Perhaps authors should not be judged by the quality of insight expressed in their epigraphs. But were one so inclined, one would have to conclude that Chris Mooney is profoundly naïve about how science works. Indeed, he displays a level of naivete about the sociology of science unbecoming in any other field of journalistic inquiry. (He may need my course on the ‘Epistemology of Journalism’!) Readers of The Republican War on Science are initially regaled with an epigraph from Steven Pinker, the first sentence of which reads:
The success of science depends on an apparatus of democratic adjudication – anonymous peer review, open debate, the fact that a graduate student can criticize a tenured professor.
The pages that follow clearly indicate that Mooney believes not merely that this is a normative ideal toward which science as a whole aspires or to which pieces of scientific research might be, in principle, held accountable. Were either the case, I would be on side with him. Unfortunately Mooney also seems to believe that science is normally conducted this way. Journalists, if anyone, should be scrupulous about distinguishing what people do from what they say they do. The ethnographic methods so beloved in the more qualitative reaches of social science are historically indebted to just such first-hand coverage of previously neglected features of the life circumstances of workers and immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, Mooney’s trust in the peer review system is based purely on high-minded hearsay. So let me report briefly as an ‘insider’ to the process.
The only place a graduate student is likely to criticize a tenured professor – and live to fight another day—is an elite university, especially when the professor speaks outside his expertise (as Pinker often does). Moreover, this phenomenon bears no relation to the workings to the peer review process used to decide grants and publications. Contrary to the democratic image that talk of ‘peerage’ connotes, relatively few members of any science are regularly involved in the process. For the most part, there are no conspiracies here. It is simply a pain to spend time evaluating someone else’s work when you could be doing your own work. Peer reviewing is a mark of ‘good citizenship’, a euphemism for sacrificing a bit of yourself for the collective enterprise to which you would contribute. There are rarely any formal incentives to participate in the process. Of course, if you work in the same field, the burden is eased – but then ethical issues arise: Will you stymie your peer’s publication so that you can be on record as having said something similar earlier? In any case, funding agencies and academic editors tend to gravitate to a relatively small set of referees who exhibit both reliability and soundness of judgement. While this process may resemble capitalism’s ‘invisible hand’, it is hard to see how it would conform to any reasonable understanding of ‘democracy’. It is surprising Mooney trusts Pinker as a source for the virtues of the peer review process, since Pinker’s last four books, all best-sellers, have been with commercial publishers.
Science journalists are more like philosophers of science than either probably care to admit. Both are involved in public relations work for science without pretending to be scientists themselves. Of course, journalists and philosophers differ in deadline pressures, but they are similar in structuring their narratives around events, ideally ones where a discovery precipitates a decision with momentous consequences for an entire line of inquiry. Who exactly makes the ‘discovery’ is an interesting question, since it need not always be the scientists themselves. It could be the journalist or philosopher, who realizes that a specific moment marks a turning point in a heretofore open-ended situation. Much depends on how the event is framed: What exactly is ‘news’ here? For example, what was newsworthy about the mapping of the human genome – that it was done at all or that it was the outcome of a race between a publicly and a privately motivated team, or perhaps that both teams ‘won’ on their own terms?
That many – perhaps most—would regard the bare fact that the human genome was mapped as news indicates just how little the general public previously knew about how much scientists know about our genetic makeup. From a strictly scientific standpoint, mapping the human genome was little more than an industrial application. The only problems concerned the efficiency of the mapping. That a public and a private team competed to map the genome speaks to the anticipated consequences for the biomedical sciences and biotechnology: There is potentially huge consumer value in the mapping, but who will pay for what to be done? Perhaps that is a more newsworthy item. But one might equally argue that the segmentation of the scientific reward system, whereby one team gets its intellectual property rights and the other its Nobel Prize, points to the deepest issue of all, one that threatens any unity of purpose that scientific inquiry might be thought to have.
The question of intellectual integrity in both the journalistic and philosophical cases pertains to just how independent is your representation of science: Are you doing something other than writing glorified press releases for thinly veiled clients? It must be possible to be pro-science without simply capitulating to the consensus of significant scientific opinion. With this in mind, I am struck by Chris Mooney’s professed journalistic method:
Let me explain my principles for reporting on science. In my opinion, far too many journalists deem themselves qualified to make scientific pronouncements in controversial areas, and frequently in support of fringe positions. In contrast, I believe that journalists, when approaching scientific controversies, should use their judgment to evaluate the credibility of different sides and to discern where scientists think the weight of evidence lies, without presuming to critically evaluate the science on their own (p. vii).
The rhetoric of this statement is a marvel to behold. Mooney begins by distancing himself from colleagues who think they can pronounce on scientific debates. So, it would seem, Mooney defers to scientists. However, his own stated policy is ‘to evaluate the credibility of different sides’, which sounds a lot like constructing an independent standpoint from which to pronounce on scientific debates. Mooney may be caught here in a contradiction of purpose, but I might applaud the latter purpose as befitting a journalist who aspired to be the Walter Lippmann of the science field. Unfortunately, in the same sentence, Mooney dashes this hope by cashing out his idea of ‘evaluation’ in terms of simply reporting the considered opinion of scientists.
