11 December 2005

About Steve Fuller

As the tumult over Steve Fuller appears to be ebbing (e.g., here and here), I thought I would add a few comments on aspects that I feel have been addressed incompletely.

Steve Fuller, for those unaware, is a professor of sociology at Warwick University, and is rapidly becoming one of the most recognized exponents for the field of sociology of science – which is too bad for the field of sociology of science. He has been in the public eye recently as an expert witness at the Dover PA School Board trial, where he testified in favor of teaching Intelligent Design in the high schools. Surprised by the fact that critics linked Fuller’s argument to excesses of postmodernism, Michael Bérubé encouraged him to respond, and the resulting post spawned many comments and much discussion elsewhere.

The first thing that distresses me about Dr. Fuller is his condescension toward the readers.
You guys are getting better! The level of debate has been definitely raised on these matters. But there are still problems…

Again, my apologies if your brilliant ripostes failed to move me. Try harder!

I find the periodic claims to superior intelligence (not ID, mind you!) on the part of some of the posters truly touching. Rather than reminding me how smart you are, you should try to demonstrate it in what you say.

It reminds me of some of the awful teaching assistants I’ve seen over the years, who treat the students worse than dogs because they are less likely to bite when teased.

Fuller affects weariness at the reaction to his stand on ID, as if he was fully expecting that we great unwashed would not “get it”. I’m not particularly surprised that Fuller is not particularly surprised about the intensity of the reaction to his opinions, because I suspect that it comes from the same lack of empathy that plays such a strong role in his coming to those opinions. History of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science – these are all fine disciplines. But they teach as much about the doing of science as music appreciation does about performing.

There is real mental, and often physical, labor in learning how to be a scientist, in doing creative science, and in teaching how to do science. Much hard work leads to unproductive, or inconclusive, or negative results. Many exciting projects turn out to be rooted in misunderstandings that are exposed by your peers in very public forums. The process of self-correction has sharp edges. With no understanding of the real life of science, Fuller sees only behavior in the form of an empty ritual, meaningful only for what they say about the power structure that choreographs it. With no understanding of the inner life of scientists, how could he understand that he is insulting them?

An aside: from the critic’s elevated perspective, the strange behaviors to be observed in a kung fu dojo may look very like a cult. But such people can still kick your butt.

My second source of distress emerges from Fuller’s offhand remarks on historical examples. I am not an expert in this area, but I have done some reading. Thus, when I see such remarks as:
The US has always had a ‘difficult’ relationship with religion because of the traumatic origins of the nation. The original British settlers, especially in what became the liberal northern establishment, were wealthy dissenters (including Catholics and Jews) who were prohibited from political participation in their homeland. Henceforth, all attempts to impose a religious orthodoxy would be prohibited – in the name of protecting religious freedom, of course.
(This comment is actually in Fuller’s post on ID in the UK, which was spotlighted by Tony Jackson in the Pharyngula commentary on the Bérubé discussion.)

Even a shallow reading of the early history of the US gives the lie to this sweeping assessment. In the ‘liberal north’, the original British settlers were not particularly wealthy and, where dissenters, were primarily dissenters from Anglicanism. Many attempted to impose their dissenting faiths as orthodoxy within their own colonies, prompting further diffusion of dissenters from the dissenters. Where they were in any sense unified against ‘religious orthodoxy’, it was in opposing the imposition of Anglican bishops by the Church in England. But five of the post-Revolutionary states had tax-supported established churches.

I have belabored this point before. Among the victims of ID politics is the practice of history. Why are there not more historians on the barricades?

Closer to the topic of evolution, Fuller says, in one of his responses to the Bérubé thread,
But even evolution’s staunchest defenders have remarked on the strong iconic role that Darwin continues to play in this field, which is quite unusual in the natural sciences. An important reason is the politically correct lesson that his life teaches: the idea that science causes you to lose your faith. Newton, unfortunately, thought his theory confirmed his reading of the Bible. Not very politically correct.

