In a lecture, Phillip Johnson cited physicist Richard Feynman on a scientist’s obligation to be honest — not only with himself or in other scientific contexts but, not one bit less, when speaking to the lay public. “You should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist.” That such a thing would need to be said is itself revealing. What’s more, Feynman insisted, you should “bend over backwards to show how you may be wrong.”
The comments are taken from a Commencement address by Feynman in 1974 at Caltech. Johnson, a founding father of modern intelligent design theory, was so moved by this that he said “I wish it could be set to music.”
As far as I know it hasn’t been set to music. But the idea is a major theme in the new Science Uprising series. Scientists fool themselves and they fool non-scientists, not about dry technical details with no special significance, but about matters that bear on huge, life-altering world picture issues. One example is the role of mutations in evolution. That is the topic of Episode 6 of Science Uprising, “Mutations: Failure to Invent.” It’s out now; see it here:
The Alternative Perspective
The idea that random genetic mutations lead to wondrous, creative innovations is so influential that it forms the premise of a movie franchise, X-Men, that has grossed $6 billion worldwide over the past couple of decades. That’s a lot of “fooling the laymen”! The alternative perspective would be open to the possibility of creative evolution requiring intelligence guidance.
The producers of the X-Men movies aren’t scientists. However, the science media have done their best to mislead about the work of real scientists: for example, National Academy of Sciences member Richard Lenski. We’re all victims of that hype, including Hollywood moviemakers. Dismantling the hype about Lenski occupies biochemist Michael Behe for a significant part of his recent book, Darwin Devolves.
Super-Challenges Not Super-Powers
As Professor Behe explains in Science Uprising, the Long-Term Evolution Experiment conducted by Lenski has demonstrated not the creative power of unguided evolution but the occasional benefits of devolution, of breaking or disabling genes. That’s the opposite lesson from the one drawn by media such as the New York Times in reporting on Lenski’s efforts. “Think about it,” says the masked narrator of Science Uprising, against the backdrop of poignant images of people suffering from genetic illnesses, “significant mutations don’t create superpowers. They create super-challenges. Sometimes those mutations are even life-threatening.”
Behe notes that the Lenski experiment covers 60,000+ generations of E. coli bacteria, the equivalent of 1.5 million years of human evolutionary history. Yet for all the mutations observed, there are no innovations like the ones needed to produce the wonders of biology that we know. Devolutionary mutations can help organisms, but they can’t build anything. The real science uprising will come when thoughtful lay people realize they’ve been fooled on this point, and a range of others, crucial to how we understand our own origins.
Photo: Michael Behe in Science Uprising, Episode 6, “Mutations: Failure to Invent.”