Now, even this would not be so bad if Mooney had an independent way of gauging scientific opinion. But alas, he does not. Most of The Republican War of Science is about self-identified armies of scientists and policymakers. This is very much of a piece with the elite nature of political struggles in modern complex democracies. Nevertheless, these elites are a fraction of all the people whose cooperation is necessary for any policy to take effect. Mooney’s oversight, which admittedly is characteristic of most contemporary science journalism, would never happen in political journalism. Imagine a journalist covering an election who reported the opinions of candidates and party operatives, and then turned only to think-tanks for assessments of the merits of the party platforms: No public opinion polls to establish the breadth and depth of voter sympathies. No probing interviews about which campaign issues really matter to voters. The natural conclusion to reach is that such a journalist has allowed herself to be drawn into the vortices of the spin doctors, whose combined judgements may or may not bear some resemblance to the election outcome.
For example, Mooney takes the judgement of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) as the gold standard of scientific authority. Yet, it is nothing but a think-tank that Abraham Lincoln created to provide advice during the Civil War, which has been increasingly called upon by various branches of the federal government to research and advise on science-based policy issues. It is a self-selecting and self-perpetuating body of advisors that is not accountable to the rank-and-file of the scientific community, let alone the electorate at large. To be sure, NAS members are typically very accomplished scientists. But it is not clear that the quality of a scientist’s judgement is improved as her achievements are rewarded. On the contrary, both the rewarding community and the rewarded scientist may come to adopt a superstitious attitude toward everything the scientist thinks. The rewarders confer a halo effect on the rewarded, a compliment the rewarded return by mounting scientific hobby horses that threaten to distort science’s overall research agenda.
A notable case in recent memory is the ill-fated Superconducting Supercollider, a Congressionally funded project to build the world’s largest particle accelerator in Texas. It is conspicuous by its absence from The Republican War on Science, though its heyday occurred during a Republican presidency, that of the first George Bush. The NAS was strongly behind it, fronted by distinguished physicists like Steven Weinberg and George Smoot. The latter’s work on cosmic background radiation (a key to understanding the aftermath of the Big Bang) was indebted to a satellite launched by NASA, another of the NAS’s ongoing interests. This is clearly science done mainly by and for its elite practitioners who then gesture to its larger ‘cultural value’ to justify its support. Scientific elites, especially in physics, have adopted this bread-and-circuses approach to rebrand the grounds on which they were given carte blanche in the Cold War era. As should now be clear in retrospect, the ‘Cold’ of the Cold War referred to the intellect, rather than the body, as the terms with which the Americans engaged in conflict with the Soviets: Larger particle accelerators demonstrated the nation’s capacity to harness energy to deliver larger weapon payloads; longer space voyages demonstrated the nation’s capacity to, if not outright colonize, survey extraterrestrial domains. In the postwar thaw, these deferred preparations for war against a foreign foe were redeployed for a more direct national conquest of the structure of reality itself. For scientists like Weinberg and Smoot, that was the whole point of the exercise all along.
There is no doubt that the Supercollider would have – and NASA has – produced good science. Indeed, good science can be produced about infinitely many things but budgets are limited and hence priorities needed. A science journalist should be sufficiently alive to this point to report consistently the likely beneficiaries and opportunity costs of alternative science funding streams. Much too often, Mooney writes as if the entire scientific community would benefit from one funding stream, while only pseudoscientists and their political mouthpieces would benefit from another. Then those falling into the latter category are formally identified and, where possible, the patronage trail is charted. Were Mooney more sensitive to the institutionalisation of science policy, he would have recognized the asymmetry of his practice. More specifically, he would have realized that two federal science policy bodies he holds in high esteem—the NAS and the erstwhile research arm of the US Congress, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) – operated under quite different principles, which came to the fore in the debates that eventuated in the termination of the Supercollider.
The OTA, staffed by social scientists, tended to frame analyses of the science policy environment in terms of a comprehensive statistical representation of the range of constituencies relevant to the policy issue: that is, including not only elite but also more ordinary scientists. On that basis, the OTA suggested that if the research interests of all practicing physicists are counted equally, then the Supercollider should not rank in the top tier of science funding priorities because relatively few physicists would actually benefit from it. I say ‘suggested’ because, whereas the NAS typically offers pointed advice as might be expected of a special interest group, the OTA typically laid out various courses of action with their anticipated consequences. My guess is that Mooney fails to mention this chapter in the OTA’s short but glorious history because it helped to trigger the ongoing Science Wars, which – at least in Steven Weinberg’s mind – was led by science’s ‘cultural adversaries’, some of whom staffed the OTA, whose findings contributed to the Congressional momentum to pull the plug on the overspending Supercollider. Although Mooney is right that both the NAS and OTA have often found themselves on the losing side in the war for influence in Washington science policy over the past quarter-century, their modus operandi are radically different. According to the NAS, science is run as an oligarchy of elite practitioners who dictate to the rest; according to the OTA, it is run as a democracy of everyone employed in scientific research.
