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Sociologist Steve Fuller: How ID Foxes Can Beat the Darwinian Lions 

University of Warwick sociologist Steve Fuller is one of the few researchers in his field who knows much about intelligent design and the controversy it ignites. In Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game, he analyzes the conflict between the Darwinians and the intelligent design theorists as an illustration of the turmoil of science in what he considers a “post-truth” era.

“Post-truth,” as Fuller explains it, is not quite the same as “post-modern.” The post-modernist “sees through” all reason-based concepts. Fuller asks instead, Who is allowed to decide what is science, as opposed to non-science or anti-science? On what basis? How did they achieve their positions? What events would change the landscape in which a controversy rages?

An Ambiguous Attitude to ID

His scholarly interest in ID led him to testify for the defense at the Dover trial in 2005 where an ID-friendly textbook was ruled to be creationism and therefore unconstitutional, as it would amount to an establishment of religion. Fuller’s personal attitude to ID is ambiguous. He has been known to call himself a secular humanist but he thinks design deserves a “fair run for its money.” Thus he debated Lewis Wolpert in 2007 on whether evolution and intelligent design should be accorded equal status as scientific theories, a position he supports. In 2008, the year in which his book Dissent over Descent was also published, he appeared in the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which describes the way in which many ID theorists have been hounded by opponents in their disciplines.

The critics went wild over Dissent over Descent: “incompetent reasoning and outright gibberish” (Steven Poole, The Guardian); “completely wrong and is backed by no sound scholarship whatsoever” (Michael Ruse, Science); and “ignorance and historical short-sightedness” (A.C. Grayling, New Humanist). If you know the topic, you can be sure that Fuller is onto something important.

An abstract of the book offers some insight into his approach: 

If you think Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) is merely the respectable face of Christian fundamentalism, and Evolution the only sensible scientific world-view, think again… IDT has driven science for 500 years. It was responsible for the 17th century’s Scientific Revolution and helped build modern histories of physics, mathematics, genetics and social science.

In other words, following the categories developed by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Fuller sees ID and Darwinism equally as paradigms or governing assumptions of science. But his analysis stems chiefly from the work of Italian political economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), whom he considers “one of sociology’s forgotten founders.”

How Social Orders Change

Pareto’s work focused on how social orders change. Following Machiavelli, he described two types of elite, lions and foxes, whose interplay creates a social order: The lions’ legitimacy stems from tradition, which might be a science world-view established by a founding figure like Newton or Darwin. The lions normally dictate the historical narrative of a discipline. “But,” as Fuller wrote in 2016, “on the cutting room floor lies the activities of the other set of elites, the foxes. In today’s politics of science, they are known by a variety of names, ranging from ‘mavericks’ to ‘social constructivists’ to ‘pseudoscientists’. Foxes are characterised by dissent and unrest, thriving in a world of openness and opportunity.”

Fuller clearly finds the ID foxes more interesting and sympathetic figures than the Darwinian lions: “The lion rules by focused shows of force, as opposed to the fox’s diverse displays of cunning. Whereas the fox cajoles and adapts, often with the net effect of dissipating its energies, the lion is inclined simply to eliminate opponents who stand in its way.”

The usual strategy of the Darwinian lions is to portray the ID foxes as not merely wrong but bad, for example as “liars” for not upholding the current orthodoxy. But, Fuller observes, that strategy can fail when the evidence does not really support the lions as much as they claim: “The dispassionate observer might well conclude that the lion’s extremely loud roar belies its inability to defeat any challengers who might call its bluff.” For example, in 2016, the Royal Society held a high-profile interdisciplinary conference on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.” 

Officially, the event was open to the widest possible range of criticisms of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Yet the invitation did not extend to proponents of intelligent design theory who have publicized most of the same criticisms of the synthesis. It would seem that the paradigm shift demanded by advocates of intelligent design would have been a step too far.

A Struggle for  Modal Power

He describes the battle as a struggle for modal power, “the capacity to decide what is and is not possible.” For example, is it possible that our universe and life forms show evidence of design? Generally speaking, naturalists (nature is all there is) do not consider design a serious possibility. Many appear willing to believe almost anything else, including the idea that we live in a multiverse where everything and its opposite are simultaneously possible, that the consciousness that could perceive and evaluate such a claim is an evolved illusion, and/or that we share the feature of consciousness with inanimate objects (panpsychism). The evidence for design in nature is not deficient; rather, it is irrelevant if a discipline is wholeheartedly committed to alternative explanations for which no evidence is even required.

Fuller’s understanding of the conflict and his approach to its possible resolution turns on his interpretation of post-truth, the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” That’s Oxford’s description. Fuller protests the definition as “clearly pejorative. Indeed, it is a post-truth definition of ‘post-truth.’”

