How Science Works: The Views of Gingerich and Johnson


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From: PSCF 44 (December 1992); 249-252.

Being an admirer of both Owen Gingerich and Phillip Johnson, I was frustrated to read Gingerich's closing 

So, what does Johnson want us to do about all this? Abandon teaching evolution in schools? Teach it as a scientific myth? Give creationists equal time? He call the writers of the ASA Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy "naive," but he seems to offer no obvious prescription. If he understood better how science functions, perhaps he could have proffered some advice, for he is obviously a thoughtful and intelligent author. As it is, he has written a fun, provocative, but ultimately very frustrating book.

It was disconcerting to find two "should be" allies in the creation/evolution pseudo-controversy apparently so far apart in their understanding of basic issues. In this Communication I argue that Gingerich and Johnson are closer to common understanding than the Gingerich review would indicate, and conclude by suggesting that they would both agree with ASA's resolution calling for teaching evolution as science.

I will address the issues raised by Gingerich in reverse order, first commenting on "how science functions," then dealing with Johnson's perception that the ASA writers of Teaching Sciences in a Climate of Controversy were "naive," and finally suggesting a solution to the practical problem of teaching evolution in the public schools.

How Science Works

Gingerich recently co-authored (with Alan Lightman) a landmark article entitled "When Do Anomalies Begin?" (Science, 255, pp. 690-695). The abstract reads as follows:

An anomaly in science is an observed fact that is difficult to explain in terms of the existing conceptual framework. Anomalies often point to the inadequacy of the current theory and herald a new one. It is argued here that certain scientific anomalies are recognized as anomalies only after they are given compelling explanations within a new conceptual framework. Before this recognition, the peculiar facts are taken as given or are ignored in the old framework. Such a "retrorecognition" phenomenon reveals not only a significant feature of the process of scientific discovery but also an important aspect of human psychology.

In essence, the Gingerich/Lightman "retrorecognition" phenomenon observes that the majority of the scientific community is blind to anomalies in a reigning paradigm until "after they are given compelling explanations within a new conceptual framework." Anomalies are deviations from the expected or predicted natural order. They may be unquestioned, taken as givens, or "not widely regarded as important or legitimized until a good explanation is at hand in a new paradigm."

Gingerich and Lightman present five examples of the retrorecognition of anomalies following major paradigm shifts. As a geologist, my interest focused on the example titled "the continental-fit problem." Alfred Wegner, a German meteorologist, presented his case for continental drift in the early 1900s to explain the jigsaw puzzle fit of the continents. He marshaled additional supporting evidence (well recognized today) to prove that the continents were once together. Why it took over 50 years for the geosynclinal paradigm (which held to a largely horizontally static model) to be replaced by plate tectonics (which involves horizontal movement on a planetary scale) can be largely explained by the retrorecognition phenomenon. Geologists, schooled in geosynclinal theory, were incapable of recognizing anomalies, especially those that contradicted their reigning paradigm.

It should be noted the now largely forgotten geosynclinal theory was supposed to explain and provide a mechanism for the origin of major mountain systems. As recently as 1960, geologists thought that "just as the doctrine of evolution is universally accepted among biologists, so also the geosynclinal origin of the major mountain systems is an established principle in geology."1 By the late 1960s it was obvious to most geologists that geosynclinal theory never had provided an explanation or established a mechanism for the origin of mountain systems.

Johnson's major point in Darwin on Trial, and in subsequent lectures and publications, is that Darwinists are so mesmerized by their paradigm that they cannot see anomalies or patterns of evidence at variance with their theory. For example, the fact that the Cambrian explosion of animal phyla and other macro-patterns in the fossil record contradict the predictions of the Darwinian mechanisms is unseen, ignored, or regarded as "details" to be squeezed into the existing framework. The 1990 California Science Framework bypasses these anomaly problems by limiting the format in which data can be presented to the Darwinian model: "The evolution of life should be presented to students not as a disconnected series but as a pattern of changing diversity united by evolutionary relationships...."2 The message here clearly is that teachers should not present data independently of Darwinist interpretations.

Heeding this advice, in April 1990 the California Academy of Sciences opened a major exhibit at its Golden Gate Park Museum in San Francisco, entitled "Life Through Time: The Evidence for Evolution." While visiting the exhibit, I found that the most interesting display was one that showed fossils linked together in a way that was intended to show their evolutionary relationships. This display is diagrammed in Figure A (below left) with my empirical plot of the museum's data (copied from the fossil index on the adjoining wall) shown for contrast in Figure B (below right).3

There are several problems with this display, but three are particularly serious. First, in order to display the fossils in a way that is consistent with the Framework's recommendations, the creators took substantial liberties with the facts--by placing fossil specimens in the wrong geological strata. I have added the dates (in mya, or million years ago) for the oldest specimens to the diagrams to highlight the inaccurate placement of the fossils by the museum. The fact that the fossils are placed in the wrong strata in order to force them to fit the Darwinian paradigm is an apt illustration of the power of the Darwinian conceptual framework to inhibit scientific objectivity.