I have no doubt that Republican politicians have tried to commandeer the scientific agenda for their own ends – indeed, ends which, generally speaking, I oppose just as much as Mooney does. Nevertheless, there are two countervailing considerations. First, like it or not, politicians and not scientists are the chosen representatives of the people. And, at least in the US, the ballot box more reliably removes suboptimal politicians than peer review identifies suboptimal science. Second, even the most competent scientists have rarely agreed on policy direction. While I bemoan this fact just as much as Mooney would (if he knew it), to believe otherwise is simply wishful thinking born of nostalgia for Cold War science policy.
First, the politicians are accountable to specific constituencies in a way scientists, especially elite ones, never are. Politicians are ultimately in the business of promoting the public interest, and everything – including science – is a means to that end. Whether she decides to listen to the NAS or scientists aligned with industry lobbyists, a politician’s fate is sealed in the ballot box of the next election. If a great many politicians who spurn the NAS win re-election, then the problem would seem lie with the disgruntled scientists rather than the politicians: Perhaps voters are happy to take risks that scientists find unacceptable. Indeed, perhaps voters are happy to remain ignorant about the exact risks because of goods that can be plausibly delivered in the short term. Suppose either or both of these speculations is correct. Does this demonstrate the irrationality of the American public? Mooney himself prefers to point to the ignorance and duplicity of politicians, as if the citizenry, ‘properly’ informed, would reach conclusions that coincide with those of the NAS. (A philosopher of science, Phillip Kitcher, has indulged this fantasy as the idea of ‘well-ordered science’.) Either Mooney is being incredibly polite here or he simply hasn’t thought through the implications of his argument. Why doesn’t he argue that a body like the NAS should function as a second Supreme Court, with the right of judicial review over federal legislation? After all, if US policymaking is really drowning in so much bad science, then wouldn’t it make sense to suspend some democratic control over the research (and teaching) agenda? In Mooney’s depiction, the pervasiveness of the problem certainly rivals that which brought a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security into existence!
My own heretical view of this situation is that even if US policymakers are influenced by a degraded form of science policy, it may matter much less than Mooney thinks because the checks and balances of the political system ensures that the potentially worst effects of such policy – just like the potentially best effects of excellent science policy – are attenuated in its many stages of implementation and administration. And if this is not enough, there is always the ballot box as the site of revenge on politicians who too closely aligned themselves with a failed science policy. A historical reality check is useful here. Like so many others who fret over the current state of science, Mooney compares the Republican politicisation of science with Lysenkoism, the doomed Soviet agricultural policy based on a version of Neo-Lamarckian genetics that comported with the ideology of dialectical materialism but not with the facts of heredity. And like so many others before him, Mooney makes the mistake of concluding that the main problem with Lysenkoism was that it tailored science to fit a preconceived political agenda rather than allow science to speak truth to power. However, this conclusion only makes sense with 20/20 hindsight, since Lysenko and his Stalinist admirers were involved in at least as much self-deception as deception. Nevertheless, what could have been noted even at the outset – and had been noted by consistent opponents like Michael Polanyi – was that the Soviet science system did not permit the fair testing of Lysenkoist knowledge claims.
It is disingenuous to think that science policies will not have elective affinities with the interests of the dominant political party. Mooney admits as much in his close association of what he regards as good science with the interests of Democrats and moderate Republicans currently out of favour in Washington. The real question is whether a science policy, regardless of its political origins, is subjected to sufficient scrutiny on the path to mass realization. While it would be nice to require every policy to satisfy state-of-the-art tests before it is unleashed on the public, something comparable may be simulated by having the policy pass through many different sets of eyes (of, say, bureaucrats), each attuned to different interests and hence motivated to troubleshoot for different problems. And if real problems pass unnoticed, then there is always the ballot box – hopefully enhanced by the spadework of investigative science journalists!
In short, the lesson of Lysenkoism is not to beware the politicisation of science, but to beware the authoritarian politicisation of science. The democratic politicisation of science—of precisely the sort encouraged by the federalist construction of the US Constitution – is fine. To be sure, I don’t mean to counsel a panglossian complacency toward the general state-of-affairs Mooney describes. But as it stands, it seems to me that the best course of action for those interested in improving the quality of science in policymaking is simply to try harder within the existing channels – in particular, to cultivate constituencies explicitly and not to rely on some mythical self-certifying sense of the moral or epistemic high ground. Sometimes I feel that the US scientific establishment and the Democratic Party are united in death’s embrace in their failure to grasp this elementary lesson in practical politics.
This raises the second countervailing consideration: Science, depending on how you look at it, is a many-splendored thing or a house divided against itself. It is not by accident that the NAS was formed during the Civil War. Warfare, in both its preparation and execution, has provided the only reliable pretext for consolidating national scientific resources, where scientists have arguably spoken in one voice. Otherwise, scientists have been loath to form representative bodies that go beyond narrow disciplinary interests, and these typically more at a national than an international level. Considering that scientific fields of inquiry have universalist aspirations, this sociological fact is striking – as well as having been an endless source of disappointment for J.D. Bernal and other Marxists who hoped that scientists could be organized worldwide to lead a proletarian revolution in the twentieth century.
