March 18, 2004

God save us from the lawyers

As Cosma Shalizi notes, graduating from a top law school does not do much to equip you to judge scientific debates by itself. And remember, folks, these are the people in charge of America. Law has long been the most important trade and employment background of America's political leadership.

By all means go and follow the links from Cosma's post as well as the book review that started it all. It's also most illuminating to see the National Review show just how hostile they are to scientific enquiry when it doesn't fit the party line. I thought their anti-science carping was just limited to global warming, but then, I don't read them much.

I have noticed this trend in creationist scholarship to cite well-credentialed lawyers (and sometimes economists or physicists, but rarely any biologists) in arguments against evolution. I suspect they've taken a page from the tobacco and chemical industries. The anti-global warming people are really the trend-setters in using trial court methods to create public doubt in the absense of scientific doubt. It's a really disturbing approach to science policy.

I remember a James Hogan novel from back in the 70's that I read as a kid - I think it was Inherit the Stars - where he claimed that being a lawyer isn't very different from being a scientist. Unsurprisingly, Hogan is himself not big on evolution.

Being a scientist is utterly unlike being a lawyer. A trial lawyer is someone whose job is to either cast or undermine doubt about a particular claim without regard to its veracity, plausibility or evidential support. That is what the best defence means, and it explicitly means picking and choosing facts and arguments.

I take a dim view of credentialism, even on behalf of scientific ideas that I agree with. I think everyone ought to judge for themselves, even though - and sometimes because - they are likely to judge badly. But, I have to be suspicious when people whose trade often involves undermining or reinforcing other people's claims independently of their merits are found promoting a controversial idea outside their field of experitise.

This isn't lawyer-bashing as such. It's not even really trial lawyer-bashing - if I was on trial, I'd certainly expect my money to have some influence on the arguments my lawyer used. Most lawyers are not trial lawyers. The bulk of them, as far as I can tell, are employed on the basis of their expert knowledge of law and legal practice, a trade which is no less legitimate than being employed because of your expert knowledge of a foreign language. However, legal practice is overwhelmingly about categorisation and fiting things into particular categories. Science is also often about categorising things, but it is generally about creating categories to fit things, not the other way around.

If scientists are less likely to cherry-pick their data than lawyers are, it is because there are institutional mechanisms that punish them if they do. A trial lawyer can never be punished for casting events and people in the light most favourable to his or her client, and can be punished for failing to do so. The idea is that the opposing lawyer will do the same and somehow it will all work out. This is not exactly the way things work in the sciences. Once a trial (or the last appeal) ends, the case is decided. The winning lawyer can go home and chalk up one more victory. A scientific theory, on the other hand, has to produce continuing results and has to prove its value by repeated use indefinitely.

It is exactly on that basis that "intelligent design" fails, and that is what the author of the offending book review fails to get. One of the reasons ID has become so appealing to many non-biologists is that it has virtually nothing to say about the core practices of biological research. Its tenets close off no branch of study nor shut down any research project. It has no immediate impact on what biologists actually do or think.

For demarcationists - like Popperites - this is what is most wrong with it. "Intelligent design" produces nothing.

Now, people from outside of biology - say, lawyers - can easily say to themselves that the success of ID as an ideology has no impact on real science and might even lead a public that is still very skeptical of evolution to become more accepting. It might improve actual public opinion of science if people could be convinced that it didn't threaten the religious beliefs that are understandably far more immediately important to them. From a politician's standpoint, ID is therefore the perfect compromise.

And yet, the overwhelming majority of scientists are dead set against it and biologists hate it passionately.

I'm not exactly orthodox when it comes to philosophy of science. Frankly, I'm no longer quite sure that there is a truly hegemonic orthodoxy in the philosophy of science for me to be heterodox from nowadays. That doesn't mean I actually agree with creationists about much of anything, but it does mean that I think this is a battle over the sources of authority, and not about - if I may use a particularly abused word - proof.

I think scientists' opposition flows from some things that both scientists and anti-evolutionists alike wouldn't like much. First, what this guy from Harvard Law Review calls "methodological materialism" really is an ideology and not a scientific theory. But - and this is important - it is also utterly indispensable to science. Scientific methods are justified by their continuing usefulness and if scientific methods are predicated on such a methodological choice, then any idea incompatible with it is definitively not science. That has nothing to do with "truth" or "proof." It means that even if God does exist he, she, it or them still have no place in a science classroom.

Now, one could try to make a case that methodological materialism (I'm begining to think that's a good name and I hope it wasn't an ID theorist who thought of it) isn't indispensable to science. According to the book review, that is the direction this book on ID is trying to take. Methodological materialism is not incompatible with religious belief - it just means that scientists with religious convictions have to follow the advice of my old chemistry prof (who was a firm Mennonite and former mission worker): Never explain something by saying "and a miracle happened here."

But I think that a case against materialism as essential to science would be very hard to make because I would expect it to involve the citation of at least one useful, accepted scientific development that was made explicitly because its authors assumed a non-material cause. The contrary case - that methodological materialism really is essential - is easy to make. No scientific progress would be possible if difficult-to-believe theories that defy common sense had to compete with "because the established church says that God wants it that way." Scientists have a hard enough time resisting materialist claims that are reinforced by an external power structure. They can't give equal time to the theory that God did it. If they did, they could never, ever, have accomplished anything.

That is wrong both with the lawyerly defence of "intelligent design" and with the "intelligent design is false" attack on it. There is no evidence in favour of ID, but the debate about ID is not about evidence. The whole point about ID is that its advocates have conceded all important points of fact as if this was a trial. Their target isn't evolution or any particular claim about fossils or the Big Bang. There are always anomalies and uncertainties which a clever lawyer can use to create doubt. If something they point to today as proof of God is shown to be no such thing tomorrow, they will find something else to point at.

ID's target is materialism. The entire programme of ID is an ideological attack on science as an ideology which already has at least some public and political authority. You see few if any ID advocates suing federally-funded peer-reviewed scientific journals just because they won't publish their papers. If this was really about the Establishment Clause, you would think that would be the first line of attack. Instead, fights over ID revolve almost exclusively around science curricula in public schools. ID is intended to undermine in advance any challenge scientific claims might pose to other sources of authority or any hegemony scientists might expect to have in policy debates. It implies that religious claims are equally valid because science shows that God exists, or at least sets out to use the public school system to lead people to believe that such a conclusion is scientifically acceptable. It undermines the secularism of state policy by making religious claims implicitly scientific ones or at least as worthy of policy consideration as scientific claims. It is an attempt to get the state to declare religious claims to be equal to non-religious ones, even if it establishes no particular set of religious claims.

I will bet that most of ID's political backers are completely content to see every single biologist continue to practice methodological materialism - the ones who take campaign contributions from pharmaceutical and agricultural firms especially. This has never been about whether or not there is scientific evidence in support of God's existence.

Science isn't some impartial search for truth. I don't think it's really about objective knowledge at all. It is an established set of practices, ideologies and power structures that are far from above criticism. But, science is productive in a way that alternatives are not and I expect attacks on its principles to try to advance ideas that are claimed to be more productive. Legal tests of what constitutes a religion have nothing to do with the content of science classes.

Posted 2004/03/18 17:37 (Thu) | TrackBack