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Critique of Intelligent Design

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Steve Fuller and The Hidden Agenda of Social Constructivism

By Norman Levitt

Department of Mathematics, Rutgers University

Posted February 19, 2006

The recent, notorious confrontation, embodied in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, between Creationism (in the guise of "Intelligent Design Theory") and biological science was notable for many things, not least among them the dissolution of standard political categories. The decision itself confronted us the startling image of Judge J. Jones, a conservative Republican and a recent Bush appointee to boot, coming forth with an opinion that in its unquestioning deference to the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment, its pervasive concern for civil liberties, and its determination to maintain a materialist, naturalistic definition of science, seemed to have come straight out of a secular-humanist handbook. There were some assertions with which a hard-core monist might quibble, specifically, that there is no real conflict between science, evolu­tion­ary and otherwise, and religion as such. But these were minor diplomatic gestures, and did little to shield theocratic pretensions from the decision's thrust.

On top of that, the post-trial school board election that preceded the decision by a few weeks revealed the massive defection of a largely conservative and Republican community to the Democratic column and to an explicitly liberal view of church-state relations, clearly rejecting the theocratic bullying of the previous board. Moreover, the case itself had the effect of prying some prominent conservative thinkers away from their previously unquestioned allegiance to the Christian Right.

Yet the trial itself put on display a contrary anomaly, slight in its overall legal significance yet striking in its reversal of familiar dichotomies. That anomaly, to give it a personal name, was Professor Steve Fuller, an American academic now in the sociology program of the UK's University of Warwick, who provided an aggressive and cocksure rationale for the Dover Board's position and for the "Intelligent Design" program in general.

Philosopher turned sociologist

Fuller, who has a degree in philosophy of science, has long been a strident, insistent voice in the "science studies" movement that has insinuated itself into the European and American scholarly community. By the sole criterion of page counting, and leaving aside questions of accuracy, soundness, and irredundancy, he has been massively prolific. With entrepreneurial acumen, he early on founded his own journal, Social Epistemology, to tout the supremacy of his own doctrines. He has nimbly climbed the greasy pole of academic prestige, at least insofar as British redbricks and a field like sociology can generate it, rocketing upward on a ceaseless stream of words, most of them inflected by more than a hint of self-praise. As is almost inevitable in the prevailing climate, he positions himself on the supposed left of the political spectrum. Indeed, he has repeatedly resorted to "lefter than thou" rhetoric to bolster his claim to theoretical primacy. For instance, his book on Thomas Kuhn, probably the best known of his works, propounds the peculiar thesis that Kuhn's all-too-famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was at heart a Cold War scheme to lull western scientists into accepting their assigned role as accomplices of anti-Communist militarism. This is Fullerism at its slyest; the author simultaneously dethrones a figure who has been (rightly or wrongly) the philosophical demigod of left-wing science studies, while seizing the crown for himself.

In Fuller's mind, working scientists are in an important sense intellectually deformed. They constitute a narrow, cloistered, inbred hierarchy of myopic specialists largely blind to the "true" nature of science and oblivious to its future trajectory. Science, on this view, maintains its prestige, authority, and access to resources by playing the power game, bullying and intimidating the rest of society.  It is "an arrested social movement in which the natural spread of knowledge is captured by a community that gains relative advantage by forcing other communities to rely on its expertise to get what they want." In other words, what we now think of as "science" does not truly comprehend nature, but rather constructs from its own idiosyncratic perspective a limited image of nature, while using the prerogatives of a privileged mandarinate to nullify or suppress all rival knowledge claims that impinge on its territory.

But fear not! Paladins (most notably, Steve Fuller!) have arisen from the socially oriented disciplines to overthrow this view of things. Specifically, Fuller regards himself as a leader in the movement to "open up" science by nurturing and canonizing ways of "doing science" that differ radically from practices currently endorsed by the professional scientific consensus. This is a theme that plays well on the academic left, since it explicitly includes such notions as "citizen science" and "people's science," projects that Fuller gives leave to confront and reject the findings of established science. There is an obvious nod to the epistemic relativism that is central to the postmodernist view of things, notwithstanding the fact that Fuller indignantly refuses the "postmodernist" label.