Indeed, Mooney’s jeremiad against the influence of scientists in the pockets of industry might best be read as evidence that scientific competence is itself no guarantee of political allegiance. This is less because scientists compromise the integrity of their expertise than their expertise is genuinely open to multiple applications and extrapolations, which may contradict each other. Whatever ‘value-freedom’ science enjoys lies precisely here. It arises as a by-product of the controlled settings in which scientific expertise is typically honed and tested. These always differ sufficiently from policy settings to allow for substantial disagreements. I would go so far as to suggest that much of what passes for ‘data massaging’, whereby empirical results are revised to justify a preferred policy option, may be explained this way. The primary sin in this case is one of omission – namely, of alternative trajectories that may be plotted from the same data, which in turn forecloses the opportunity for serious criticism of the preferred policy. The controversy over Bjørn Lomborg’s The Sceptical Environmentalist (not mentioned by Mooney) provides an object lesson in this point.
Mooney does not take seriously that scientists whose research promotes the interests of the tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical or biotech industries may be at least as technically competent and true to themselves as members of the NAS or left-leaning academic scientists in cognate fields. Where these two groups differ is over what they take to be the ends of science: What is knowledge for – and given those ends, how might they best be advanced? What Mooney often decries as ‘misuse’ and ‘abuse’ of science amounts to his registering opposition to the value system in which many politicians and scientists embed scientific expertise. For example, a quick-and-dirty way to sum up the difference between scientists aligned with industrial and environmental interests is that the former are driven by solving and the latter by preventing problems. The former cling to what is increasingly called the proactionary principle, the latter to the more familiar precautionary principle.
Industry scientists function against the backdrop of an endless growth economy in which the maxim, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, is a source of inspiration not desperation: Any new product is bound to generate new problems, but those are merely opportunities for the exercise of human ingenuity – not to mention the generation of more corporate profits. That certain people are hurt by such reckless innovation must be weighed against others who would have been hurt without it, as well as the likely costs incurred by the available policy alternatives. In contrast, environmental scientists presuppose a steady-state economy, where the ultimate concern is that our actions reflect a level of restraint compatible with maintaining a ‘balance’ in nature. This vision tends to privilege our current understanding of the future, including future harms, even though in the long term our understanding is itself likely to change, as we learn more. Thus, there is a risk when going down the precautionary route that the only ‘steady-state’ being promoted is that of our knowledge, not of reality itself, as we prevent ourselves from taking risks that might serve to expand our capacity for action. Of course, environmentalists rightly ask who have licensed industrial scientists to risk other people’s lives in this fashion, which after all guarantees only profits for their paymasters and not progress for all. However, these very same critics typically would also curtail experimentation on animals for similarly risky purposes. The result looks like a fear-based policy of epistemic ossification that rivals the sort of ‘faith-based’ science policy that Mooney decries in creationists and intelligent design theorists.
I don’t intend to resolve this conflict in scientific world-views here. Both lay legitimate claim to advancing both science and the public interest. To be sure, the priorities of each are different, especially with respect to intertemporal issues: i.e. the relation of the short-term and the long-term. Neither world-view is especially prone to malice or incompetence, but there are clear reasons why certain constituencies might prefer one rather than the other. Moreover, the end of the Cold War has made the need for choice more evident. In my inaugural lecture as Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Durham University in 1995, I argued that the status of science in society is shifting from that of seculariser to that of secularised: the ultimate moment of sociological reflexivity. I developed this argument in a series of works, starting with Science (Open University Press and University of Minnesota Press, 1997), The Governance of Science (Open University Press, 2000) and most recently, The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies (Routledge, 2006). The basic idea is that without a state-backed unity of purpose for science, instantiated in a centralized peer-reviewed system of research funding, science is bound to gravitate in many different directions, according to the strength of competing constituencies. This is the pattern exhibited by Christianity, once the secular rulers of Europe no longer required the approval of the Roman Catholic Church. Many rival Christian churches emerged in this religious free zone, each directly appealing to people’s interests, forgoing abstract arguments that in the past only served to exercise authority over those people. In such a market environment, the religious concomitant of secularisation has been evangelism.
An analogous ‘science evangelism’ is readily seen today in the eclipse of state-based physics-oriented research funding by client-driven biomedical research. Whereas the citizenry used to dispose of their taxes to fund science as insurance against the vague but real sense of nuclear annihilation, nowadays they conceive of science as a high-tech service customized to their wants and needs. Perhaps politicians and the general public seem so much less informed about science than ever because decisions about science are being placed more squarely in their hands. This is similar to what happened once the Bible was translated into the vulgar European languages, and believers were empowered to interpret the text for themselves. In the past, one could simply trust a state-licensed, professionally sanctioned peer review system to apply good science in a good way to good ends. People may have been just as ignorant, if not more so, but it didn’t matter because they never had to take the funding decisions themselves. Like a nostalgic Catholic who in the wake of the Protestant Reformation thinks Christendom can be healed by returning to the papal fold, Mooney would have us to return to the science-authoritarian days of the Cold War, which was actually an aberration in the political history of science.