One might say that the definition embodies how the lion wishes the fox to be seen, but not how he wishes to be seen himself. Foxes, by contrast, tend to be post-truthers because they believe that what passes for truth in the science game is often rigged to favor lions. For example, the collapse of a Darwinian assumption like eugenics can trigger defensive rewriting of the history and hostility toward the foxes who insist on making an issue of the way famous lions contributed to it.

Huffy Claims about Scientific “Consensus”

Fuller has little use for huffy claims about scientific consensus (“cognitive authoritarianism”): “The idea that consensus enjoys some epistemologically more luminous status in science than in other parts of society (where it might be simply dismissed as ‘groupthink’) is an artefact of the routine rewriting of history that scientists do to rally their troops.” He finds that consensus tends to be invoked on the very matters (“climate change, evolution, anything to do with health”) that can’t easily be addressed by the peer review process of Kuhn’s “normal science.”

ID theorists will be familiar with what follows: Defenders of the current scientific consensus “tend to operate on the assumption that to give the dissenters any credence would be tantamount to unleashing mass irrationality in society.” In his view, the lions underestimate the ability of science to incorporate dissenters and emerge stronger as a result. He offers an example from the ID controversy: “[N]ow Darwinists need to try harder to defeat it, which we see in their increasingly sophisticated refutations, which often end up with Darwinists effectively conceding points and simply admitting that they have their own way of making their opponents’ points, without having to invoke an ‘intelligent designer.’”

And pseudoscience? Surely, Fuller doesn’t support pseudoscience? No, but he does observe that the concept is handled rather inconsistently among lions; it is deployed mainly by “self- appointed popular defenders of science,” rather than by philosophers or scientists. At Wikipedia where, he notes, ID is considered pseudoscience, eugenics is treated so sympathetically that “One would never guess that eugenics and other extensions of ‘selectionist’ thinking into the human domain such as sociobiology had been considered paradigm cases of pseudoscience in the 1970s.” Same subjects, different lions?

How Foxes Get the Upper Hand

How might his strategy help get a fair hearing for ID? The lion’s strategy, he argues, “is all about quashing the counterfactual imagination, the thought that things might turn out to be other than they are.” And when do foxes start to win? “For Kuhn, the scientific foxes get the upper hand whenever cracks appear in the lions ‘ smooth narrative, the persistent ‘anomalies’ that cannot be explained by the ruling paradigm.”

For example, with respect to teaching about evolution in the United States, he explains, “At Dover, the Darwinists dispensed with the niceties of the philosophy of science and resorted to the brute sociological fact that most evolutionists do not consider intelligent design theory science. That was enough for the Darwinists to win the battle, but will it win them the war?” Right now, he calls it a draw.

Fuller thinks that, because science is everywhere these days and widely accepted, we are entering an era of “customized science,” where everyone adapts it to their own needs. He calls it “Protscience” (Protestant + science), recalling the Reformation era when laypeople appropriated the Bible, with varying outcomes. With the Internet, as with printing, there is no turning back. “Interestingly, just as the original Protestants were demonized by Catholics as ‘atheists’ for their refusal to defer to papal authority, today’s Protscientists are denounced as ‘anti-science’. In both cases, however, the people concerned are generally well educated and quite respectful of the need to provide reasons and evidence for their beliefs. Not surprisingly, then, Protscientists make much of the hypocrisy of established authorities that fail to live up their own avowed epistemic standards.”

Of course, Fuller concedes, the new era can result in wrong-headed or bizarre developments. But it can also result in greater acceptance of responsibility for one’s beliefs and choices. “This brave new world of Protscience is the latest phase of secularization, whereby science itself is now the target rather than the agent of secularization.”

The Internet as a Boon to Foxes

And the future? He sees the Internet as mainly helping the foxes, as “a more educated population increasingly channels its enquiries through Internet search engines, as opposed to such usual academic gatekeeping agencies as textbooks and certified experts.” The Internet also makes it easier to champion neglected research, a real boon to ID.

Fuller has a habit of saying things that he knows will provoke the lions. He goes as far as to suggest:

We easily recall and even oversell science’s empirical and practical successes, while ignoring or underestimating the costs, failures and outright disasters. Perhaps the next frontier for “thinking the unthinkable” is to get experts and lay people from a variety of backgrounds to draw up balance sheets for science. My guess is that the resulting track record will look so chequered that science may need to rekindle its ties to theology to ensure its future legitimacy.

So, in the end, what does he really think of ID? 

In particular, I have stressed that science would not have acquired, and perhaps cannot continue to sustain, its “view from nowhere” sense of objectivity towards all of reality —and not merely to what is relevant to our species’ survival — without faith in the idea that we have been specially designed to make sense of it all.

As a read, the book is uneven, principally because it was written in the midst of an ongoing and very lively series of events. If the lions’ reviews are anywhere near as bad as the reviews for Dissent over Descent, then Post-Truth deserves a place on better ID reading lists.

Image: Lion and fox, by Wenceslaus Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.