Monday, September 14, 2009

You Shouldn't Base Science On Bad Theology

Steve Fuller:

Peer review might also usefully intervene in an issue that Cornelius Hunter repeatedly raises, namely, the theological commitments of Darwinist claims. Surely, Hunter and I are not the only two people who find it absolutely bizarre that atheists routinely make claims about what God would or would not have done vis-à-vis the design features of nature. The people making these claims don’t even believe that theology has a real subject matter, yet they make claims as if it did and are then expected to be taken seriously by people who not only believe that theology is a real subject but also know something about what it says. Moreover, it is not that these atheists have disproved the existence of God and hence officially invalidated the domain of theology. At least, such disproofs have not appeared in peer-reviewed publications.

The fault here really lies with professional theologians and clerics who let claims by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, etc. pass in silence rather than calling for peer review over their claims. For example, theodicy starts with the assumption that the design features of nature are not especially intelligible if one considers particular organisms or events in isolation. So anyone who tries to cast doubt on God’s existence by pointing to the seemingly awkward construction of an organism is like the ignoramus who denies the earth’s motion because the ground appears still to him. An argument of comparable stupidity that would not pass muster in physics should not be allowed to pass muster in theology.

So, my view on peer review is as follows: It has an important but limited role in Darwinism disputes, which have been overextended in some respects but underutilised in others. In particular, editorial errors relating to natural science matters are often illegitimately leveraged into grounds for censoring alternative explanatory frameworks, while blatant ignorance of theology is allowed to pass as reasonable counterargument in the spirit of ecumenical tolerance. A balancing of the dialectical ledger is in order.


Jim said...

Cheers, Matteo.

Suffer me jumping, in media res. Clueless to background.

I’m having a chemical reaction. I’ll react. You reverse. And correct me.

“Peer review might also usefully intervene in an issue that Cornelius Hunter repeatedly raises, namely, the theological commitments of Darwinist claims.”

Nonsense. Theologians can hardly peer review theology itself outside of canon and dogma. Or to pass jacket cover pleasantries off in order to sell more volume in the temple economy of selling theological books. I find it on a range of mildly to profoundly ignorant and potentially abusive to saddle peer review with theological carp, when much peer review cannot even review hard data. As if adding metaphysics as a privileged category of peer review would be of any demonstrable help to operational science – operational science is not metaphysical any more than I ‘metaphysicalize’ my carpenter’s hammers, save to divide them between rough framing and finish hammers – but if I’m wrong, then please show me the operational benefits to biology from peer reviewing it by theology.

And just which theological commitments from the well over 200 denominations in the U.S. alone should we insinuate into such peer review? How about the speaking in tongues of the Pentecostals? What would be the illiative steps for capturing theological inference in review of science? Did LaMaitre and his Jesuit hunches, or did Hubble confirm our current cosmology? What about valid claims that theological hunches are often wrong and that we invented science to test theology, And not the other way around? Darwin shattered Paley’s theological world. Not the other way around. At just the wrong point in history, If Paley’s peers would have their way, then Darwin might never get published. It’s a miracle that he did. Who is peer reviewing the theologians?

What’s worse is this. The problem with this wrong concept of peer review is an ignorance of the fact that post-publication criticism (not pre-publication peer review) is really the most rigorous of the two. Cold fusion babble might slip past befuddled peer reviewers. But cold fusion won’t slip past General Electric. Not in the lab. Besides, so many scientific publications (after peer review) sit on the shelves unnoticed and die there. Why not trust post-publication review once a near-dead scrap of research becomes circulated? Or just let the research die on its ignored-shelves under its own random half-life? Putting a theological element in peer review is simply not workable. Just let theologians blast away after publication. Which is what they do anyway.

It’s so staggering as to be unintelligible to impose a theological component on peer review. But if this project ever gets tried (and it already has), then I think Alan Sokal would be glad to submit test papers, to test the competence of theological peer reviewers (and he already has in part).

Sure, try it. See how it works. Nothing wrong with giving it a go. Maybe something will come out of it.

And pray. Pray hard. Pray for a quick learning curve.



Matteo said...

Thanks for commenting. Your concerns are absolutely valid.

The last thing any reasonable person would want is theological peer review of scientific articles. I took Fuller to be making a rhetorical point, that being that if atheist scientists are going to insist on inserting dubious theological claims into their articles and papers, maybe theologians then have an abstract "right" to peer review their nonsense. Again, it's a rhetorical point, against those who hide behind "peer review" as a way *not* to have to defend their own spurious theorizing and theologizing. Fuller is a strange bird in a lot of ways, but, as I see it, he is not advocating anything here as an actual policy.

Jim said...

Matteo, thank you. A good reply. Your comment prompted me to re-read much of that thread. I think that you’re correct that Fuller’s point is largely rhetorical. Regarding facts and logic (beyond rhetoric), Fuller might have given some examples of “theological commitments of Darwinist claims.” And maybe some examples of how these claims might better play out in peer review. Fuller might have a valid point. In part. If he would work out some factual and logical examples. Again, thanks.