I am abusing my ability to post here rather than add a comment to the ongoing thread discussing Steve Fuller’s response to Chris Mooney’s book. I think—sorry, P.Z.—that much of what Fuller says is more or less right. To be more precise, I think the first half of his response to Mooney is pretty good, and there are some good bits later on, too. However—sorry, Steve—I also think Fuller makes an error in the way he fuses his sociology of science with his policy recommendations about what to do about the Intelligent Design movement. Moreover, he himself does the groundwork that makes the basis of the error clear. I’ll try to explain below the fold.
Here’s the argument. Much of what Fuller says in the first part of his post is good sociology of science. In particular, his image of science as a contested, politicized field is basically right, and—speaking as someone who believes that the present Administration is out to gut science it doesn’t like—I think he’s right that Chris Mooney is in danger of romanticizing the practice of science. And I agree that, at bottom, the best you can do is fight your corner. As Fuller puts it,
It is disingenuous to think that science policies will not have elective affinities with the interests of the dominant political party. … In short, the lesson of Lysenkoism is not to beware the politicisation of science, but to beware the authoritarian politicisation of science. … 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.
Now, in my view, Fuller’s contribution starts to go wrong from about here onwards. He makes some strong points about the messy history of Darwinian theory between the contribution of Darwin himself and the mid-twentieth century neo-Darwinian synthesis. He then argues that the twin “wedges” of the Scopes trial and the Discovery Institute’s efforts are “morally equivalent” and that the latter could develop in the way that the former did. The strengths and weaknesses of Fuller’s arguments are fused together: he’s at his strongest when retrospectively analyzing the different ways science might be politicized. But his argument is at its absolute weakest when making the case that the ID movement contains a positive research program, in addition to being parasitic on mainstream biology. There’s little reason to believe that this positive program is real, and—noted biologist George Gilder notwithstanding—the only reason to think it might be is analogical: the Darwinian approach did grow from a somewhat similar social position a hundred years ago.
But this is the nub of the matter. Why should we, as more-or-less interested actors in the field of science, let this single consideration outweigh any others—not least the sincere belief that ID is politically motivated rubbish, for instance—to the point that we would want to nuture ID in high schools? Early on in comments to his post, Fuller argues
Why start teaching ID at the high school level? I received a lot publicity – and flak – for saying in the Dover trial that ID required ‘affrimative action’, i.e. that it could not be expected to provide a credible alternative to Neo-Darwinism without government intervention. It’s clear that the few people pursuing ID openly in universities are treated as intellectual pariahs, and under those circumstances it’s hard to recruit the colleagues and students needed to convert an unconventional idea into a full-fledged research programme. One solution would be to teach biology as a much more contested field, attending to the role that ID- and even special creationist thinking has contributed to what even Neo-Darwinists regard as credible science, and that the Neo-Darwinian synthesis was forged under quite specific circumstances in the 20th century.
The problem here is that Fuller has rebutted his own prescription in advance. There is no reason to believe either that “Neo-Darwinism” really needs a “credible alternative,” or that ID is the entity to provide it, or that this entails that biology should be taught in high school in much the same way as the sociology of science might be taught in graduate school. As Fuller says himself, as Darwinism “slowly, fitfully but finally” established itself, it has “developed in new directions, integrated with new bodies of knowledge, virtually—but of course never quite—distancing itself from its capitalist and racist roots”. In other words, while no body of knowledge is ever fully emancipated from the social conditions of its production and reproduction, modern biology’s relative success in this respect means that it now sustains a wide range of alternatives to the main currents of thought in the field. So, why does it—or why do we—need ID? Not that the Discovery Institute shouldn’t keep plugging away, if that’s what they want. Fuller’s good advice to Democrats applies directly here, too: “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”. The ID people are entitled to do this, and they’ve certainly been trying hard.
They are also entitled, frankly, to be crushed like bugs in the process. Sure, they’ll get control of a few school districts here and there, but—again, as Fuller says—they can be booted out later. Politically, I see no reason to support them. Scientifically, there’s no compelling prospect of them being able to do anything of practical use that some better-established branch of biology can’t do already. And sociologically, I don’t see how Fuller’s own conception of the scientific field supports the kind of “affirmative action” strategy that he advocates. Let them hammer away along with the rest of us if they like. But why should anyone care to the point of helping them out, especially when the mainstream is not, by Fuller’s own arguments, all that monolithic anymore?
The question remains as to why Fuller thinks the policy he advocates is a good one (other than the hope that, if ID does win out, by the early 22nd century he might be hailed as the greatest sociologist of science in history). Maybe he’s hoping for an earthquake in biology, a second modern revolution in the field. But—as Fuller surely knows—scientific revolutions of this sort cannot be willed into existence. It’s not impossible that a revolution of this sort could happen—after all, Darwinism did it once already. Indeed, over the long run it’s inevitable. But you can’t intentionally induce this kind of revolution by means of policy or high-school curricula, for the same reason that you can’t force someone to be happy or consciously will yourself to sleep. If it happens at all, it will be essentially a byproduct of other struggles—politicized, messy struggles, certainly. But while the revolution may already be brewing, you can’t schedule it.
Jon Elster makes the point nicely. We’d all like to be more creative and productive, whether as artists or scientists or what have you. Maybe we’d all like a revolution in science, too. However, as Elster points out, to believe we can engineer or will this directly
is the fallacy of striving, seeking, and searching for things that recede before the hand that reaches out for them. In many cases it takes the form of trying to get something for nothing, to acquire a character or become ‘a personality’ otherwise than by ‘ruthless devotion to a task.’ In other cases it is accompanied by self-indulgence, when one is led to tolerate errors or imperfections in one’s own work because one knows they sometimes prove useful or fertile. In particular, many will have come across the brand of scientist who excuses the one-sidedness of his work by the need for fertile disagreement in science. … this attitude goes together with a form of self-monitoring whose corrosive effects I have been concerned to bring out.” (Sour Grapes, 107-108.)
Science really is structured in more or less the way that Fuller describes. But for that reason, his efforts to enhance the chances of the Intelligent Design movement are most likely doomed. I can’t say I’ll miss them much when they’re gone.