17 December 2007

On folks science and lies: feedback and further thoughts

Last week I discussed the notion of folk science as an approach to understanding creationism. The basic idea is this: folk science is science-talk which can be of any degree of accuracy and that has the sole purpose of supporting an already established world-view. As such, folk science does not seek to inform; it seeks to encourage, and any accurate information transfer is incidental. Folk science is employed by people of various persuasions; I used The God Delusion and an especially misleading blog post from Reasons To Believe as two examples. I asked for feedback, and I got some very interesting and provocative responses.

By way of rejoinder, let me state some principles that should stand alongside any use of the folk-science construct in the analysis of creationist or ID claims. Some of these were contained in the original post (or seemed obvious to me), others I've gleaned from the commenters (with gratitude).

1. Identifying a piece of commentary as folk science does not rule out duplicity on the part of the author or speaker. Some folk science is almost certainly deliberately dishonest. For example, earlier this year David Menton of Answers in Genesis wrote a blurb about the famous transitional fossil Tiktaalik, in which he made claims that seem to be clear fabrications. His work is pure folk science, but it appears also to be disgracefully dishonest. Here, the folk science context provides explanation for his behavior, but of course does nothing to excuse it.

2. Identifying a folk scientific claim as false -- no matter how ludicrously so -- does not necessarily imply dishonesty on the part of the author or speaker. Hugh Ross of Reasons To Believe claims that speciation has recently ceased on earth. This claim is utterly preposterous, but Ross probably believes it to be true. He's not (necessarily) being dishonest. We can and should identify this as foolish and careless behavior (considering that the writer has a Ph.D. in science), we might conclude that the writer lacks credibility, we might use the term 'misconduct'. (I would. I will.) But dishonesty? Probably not.

And of course, people routinely promulgate falsehoods without knowing their statements are wrong. Sometimes this error is wholly excusable, sometimes it's indicative of irresponsible credulity or some other form of intellectual sloth. The guy who cooked it all up may very well be a liar, but his dupes ought to get the benefit of the doubt, at least at first.

3. The capacity for self-deception in humans is not to be underestimated. See Siamang's fantastic comment in the previous post.

4. BUT...while some people get a pass, at least in their first at-bat, others must be held to a higher standard. A scientist who identifies himself as a "scholar" at a "think tank" that hosts regular radio shows, and who travels the globe giving lectures on creationism and faith, and who publishes a book every year or so, and who holds a Ph.D. in, say, physics or astronomy or chemistry, must be expected to adhere to minimal standards of scholarly rigor. Manufacturing folk science, in my opinion, is already outside these minimal bounds, and when that folk science is grossly inaccurate then the "scholar" is not just disreputable -- he's engaging in serious professional misconduct. (Some would argue that I'm overly generous in my continued inclusion of such an individual in the scholarly community.) This, I think, is the principle that both Henry Neufeld and Steve Martin are employing in their excellent comments.

For more reaction to the folk science concept, go to Threads from Henry's Web, Beyond The Firmament and An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution. It's good to see that I'm not the only one who's frustrated and not a little ashamed.

Siamang probably thinks I'm wasting my time, but I want to document RTB's errors, some of which are jaw-dropping. Siamang is surely right when s/he claims that many "ain't listening to the science," but the topics are interesting in their own right, and I think anyone who "ain't listening to the science" ain't readin' my blog. :-)

First topic on which you can't believe Reasons To Believe: "junk DNA."

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