Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Evolution and Normal Science

Science philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his landmark work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) proposed new ideas in the public’s vision of science. Kuhn introduced several new terms, including paradigm, paradigm shift, paradigm war, scientific revolution, and normal science. Among the public the latter term is one of the most broadly understood concepts concerning science. Normal science describes the routine, day-to-day work of scientists working within a paradigm. Kuhn’s paradigm is used to describe the collection of beliefs shared by scientists about how reality is to be understood.

Several years ago I wrote a series of letters to newspaper opinion pages concerning the paradigm of evolution, referencing the commonly perceived public vision of normal science. In my letters I raised the topics of evolution and the counter-topics of intelligent design and supernatural creation. Evolution is the accepted vision of the majority of science professionals concerning life’s origins. The bio-science profession’s normal science overwhelmingly works within the paradigm of molecules to man evolution. Below I share with readers substantial excerpts from one of my submissions to newspaper opinion pages:

In my previous letter my point was not to argue for exclusive, formal teaching of intelligent design in public classrooms to supplant teaching of the theory of evolution. I do not wish to have a secular science instructor argue the specifics of the work of a creator, including who the Creator is, even though I have strong beliefs along those lines. Many people, including myself, would argue merely for the mention that the far-ranging theory of evolution is controversial, has significant weaknesses, and that there is an alternative explanation for life’s origin, development, and complexity quite apart from the constraints of pure, naturalistic science methodology. I even advocate that we teach what the theory of evolution proposes and how scientists have arrived at its paradigm. If the theory really were true, it could only be strengthened by a critical analysis.

Having spent 40 years in public school science education, I developed enormous respect for the effectiveness of scientific method in understanding the wonders of the natural world. I also developed awareness that the scientific method is incapable of accounting for every observable phenomenon. In particular, evolution, sometimes touted as “a fact, rigorously tested and proven,” does not rise to that exalted status because of serious confusion and preconceptions ingrained in our perceptual framework by our education system.

We sometimes encounter the mantra of the late Stephen Jay Gould that evolution is both a theory and a fact. Niles Eldredge, who collaborated with Gould in 1972 to articulate the evolutionary hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium (PE) to explain important observations concerning the fossil record, has also promoted the “theory and fact” idea. Gould and Eldredge both promote evolution as a “fact,” but would acknowledge that the “theory” of how it all happened is still subject to lively debate.

Gould and Eldredge have achieved guru status with their PE hypothesis. Many people unfamiliar with all the details of the proposals of evolution would be surprised to discover that Earth’s fossil record, instead of gradual transitions, tells the story of sudden appearances of many groups of novel species (called radiations) throughout Earth’s 3.8 billion year history of life. These appearances most often follow mass extinction episodes caused by asteroid bombardment, snowball events (widespread glaciations), and extensive volcanism.

Geologic periods and eras are generally demarcated by such events. The PE hypothesis of Gould and Eldredge, replete with impressively creative terms such as cladogenesis, peripatetic speciation, and adaptive radiation, is a speculative proposal at best. Gould and Eldredge have become famous promoting PE, evolution as both theory and fact, and NOMA (non-overlapping magesteria)—the idea that there is no overlap between science and religion. Without PE there is no evolution. PE, however, provides for evolution in “fits and starts.” Eldredge has worked hard to explain the these serious difficulties encountered within evolution’s paradigm.

I once exchanged a series of letters with a paleontologist from a major Midwest university. He wrote that “Evolution is a fact of nature without regard to perceived trends, patterns, or processes, just as gravity is a fact of nature, the speed of light is a fact of nature, etc.” How does this pronouncement of evolution as a “fact,” and the assignment of “fact” status by Gould, Eldredge, and many others, comport with logic?

Pope John Paul II in 1996 proclaimed, “A theory’s validity depends on whether or not it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; whenever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought.”

Stephen Jay Gould had said, “Facts are the world’s data.” If evolution is this sort of “fact” against which we check hypotheses and theories such as PE, we are left with a hopelessly circular argument. If evolution is a fact, like gravity, it is an easy step for Gould, Eldredge, Dawkins, et al, to propose that their creative theories about how things happened are supported by “facts” that are taken to be true as conceptual assumptions.

The hypothesis and terminology of PE is more descriptive than explanatory. One article stated “Gould and Eldredge did not specify any particular genetic mechanism for PE” (i. e., how new forms could explosively appear on the scene). Another stated it was not a well-developed theory. Evolutionists have not convincingly explained mechanisms driving these sudden re-populations of new forms following mass extinctions, or, for that matter, the long periods of stasis during which little if any change occurs. Their attempts to do so are riddled with speculations and uncertainties. Upon analysis, their arguments rely on logical fallacies and tricks of argument laden with circular reasoning, tautology, and begging the question.

We are told, ad nauseam, that evolution is rigorously tested and proven, as if this statement is its own best proof. We are presented with evidence such as genetic tinkering experiments with fruit flies, micro-evolutionary mutations in viruses, peppered moths in England, and Galapagos finches which do not rise to the status of proof for macro-evolution. These are the real canards in the current cultural war.

At this point I am content to argue that evolution is weak science. The proposition of widely spaced supernatural creation events is not falsifiable in the classic scientific sense, as that term is currently defined. But have we considered whether the unusual proposals of punctuated equilibrium are observable, falsifiable, repeatable, or provable, and supply us with predictive ability?

Many complain about religious intrusion into the domain of science. On this basis, have we discarded the plausible inference of supernatural creation events to account for the observed data merely because belief in the agency of a supernatural Creator has a flavor of religion? The precept of “progressive creationism” is a proposal gaining traction among theists because it conforms to the sequence of creation events described in Genesis 1 and allows for the translation of Hebrew “yom” as “a long period of time.”

I enthusiastically endorse the traditional methods of science for discovering truth about the natural world. However, when truth may lie outside the strict “game rules” of scientific methodology, and when the fault lines of evolution’s paradigm begin to manifest themselves, perhaps it is time for a thoughtful reappraisal of the workings of Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science.”