Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Intelligent Design Question: What Is a Scientist?

I'm wrapping up work on my textbook Methods and Models: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science and have run into a question. The book has an interesting structure. There are six chapters of readings like all other textbooks, but running perpendicular to these are nine tracks relating to nine sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. Each students selects the science he or she is most interested in and there is a case study at the end of the chapter that the student works out and views through the philosophy of that chapter. By the end of the semester, the student has written a history of his or her science of interest with philosophical commentary. Hopefully others will find it as nifty as I think it is. (For those who teach philosophy of science -- it'll hopefully be out next year from University of Chicago Press, contact me and I can make sure you get a review copy.)

The last chapter looks at challenges to the notion of a scientific method from Paul Feyerabend, Ruth Hubbard, and Bruno Latour who contend in their own ways that we cannot separate science from the social, that we cannot look at science as objective rationality independent of a cultural context. The case studies thereby look at contemporary issues where science intersects with society or government in some way. The sociology track, for example, examines Michael Burawoy's call in his ASA Presidential address for public sociology, that is, for sociologists to be active in the use of their technical knowledge for bettering people's lives. Do scientists have special moral responsibilities and does this affect their objectivity?

The evolutionary biology track's final piece deals with William Dembski's work on intelligent design theory. Therein lies the question. The way the exercises are laid out is in three parts labeled The Case, The Scientist, and Your Job. The second part is a brief biographical sketch (a paragraph, just a couple sentences about the person's life). Not every case study has a bio -- for the discovery of the top quark, for example, there is no "The" scientist -- so the question is whether I should have one for Dembski.

On the one hand, having it seems to beg the question I am asking the student -- is it science. By labeling him "the scientist" in the text is to send a signal to the student. At the same time not doing so seems to send the same sort of message in the opposite direction. It also seems to be a political statement whether I do or don't. If he had a Ph.D. in biology or had done some other work, that would make it easy, but he has a Ph.D. in mathematics and another in philosophy and teaches philosophy at Southwest Baptist Seminary. He did have an NSF research fellowship at one point, but then so have many philosophers whom I would not call scientists. His arguments are aimed at the discourse within evolutionary biology, that is, he sees himself as doing science and it is his clear intent to do science. Is that enough to be a scientist? Would being a mathematician with a professional interest in complexity theory, applied statistics be sufficient? Does the applied nature, the world-pointing orientation of those field make one a scientist? What is a scientist and is William Dembski one?