The second serious problem is the placement of magnifying glasses at every branch-point in the diagram. In all the other fossil displays in the exhibit, magnifying glasses were placed over minuscule fossils to help the museum-goers see them more easily. In this display, however, there are no fossils under any of the magnifying glasses. While this involves no misstatement of facts, it is still deceptive--leading the viewer to imagine that there are minute fossils at the branch-points, when there are none. Absence of evidence for evolution is artfully converted into evidence.

The lines connecting the taxa into the classic Darwinian evolutionary tree is the third and most serious problem with the museum display. The obvious objection to these connecting lines is that the title of the exhibit is "Life Through Time: Evidence for Evolution." Note that the connecting (ancestral?) lines and empty magnifying glasses at the points of hypothetical common ancestry are not evidence but inference.

This illustration of how museum curators have transformed inference into evidence and falsified the placement of fossils was presented by plenary speaker Phillip Johnson at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Anthropological Association (SWAA) in April 1992.4 To my amazement, there was no reaction or comment from the audience. To me, the total blindness (or indifference) of the anthropologists may be explained by the Gingerich/Lightman retrorecognition phenomena. No matter how obvious distortions of evidence may appear, they are invisible or "ignored" by those steeped in the existing paradigm.

In any event, it appears to me that Johnson and Gingerich have the same understanding of how science works. They both know that science does not always work in the objective, open to skeptical criticism manner that we glorify in textbooks. It often works, as Gingerich has so aptly illustrated with his retrorecognition examples, in a way that can blind scientists to serious anomalies and evidentiary problems in entrenched paradigms. Johnson's skeptical approach may open enough eyes to bring the actuality of how science works closer to our ideal.

The Naivete of the ASA Writers

Let me assure the readers of this Journal that Johnson's comments on the "naivete" of the writers of the ASA booklet Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy were accurate.5 I was one of those writers. While we were correct in assuming that science teachers would welcome our contribution, we were naive to expect the same from the educational establishment. Teaching Science was (and still is) branded as "thinly disguised creation science" not to be used in the science classroom by the Manager of the California Math/Science/Environmental unit. Further, the California Science Teachers' Journal refused to publish our corrective response to a diatribe by William Benetta in its Spring 1987 issue.6

Gingerich, like Johnson, does not share our naivete. In fact, Gingerich prophetically states that "Johnson's brilliantly argued critique of Darwinian evolution is guaranteed to arouse exasperated irritation from those who accept evolution as an article of faith." Stephen J. Gould's highly critical four page book review on Johnson's Darwin on Trial in the July 1992 issue of Scientific American is an accurate fulfillment of that prophecy. Being more cynical and less naive than in the past, the ASA authors were not surprised that Scientific American refused to publish Johnson's response to Gould's attack. (Copies of Johnson's response are available from this author.)

Teaching Evolution in the Schools

Neither Johnson nor Gingerich want us to "abandon teaching evolution in schools, teach it as a scientific myth or give creationists equal time." To the best of my knowledge, they both affirm the solution outlined in the December 7, 1991 ASA's Executive Council's resolution "A Voice For Evolution As Science," (see next page). In addition to carefully defining and consistently using the terms evolution and the theory of evolution, this resolution urges "(1) forceful presentation of well-established scientific data and conclusions; (2) clear distinction between evidence and inference; and (3) candid discussion of unsolved problems and open questions."

Let us not continue to be naive and expect that this ASA proposal is going to be implemented by the educational establishment. To date, our proposal has met with deflection, derision and hostility.7 For those who desire to understand this hostility and the Darwinist control of education in the United States, I suggest reading Darwin On Trial.




1 Clark, T.H. and Stern, C.W. (1960). Geological Evolution of North America. 2nd ed. (New York: The Ronald Press) page 83.

2 Science Framework for California Public Schools, 1990, page 132. For further information and/or to order the Framework, see J. Wiester, "Teaching Evolution as Non-Science: Examples From California's 1990 Science Framework," PSCF 43:3, pages 190-192.

3 For further information on The California Academy of Science Museum exhibit, see Hartwig, M. and Nelson, P.A. (1992). Invitation to Conflict: A Retrospective Look At the California Science Framework. (Access Research Network, P. O. Box 38069, Colorado Springs, CO 80937-8069) pages vi-x. As of August 1992, the museum display has not been corrected.

4 Phillip E. Johnson's plenary paper entitled, "Darwinism's Rules of Reasoning" was distributed to the 100+ attendees at the SWAA Berkeley meeting and is available from this author. The two physical anthropologists responding to Johnson ignored moderator Robert Anderson's admonitions and "squandered much of their allotted time on ad hominem arguments" (see Robert Anderson, "Evolution Versus Creation and the Ad Hominem Argument," Southwestern Anthropological Association Newsletter v. 33, no. 1, June 1991).

5 Johnson, P. (1991). Darwin On Trial. (Washington: Regnery Gateway) pages 126-128.

6 Copies of the relevant correspondence and articles can be obtained by contacting this author.

7 The only response to the news coverage on ASA's resolution in Science, vol. 255, page 282, was by National Center for Science Education Director Eugenie Scott, which deflected the issue with the usual smoke screen (and I paraphrase) "teachers are afraid to teach evolution." Thomas H. Jukes referred to a similar proposal by this author to define terms and use them with consistency as "a venomous attack on scientists who have been fighting creationism" (The Scientist, Letters, April 29, 1991).