Are t
heories of Intelligent Design
published in Science Journals?

 And if not, why not? 
 ( illustrated by the experiences of Michael Behe )

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.


      Two Questions about Complexity
      In Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), Michael Behe illustrates the principle of irreducible complexity with a mousetrap that has five interacting parts: a base, hammer, spring, catch, and holding bar.  Each part is necessary, and there is no function unless all parts are present.  A trap with only four parts has no practical function.  It doesn't just catch mice poorly, it doesn't catch them at all.
      What are the implications for biological evolution?  Behe says, "An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly... by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.  An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution." (Darwin's Black Box, page 39)

      For a nonliving system, the implications are even more challenging, because natural selection — which is the main mechanism of Darwinian evolution — cannot exist until a system can reproduce.  For an origin of life by chemical evolution, what minimal complexity would be required for reproduction and other essential life-functions?

      Let's look at responses to these two questions.

      When is critical thinking unscientific?
      To explain the minimal complexity required in a natural origin of life, scientists have proposed many theories about the origin of life but — since what is required for life seems greater than what is possible by natural process — currently each theory seems implausible.  Supporters of one theory point out the weakness in other theories, and their critical thinking is welcomed by the scientific community.
      What would make their critical thinking unscientific?  a claim that a natural formation of life is extremely improbable, and maybe impossible?  a perception (by others) that this claim implies a non-natural cause?  an explicit proposal for a non-natural cause?  Is there any limit to the severity of criticism before it becomes unscientific?  If all non-design theories are criticized and there is a proposal for design-directed action, is this unscientific?  If severe criticism is accompanied by a proposal for a naturalistic theory, does this make it scientific?
      Can scientists admit that "we are far from finding the answer" but not that "maybe there is no natural answer"?  Consistent with the restrictions of methodological naturalism, should we control the thinking of scientists by removing their freedom to think that "maybe..."?

      Should questions be in scientific journals?
      When Michael Behe submitted papers about irreducible complexity to science journals, he found that some individual editors were interested, but groups were intolerant.  One editorial board concluded its rejection letter, "Our journal... believes that evolutionary explanations of all structures and phenomena of life are possible and inevitable."   { In the next section, you can see details about Behe-and-journals. }
      In an open-minded free science, the response would be different.  Behe's thought-provoking questions would be welcomed as a constructive challenge, an opportunity to gain a more complete understanding of evolution at the molecular level.  The journals would be eager to communicate new ideas, to host invigorating debates between critics of a theory and its loyal defenders.

      Should we ask questions?
      In the near future, scientists will disagree about the plausibility and utility of design, but conflicts in science are common and can be productive.  Should journal editors wait until proponents of design have irrefutable proof?  Because proof is impossible in science it can be difficult to confidently answer the question, "Was design-action involved in producing this feature?"  But it should be easy to decide, "Should we ask the question?"  A curious, open-minded community will say "YES, we want our science to be flexible and open to inquiry, not rigid and closed by dogmatism.

    Mike Behe's Adventures in Non-Publishing
    the context:  Design theorists have raised a variety of questions about the plausibility of neo-Darwinian evolution.  For example, in Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), Michael Behe claims that some biochemical systems are irreducibly complex and probably could not be produced in the step-by-step process that is proposed in current neo-Darwinian theories.
      a possibility:  Consistent with the standards of modern molecular biology, Behe is encouraging a detailed examination of evolution, at a deeper level with higher standards.  As expected, his challenges have stimulated creative thinking and experimenting among individual scientists who read his book or heard about his ideas in subsequent reviews, lectures, or internet debates.  His critical questions have served as a catalyst for action by defenders of evolution who want to show he is wrong, and by proponents of design.
      the reality:  When he submitted papers about irreducible complexity to science journals, what was the response?  Behe summarizes: "While some science journal editors are individually tolerant and will entertain thoughts of publishing challenges to current views, when a group (such as the editorial board) gets together, orthodoxy prevails."  { In this section, all quotations are from Correspondence with Science Journals: Response to Critics concerning Peer-Review by Michael Behe. }

