No, Science Hasn’t “Always Been a Bit Post-Truth”

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Steve Fuller is a Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is chiefly known among scientific skeptics as an anti-science relativist (or postmodernist or social constructivist) who testified in favor of intelligent design creationists during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School trial of 2005. Although he is not necessarily committed to creationism as an ideology, his arguments and behavior is in many ways reminiscent of the postmodernist science wars. He does not really like scientific realism or the scientific “establishment” and deploys fairly standard relativist arguments.

Recently, he got a post published on the Guardian political science website called “Science has always been a bit post-truth”. Although it starts by discussing the concept of “post-truth” after it became word of the year (Oxford Dictionary) in 2016, the blog post really has nothing to do with the term or how it is used in reality. Instead, it in many ways a traditional postmodernist usage of Thomas Kuhn and his works as anti-science tool. The real goal of the post becomes clearer at the end, where Fuller expressed disappointment that intelligent design creationists were not invited to a recent Royal Society conference on evolution.

How relativists and postmodernists abuse Kuhn

Many relativists and postmodernists believe that the scientific establishment is like an oppressive government or religious authority that harms people, stifle innovation and actively prevent the emergence of other, equally valid knowledge or ways of knowing. This is, of course, a stark contrast to (non-naive) scientific realism that holds that science is one of the best and most important tools for gathering reliable knowledge about the world and solving problems that face humanity. On this view, not all knowledge claims are equally valid and some methods are better than others for gaining reliable knowledge.

In any case, such relativist claims rarely persuade when it is used in such a vulgar and naked fashion. So often they have to be disguised with “long words and exhausted idioms” as George Orwell would have put it (ironically, Fuller himself references Orwell later for a different purpose). Another tactic is to appeal to certain philosophers of science (or misinterpretations of them, such as Thomas Kuhn) in an effort to portray the scientific community as largely consisting of committed ideologues that desperately hold onto their disintegrating “paradigms” and brave, young mavericks who have their brilliant an innovative ideas dismissed as pseudoscience. As time goes on, cracks appear in the dominant paradigm and a new paradigm ushers in and the old is left in the dust.

In reality, of course, this is not how science works. Older models, such as Newtonian mechanics, are still taught and used extensively because it works in on the scales it is used in. Humans landed on the moon with nothing beyond classical physics. A new model cannot arbitrarily deviate from known facts. It must make the same predictions as an older model in areas where they both apply. This is known as the correspondence principle and is often conspicuously missing from a lot of relativist discourse since it radically diverges from their narrative of science as just another ideology. In the history of science, there are very few examples that fits with Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift (and his usage of “paradigm” was often equivocal).

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Although Kuhn might have been unsure about progress through paradigms, relativists like Fuller probably does not live their life as though this was true. They probably would prefer to ride in a car or airplane made by a team of engineers than a diverse team of social constructivists. They would probably not want to get into a car driven by a drunk driver no matter how many times something told them that the scientific and medical facts about the effects of alcohol on driving are just “western orthodoxies that oppress other equally valid ways of knowing.”.

Peer review does not “anoint” facts

Fuller claims that “[e]ach new piece of knowledge is anointed by a process of ‘peer review’.”. First of all, Fuller uses the term peer review in scare quotes, which suggest that he has some disdain for the concept (perhaps because relativist or creationist papers are often rejected as flawed or generally low-quality). Although peer review is certainly not perfect, it is better than many other approaches that have been tried.

Fuller is also wrong on the core point. Something does not become a fact by passing peer review and getting published. The conversation does not end with a peer-review publication. That is where the conversation starts. They are then discussed and critically evaluated by the broader scientific community that tries to grasp if it is legitimate and how it fits into the broader mass of knowledge available in the field. Sometimes the finding does not make sense, fail to replicate or is even retracted. Becoming a scientific fact is a much longer process than a single publication.

Science thrives on open debate

Fuller often tries to portray science as dogmatic and unwelcoming to critical scrutiny. But science thrives on open debate about a myriad of issues. At the time of this writing, there are over 460 000 papers that contain the word “evolution” indexed by PubMed. Not all of them deal with biological evolution, but most of them likely do. This is what open scientific debate looks like. If you are able to provide evidence that disproves a current mainstream model, you will get high-impact publications, speaking engagements, more funding and even awards. There are plenty of incentives to question the current models of science.

Royal Society evolution meeting and intelligent design creationism

After a brief discussion of the 2016 U. S. General Election, Fuller arrives at the real target of his blog post. In the final paragraph, he mentions the Royal Society conference called “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” that invited diverse scientists and philosophers to discuss how new discoveries in many areas of biology relate to evolutionary biology and its models. Some of the participants thinks there is a need for an “extended synthesis”, whereas others think that evolutionary biology has already taken in these new findings and that they do not radically deviate from mainstream evolutionary biology. Fuller is disappointed that Royal Society did not invite intelligent design creationists, who he claims have “publicized most of the same criticisms of the synthesis.” In reality, of course, creationists have not published any substantial objections to evolutionary biology that were not terribly flawed and their “criticism” (largely recycled and repackaged from the days of “scientific creationism” up to the 1980s) bears very little resemblance to the topics discussed in this conference.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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