This bizarre project is propped up by Fuller's dogma that one need not actually understand standard science to criticize it or to pose profoundly different alternatives. The specific content of standard science, its internal logic, the empirical results that buttress it, are not crucial elements in understanding "Science" as he maintains it should be understood. What, then, authorizes those who, like Fuller, do "social studies of science" to claim that supposedly superior understanding? "We study them [scientists] as people, not minor deities. We observe them in their workplaces, interpret their documents, and propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them, given other things we know about human beings." This, presumably, gives Fuller and friends the Archimedean leverage to condemn professional science as a hermetic cult and to toss aside its findings when ideology so dictates. "If a theory 'forced' one to assent to politically distasteful, depressing, and counterintuitive claims, then one could regard those consequences as in themselves good reasons to find the theory implausible," says feminist philosopher Sandra Harding; Fuller would doubtless agree, as evidenced by his sympathy for the War Against Darwin.

Anecdotal evidence

In tone and substance, Fuller is arrogant and condescending in the highest degree. But is he justifiably so? Do the underlying philosophy and the practical methods of Fuller and his school actually lead to results solid and penetrating enough to compel one to accept this take on things, notwithstanding its unconcealed contempt for the sensibilities of scientists? Frankly, I think this is not only improbable but ridiculous outright. I shall argue my case -- briefly -- by appeal to anecdotal evidence, farcical but telling. The reader is advised that I am the source of my own anecdote, and that I pass it on in a spirit of gleeful malice.  It serves the bastard right, say I, especially now that he's thrown in his lot with a pack of creationist theocrats!

I have been aware of Steve Fuller and his antics for about a dozen years. From the first, I found him not worth taking seriously except as evidence of the institutional inability of the academy to filter out pretentious nonsense. I soon discovered that I had, in effect, joined a subterranean society of Fuller-bashers, a cadre of scientists and philosophers who discern in Fuller's posturing the reductio ad absurdum of social constructivism and joyfully compete to unearth his most outrageous and egomaniacal claims. In a more public context, I have debated him a few times. Indeed, in one such case I was driven to perpetrate poetry (well, alright, doggerel) in order to respond to him aptly in the pages of an august journal of philosophy of science. But the incident I shall now resurrect occurred in the context of the celebrated Sokal Hoax.  Fuller, be it remembered, was one of the contributors to the "Science Wars" issue of Social Text, a project initially intended to salvage the reputation of "left" critics of science from the attacks of such churls as Paul Gross and the present author. But physicist Alan Sokal turned the tables by inveigling the editors into printing his inten­tionally ridiculous piece, thereby raising the more appropriate question of whether the left's embrace of anti-science and postmodernism in general constituted a species of intellectual suicide.

Fuller's own essay dealt with the supposed blow to European scientific vanity delivered by Meiji Japan's rapid acquisition of scientific and technical skills. Leaving aside the merits and flaws of this piece, it provided me with the opportunity to create a joke of my own within Sokal's larger joke, that is to say, a slight extension of Sokal's "experiment," with Fuller as experimental subject. As soon as the fatal issue of Social Text came out, with the hoax still unrevealed, I sent Fuller an e-mail, ostensibly to challenge a minor historical error in his essay. This ruse afforded me the opportunity to ask, without being too obvious, what Fuller thought of the curious Sokal article and its author. Fuller replied that he deemed the piece an earnest, if labored, attempt on the part of a politically progressive physicist to come to terms with the stunning new political critiques of science. There was no hint that he smelled a rat. My suspicions confirmed, I kept the correspondence going for a few more rounds, progressively adding more and more heavy-handed suggestions that there might be a joker in this particular deck. After four or five go-rounds, my hints having become positively day-glo blatant, the penny finally dropped for Fuller! By a curious coincidence, this happened at the exact moment the Social Text crowd learned the awful news that they'd been had.