Of course, in matters of education, the scientific establishment has never had such an authoritative hold. By the standards of democracies in the developed world, the US is remarkable in lacking a national education ministry capable of enforcing uniform curricula for primary and secondary schools. Curricular guidelines are left to the states, and exactly how they are met – by what textbooks and teaching methods – is typically entrusted to local school districts. All of this is by Constitutional design, reflecting the nation’s origins in religious dissenters who had been disenfranchised in their native Britain. This has given the US a historic reputation for pedagogical innovation and experimentation – instances of which have been both emulated and discarded, depending on their results. However, this tendency has increasingly run up against the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prevents the monopolization of public life, especially public school classrooms, by a single faith. Notwithstanding the logical leap required to move from a prevention of religious monopoly to a prevention of religious expression altogether, this has been the general course taken by the US legal system toward the inclusion of religious considerations in the science curriculum over the past eighty years, since the notorious Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ over the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Like most liberal commentators who have studied the rise of scientific creationism and intelligent design theory, Mooney can only see the hand of the religious right at work. Yet, there is more to this organized intellectual opposition to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm in biology. Let me concede at the outset some basic facts: Yes, a line of descent can be drawn from high school science textbooks espousing Biblical literalism to ones now espousing intelligent design. Yes, there is probably a strong desire, perhaps even a conspiracy, by fundamentalists to convert the US to a proper Christian polity, one that is epitomized by the notorious ‘Wedge Document’ (more about which below) circulating at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank that has become the spiritual home of anti-Darwinism. But just how seriously should these facts be taken? After all, every theory is born in an intellectual state of ‘original sin’, as it actively promoted by special interests long before it is generally accepted as valid. It is therefore essential to monitor the theory’s development – especially to see whether its mode of inquiry becomes dissociated from its origins. So, while intelligent design theory may appeal to those who believe in divine creation, its knowledge claims, and their evaluation, are couched in terms of laboratory experiments and probability theory that do not make any theistic references. Of course, this does not make the theory true but (so I believe) it does make it scientific.
Suppose we took the pulse of Darwinism in 1909, fifty years after the publication of Origin of the Species but still a quarter-century before Mendelian genetics was generally accepted as providing the mechanism for an otherwise elusive process of natural selection. We would say that the theory’s main backers were located outside the universities – even outside the emerging lab-based biological sciences. To be sure, the backers were not trivial players in the knowledge politics of the day. They included popular free market intellectuals like Herbert Spencer, as well as many ‘captains of industry’ whose self-understanding motivated their support of the fledgling fields of the social sciences, where ‘Social Darwinism’ provided a powerful explanatory and legitimatory resource for the march of capitalism.
It is common for Darwinists to airbrush away this bit of their history, which draws attention to the fact that while biologists struggled to identify the causal mechanism responsible for the striking pattern of common descent and differential evolution that Darwin recorded in nature, congenial ideological currents – including eugenics and scientific racism—kept the theory in the public eye. Thus, it is striking that the Darwin exhibition currently at the American Museum of Natural History in New York gives the misleading impression that any association between Darwin’s theory and Thomas Malthus’ anti-welfarist tract, Essay on Population is purely coincidental. Yet, Darwin himself acknowledged – and Darwin’s admirers assumed—the profundity of Malthus’ insight into the normal character of mass extinction, given the inevitability of resource scarcity. Contrary to the accounts usually given of Darwin’s reception, what was provocative about Origin of the Species was not the prospect that a theory of plant and animal species could also explain humans, but the exact opposite: that a theory so obviously grounded in the explanatory framework of laissez faire capitalism could be generalized across all of nature. Thus, Darwin’s toughest critics came from the physical and biological sciences, not the social sciences.
The ascent of Darwinism makes one wonder when the theory passed from being a well-evidenced ideology (say, like Marxism) to a properly testable science. Would it have passed the criteria used nowadays to disqualify creationism and intelligent design theory in, say, 1925, the time of the Scopes Trial? Probably not, since Darwinists still couldn’t quite square their claims with cutting-edge genetics. However, it was equally clear that Darwinism enjoyed enormous support among self-styled progressive elements in American society who found locally controlled school boards to be among the last bastions of intellectual backwardness. In this respect, the American Civil Liberties Union’s intervention in State of Tennessee v. John T. Scopes, which turned it into a showcase trial, employed a more successful version of the strategy now being carried out by the Discovery Institute and other organizational vehicles for realizing the ‘Wedge Document’. Just as the ACLU helped to drive a wedge between the teaching of science and theology, the Discovery Institute would now drive a wedge between the teaching of science and anti-theology, or ‘methodological naturalism’ as it is euphemistically called.
