Dobbs on scientific freedom

Further to my piece on the Incredible Hulk  a little while back, the author of an article I cited there, David Dobbs, has done a follow-up piece, together with comment articles from four scientists. One interesting and sobering thing is his reportage of the responses he had from the biological community and its followers to his original piece:

It soon became apparent that some people are willing to defend the selfish gene idea as if guarding a holy kingdom. The rhetoric was astounding. Coyne averred that ‘if [Dobbs] were an honest man’, I would apologise for my story, ‘but we know that won’t happen!’ His followers accused me of bringing ‘other agendas’; of tabloid-style sensationalism, intentional distortion, and intellectual dishonesty; of being a journalistic buffoon; of being cheap, shoddy, and crass; of writing in the pay of creationists. One commenter said that rather than question him, I should behold Richard Dawkins and cower.

I suppose I can see how people might write such stuff if they’ve spent too much time defending science from attacks from creationists or others hostile to empirical endeavour. But it’s an odd way to respond to ideas submitted in good faith.

My feelings here matter little. What does matter is the effect such attacks have on others looking on, and on open discussions about genetics and evolution at a time when genetics has plentiful reason to regroup and reconsider instead of defend and attack. Such hostility seems designed to quell rather than enrich discussion; to freeze rather than advance understanding; above all, to silence. It worked. While evolutionary researchers who objected to my article rightly felt free to speak up, few scholars who agreed with me felt similarly comfortable. Although many expressed agreement privately, almost no one did so in the open. I can’t blame them; who wants to leap into a bloody shark pool? [my emphasis – compare Prof James Tour’s story]

This savaging is becoming something of a defining characteristic of biological science as she is spoke nowadays, isn’t it? Somebody was asking me today why nothing earth-shattering seems to be happening amongst either lay-people or scientists to reassess evolution. Well maybe it isn’t happening, or maybe it is. But if not, one reason may be that breaking up earth is not that easy in shark pools.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Dobbs on scientific freedom

  1. Hanan says:

    I am a little confused. From reading the comments and article, it seems to me that nothing Dobbs was saying is any new news to biologists. So………..

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Hanan

      Well, the original article was intended for an uninformed public rather than a professional audience – indeed, one of Dodd’s points in the follow up is that the profession overall has been very bad at telling Joe Public about new developments (often it seems because they’re more afraid Creationists are going to take advantage than they are of good communication). So the general perception of what evolution is dates back to 1930s ND theory, or even (sometimes) 1859 Charles Darwin. I don’t know why that is, but it seems to belong to evolution’s status as a foundation myth – if it’s a Proven Fact like Gravity, it affects public morale if new stuff keeps coming out to modify it.

      That said, I’ve noticed over the years that one of the standard lines from certain persons (Larry Moran being a good example) is, when anything new or surprising is said, “Oh we knew that YEARS ago/Oh the theory predicts that.” It’s a bit like “You don’t understand evolution” – fun to spot and after awhile you begin to suspect it’s not just that you’re ignorant!

      The real question to ask is, if it’s old and well known, why it should have raised the hackles of worthies like Pinker, Coyne and Dawkins so much.

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