Dunbar, Scott on Arber: scientific consensus vs. scientific knowledge?

During the January 21 hearings of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), there was an exchange between Board Member Cynthia Dunbar and Eugenie Scott (of the National Center for Science Education) that is, I think, particularly significant.

The exchange concerns the views of Nobel laureate Werner Arber. Dunbar had invoked Arber’s name (or some version of his name) during the hearings on November 19, 2008 as an example of a respectable scientist who is a Darwin skeptic (as related by Joshua Rosenau on his blog).

First, listen to the audio (play here or download), or watch the video (below). Just from listening to the interchange, see if you can understand what Dunbar is arguing. You can stop and think about it, which people there at the event, in real-time, could not do while following the ensuing questioning by Board member Mercer.

Here, now, is a partial transcript (edited for what I want to comment on):

Scott: His [Arber’s] viewpoint is that at this point the scientific community does not have consensus on a natural origin of life.

Dunbar: Well, actually, he doesn’t talk about scientific consensus. He says,

[reading the letter from Arber]: In contrast, there is, so far, neither satisfactory scientific knowledge nor theory on the origin and early evolution of life on our planet.

Are you now going to take issue with the letter he sent you?

Scott: That’s the same thing … there are many theories and hypotheses and a lot of research going on exploring a number of avenues of how the first replicating structure developed. That is irrelevant to the conversation today that we’re having, because the conversation that we’re having today is whether we should teach students, without qualification, the point of view of the scientific community, which is that living things have common ancestors. That’s what evolution is.

Dunbar: So your point is that we need to teach them the viewpoint of the scientific community, not observable testable data that is in conformation with the scientific process and theory. Do you think that that’s the same thing? Is that your position?

Scott: I don’t think that those two are in contradiction to each other. … We should be teaching the scientific consensus on this. The high school classroom is no place to fight the culture wars, and this unfortunately is what is happening in Texas, and in Louisiana and in many other states, where this issue has disproportionately affected education.

The letter Dunbar is quoting from was included by Scott with her written statement to the SBOE, and is included in the blog post by Joshua Rosenau .

Before getting to my own point in this blog post, I want to point out something else about Dunbar’s contention, in relation to what Arber is saying in his letter.

Dunbar is representing this as a situation in which the Nobel laureate champion for her position — or for her side of the purported “two-sided controversy” — has a position on the “origins of life” question which Scott and their (e.g., the NCSE) “side” want to prevent students from hearing about. In the scenario that Dunbar is presenting (in November as well as January, and no doubt in March), Scott and the “Darwinists” are trying to make sure that students are exposed only to the point of view that they are claiming as the consensus of the scientific community.

Her interpretation of Arber’s position comes from Arber’s response to an interview question, quote-mined in an article published by the Institute for Creation Research (see Joshua Rosenau’s  blog post for more on the interview and the ICR article). Arber’s interview responses are published in Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo Sapiens by Henry Margenau and Roy A. Varghese, along with short answers by dozens of other scientists to the same short list of questions.

For the question, “What is your view on the origin of Homo sapiens?,” he responded:

Being interested myself in better understanding the mechanism of biological evolution, I do not have problems understanding the origin of Homo sapiens. Biologically, man is just a living organism as any other. Of course, he has well-developed intellectual abilities, and we do not fully understand yet how this came about. But there is no good scientific evidence to assume that H. sapiens is an independent creation. Taking this argument further, man should realize that he is stringently dependent in his life on a multitude of other living organisms, as any other living organisms are. Man therefore should stop drastically interfering with ecological equilibria in such an intensive manner that further biological evolution is endangered because of a serious reduction in biological diversity.

But when asked, “What is your view on the origin of life: both on a scientific level and — if you see the need — on a metaphysical level?,” he answered:

Although a biologist, I must confess that I do not understand how life came about. Of course, it depends on the definition of life. To me, autoreplication of a macromolecule does not yet represent life. Even a viral particle is not a life organism, it only can participate in life processes when it succeeds in becoming part of a living host cell. Therefore, I consider that life only starts at the level of a functional cell. The most primitive cells may require at least several hundred different specific biological macro-molecules. How such already quite complex structures may have come together, remains a mystery to me. The possibility of the existence of a Creator, of God, represents to me a satisfactory solution to this problem.

