A few days ago Janet posted on the importance of critical faculties in science in response to a series of posts by PZ and John on how we get the public to understand science (mostly evolution in this case). Critical thinking is obviously important in science, as is experimentation, model building, reproducibility, etc. etc. If you are a fan of Karl Popper or Thoms Kuhn (or other less luminous figures like Imre Lakatos) you have an idea about how science should or does work.
All these thinkers capture essential components of Science, but I think one important point which is often forgotten is that science is more than a way of thinking, it is a social world. As I commented in Janet’s post many (most) humans are capable of critical thinking and skepticism. I have met many Christian fundamentalists who spit out CSICOP-like talking points when it comes to magic and astrology, and I have met New Age sorts who are well aware of how ludicrous Christian fundamentalism is, yet they can not see their own irrationalities. This reminds me of an anecdote that Ibn Warraq recounted in Why I am Not a Muslim. Warraq tells how he had a Muslim acquaintance who proudly displayed his copy of Bertrand Russell’s famous Why I am Not a Christian. Warraq’s Muslim acquaintance seemed oblivious to the fact that most of the arguments Russell makes could be easily translated to a refutation of the Muslim religion!
These blinkers are one reason why I think that force of argument will not suffice in convincing the public about the validity of evolutionary theory. In my 10 questions for Ken Miller I specifically asked him if he believed that the public’s rejection of evolutionary theory was a function of lack of knowledge about the topic, and he believed it was. I disagree with Miller. Mormon students at BYU have become much more skeptical of evolutionary theory over the last 70 years. Is this a function of less education in science? I doubt it, rather, it is a function of social dynamics, Mormons identify strongly with the political and social priorities of conservative Protestants, who do reject evolutionary theory. I also hold that most people who accept the theory of evolution do so not because they understand the science on a deep level, but that they have no reason not to accept the consensus findings of modern science. In contrast, a powerful stream of evangelical Protestant Christianity in the United States has made a strong equation between godless atheism and evolution which results in many Americans rejecting the scientific consensus because of its negative connotations. This is why totally irrelevant (to my mind) reference to St. Augustine’s openness to evolutionary ideas is very persuasive to many Christians, it decouples the association between evolution and atheism which serves as a cognitive block to acceptance of the scientific consensus.
I have argued before that the scientific consensus is a socially mediated process, that its accuracy and precision in describing the world around us is in spite of our biases and the large dollop of noise which the signal of truth swims in. My post about the history of population genetics in the early 20th century highlighted how the personal shortcomings of scientists arrested the “proper” development and forwarding of scientific knowledge, but no doubt this is happening today as well (in classic Kuhnian fashion). That doesn’t mean that we don’t have selection operating upon the random walk exploration of idea space generated by social biases (and sometimes non-random walk). But science’s social dynamic means that appeals to method and native human reason are in this day and age limited. Much of Newtonian physics can be trivially illustrated, but Quantum Mechanics and Relativity make predictions which require more ingenious and less obviously accessible tests. The tests for evolutionary theory are similarly not simply the work of an afternoon with balls of various masses. Ultimately the veracity of many scientific theories must be vouchsafed by either our trust in the scientists (eg; post-classical physics) or by its fruits (the uses of evolutionary theory in medicine being a new way to show its practical utility, ergo, the positive necessity of its acceptance toward increasing quality of life). Today’s scientists are priests who stand on the shoulders of their colleagues.