You would be right to suspect that I treat the two ‘wedges’ as morally equivalent: Both should be allowed to flourish under the aegis of American democracy. As Darwinism slowly, fitfully but finally made its way into high school and college classrooms, the theory was developed in new directions, integrated with new bodies of knowledge, virtually – but of course never quite – distancing itself from its capitalist and racist roots, especially in cognate fields like socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. I imagine a comparable fate awaits intelligent design theory over the coming decades. This prognosis requires some justification since I would be the first to admit that proponents of intelligent design theory have not always placed themselves in the best possible light. At the same time, the near-hysterical response of the Neo-Darwinist forces is itself quite revealing. Mooney reduces the entire issue to a witch hunt about whether intelligent design theory is ‘really’ creationism in disguise, which for him is tantamount to showing it’s non-science, if not outright anti-science. Already at this point, Mooney is guilty of two errors, one for which he cannot be held entirely responsible: He follows the baleful tendency in contemporary US legal thinking that treats ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as mutually exclusive, rather than orthogonal, categories. However, the second error goes to Mooney’s journalistic acumen: Instead of constructing an independent standpoint from which to evaluate scientific merits of Neo-Darwinism and intelligent design theory, Mooney’s repeated practice is to ask Neo-Darwinists their opinion of work by intelligent design theorists (but not vice versa). The results should surprise no one. Such opinion may indeed be expert but it is unlikely to be unprejudiced.
By the end of this witch hunt, clearly exasperated by his quarry, Mooney exclaims that Darwin’s theory of evolution is ‘one of the most robust theories in the history of science’ (p. 183). I paused to wonder exactly what he might mean and how he might know it. It’s certainly true that Darwinism has had a persistent following for nearly 150 years, regardless of its evidential support. Moreover, Darwinism is philosophically ‘robust’ insofar as it has caused philosophers to alter their definitions of science to accommodate a research programme that clearly does not fit the mould of Newtonian mechanics. It’s also true that most practicing biologists profess a belief in Darwinism, though the impact of that belief on day-to-day empirical research is harder to establish. For example, Science magazine declared 2005 the Year of Evolution, but what they meant by ‘evolution’ relates rather loosely to what Darwin himself talked about. The magazine cited three developments: the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, the mapping of the genetic variability of human diseases, and the emergence of a new species of bird. Only the last conforms to Darwin’s own methods. Whereas he regarded natural selection as a process that occurred spontaneously in the wild and operated mainly on groups of organisms, today’s breakthroughs in evolution occur mainly in the laboratory, often at the genomic or sub-genomic level, and are the product of explicit experimental interventions. That these two quite different senses of ‘natural selection’ – sometimes distinguished as ‘macroevolution’ and ‘microevolution’ – are seen by palaeontologists and geneticists alike as subsumed under the same ‘Neo-Darwinian synthesis’ is regarded by many historians as the most singular rhetorical achievement in science.
A good way to appreciate the intellectual challenge posed by intelligent design theory – regardless of what one makes of its origins – is to consider the rhetorical character of Neo-Darwinism. No doubt the word ‘rhetorical’ will seem too provocative for some readers, but it is meant quite literally. Although Darwinism starts in, say, 1860, and modern genetics is underway by, say, 1900, it is only in the period 1930-40 that the Neo-Darwinian synthesis is forged, providing the covering theory for modern biological research. The main feat, achieved most clearly by Theodosius Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origins of Species in 1937, was to persuade natural historians in Darwin’s research tradition and laboratory geneticists in Mendel’s research tradition of a strong analogy between their methodologically rather different pursuits. In time, macroevolution and microevolution came to be understood as ‘evolution’ in exactly the same sense. A comparable development for some aspiring covering theory of the social sciences would be to convince, say, historical anthropologists and experimental economists that the ‘markets’ unearthed in the ancient world and constructed in the laboratory are to be explained by the same mechanisms, which the latter research environment reveals in their pure form. Among the obstacles to such a synthesis being forged in the social sciences include the perceived incommensurability between ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ research methods. One consequence of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis was to break down these Aristotelian hang-ups, which had also existed in biology, permitting both methods to migrate across the micro-macro divide with fruitful research results.
Thus, by no means do I wish to dismiss the Neo-Darwinian synthesis out of hand. Its construction has much to teach the social sciences, progress in which has been retarded by the sort of ‘metaphysical’ suspicions that Neo-Darwinism gladly suspends. Nevertheless, there remain fault lines in the synthesis, which occasionally surface, especially in the popular science literature, where the underlying assumptions and projected implications of empirical knowledge claims are discussed more openly than is normally permitted in the consensus-driven world of peer review. Mooney could have uncovered these fault lines had he asked two kinds of biologist, a field scientist and a lab scientist, what the theory of ‘evolution by natural selection’ is supposed to be about. The lab scientist would probably say that it’s a model of potentially universal scope, with the actual history of life on earth as merely one – and perhaps not even the most important – confirmation of the theory. She would probably not lose too much sleep, were she to learn that natural selection proves insufficient to the task of explaining the entire history of life on earth because the model still applies in all sorts of smaller and maybe even larger domains (e.g. Lee Smolin’s theory of cosmological selection). In contrast, the field scientist would turn the tables and say quite plainly that the theory of natural selection is exactly about the actual history of life on earth, and that the fate of the theory rests precisely on the extent to which it explains the patterns that Darwin and subsequent natural historians have found. Everything else is merely a metaphorical extension of the original theory.
