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Into the lion's den

Steve Fuller at 'Skeptics In The Pub'

Bill Hanage 30 July 2006

The Dissent of Man: Fuller (center, dark blue shirt) calmly allows the moderator (right) to quell hecklers

I am not inclined to trust intellectually a person who fails to recognise that the principle of parsimony does not support intelligent

If there is one thing Steve Fuller cannot be accused of, it is hiding his ideas under a bushel. Those ideas may be shallow, purblind, and circular to the extent that they corrode constructive debate, but he does hold them up to scrutiny.

Nor does he limit himself to sympathetic audiences. Fuller, a professor of sociology at Warwick, hit the headlines last year when he testified in front of the judge charged with the task of determining whether the Dover School Board in Pennsylvania had erred in determining that biology textbooks should carry what Fuller calls ‘intellectual health warnings’. These would note that some people disagreed with Darwinism, and promote intelligent design as an alternative. Fuller was an expert witness for the defence; that is, the Dover School Board, who were on the side of anti-evolutionists. Not only did he throw himself with enthusiasm into this maelstrom (which he himself agrees was not to the benefit of anyone concerned – he has yet to receive his expert witness fee after the school board bankrupted itself through the case) but he showed up last week to describe the experience to a regular London gathering which calls itself Skeptics In The Pub.

Skeptics In The Pub does not sound like the sort of event Fuller would go to for a relaxing evening. So it proved. In fact, I’m not sure anyone would find it relaxing. Fifty or so argumentative types – scientists, academics, IT consultants, librarians and a light seasoning of lawyers – crammed into a room above a pub in London Bridge, on a sticky summer evening, wouldn’t do it for most people’s blood pressure. On the other hand, if Big Brother is ruining your summer, you might prefer this.

Fuller, an American with an East Coast drawl, delivered his talk perched on the edge of a pool table, with scarcely a trace of defensiveness in his demeanour, and without any visual aids. That is, unless you count his hands. Now clasping his crossed knees to him, then flying out to indicate an imaginary interlocutor to his right, then doing that strange thing Chandler from Friends used to do where both hands in turn throw imaginary objects at the audience. I think they call it ‘throwing shapes’. I’ve never seen it in a real person before, and it was striking.

It would be difficult to do justice to the talk, not least because I don’t want to put words into his mouth. Starting with an uncontroversial and informative history of religious belief and the separation of church and state in America, as time went on he got closer to the question of ID today, which was what most of the audience were interested in. As his statements got more controversial a few gasps emanated from around the crowd, and indeed a few outbursts (at one point I inhaled a little saliva and the ensuing coughing fit was construed as a heckle). But unfortunately, he spent so much time talking about things which were of questionable relevance that the meat of the talk was conflated into a quarter of an hour at the end, during which the contentious statements came so thick and fast I was scared my pencil would set fire to my paper as I furiously scribbled my notes.

So I will précis his point, as I understand it. I may have got parts of it wrong, but fortunately there was a substantial LabLit presence on the night. So check out the Forums for alternative views, where Fuller himself is still doggedly explaining his position.

In fact, I think that Fuller was more sceptical than the sceptics themselves. While his audience, by and large, clearly accepted science as the best way of finding things out about the world, he does not. I suspect the motivation for this lies in postmodernist relativism. He doesn’t want science to have it all its own way. He also has a strong and admirable commitment to democracy, especially at the local level. So he instinctively embraced the elected Dover School Board’s attempt to control the education of the kids in their community, describing it as “local education for local people”, clearly being unaware of the resonance with The League of Gentleman (with apologies to non-British readers, who can click here for more information).

Confusingly, Fuller didn’t seem impressed by Intelligent Design itself – although not because it doesn’t meet minimum standards of scientific practice, but because it “doesn’t understand its history”. I’m not sure what that means either. After leading us merrily around the Scopes trial, he made a rhetorical handbrake turn and started talking about Newton and kept coming back to Newton. The rationale for this was, I think, that Newton was an IDist. And hence Newton’s opinions demonstrate that a commitment to ID is not incompatible with science of the first rank – indeed, an unsurpassed achievement in physics. His point was that only someone who believed in the supernatural could have conceived of a mysterious force acting at a distance, such as gravity. Hence, ID could in fact improve children’s understanding of science, and breed a generation of mini-Newtons, by encouraging them to “think outside the box”.

