Thursday, September 04, 2008

Intelligence and design

Little did I realise when I became a target of criticism from Steve Fuller of Warwick University that I would be able to wear this as a badge of honour. I just thought it rather odd that someone in a department of sociology seemed so indifferent to the foundational principles of his field, preferring to regard it as a branch of psychology rather than an attempt to understand human group behaviour. I take some solace in the fact that his resistance to physics-based ideas seems to have been anticipated by George Lundberg, one of the pioneers of the field, who, in Foundations of Sociology (1939), admits with dismay that ‘The idea that the same general laws may be applicable to both ‘physical’ and societal behavior may seem fantastic and inconceivable to many people.’ I was tempted to suggest that Fuller hadn’t read Lundberg, or Robert Park, Georg Simmel, Herbert Simon and so on, but this felt like the cheap form of rhetoric that prompts authors to say of critics whose opinions they don’t like that ‘they obviously haven’t read my book’. (On the other hand, Fuller’s first assault, on Radio 4’s Today programme, came when he really hadn’t read my book, because it hadn’t been published at that point.)

Anyway, judging from the level of scholarship A. C. Grayling finds (or rather, fails to find) in Fuller’s new book Dissent over Descent, a defence of the notion of intelligent design, maybe my hesitation was generous. But of course one shouldn’t generalize. Grayling has dissected the book in the New Humanist, and we should be grateful to him for sparing us the effort, although he clearly found the task wearisome. But wait a minute – a social scientist writing about evolution? Isn’t that a little like a chemist (sic) writing about social science?


Roger Juanson said...

It's nice to see that you're still dining out on a criticism that Fuller made of you three years ago, but before blindly trusting AC Grayling's judgement on Fuller's latest, you might want consider that he also wrote a very strong review of one of Fuller's previous books in the Financial Times.

Unknown said...

Criticism is, at best, revealing, at worst, subtle publicity for the criticized.

This long lasting overly talked debate has reminded me a scientific posture which we, as scientists should try to prevail. Enclosed in this Aphorism:

"The scientist know quite well when there isn't real science present; but Damn it! Not so well when there is."

-Jorge Wagensberg; Si la naturaleza es la respuesta, ¿Cu├íl era la pregunta?

We should, of course, defend the science behind this debate, but we should also acknowledge that these pseudo-scientific arguments might also be an opportunity to close the gap between actual scientific communication and perception and actual science perception. I am barely a Chemistry teacher, but I can see that teaching and communication should start being studied /scientifically) towards increasing the correct perception among scholars and, ultimately, the general public.

My two cents (sorry, pence).


Richard Hawley said...

Philip, you may already know that that Fuller has a session following yours at the Lichfield Literature Weekend on 27 September. I was unaware of his comments about your writing when scheduling. I look forward to meeting you over coming weeks.

Philip Ball said...

Well, that'll be fun! I'm sure it'll be the most civil of encounters. In any case, I look forward to the festival.