This is quite a serious difference of opinion in how one defines a theory’s referent. Perhaps, then, Neo-Darwinism is so ‘robust’ because it is so strategically vague – or should I say, ‘adaptive’! Nevertheless, the fault lines are periodically revealed. The late Stephen Jay Gould, whose expertise was closest to Darwin’s own (not least in his ignorance and disdain of lab-based science), fits my ‘field scientist’ to a tee. Not surprisingly, then, as the evidence from extant and extinct creatures suggested the insufficiency of natural selection as an overarching explanation for the actual history of life on earth, he became pan-Darwinism’s fiercest critic. Many Neo-Darwinists have not only decried Gould’s perceived defection from the fold but have more harshly criticized intelligent design theorists for trying to get some mileage from Gould’s apostasy. But this is to suggest that the Neo-Darwinists have proprietary rights over the entire history of biology. Yet, Neo-Darwinism’s own pivotal mechanism – what is now called ‘Mendelian genetics’ – was contributed by people who held the counter-Darwinian assumption that every member of a species, regardless of species history, is programmed with a reproductive propensity. That assumption is a legacy of special creationism, a research tradition in natural history that connects the devout Christians, Linnaeus, Cuvier and Mendel. To be sure, many of its elements have been subsumed by the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. But why can’t intelligent design theorists reclaim this subsumed tradition as their own to develop the biological sciences in a different direction? In that case, Gould is rightly invoked as an ally – if only in a backhanded way—because he stuck to Darwin’s original formulation of evolutionary theory and found it empirically wanting, whereas Neo-Darwinists have shifted the goalpost to make it seem as though the theory’s validity does not rest mainly on evidence from the field.
In short, intelligent design theorists should treat what evolutionists regard as a broadening of their theory, which corresponds to the ascendancy of lab-based research, as involving a thinning of the theory’s content. I was struck by this point as an expert witness for the defence in the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the first test case for the inclusion of intelligent design theory in public schools. One expert witness called by the plaintiffs, whom Mooney also quotes as a source, was Robert Pennock, my contemporary in the doctoral programme at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Pennock enthused under oath about an ‘artificial life’ computer programme that he and some colleagues at Michigan State University had recently written up for Nature magazine. To the unprejudiced observer, the programme simply looks like a strategy for generating computer viruses without the user’s intervention, albeit within parameters that approximate the combinatorial tendencies of DNA. Yet, Pennock claimed that this programme ‘instantiated’ evolution by natural selection. The metaphysically freighted ‘instantiated’, much favoured by artificial life researchers, renovates the old theological idea (originally used to justify God’s Trinitarian nature) that essentially the same idea can be materialised in radically different ways. Too bad, under cross examination, Pennock wasn’t asked whether he thought his programme added to Neo-Darwinism’s success at explaining the history of life on earth – or merely substituted for it. So much for falsifiability!
Evolutionists have been allowed to hedge their bets in this fashion because, prior to the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, there had been no ‘robust’ theory of the biological sciences as a whole. Biology was a scientific free zone, which is easily documented by noting the non-university locations of many of its historic practitioners. Under the circumstances, it is easy – but no less unfortunate – that a journalist like Mooney should come to make a simple equation between Neo-Darwinism and biological science as such. This leads him to suspect that intelligent design theory, which he treats alternatively as pseudoscience and antiscience, is conspiring to replace Neo-Darwinism wholesale – perhaps with some sort of Biblical fundamentalism. This really does the theory a serious injustice. At most, intelligent design theorists are guilty of opportunism, exploiting substantial differences of opinion already present in the Neo-Darwinian ranks, which the parties themselves think should be discussed in peer-reviewed publications rather than in the media, courtrooms and classrooms. Thus, intelligent design theorists typically accept exactly the sort of microevolution evidence for which led Science to declare 2005 the Year of Evolution. But that’s because ‘evolution by natural selection’ in these cases has been intelligently designed, namely, by the human researchers responsible for setting up the relevant experimental conditions. But what would allow natural selection to work so decisively in nature, without the presence of humans? That was the question that really interested Darwin – and Gould. It drove the analogy between ‘natural selection’ and ‘artificial selection’, which of course refers to the human breeding of animals. At this point, intelligent design theory dissents from the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy and refuses to accept macroevolution as the final word.
Moreover, there is a positive programme behind intelligent design theory, though its proponents have not been as vocal about it as they might. The programme requires some imaginative thinking about ‘anti-naturalism’. We need to pick up on the idea of ‘instantiation’ mentioned above. A scientifically tractable way of thinking about ‘supernaturalism’ is in terms of the same form, end or idea being realized in radically different material containers. However, some of these containers may be better suited than others for what they contain. Converting this general point into a programme of theoretical and practical problems renders ‘intelligent design’ scientific. (Herbert Simon’s classic The Sciences of the Artificial can be thus read as a secular tract on intelligent design as a metatheory for all science.) Now, if we further suppose that humans have been created in the image and likeness of God – or less provocatively, that reality is in some deep way human-like – then it becomes easy to think about life itself from a design standpoint. Our technologies are then lesser versions of the divine technology responsible for all the world’s creatures. By the same token, we can treat these creatures as prototypes for technologies we might develop to enhance human dominion over nature. Perhaps the most obvious of numerous historical examples is the study of birds for aviation technology. (More Unitarian Christians, like Joseph Priestley and perhaps even Isaac Newton, might say we converge with God at that point, but I offer no opinion on the matter). In short, the biological sciences would become an advanced form of engineering, corresponding roughly to fields currently known as ‘biomimetics’ and ‘bionics’, which draw very heavily and fruitfully from contemporary biology but without any theoretical commitment to the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.