But what does this all demonstrate, aside from my own insufferable smugness at having played an effective round of Gotcha!? Undeniably, it shows at least that Fuller, for all his reputation within the science studies Mafia, was unable to detect deliberate nonsense, coarse and silly blather easily pegged as a sophomoric joke by anyone with an ear for scientific discourse. By extension, it lays waste to his claim that by "observing scientists in their workplace" and "interpreting their documents" he is empowered to propose persuasive explanations for their activities. He can't. He sees too little and knows too little; his intellectual radar is on the fritz. However the wind blows, Professor Fuller seems, on the evidence of the Sokal Affair, quite unable to tell a hawk from a handsaw. Given, then, that he is demonstrably blind to the blatant, why in the world should anyone trust his discernment when matters get subtle or deep?

The blind theory-maker

Going well beyond this incident, a search of Fuller's manifestos reveals that he knows little, if anything, about the content or logic of biology or physics. Mathematically, he seems to be quite illiterate. On the other hand, as the cited incident shows, he is easily gulled. To put it another way, he is not a very astute judge of human nature, at least when the human in question is a scientist representing himself through scientific (or fake-scientific) rhetoric. Fuller simply can't be trusted to make psycho­logical sense of such people, which fact utterly vitiates his self-proclaimed project.

Perhaps some readers will think that I am being unfair to the man by inferring such sweeping incompetence from such an ephemeral incident. I can only respond by assuring readers that solecisms -- scientific, historical, and philosophical -- are Fuller's stock in trade. They permeate his writings, as thick on the ground as dandelions in a lawn unvisited by 2,4-D. Reading through his stuff brings to one's ears a series of dull thuds, the sound of one's own dropping jaw repeatedly hitting the floor as howler after howler catches one's eye.

The core of Judge Jones's decision was based on the history of the ID movement and the Discovery Institute in particular, the roots of that movement in an explicitly theocratic political agenda, and the dishonesty of the movement in its recent clumsy attempts to conceal those roots. Most of the court's insight was derived from the testimony of philosopher Barbara Forrest, as fleshed out by her book, Creationism's Trojan Horse, written jointly with Paul R. Gross. (Here, I am honored to point out that Forrest's co-author was the fellow with whom I wrote Higher Superstition a dozen years ago. I also note the contribution of the late Stephen Sacks who drafted the one pro-evolution amicus brief that the court consulted. Paul Gross and I as members of the editorial board of Sacks's journal Scipolicy had the privilege of approving that brief; Steve Fuller, another member, emphatically disapproved.)

Fuller, however, made his own backhanded contribution to the outcome. Jones's opinion is a telling commentary on Fuller's tin ear for his own voice. Fuller's connection with the ID crowd is a rather old one. He signed on as a fellow-traveler as early as 1998, embracing Intelligent Design Theory as a ploy in his more general campaign to challenge the hegemony of standard science and to compel scientists to accept the legitimacy of "local knowledges" of the sort that fail when confronted with scientific standards of rigor. But despite his long familiarity with ID and its rationales, Fuller utterly failed to sway Judge Jones to take a more kindly view of the movement. Jones's decision refers frequently to Fuller's testimony, but only to find further damning evidence that ID is, root and branch, a theological imposture lacking scientific status. In other words, Fuller, as "expert" witness for the defense, proved to be one of the plaintiff's most effective exhibits.

