12 December 2007

On folk science and lies

Lysander. O! take the sense, sweet, of my innocence,
Love takes the meaning in love’s conference.
I mean that my heart unto yours is knit,
So that but one heart we can make of it;
Two bosoms interchained with an oath;
So then two bosoms and a single troth.
Then by your side no bed-room me deny,
For, lying so, Hermia. I do not lie.
Hermia. Lysander riddles very prettily:
Now much beshrew my manners and my pride,
If Hermia meant to say Lysander lied.
But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy
Lie further off...
-- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene II, The Oxford Shakespeare
There are many reasons to think twice before calling a statement a lie (and especially before calling someone a liar), and most have little to do with hilarious Shakespearean punning. A lie is not the same thing as a mistake, or even a big mistake. A falsehood is not necessarily a lie. And of course there are various grades of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. It's election season in the U.S., and we're already hearing a lot of falsehoods, lies, and lies about falsehoods.

In any season, we hear a lot of falsehoods about evolution. Some of these are lies, even damned lies. But the factories that churn out anti-evolution verbiage are often too well-designed to fabricate outright. Lately, a person exploring evolutionary science can encounter a falsehood that is quite cleverly constructed, perhaps through surgically precise omission of relevant information, perhaps through brilliantly adept rhetorical obfuscation. Even after learning the rest of the story, the person might hesitate to call the critic's account a lie. Maybe it's just another viewpoint.

I would suggest that there is another way to approach many of these falsehoods. Specifically, I propose that most creationist claims about evolutionary science are best understood as folk science. In my opinion, this view provides explanation for some otherwise incomprehensible (and indefensible) behavior, and points to resources for dialogue and accountability.

Now, I don't mean at all to defend creationist polemics here. As a Christian, I am scandalized and sickened by nearly all creationist commentary on evolution. But I'm not a misanthrope, and so I find it hard to believe that so many people could be so overtly dishonest.

So what do I mean by folk science? Well, I first discovered this concept when reading a book written by a few of my heroes: Science Held Hostage, by Howard Van Till, Davis Young and Clarence Menninga. The book is subtitled What's Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism, and the authors were all professors at the great college where I now work. It was published in 1988, is now out of print, and most of its topics are now out of date. The authors' insightful discussion of folk science, on the other hand, is more useful now than ever before. Here are their words.
The troublesome tendency with which we are dealing here is the temptation to employ natural science for the purpose of supporting preconceptions drawn from one's philosophical commitments or system of religious beliefs. But such an approach stands the scientific enterprise on its head and must be resolutely avoided. The goal of natural science is to gain knowledge, not to reinforce preconceptions. The purpose of empirical research is to discover what the physical world is really like, not to verify its conformity to our preferences. And the aim of scientific theorizing is to describe the actual character of the universe, not to force its compliance with our preconceived requirements.

Science held hostage by any ideology or belief system, whether naturalistic or theistic, can no longer function effectively to gain knowledge of the physical universe. When the epistemic goal of gaining knowledge is replaced by the dogmatic goal of providing warrant for one's personal belief system or for some sectarian creed, the superficial activity that remains may no longer be called natural science. It may be termed world-view warranting or creed confirmation, or one may put it into the category of folk science, but it no longer deserves the label of natural science because it is no longer capable of giving birth to knowledge. Science held hostage by extra-scientific dogma is science made barren.
-- Science Held Hostage, pages 41-42
The following footnote is attached to the term folk science above:
We are using the term folk science in a manner similar to that of Jerome R. Ravetz in Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), especially pp. 386-97. Ravetz defines folk science as that "part of a general world-view, or ideology, which is given special articulation so that it may provide comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience."
-- Science Held Hostage, page 180
The reason it's called folk science is that the "articulation" is in the form of facts, observations, claims and/or hypotheses that are couched in scientific terms and based on facets of science and the natural world. Its purpose is to support or confirm a world-view, not to describe or understand the world, and so the accuracy of the information employed is relatively unimportant. (It just needs to sound good.) It follows then, that one might expect to find folk disciplines of every kind: folk psychology, folk biology, folk theology, folk medicine. And it's important to note that while the accuracy of the knowledge employed in folk science is irrelevant to its purpose, one ought not assume that the information used in a folk scientific argument is necessarily incorrect or even incomplete.

Some of the most annoying nonsense I've ever read has been folk science, and viewing it as such has helped me to consider the probable motivations of speakers/writers, and thereby to reconsider the otherwise inexcusable conduct of people who ought to know better.

Here's an example. The God Delusion cannot be understood as a work of scholarship or of effective engagement of a topic. It's frequently idiotic, and engages in rhetorical misconduct that disqualifies it as a work of intellectual value. Understood as folk scholarship (we might call it folk theology or folk philosophy), it makes perfect sense. The God Delusion isn't intellectually sound, and it's not meant to be. Its purpose is to make people feel better about their world-view. I have the impression that it's effective in that regard.

But I didn't bring up folk science to bash The God Delusion. (Remember that I'm otherwise an admirer of Richard Dawkins.) I wanted to discuss this concept because I'll be writing semi-regularly in the next few months about the work of Reasons To Believe (RTB). RTB is an old-earth creationist ministry that seems to enjoy a significant following among thinking evangelicals, and that claims to want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I've mentioned them a few times on this blog, and so you might already know that I am unimpressed by their commentary and positions regarding evolutionary biology. Now, my goal in this blog is to help Christians to understand touchy subjects in biology. Unfortunately, the work of RTB is a significant obstacle in that pursuit, and it seems to me that I should deal directly with RTB's claims and errors rather than occasionally linking to their mistakes.

And I feel that RTB's work, in biology, is largely folk science.

Here's an example. Fazale Rana, a former biochemist and current apologist at RTB, recently wrote a blog entry entitled "Are Biologists Willing to Test Evolution?" (He wants you to believe the answer is "no.") Rana is apparently unconvinced by the evidence for common descent, and claims (amazingly) that evolutionary biologists foolishly "avoid any critical evaluation of the validity of biological evolution." He then presents a summary of the evidence for common descent that is so shockingly incomplete that one might reasonably suspect dishonesty. I don't assume duplicity; I see instead the telltale signs of folk science. No one who knows anything about evolution would find that article credible, nor would any evolutionary biologist take seriously its challenge to consider the possibility that common descent is "unfounded." Why not? Because it's not a real challenge at all. It's classic folk science, designed to provide support to a specific world-view, not to inform anyone about the evidence for common descent. I'm angered by the article, because it's inexcusably misleading. But I don't believe it was intended to mislead -- it was intended to encourage those who have already rejected common descent on nonscientific grounds. It's folk science.

I'll be interested to see what others think. I'm aware that some will suspect that I'm, um, soft on crime, while others will wonder why any Christian in his right mind would disagree with RTB. But I'll need this tool when examining RTB's claims and ideas, and I wanted to be clear about what I mean by folk science before labeling anyone's work as such.

Now I need to go lie down. No lie!

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