Or so Fuller claims. But while Newton was certainly a Deist, that is not the same thing as ID. In fact, Newton had all sorts of peculiar views. He was an enthusiastic part-time alchemist, but I wouldn’t suggest that alchemy should be taught in schools (although when I brought this up with Fuller, he seemed to think otherwise). Another example of the compatibility of religion and science that Fuller raised was Mendel. Putting Mendel and Newton together seems to be a pretty crazy exercise – they lived centuries apart; one was a monk, the other a mathematician and academic; they contributed to wildly disparate fields of knowledge by different means and even in their religious lives occupied highly divergent positions. In fact, one of the few things they have in common is that they both believed in a god. As have most people who have ever lived, and indeed most who are alive today. The work carried out by both men has been built upon and confirmed by innumerable others through subtle interrogation of nature. I fail to see the relevance of this to why something as flawed as ID should be let into science class.

Even more seriously, as one of the best interventions from the audience pointed out, the fact that Newton believed in god does not mean that a belief in god turns you into Newton. Such an argument ignores the difference between correlation and causation, a point met by excited whoops from elsewhere as some sceptics sensed a hit, a very palpable hit. To clarify this concept, the questioner then pointed out that he has been known masturbate before experiments, but this does not mean the successful completion of the experiment is due to his activities. Obviously a sample of one does not permit us to come to any firm conclusions, though if any readers are interested in participating in a larger trial it could be interesting – hell, Channel 4 would probably make a programme out of it.

Another point made by Fuller puts him into rather odd company. The intelligent design perspective, he argues, can be helpful. Seeing the universe, and the biological world in particular, as ‘designed’ can aid in understanding it. He seems to be unconcerned about the relatively minor problem of whether the system actually was designed. As some readers will be aware, there is a very strong tradition in evolutionary biology of ‘reverse engineering’ among those strong adaptationists who see the power of natural selection everywhere. But its staunchest promoters are not those who seek to find some common ground with believers, but the likes of Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Fuller does not seem to know about this. In fact, he seems to care little for science or how we can use it to find things out. I may be maligning him on the basis of one meeting, but I am not inclined to trust intellectually a person who fails to recognise that the principle of parsimony does not support intelligent design. Who, in fact, responds to the question of parsimony with a shrug and a few thrown shapes.

(By the way, I used the ‘I’ word in the last paragraph quite intentionally. Fuller kept referring to himself as someone interested in the trial ‘intellectually’. As if scientists and sceptics in opposition to him are somehow not intellectual. Or that simply wishing children to be taught science is not intellectual.)

And in the final analysis it is this sort of lazy faux intellectualism which buries Fuller’s contribution to the debate. In questions at the end, Fuller’s Dover witness statement, which is in the public domain, was rather amusingly torn to shreds by one of the lawyers present. The questioner was particularly concerned that the word ‘supernatural’, though used more than once, was not defined anywhere in the witness statement. Personally, I think that anyone who thinks “…ID’s rejection of naturalism and commitment to supernaturalism does not make it unscientific” has already surrendered any right they might have to be taken seriously in scientific debate.

It is true of course that scientific history contains a cast of characters drawn from almost every belief system imaginable. Scientific knowledge, however, stands outside this. A properly designed experiment will not suddenly fail to work if conducted by a Christian rather than an atheist. Likewise, the various currents of that history do not all merit inclusion in a school curriculum which is necessarily finite. Even if we ignore the sins ID commits against the scientific process, why should it be included rather than, say, homeopathy, or alchemy, or indeed anything at all if its adherents can muster support at the ‘local’ level?

What did we learn? I learned that a person clever enough to work their way to a chair at Warwick can support, out of sheer contrariness, views they say they do not necessarily believe themselves. I’m not sure what to conclude from that. The man deserves nothing but applause for putting himself up for criticism. However, the spectacle of an intelligent, highly educated person, using their position and their learning to try to deny children the right to a scientific education, fills me with revulsion. If that is intellectualism, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the opposite.

Related information

Skeptics In The Pub tends to meet the third Thursday of every month starting at 7:30pm at The Old Kings Head, London Bridge. A £2 donation is requested to cover the guest speaker's travelling expenses and sundries. Sandwiches and chips are provided at about 7:00pm on a first-come, first-served basis, and non-skeptics are welcome. Next time, the Scientologists come under scrutiny; see the website for more information.