      For example, one editor described a problem: "I am painfully aware of the close-mindedness of the scientific community to non-orthodoxy, and I think it is counterproductive."  Behe's submission was sent to a senior journal advisor, who responded to Behe's critical analysis with a proposal for delayed publication: "Having not yet understood all of biology is not a failure after just 200 years, given the amount of understanding already achieved.  Let us speak about it again in 1000 years."  The editor, in rejecting Behe's paper, said "I would like to encourage you to seek new evidence for your views, but of course, that evidence would likely fall outside of the scientific paradigm, or would basically be denials of conventional explanations.  You are in for some tough sledding."
      With another journal, after Behe submitted a tightly focused paper (a reply to specific criticisms) the editor graciously proposed an expanded project that — consistent with the noble ideals of science — would have performed a valuable service by encouraging the open discussion of an exciting new idea:
      "The notion of intelligent design is one that may warrant further exploration, even though the topic has been dealt with extensively by both practicing scientists and philosophers of science.  Should this exploration take the form of contrasting viewpoints in articles by two persons, published in the same issue, on the more general aspects of the topic, then our editorial policy of presenting current issues of significance in the biological sciences might be satisfied.   /   Recast in more general terms, your article could present the "pro" side of the issue, and in that context it could address some of the criticisms that have appeared since your book was published, but it would have to provide a much broader perspective.  In particular, it would have to assume a readership that is not familiar with your book, at least not in any detailed way.  An accompanying article could present the "con" side of the issue, again taking a general perspective.  No doubt your book would figure prominently in both articles, but the theme would be modern concepts of intelligent design rather than a specific publication.  This approach would almost certainly reach a broader readership than a detailed response to specific criticisms.  It also has the added advantage of allowing you to present a synopsis of your entire case rather than just defending specific aspects of it.  Such a paired set of articles would imply that the topic is important, and therefore would attract additional readers."
      This is an excellent "open science" approach.  But the journal's editorial board was less enthusiastic.  They protested that "it is not possible to develop a meaningful discussion" between a design theory "based on intuitive, philosophical, or religious grounds" and an evolutionary theory "based on scientific fact and inference."  And they concluded, "Our journal... believes that evolutionary explanations of all structures and phenomena of life are possible and inevitable.  Hence a position such as yours, which opposes this view on other than scientific grounds, cannot be appropriate for our pages.  Although the editors feel that there has already been extensive response to your position from the academic community, we nevertheless encourage further informed discussion in appropriate forums.  Our journal cannot provide that forum, but we trust that other opportunities may become available to you."

      Analysis — Comparing the Actual and Ideal
      If all questions about biological evolution have been answered, if the ideas of Mike Behe have no scientific merit and his claims already have been proved false, then his ideas should be excluded from science journals.  But if he asks questions that might raise doubts about some aspects of current theories, there is a reason to include his ideas in journals.
      An editor informally recognized that "there has already been extensive response to your position from the academic community," but official recognition (by publication in their journal) was denied.  Why?  They explained that, in contrast with Behe's intuitive religious philosophy, their journal contains pure science.  But the situation seems reversed.  Although Behe's ideas are based on observations and scientific logic, publishing them "cannot be appropriate" because "our journal... believes that evolutionary explanations... are possible and inevitable."  The rejection seems to be based on philosophical preference, not scientific merit.
      But according to a noble ideal of objective science — operating in a community of curious, open-minded scientists who are exploring freely, are thinking critically, creatively, and flexibly, and are dedicated to finding the truth — the response should be different.  Ideally, instead of ignoring the concept of design, pretending it doesn't exist and trying to exclude it from the mainstream of science, its tough questions would be carefully examined and used as a stimulus for productive action.
      Instead, critical questions are resented and rejected.  This response does offer a practical benefit, by letting a community defend its reigning paradigm.  But if a defense is based on preventing questions rather than answering them, this does not seem consistent with the lofty ideals of scientists, with their noble vision of science as an intellectually free, objective pursuit of truth.  Instead, in a community of scientists who are exploring freely, thinking flexibly, and dedicated to finding truth, Behe's tough questions would be used as a stimulus for critical analysis, creative thinking, and productive action.
      Perhaps, when the evidence and arguments have been thoroughly examined and debated, when more experiments and analyses have been done, Behe's ideas will be shown to be wrong.  But critical thinking should be allowed in science, so there should at least be some recognition — by allowing publication in science journals — that his questions are important and are worthy of being asked.

