22 February 2006

Informed Dissent

As many of you have already heard, the Discovery Institute has released its list of scientists who "Dissent from Darwinism." The New York Times decided to look a bit beyond the DI press release, and actually took a look at some of the signers and their motives. Other bloggers, including PZ Myers and Josh Rosenau, have already looked at the NYT article and the list itself. I'm not going to attempt to redo their work. Instead, I'm going to take a look at the DI's response to the New York Times piece.

Predictably, the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Division is a bit upset about the tone of the article. They tried to make sure that the author of the Times piece received the proper spin before the article came out, but despite their best efforts the article still took a fair look at their list.

One of the things that upset the DI was the article's focus on the signers' disciplines. The Times article pointed out that biologists and biochemists make up a minority of the names on the list (30%, according to the Discovery Institute). The Discovery Institute doesn't think that this is worth considering. From the preemptive strike:
Of course, the list also includes many scientists specializing in chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics/statistics, and related disciplines. But since Darwinists continually assert that their theory has implications for many other scientific fields, why shouldn't scientists from these other fields have the right to speak out? Moreover, it's remarkably cheeky for Darwinists to claim that only biologists have the right to express views about evolution when many of Darwinism's leading public defenders in America aren't biologists. For example, Lawrence Krauss of Ohio (who the New York Times deems qualified to defend evolution on its op-ed page) is a physicist, not a biologist. And Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, has a degree in anthropology, not biology. If Chang raises this bogus argument in his article, I hope he also quotes my response.
At first glance, that seems to be a reasonable point. Why should it matter if scientists who "dissent" have experience in a relevant field, especially if the discipline of a scientist supporting evolution is irrelevant?

In this case, it comes down to the basis for the opinion. A scientist who is relatively unfamiliar with evolution but who supports it anyway is basically expressing his or her confidence in the scientific process and the scientific community. In the same way, I know little about relativity, but I recognize that the theory of relativity is considered by physicists to be well-supported. I understand the scientific process, and I trust physicists to do their jobs correctly. I do not presume to understand physics better than they do. In cases such as this, the background of the scientists is not all that relevant. What matters is the scientist's understanding of the nature of science and the role of the scientific community, because that is the foundation for the opinion.

A scientists who is dissenting from something in another field is making an entirely different - and much more radical - statement. What that scientist is saying is that he or she does not trust the scientists in the other discipline. Instead, that scientist is directly judging the work done in another field, based on some factor other than trust in the scientific process.

In those cases, the background of the "dissenting scientist" becomes much, much more relevant. We need to know something about the scientist's background in order to figure out how seriously to take that dissent. In particular, we need to know if their position is an informed dissent. We need to know if that scientist has the background needed to be able to independently, fairly, and above all competently assess the science involved.

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