evolution-creation controversy, the bottom line for me, then, is not to satisfy the wishes of particular communities by allowing creationism to be taught, but to avoid the opportunity costs to everyone if creationism is not allowed to be taught."
These opportunity costs are worthy of elaboration. Fuller identifies several of these. The first draws attention to the history of science and the fact that many scientists have done good work motivated by the presupposition that the natural world is the handiwork of an Intelligent Designer. Those who say that toleration of ID will be the death of science and the beginning of a new dark age are in denial of history.
"Here I have in mind the overwhelmingly positive role that belief in an intelligent designer has played in motivating religious people to enter and stick with scientific careers, which have resulted in findings that command the assent of even those who lack faith."
The second opportunity cost is academic freedom. Fuller has already made it clear that he thinks tenured academics should be taking the lead in challenging the dominant paradigm. It is simply too risky for others to stick their heads above the parapet - they are easy targets and they get hurt. They are treated as guilty by association and their ideas are deemed unworthy of any further consideration.
"When we start to judge ideas rather than texts, intentions rather than practices, we become complicit in the erosion of academic freedom. Perhaps the most widely publicized recent case to cross that line was the forced resignation of Michael Reiss as director of science education for the Royal Society. Reiss had the temerity to suggest that science teachers should take seriously - albeit critically - creationist queries raised by their students. Reiss, who also holds a chair at the University of London's Institute of Education, based this judgment on his own research on science pedagogy. It is worth noting that he did not propose that teachers should themselves introduce the creationist ideas - yet the Royal Society deemed he still had to go."
The third opportunity cost is concerned with the quality of debate. Academics are supposed to use their minds when defending a position or critiquing others. However, the origins issue reveals people ruled by emotions, prejudices and ideologies.
"The pervasive anti-Christian bigotry surrounding the evolution-creation debate has had other knock-on effects on the conduct of intellectual discourse. It becomes an excuse to lower the tone in both academic and public discussions. Anyone prepared to defend any form of creationism should expect enormous negative attention in the blogosphere, ranging from occasional derision to outright invitations to trash the defender. At first I believed that my own intervention would clarify misunderstandings but it only seemed to intensify them, not least because I addressed my opponents in the spirit they addressed me. They were not prepared to entertain the idea that it was they and not I who misunderstood."
These three opportunity costs deserve the serious attention of all who are engaged in the controversy. However, the dominant response has been to ignore these points and persist in old patterns of thinking and tired polemics. Some have expressed their frustration with Fuller for his bad judgment. One of these is Michael Lynch, Professor of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, who has published several articles condemning Fuller's role as an expert witness in the Dover trial. One of these was in the same journal Spontaneous Generations that carried the essay under consideration here, to which Fuller has recently responded. He pointed out that his "game" is not for short-term gain but for long-term success.
"In that context, I undertake a risky performance in the spirit of a living experiment, the results of which should prove instructive not only to myself but also to others who in the future are similarly well-positioned to bring science studies to bear on public policy. The only mistake would be for others not to repeat the experiment."
Fuller is prepared to criticize Ruse and Pennock for being "traitors to their training" and guilty of "intellectual treason". He is prepared to say that Barbara Forrest's tactic has been to shift the argument from evaluation of ideas to the "intentions of those promoting them", thereby following in the footsteps of John Dewey who used this approach to earn a reputation as "one of the foremost Red-baiters in the US philosophical establishment in the 1940s and '50s". These charges are not ad hominems but are based on analysis of their arguments. The issues are far too important to allow room for complacency - academic freedoms are being eroded, young scientists are fearful of expressing any positive views on design, parental responsibilities for the education of their children are being eroded (with charges of "child abuse" being thrown around), and much more. But Fuller is also prepared to press upon tenured academics the obligation he thinks they have to use their positions of relative security to contribute to public controversies about the nature of science. There is an urgency about the situation. The least that can be said is that Fuller is a trail blazer. No one can criticize him for not acting out what he is encouraging others to do.
Science Studies Goes Public: A Report on an Ongoing Performance
Spontaneous Generations, 2(1), (2008), 11-21
First para: I believe that tenured historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science - when presented with the opportunity - have a professional obligation to get involved in public controversies over what should count as science. I stress 'tenured' because the involved academics need to be materially protected from the consequences of their involvement, given the amount of misrepresentation and abuse that is likely to follow, whatever position they take. Indeed, the institution of academic tenure justifies itself most clearly in such heat-seeking situations, where one may appear to offer a reasoned defense for views that many consider indefensible. To be sure, the opportunities for involvement will vary in kind and number, but I believe that we are obliged to embrace them. In the specific case of 'demarcation' questions of what counts as science, the people who possess the sort of general and comparative knowledge most relevant for adducing this matter are historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science - not professional scientists unschooled in these areas.
Response to Lynch
Spontaneous Generations, 3(1), (2009), 220-222.
Lynch, M. Going Public: A Cautionary Tale, Spontaneous Generations, 3(1), (2009), 212-219.
Tyler, D. A "teachable moment" regarding the departure of Michael Reiss, ARN Literature blog (25 September 2008)
Tyler, D. Michael Reiss and the science-religion issue, ARN Literature blog (17 September 2008)
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