Needless to say, Fuller's sycophancy toward the ID movement has drawn considerable criticism, even from folks who are inclined, on the whole, to a favorable view of the "science studies" movement. The primary objection is that a supposed champion of the left is lending his services and his rhetorical skills to a deeply reactionary project. The ultimate aim of the ID movement is not only to replace secular science by a zombie simulacrum deferential to fundamentalist myth, but further to exploit that anticipated achievement in order, ultimately, to turn this country into a fundamentalist Christian common­wealth. This is perfectly clear to anyone who has paid attention to the pronouncements of ID godfather Phillip E. Johnson. Fuller's rather blithe defense is that he is trying to keep the ID movement from falling completely into the hands of the religious right. He advises his critics to "Mainstream these guys [ID advocates] now, so that they don't have to depend on the religious right for material support." This is rather like advocating support of the SS in order to prevent it from falling completely under the sway of the Nazis!  Fuller is too feckless to perceive that ID belongs to the religious right, body and soul. It was dreamed up by the religious right, and continues as an arm of that movement. It is religiously pluralistic only in the sense that a spectrum of right-wing fundamentalist views is to be found among its prominent spokesmen (the standard hellfire Protestantism of Dembski, Behe's ultramontane Catholicism, Berlinski's affiliation with the Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism of the Commentary crowd, and, weirdest of all, the Unification Church fanaticism of Moonie Jonathan Wells). If nothing else, this shows that despite his self-portrayal as a sophisticated political theorist, Fuller lacks the plain-vanilla common sense to discern the elementary facts of life concerning American politics.

ID as alternative science

It's a good guess that Fuller first veered into the ID orbit because it provided him with a concrete and ongoing example of what he took to be serious "alternative science," science that rebels against the methodological constraints as well as the metaphysical assumptions of the orthodox variety. Crucially, it also provided him with a cast of "rebel angels", presumptive credentialed scientists who had taken arms in defense of the defiant new mode of "science". Thus, he repeatedly refers to the Discovery Institute's well-known legionnaires as serious working scientists, guided by a teleological metaphysics opposed to materialistic naturalism, but aboveboard and straightforward in their experimental and theoretical rigor. He ignores extensive and damning criticism of these purported scientists, assuming, that is, that it doesn't simply go right over his head. To take perhaps the most prominent practitioner of ID "science," consider William Dembski.  Mathematician Jeffrey Shallit, who has exhaustively studied Dembski's work, finds that it "is riddled with errors and inconsistencies that he has not acknowledged; it is not mathematics, but pseudo-mathematics." Dembski's long history of trying to demonstrate "mathematically" that undirected Darwinian evolution is virtually impossible provides us with an instructive example of tendentiousness and special pleading. A basic pattern infuses his work; Dembski-watchers have seen it in action over and over. Typically, Dembski constructs a "mathematical" argument supposedly proving the impossibility of evolution by random variation and selection, and declares that only by positing an Intelligent Designer can we "save the phenomena." That argument, when it gets into the hands of mathematically competent critics, is torn to shreds, undone by non sequitur, linguistic ambiguity, and outright fallacies. At that point, Dembski, without making any explicit concessions, quietly puts that argument to one side and goes back to his desk to construct another. The endpoint remains the same, however: another "refutation" of "Darwinism," another vindication of the Designer.  It is as clear as these things can be that Dembski has no real interest in exploring the mathematics of evolutionary models, per se, but is solely concerned with finding a pretext to gild religious dogma with the hijacked authority of mathematics.

Fuller is blind to this entire risible history. For one thing, as a mathematical duffer, he lacks the intellectual resources even to follow the debate. But beyond that, he is wedded to the idea that ID involves serious, if philosophically unorthodox science, and ignores the obvious fact that Dembski is not a scientific inquirer at all, but rather a tractarian with a gimmick, using his credentials (rather meaningless by now) to promulgate a conventional religious dogma. Fuller tries to deny that Dembski is even a Creationist; but Creationists themselves, at least of the Old Earth variety, have no trouble embracing him as one of their own without any protest from Dembski. Mutatis mutandis, Fuller's attitude to the rest of the bloody crew -- Behe, Wells, Berlinski, et al -- is pretty much the same.