Historian Brian Ogilvie called Fuller to task on his interpretation of Newton (comments 27, and 84), and PZ Myers stood up for Darwin (comment 21). It is important to note that professional historians such as Janet Browne, working from letters and diaries, and Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, working from family papers, have shown that it was the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie that precipitated Darwin’s change from conflicted believer to conflicted non-believer.

And thus my second complaint: When I write for this blog, it takes me a painfully long time to finish. It’s easy to get ideas of what to write about, but as I get into the composition, I keep stopping every few lines because I feel the need to check the accuracy of some assertion, or because I need to check for whether someone else has already posted a similar comment, or because I need to track down the correct version of some half remembered quote, or just because I want to find a clearer expression. If I could just rant on about whatever idea comes to mind, without worrying about it being gibberish or conflicting with well-known facts, then I could write a lot more a lot faster.

But then, I fear, I might end up sounding like Steve Fuller.


Blogger Steve Fuller said...

A friend drew my attention to your blog. And since you profess to be a careful reader and writer, you may appreciate what I have to say.

First, in terms of my attitude toward blogging and bloggers: A blog is not a peer reviewed publication. For one thing, people make mistakes (or at least appear to) and are corrected (or at least appear to be) in public, without the behind-the-scenes filtering of personal comments or, for that matter, the official authority of a professional journal to back the final judgement. I rather doubt that my comments were any more or less ‘informed’ than those of my interlocutors. In any case, ‘Caveat lector’ should always accompany any blog. Frankly, I would have thought this point was patently obvious to anyone who surfs the internet regularly.

In terms of my attitude toward bloggers, you seem to neglect the spirit in which my name and views were originally raised in the blogs you cite. Already the worst was being thought of me – insofar as these people had any clear thoughts of who I was – before I entered the fray. My interlocutors set the tone, and I played along with it. Moreover, I don’t even think there is anything wrong with the more-or-less insulting tone in which much of the discussion was conducted. People have very strong feelings about these matters and their competence in addressing them. And if you read through the blogs carefully, you’ll see I did admit error on occasion and I also said I bear no grudges (especially since most of these people remain anonymous!).

I realize – and perhaps you should as well – that no one forced me to respond to the very many people who objected to my testimony in the Dover trial. Perhaps you think that I should have studied every comment very carefully and respond as charitably as possible – or say nothing at all. Well, I took the comments in the spirit in which I believed they were delivered. Generally speaking, people do deserve answers to their questions. I suppose you’d think me less arrogant had I ignored Berube and the Valve?

On the various points of ‘fact’ you raise: First, the thing you quote from me about the dissenters had to do with the motivation for the US Constitution’s separation of Church and State, not with what the dissenters themselves did in their own original settlements, which of course you’re right about. If you read the whole posting in ‘ID in the UK’ that should have been clear. But maybe it wasn’t so clear.

The points about history you cite from Ogilvie and Myers are matters that could not be adequately discussed in the blogs (I corresponded with Ogilvie privately). However, the business about Darwin’s loss of faith from his daughter’s death is well-known. But I doubt it’s the only thing that made a difference. He also took very seriously the waste of life that was implied by extinction in the fossil record. But in any case, Darwin did lose his faith, rather than have his faith reinforced (a la Newton). And in our day, the image of the apostate scientist is a very attractive one. That’s the larger point I was making. Not only is there a matter of truth and false, but also forest and trees.

20 December, 2005 10:19  
Blogger another orphan said...

Dr. Fuller, I want to thank you for your graceful reply, and for your willingness to engage the discussion further. As you point out, many of our differences reflect our differing expectations of blog content and responsibility.

As for Darwin as icon of apostasy, I am still unwilling to cede the point. Even granting that religious rebellion as motivation lingers beyond adolescence, I think it elevates to primacy a factor that is at most secondary in the drives of working scientists.

21 December, 2005 11:42  

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