Sunday, August 14, 2005

Scientific Dogma and Common Sense

John Horgan has an Op-Ed piece in the August 12, 2005 New York Times entitled "In Defense of Common Sense," which discusses the role of common sense in scientific inquiry in light of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. He calls for skepticism whenever scientists make grandiose claims for their theories:

A related set of "quantum gravity" theories postulates the existence of parallel universes - some perhaps mutant versions of our own, like "Bizarro world" in the old Superman comics - existing beyond the borders of our little cosmos. "Infinite Earths in Parallel Universes Really Exist," the normally sober Scientific American once hyperventilated on its cover.

All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

. . .

OVER the past century, moreover, mind-science has been as faddish as teenage tastes in music, as one theory has yielded to another. Everything we think and do, scientists have assured us, can be explained by the Oedipal complex, or conditioned reflexes, or evolutionary adaptations, or a gene in the X chromosome, or serotonin deficits in the amygdala. Given this rapid turnover in paradigms, it's only sensible to doubt them all until the evidence for one becomes overwhelming.

Earlier he comments on the tendency toward "dogma" in science:
[M]any scientists came to see common sense as an impediment to progress not only in physics but also in other fields. "What, after all, have we to show for ... common sense," the behaviorist B. F. Skinner asked, "or the insights gained through personal experience?" Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert declared in his influential 1992 book "The Unnatural Nature of Science," "I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science." Dr. Wolpert's view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or - more often - criticize a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes.

This essay ran without much attention. However, if he had applied his ideas more directly to any significant aspect of macroevolutionary theory, the bees would have left their hive in a fury. He probably would have been branded a creationist. As we have seen, many scientists do more than "roll their eyes" when macroevolutionary theory is questioned, even in part.


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