What is science?

James Lewis describes Science as a Glorious, Skeptical Enterprise.

Bad ideas get trashed in good science. If you doubt it, just read James Watson on the heated fight with Linus Pauling over the structure of DNA. Craig Venter outraged the competition by discovering the human genome three years before they expected to get there. Or see what Isaac Newton said about Leibniz. It gets nasty.

That’s for healthy science, which is not a list of orthodox beliefs, but more like an endless, running debating club. You could tell that global warming was in trouble the moment that James Hansen, NASA’s chief climate astrologer and enforcer of The Faith, said that “climate deniers” should be put in jail.

But from there Lewis illustrates an apologia for creationism which rather destroys his argument. He suggests it is proper science to teach creationism as a part of the history behind Darwinism and then tosses in veiled references about how DNA understanding has “found to be flawed” and similarly vague references to unanswered questions. The basis, that science depends upon skepticism and debate, is supportable but the idea that there are no standards or ‘rules of debate’ that is implied by his creationist examples is not.

There is the ideal – that the debate is impersonal, logical, and solidly fact based – and then there is the reality that many scientists are gifted people with strong emotional attachments to their ideas and that emotion can sometimes boil over into occasional outbursts. The problem with Hansen’s ‘should be jailed’ comment is not that is was said but rather that it was a bit more than just an incidental personal outburst.

Where Lewis treads in quicksand is where he fails to acknowledge the demarcation between appropriate and inappropriate. That line is critical to intellectual integrity. It is a line that is often smeared in modern issues related to questions about the world we live in. Examples of stepping over the line into quicksand can be seen in the current IPCC report problems regarding glaciation, Amazon deforestation, and conflict of interest. It can also be seen in Lewis’s efforts to rationalize teaching creationism as biology.

A good ‘scientific’ debate stays within the bounds of measure and context. When it escapes these bounds, it ceases to be science.

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