There is potentially quite a lot of money to be had by thinking of biology in this fashion, which I think helps explain why the Discovery Institute – founded as it was by technoscience sophisticates like George Gilder and Bruce Chapman – has supported intelligent design theory. To put the point bluntly, they want to corner the market on ‘playing God’ by both supporting the requisite technological innovations and laying down the moral ground rules for their use. Here Mooney overlooked that Gilder’s 1989 bestseller Microcosm was one of the first books to herald the advent of nanotechnology (as ‘quantum economics’). Had Mooney attended more to the continuities that have taken these young Rockefeller Republicans of late 1960s to their current support of intelligent design theory, he might have also seen the general reluctance of the Discovery Institute to be too closely aligned with genuine Biblical fundamentalists, as became clear was behind the support for intelligent design theory in the Dover school board in the Kitzmiller case. Indeed, it should not have been too much for Mooney to imagine that the Discovery Institute, whatever its intentions, is unlikely to succeed at spearheading some monolithic right-wing conspiracy, given that the fundamentalists who would be the foot soldiers simply want to read their biology off the Bible and not have to grapple with the scientifically informed speculations of William Dembski or Michael Behe.
The Discovery Institute is of course only one of many think-tanks trying to jump start the future of science for political advantage. Indeed, on matters relating to cutting-edge nano-, bio- and info- technology research, one might wish to turn to the judgement of such entities before that of the NAS. Of course, this is not because the NAS does not uphold good science, but simply because such an elite institution is unlikely to have its ear sufficiently close to the ground really to know what is and is not feasible in the foreseeable future, which is essential for framing any general political guidelines for research support. (That the NAS does not move very fast is symptomatic. Generally speaking, the peer review system has served to stagger publication, so as to allow a critical mass of researchers to become ‘pre-acquainted’ with impending research findings. But as time-to-publication shrinks in even the peer-reviewed sectors of the internet, the advantage accrued to those ‘in the know’ shrinks.) Imagine, if you can: What may turn out to be the best work is not being done by the ‘best people’ at the ‘best places’! Let me make clear that I do not wish to celebrate the diffuse and largely unmonitored – and certainly unregulated – nature of emergent technoscientific trends. But we are unlikely to win Mooney’s ‘Republican war on science’ if we cling to a nostalgic view of the authoritativeness of the self-selecting college of scientific cardinals represented by, say, the NAS.
The genius of MIT’s Vice-President Vannevar Bush’s The Endless Frontier lay in persuading postwar policymakers that the surest route to produce science in the public interest is to let scientists decide the research agenda for themselves. Not surprisingly, he made the argument turn on national security, based on the distinguished academic scientists amassed at Los Alamos who built the atomic bomb. However, an alternative framework for federal science policy had been floated even before America’s entry in World War II by West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore. He imagined a ‘National Science Foundation’ as an extension of FDR’s New Deal. Kilgore proposed a science board in which two scientific representatives would serve alongside a representative each of labour, agriculture, industry and consumer groups.
Like most astute observers at the time, Kilgore realized that innovative scientific research in the US was being conducted off campus, as academics saddled with heavy discipline-based teaching loads were lured to informally structured interdisciplinary research parks like Bell Laboratories. He believed, I think rightly, that scientists – like other high-skilled workers – would naturally gravitate to the best labour conditions, which could eventuate in the evacuation of scientists from the public sector. Not only would it be difficult to monitor or regulate their activity, it would prove difficult to reap the benefits implied by the Constitutionally enshrined idea of science as a ‘public good’. Using the Great Depression that ended the post-World War I economic boom as his benchmark, Kilgore believed that without state intervention, science would simply exacerbate class differences in American society. So, one of his many science funding schemes involved treating science education as a form of national service, whereby the government would finance the training of academically suitable students on the condition that they would spend some years developing one of America’s economic backwaters.
Kilgore’s relevance here is that he quite explicitly wanted to politicise science – indeed, to mount an offensive against scientists’ spontaneous free market politics. Moreover, Mooney would have probably found Kilgore’s politics attractive. I certainly do. Yet, Kilgore was in no doubt that good science could be done under both private and public regimes. However, by the time the vote on the establishment of the National Science Foundation reached the floor of Congress in 1950, Kilgore’s proposal had come to be seen through Cold War lenses as ‘politicising science’ in a sense by then associated with Hitler and Stalin. Bush’s victorious alternative had the federal government create a protected internal market for scientific research and later (with the launching of Sputnik) education. This has proved very costly and, not surprisingly, with the end of the Cold War, the federal government has gradually allowed science to revert to the pre-war free market state that Kilgore decried. If Mooney is genuinely interested in promoting good science in the public interest, then he needs to articulate a robust conception of the ‘public interest’. The New Deal was the last time that occurred in the US outside a context of military preparedness. The legacy of that formulation is what remains of the American welfare state.