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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More stuff about stuff

Ah, this is fun.  My American Scientist review of Sokal’s book has gotten a comment from Steve Fuller.  He claims that I am “confused” about his testimony in Dover.

Michael Bérubé is confused about my appeal to the contexts of discovery and justification in the Dover trial. (I was the one who happened to raise the distinction.) There are two points about the distinction as it applied to the trial: (1) The plaintiffs’ witnesses were claiming that scientific inquiry required a commitment to ‘methdological naturalism’, something lacking in intelligent design theorists and creationists. This struck me as a false claim about the context of justification that smuggled in claims about the context of discovery: i.e. if you’re not a naturalist, you can’t do science right. (2) The trial itself was about what to teach high school students. Here it is completely appropriate to introduce the context of discovery as part of the pedagogy that motivates students to do science, and so it matters that important science has been done by people operating from religious beliefs not so different from the ones that are legally barred as ‘intelligent design’.

The confusion arises from those who think that science education is exclusively about teaching science’s context of justification. That is tantamount to indoctrination.

OK, so here’s my reply:

Steve Fuller is indeed a confusing fellow. In my essay, I remarked that Fuller testified in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District on behalf of the religious fundamentalists who had sought to introduce Intelligent Design into the Dover science curriculum. I briefly summarized Fuller’s argument as “intelligent design is worth pursuing partly because great scientists of the past—such as Newton—believed in God.” Fuller now replies that “it matters that important science has been done by people operating from religious beliefs not so different from the ones that are legally barred as ‘intelligent design.’” I thank Professor Fuller for taking the time to confirm my characterization of his testimony.

Yet I confess that I remain confused about Fuller’s argument. If it really is “tantamount to indoctrination” to appeal to the context of justification in order to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate science, then Fuller might as well go the full distance, and argue for teaching high school students alchemy and phrenology. One wonders why he has chosen to shill only for Intelligent Design.

Dang that American Scientist website for not respecting my carefully-crafted and intelligently-designed paragraph breaks.

And then Fuller replies to this in turn:

Michael Bérubé says something unwittingly accurate and inaccurate in his response. Alchemy and phrenology are indeed part of the backstory of modern science, and had they enough practitioners or believers today, they would be worth trying to incorporate in the science curriculum to illustrate the context of discovery. It’s interesting that Bérubé, who often strikes the pose of a pragmatist, fails to see the merit of this point himself.

The inaccurate part of his response is an inference that could be drawn by his use of ‘shill’ to describe my advocacy of intelligent design, which often suggests that the person has gained financially from the advocacy. It is true that I was instructed by defence counsel at the Dover trial to specify a notional expert witness fee. However, since the plaintiffs’ won, and the civil rights nature of the case meant that the defence was ordered to pay legal fees, which in turn bankrupted the school board, I was never paid a cent for my participation in the trial above expenses. Moreover, my subsequent ID-related activities have not appreciably increased my income.

To which I have to say, wittingly:

By “shill” I meant only that Fuller does not practice the “science” of Intelligent Design himself; he merely works as an enthusiastic bystander, urging others to do so. My remark was meant not to suggest that Fuller has “gained financially” from his advocacy of intelligent design, but to suggest that the entire enterprise of ID is fraudulent. 

Fuller seems to think that something counts as a science if sufficient numbers of people are “practitioners” of it; another aspect of his testimony in Dover, to which I did not refer in my essay, involved arguing that ID will be a legitimate science once Darwinists loosen their grip on the field and allow for a critical mass of “practitioners” of ID to develop a viable research program.  This argument neatly ignores the fact that ID has no research program, and no method of determining when in fact one has discovered the Designer.

Good pragmatists like myself don’t buy the “had they enough practitioners” argument.  Instead, we want to know why, precisely, alchemy and phrenology didn’t pan out pragmatically as sciences—and whether, by Fuller’s logic, astrology (whose “practitioners” certainly outnumber evolutionary theorists today) deserves a place alongside ID in the science curriculum.


You know, I really hope this puts to rest the truly bizarre notion that, back in the day, I “bent over backwards to defend Steve Fuller from the Dover ID trial.” I find versions of this claim floating around the Internets from time to time

Berube goes way too far and he is dipping his toes into “We can’t insult the rubes because they will get angry and that is the worst thing evah!” territory.

He did this occasionally during the “intelligent design” muckamuck a few years ago, refusing to deal with the lying scumbags as lying scumbags.

--and you know how I hate it when someone on the Internets is wrong. Especially when they’re very very wrong about me deep in some obscure blog’s comment thread.

Sure, I didn’t say anything about “lying scumbags” three years ago—that’s really not my style.  But I did quote (and then repeat!  enthusiastically!!) the passage in the decision where Judge Jones wrote that the fundamentalists on the Dover school board “lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.” And just in case anyone still remained uncertain about where my sympathies lay, I singlehandedly created a line of dancing badgers to underscore the point.  Merciful Moloch, you’d think the badgers would have sufficed.

Posted by Michael on 12/23 at 11:08 AM
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