18 October 2005

Leveling the Playing Field by Making Your Own

I’ve just finished reading Madison Bell’s biography of Lavoisier, a pleasant (if concise) review of his major scientific work and the political forces that brought him to the guillotine. One of the episodes reminded me of an argument that I’ve been making about Intelligent Design and scientific publication, so I thought I’d repeat myself.

In 1787, Lavoisier (working with Berthollet, Fourcroy, and Guyton de Morveau) published Méthode de nomenclature chimique, in which he recommended what has come to be modern chemical nomenclature. The idea was to provide “rather a method of naming than a nomenclature”, in which the name would express chemical relationships. Thus, the names of elements reflected their characteristics (oxygen = acid-making; hydrogen = water-making; nitrogen = niter-making). The names of compounds used suffixes to describe a relevant quality of their composition; for example, calcium nitrate has a higher oxygen content than calcium nitrite.

Bell argues that Lavoisier’s rationale for proposing this change was only partly due to his personal preference for imposing order on the confusing system of names then in existence. In addition, by getting chemists to adopt the name ‘oxygen’, he was intentionally trying to get them to buy into his theory of combustion, which (although eventually triumphant) was still a controversial alternative to the phlogiston theory. Traditional chemists were not unaware of this extra-scientific aspect, and were not eager to adopt its anti-phlogiston bias. Thus, the system was not initially well received, even by scientists otherwise disposed towards Lavoisier’s ideas (such as Franklin).

The point I want to bring out, though, is Lavoisier’s response to the considerable opposition expressed in the primary research journal, the Journal de physique. Recognizing that they could not easily get papers using the new terminology into that journal, Lavoisier and friends founded a competing one, the Annales de chimie. That provided them with a forum whose editorial policy did not automatically discriminate against their approach. Of course, the modern policy of peer review of journal articles was not yet in place, but the papers of the Lavoisier group were still reviewed by members of the Academy of Science (at least, until it was disbanded by the Assembly).

Annales de chimie is still published. In 1816, it became Annales de chimie et de physique and, in 1914, split into the two journals Annales de chimie and Annales de physique.

I hadn’t encountered this piece of history before, and was struck by the similarity to what Huxley and Darwin did in the 1860s. The story is told in Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin. In order to have a reliable channel for publishing papers on Darwin’s theory of evolution, Huxley attempted twice to start a new journal. The first only lasted for a year before going under, but the second, Nature, was more successful, becoming one of the two most important general science journals published today.

One will occasionally hear advocates of Intelligent Design complain that the reason they do not have published papers in refereed journals is that they are automatically discriminated against by the editors and referees of mainstream publications. Michael Behe made this comment in his testimony at the Dover PA trial about teaching ID in the public schools (Kitzmiller et al. vs Dover Area School District). In fact, they have published a few articles in mainstream journals, but the bulk of ID papers are found elsewhere. (The Discover Institute has a lengthy excuse for this, but as other bloggers have already discussed it, I won't bother.)

But with all the financial resources that the ID movement has at hand, one wonders why they don’t just start their own journal and publish there? Well, they do. The International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design publishes a quarterly journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design. ISCID describes it as a
“cross-disciplinary, online journal that investigates complex systems apart from external programmatic constraints like materialism, naturalism, or reductionism. PCID focuses especially on the theoretical development, empirical application, and philosophical implications of information- and design-theoretic concepts for complex systems. PCID welcomes survey articles, research articles, technical communications, tutorials, commentaries, book and software reviews, educational overviews, and controversial theories. The aim of PCID is to advance the science of complexity by assessing the degree to which teleology is relevant (or irrelevant) to the origin, development, and operation of complex systems.”

Papers submitted to PCID are reviewed by fellows of the ISCID, who comprise most of the well-known names in ID.

So, it seems to me that what we all (pro- and anti-ID both) need to do is let the normal process of science take its course. Proponents of ID can be assured of a friendly venue in PCID. Others can be assured of finding papers on ID there. If the ideas and results that are published there are seen as important or useful to other work, then they will get cited by scientists using them. Over time, we will either see citations to PCID grow, as the field becomes increasingly important, or not, as it becomes clear that it is a dead end.

And, should the former prove to be the case, then it will eventually be appropriate to include ID in the curriculum. But only then.


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18 October, 2005 18:40  

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