The Corner

Science & Tech

Irreducible Perplexity

In response to The Ultimate Question of Life’s Origins

I enjoy a good argument from authority as much as the next guy. Contra David Klinghoffer, I wouldn’t say that I “idolize” William F. Buckley Jr., as much as I admired him. WFB got a lot of things wrong, as probably was inevitable for a man with that kind of volume of output. My understanding is that WFB’s education was in political science, economics, and history. All worthy fields, none of which is likely to give anybody any particular insight on enormously complex and specialized questions of science. Klinghoffer goes on to cite (in order) a theologian, a political polemicist, a historian, a journalist-novelist, an intellectual historian, and a literary critic — followed by a mathematician and a lawyer.

The difference here, I suppose, is that I do not think that (in order) a theologian, a political polemicist, a historian, a journalist-novelist, an intellectual historian, and a literary critic—followed by a mathematician and a lawyer—probably have a great deal to contribute to a technical debate within a specialized sub-discipline of biology. If I should be wrong about that, then I am confident that the Nobel committee or PNAS will let me know.

I know some very intelligent dentists, but I would not ask one to design a bridge. (I mean the kind that goes across a river, not the dental kind.)  That leaves Professor Behe, who is welcome to slug it out with the other biologists in the professional journals. My understanding is that the scholars in his field have not found his work persuasive. I cannot think of a good reason why I’d discount that and be persuaded instead by lawyers and theologians and journalists. We aren’t talking about questions of political preference or cultural criticism. This is not one of those cases in which there are no wrong answers.

The fact that the advocates of intelligent design have shown themselves determined to make their case in the political journals and in the popular press — relying heavily on lawyers and the like — rather than make their case to the scientific community is, I think, indicative of the character of their project. Which is not to say that I think they are acting in bad faith; it is only to say that this is a scientific dispute, and what lawyers and journalists do is not science, in the same way it isn’t professional basketball or French cooking or operating a dry-cleaners.

I like the idea of the gentleman-scholar who, working from his home library, knocks down a pillar of scientific orthodoxy, leaving the professionals agog and agape. But there isn’t a lot of science that is done that way now, in the 21st century. And even if there were — and I cannot emphasize this point enough — an intellectually serious endeavor toward that end would be presenting its findings mainly to scholars of evolution rather than, say, novelists.

UC-Berkeley is said to have an excellent doctoral program in this field. Have at it. But don’t try to tell me that the entire scientific community is engaged in a conspiracy against the world-changing scientific breakthrough that is so obvious and so persuasive to people who don’t actually have any substantial knowledge of the field in question. There is no intellectual value in that at all, at least that I can see.

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