      Reasons for Rejection?  (freedom and responsibility)
      For an editor, two goals — academic freedom and editorial responsibility — can be in tension.  Typically, editors want to promote a free exchange of ideas, but they have a responsibility to avoid promoting ideas that lack scientific support, are inappropriately speculative, or might hinder overall scientific productivity.  When deciding whether or not to include a particular article in a journal, an editor considers a variety of factors:  writing quality, scientific quality, the claims being made and their support by evidence and logic, potential contributions to overall scientific productivity and the development of current maxi-theories (as discussed below), compatibility with the goals and scope of a journal, supply-and-demand (ratio of articles submitted to space in journal), whether it "fulfills a function" for the journal, and so on.
      What factors are involved in a particular editorial decision, or a "pattern of decisions" in a field?  These questions are difficult to answer with confidence, due to the complex interactions of multiple factors (psychologically within individuals, and sociologically in their communities) that are examined by authors with a wide range of opinions.  The principle below will be useful in our discussions.

      Defending a Theory  (maxi-theories and mini-theories)
      Del Ratzsch — in Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (2000) — explains why some theories, but not others, are vigorously defended against empirical falsification:
      We must distinguish at least two levels of theory.  One level (variously called "maxi-theories" or "research programmes" or "research traditions") comprises the broad conceptual frameworks within which the day-to-day activity of science takes place.  The other level consists of the more detailed specific theories that are attempts to deal with particular phenomena within the constraints imposed by the maxi-theories.  . . .
      Maxi-theories usually encompass many specific theories covering a broad range of phenomena.  And if many of the specific theories are highly confirmed, the maxi-theory under which they operate is also strongly supported and therefore has sizable empirical inertia.  Thus there is usually good reason for reluctance to abandon it and good reason to hope that apparently contrary data may eventually be shown to have interpretations acceptable within the bounds of the maxi-theory.  . . .
      On the other hand, the specific mini-theories are much more subject to the immediate effects of empirical data.  They are, again, simply attempts to solve problems within the broader framework set by the maxi-theories.  If one such attempt does not work, perhaps another will.  Science often has little historical investment in any particular one of them, and if the data tend to show that one of them is inadequate, the loss to science is minimal.  No other part of science need be affected.  But a maxi-theory is a synthesizing, simplifying and unifying factor within science, bringing numerous mini-theories into a system of shared fundamental principles.  So abandonment of a maxi-theory would turn a previously conceptually unified area of science into a disorganized collection of isolated, independent, unrelated mini-theories without common conceptual anchors.  . . .
      Thus some theories are rejected straightforwardly on the basis of contrary data, and some theories persist in the face of such data.  But the theories in those respective categories tend to operate on different scales and play different roles within science.
  { excerpts quoted from Science & Its Limits, pages 64-65 }

      Here is a description of thought styles, which include maxi-theories and more, from Part 8 of my model for Integrated Scientific Method:  "A collective thought style includes the shared beliefs, among a group of scientists, about ‘what should be done and how it should be done.’  Thought styles affect the types of theories generated and accepted, and the problems formulated, experiments done, and techniques for interpreting data.  There are mutual influences between thought styles and the procedural ‘rules of the game’ that are developed by a community of scientists, operating in a larger social context, to establish and maintain certain types of institutions and reward systems, styles of presentation, attitudes toward competition and cooperation, and relationships between science, technology, and society. ...  Thought styles affect the process and content of science."



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