At this point, I guess I should quote a couple paragraphs from Arber’s letter:

The truth is that I have contributed to advance scientific knowledge on biological evolution by studying molecular mechanisms of genetic variation. Genetic variation is clearly the driving force of biological evolution. A number of different specific molecular mechanisms contribute to spontaneous genetic variation. Together with non-genetic elements specific gene products are thereby involved as variation generators and as modulators of the rates of genetic variation. These are established facts that are based on experimental evidences and that are valid for the course of biological evolution as it works today in living organisms. Theoretically, one can extrapolate into the past history of life development on Earth. One can, e.g., postulate how the genes involved in biological evolution may have become fine-tuned to insure to living organisms a comfortable genetic stability and at the same time to the populations of living organisms an evolutionary development, including adaptability to changing living conditions and an expansion of biodiversity. In contrast, there is, so far, neither satisfactory scientific knowledge nor theory on the origin and early evolution of life on our planet.


In conclusion, I am neither a “Darwin skeptic” nor an “intelligent design supporter” as it is claimed in Bergman’s article. I stand fully behind the NeoDarwinian theory of biological evolution and I contributed to confirm and expand this theory at the molecular level so that it can now be called Molecular Darwinism.

(Emphasis added to the sentence quoted by Dunbar)

Now listen to the complete exchange between Dunbar and Scott concerning Arbor (34K mp3, under 3 minutes), which includes the parts as edited above.

For Dunbar, this is a case of “Darwinists” trying to prevent students from learning about scientific “findings” and “documentation” that lead Arber to conclude that there is no satisfactory naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

In fact, Arber’s research has nothing to do with the “origin of life” question, which is what both he and Scott are saying. The findings from his research unequivocally support and confirm evolutionary explanations. When he says we don’t now have an answer to the “origins of life” question, he’s saying this in contrast to the questions that his own research has addressed, for which his own research yields “findings” and “documentation” that are totally in confirmation of evolution. (Maybe he was too subtle, in trying to indicate the contrast by using the words, “In contrast.”)

Now we can get to the main point for which I’m posting this.

The eight open-minded SBOE members will be hearing between now and their March meeting from scientists who can help them see what’s wrong with the amendments that were adopted on January 22. When they try to get these amendments removed at their March meeting, they will be saying “We’ve talked with scientists, and the scientists have told us that these amendments are bad science. We need to go back to the TEKS as drafted by the writing teams, without any of these changes.”

Well, we want them to say that. And, if all eight vote that way then “eight is enough.” Members on the fence, however, are hearing from groups and constituents trying to move them the other way. (You can feel Agosto’s pain, for example, as he stalls for time before disclosing that he will vote against restoring “strengths and weaknesses.” I can imagine him voting for other amendments to placate some who were upset by his vote on that.)

When some board members say in March, “we should do what the experts are telling us is good science,” others on the board will answer (as they already have been saying) “we have our own responsibility here in this job, and our responsibility is not just to accept somebody else’s recommendations and adopt them as they are given to us.” They will also (again) remind everybody that there were members of the writing teams who did not agree with the recommendations, and whose judgments and voices are not being heard; and they will continue pointing out that three of their six “experts” concluded that the “strengths and weaknesses” language should be retained.

Of course, that “three out of six experts”bit might mean something if they had selected six people for their expertise, and then three of them came to that conclusion. In this case the three were chosen for no other reason than the certainty that this would be their position; and the creationist board members had to dig very deep indeed to find three people who would take that position. When Prof. Hillis expressed amazement at the strength and depth of relevant expertise in Austin and around Texas that the board had passed over to bring in a comparatively unpublished biology professor from Superior, Wisconsin, and a nonscientist from the Discovery Institute, as “expert” reviewers, Board chairman McLeroy exploded in outrage, telling Hillis he was out of order in disparaging the other “experts.”

