Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 3, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

EVOLUTION AND THE ESTABLISHMENT....One of my frustrations with the whole Michael Dini evolution dust-up is that I've discovered that even people who are sympathetic to the cause often don't seem to realize just how strong the case for evolution is. Hey, sometimes the scientific establishment really is hostile to new ideas. Maybe this is one of those times. Perhaps creationism or its modern incarnation as Intelligent Design ought to be given a hearing.

I would like to persuade you that history doesn't back up this view. Yes, the scientific establishment can sometimes be hostile to new ideas, as they should be if someone is proposing to overturn a well established and highly successful theory. Meticulous evidence ought to be required.

But the real story isn't that the scientific establishment sometimes rejects good ideas, it's just the opposite: what's really remarkable is the speed with which even the most harebrained idea can become widely accepted:

  • Max Planck started the quantum mechanics revolution in 1900. New results came fast and furious, were debated and quickly accepted, and by 1930 the entire edifice was completely orthodox. This is despite the fact that quantum mechanics produces results so strange and nonintuitive that even Richard Feynman thought it was impossible to truly understand.

  • Albert Einstein published his first paper on relativity in 1905. It was quickly accepted and by 1908 Minkowski had developed the mathematical expression of special relativity that is still used today. General relativity was introduced in 1915 and was universally accepted by 1920 even though it overturned a system of Newtonian mechanics that had been fabulously successful for over two centuries.

  • How about Alfred Wegener and continental drift, probably the canonical story of establishment myopia? In fact, Wegener was wrong about a number of things and geologists had good reason to be skeptical. But even here, in one of the most cited cases of the lonely outsider who's eventually vindicated, it took less than 50 years for Wegener's ideas to find wide acceptance.

  • The most recent example of establishment shortsightedness is the story of Luis Alvarez, a physicist who claimed that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a collision with a meteor. He was indeed met with wide disbelief, but in the end it took less than 15 years for his ideas to become orthodox.

Virtually every crank with a peculiar idea invokes the romantic image of the lonely outsider shunned by a scientific establishment unwilling to listen to unconventional new ideas. But it's mostly a myth. Genuinely good ideas spread through the scientific establishment amazingly quickly. After all, for a truly revolutionary discovery 20 or 30 years is not really all that long.

Creationism, of course, has been around essentially forever. It is evolution that was the bright new idea in 1859, and like most bright new ideas it received wide acceptance among the professional establishment fairly quickly within a few decades. Intelligent Design, which is simply creationism with a new mask, is not a brilliant outsider fighting an ossified establishment, it's an old, old idea that has been universally rejected because it's been replaced by a much better one.

To a large extent, this is what the Dini controversy is about. Creationists play for sympathy by claiming that evolution is a shaky theory protected by a jealous scientific elite. But nothing could be further from the truth. The scientific establishment is constantly adding new members, and if there was even a shred of evidence for creationism there would be legions of bright young grad students latching onto it, hoping to make a name for themselves.

No such thing has happened. Not in 10 years, not in 50 years, not for over a century. The closest we've come has been Lysenkoism, which set back Russian biology by decades.

Why? Because there's nothing there. There is plenty of activity in the field of evolution and bits and pieces of it will no doubt continue changing for a long time. But creationism? It's like suggesting that geologists ought to pay serious attention to people who claim the earth is flat.

Creationism is as demonstrably false as it's possible for a theory to be. For Dini to recommend a student who believes it is to countenance someone who may someday make claims for creationism perhaps in a classroom, perhaps on a congressional panel that are credible partly by virtue of the authority that Dini bestowed. The result might be anything from ignorant students to public policy based on superstition. Is it any wonder that Dini wants no part of this?

UPDATE: Chris Mooney has a good column about the Dini affair over at CSICOP.

Kevin Drum 2:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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