When Stephen Meyer, the “expert” from the Discovery Institute, was brought back to answer questions, he actually turns this around: Characterizing Hillis as having argued from authority, Meyer told the Board that they should take this as a sign that evolution is lacking evidence, since the Evolutionists would be arguing from evidence if they had any, instead of trying to argue from authority.

This brings us back to a theme that some of the creationists including Dunbar and McLeroy, are riding, which I have pointed to in an earlier post here. Dunbar is positing a distinction — even an opposition — between the consensus among scientists, on the one hand, and the evidence-based scientific method, on the other (recall the exchange with the Eugenie Scott, above). They deny the consensus documented by the survey sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN). But then they say that even a 99.9% consensus among scientists is “trumped” (to use Dunbar’s word) by the scientific method. And that’s the role for the SBOE members: to defend true science against the threat posed by all those scientists!

After Anita Gordon’s testimony on November 19, Dunbar said:

Science is not something that’s determined by majority vote. It’s actua … There is a scientific method.

Dunbar returned to this theme in her colloquy with undergraduate Government major Garrett Mize, with her argument that the scientific method should trump even a 99% consensus (it’s a little vague, but it sounds to me [in this 1.25 min. audio] like she is saying 99% of scientists).

Mize answered that the majority [of scientists] and the scientific method would both support teaching evolution without the “strengths and weaknesses” language. This leaves something open that Scott closes off by insisting that these are not two different things. The scientific method is not something different from the process and standards by which consensus among scientists is formed. But anyone who does not already understand that is not going to figure it out — even from Scott’s clear and unyielding statement — in the seconds between McLeroy cutting off that line of questioning and Mercer starting on his own. The scientific method is not something, in short, that needs to be defended by the SBOE against the community of scientists.

Except that here, again, the creationist Board members and their supporters have a story they can tell, a story about how visible Establishment science — facing a growing mass of evidence against evolution — is desperately trying to impose its Darwinist dogma not only on the schools, and the world at large, but even on a silent but ever-growing number of scientists who are intimidated from speaking out by the kinds of repercussions “documented” in Ben Stein’s movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed! Mercer and others have raised this point repeatedly.

I think we can be sure that in March these kinds of arguments will be raised against the SBOE returning to the version recommended by the writing teams, as supported by real scientific experts. So the open-minded Board members need to hear not only what the scientists are telling them about what’s wrong with the amendments, they also need to be prepared against these kinds of arguments about “consensus” versus “real science.”

As Texas geophysicist Paul Murray has commented recently,

. . .  science is viewed as an insiders’ club, but that is precisely what we are fighting to change by getting better science standards for our kids.



One Comment

  1. Posted March 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    It is a tough issue for non-science followers to understand, because while ‘scientific truth’ would tend to correlate with “consensus of the scientific community,” the two are not direct synonyms.

    The important point – the point lost on creationists – is that the best way to determine what the best hypothesis is as to the scientific truth of x is to find out what the scientific community’s consensus is about x. Obviously, this is not fool-proof, and does not offer grounds to refute conspiracy theorists, but it IS to say that the only good way (in a Peircean pragmatic sense) that we have of ascertaining what the best working hypothesis is is to see what the scientific consensus is. Unless we boldly assume that the majority of scientists are making the SAME mistake and/or colluding – in which case, it is up to the dissenters to show them where they err.

    In other words: it is not true BECAUSE the majority of scientists believe it, but the fact that the majority of independently working scientists believe it is a pretty good indicator that the theory is “true.” (The other option is to teach what Michael Behe thinks is true.)

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] within the scientific community should be taught in science classes. (See my previous post here on Dunbar, Scott on Arber: scientific consensus vs. scientific knowledge? on Dunbar’s posturing on […]

  2. […] within the scientific community should be taught in science classes. (See my previous post here on Dunbar, Scott on Arber: scientific consensus vs. scientific knowledge? on Dunbar’s posturing on […]

  3. […] University in Virginia and a seat on the Texas SBOE), is particularly easy to revile. Watching her prevaricate instead of answering well-intentioned questions, then turn around and make under-the-table deals to […]

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