Perhaps Fuller lulls his conscience by dreaming up these lame excuses for ID, but the curious fact remains that he has thrown in his lot with a pack of full-bore, no-holds-barred, reactionaries who can prosper only at the expense of the political causes and ideals Fuller claims to uphold. Frankly, I think that for once he has made a bad career move. His unremitting hatred for the prestige and authority of conventional science has carried him over a brink that most of his science studies colleagues are too prudent even to approach.

The reactionary nostalgia of postmodernism

It might pay, at this point, to inquire a little more deeply into the question of motivations, that is to say, the motivations of those proponents of science studies who have, like Fuller, spent the past two decades or so beating the drums for epistemic relativism and cognitive pluralism, making social constructivist doctrine bear the weight of their argument. I want to explore the possibility that their deepest guiding impulses don't derive from an intellectual conversion to social constructivist theory, but rather from a profound and rather frantic discontent with the world-view science forces them to confront. Most of the visitors to this site have accepted that view to a great degree, regarding the knowledge of the natural world that science affords and the consistency of its knowable laws as adequate consolation for the eclipse of a vision of the universe as governed by divine purpose, moral equity, and ultimate justice. Most people in the world, however, are unenthusiastic about the trade-off. Where those who are most comfortable with science see it as "a candle in the dark," to use Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, they are far outnumbered by the mass of those who, at one level or another, harbor bitter feelings toward science for revealing just how pervasive and complete that darkness is.

The world of professional intellectuals is hardly immune from these resentments, even though religion as such, with its burden of highly arbitrary doctrine, is muted within its precincts, if not wholly absent. The desire to re-enchant the world, to shape a vision that brings the workings of the greater universe closer, once again, to the realm of human purposes and values, takes many forms. Some of these visions are ancient, some newly sprung from the human imagination. Often, they are rather inchoate, consisting of a generalized sense that some higher or deeper or kinder purpose lurks behind the world of direct appearances that science accesses. In the scholarly domain, these feelings often take the form, not of specific positive doctrine that clearly confronts science, but rather of ideological tenderheartedness toward the social phenom­ena -- sects, cults, ethnocentric tall-tales, unorthodox belief systems -- that actually mount such challenges.

I propose that such sentiments underlie much of the pugnacity toward science exhibited by science studies, radical cultural anthropology, feminist epistemology, and so forth. I think that the persistent popularity of the notion that science is a historically contingent social construct, a narrative not necessarily superior to other accounts of the world, a kind of cognitive imperialism devised by the western ruling caste to humble and demoralize subaltern cultures, stems not from the philosophical plausibility of social constructivism as such, but rather from the deep discontent with the death of teleology to which I have alluded. This unhappiness fastens upon the explicit doctrines of social constructivism, forging them into a cudgel with which the hegemony of orthodox science can be repeatedly belabored.

Something like this, I submit, lurks beneath the pompous and scatterbrained epistemological latitudinarianism that Steve Fuller offers in defense of Intelligent Design Theory. That in itself won't save him, I believe, from the disdain of most social construct­ivist colleagues. He is giving aid and comfort to too dire an enemy. His career is probably headed for some fairly rocky shoals. Nonetheless, he is merely extending to a nasty gang of right-wing religious nuts the logic that has led the science studies community and its hangers-on to speak up for tribal shamans, UFO cultists, and homeopathists.

Fuller's sentiments echo those of many other science studies luminaries.  Collectively, these give the game away.  Andrew Pickering notoriously tells the readers of Constructing Quarks that physics need not be taken seriously as a ground for one's world-view. Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch in The Golem slyly damn with faint praise, averring that science is above all a "craft". From this doctrine, we are to infer that scientific theories are merely variously clever intellectual gizmos cobbled together according to the guild's rules -- a very different thing from a body of reliable and universally valid knowledge. On his own hook, Collins rages against CSICOP and the Amazing Randi for their deadly accurate debunking of the paranormal. Meanwhile, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour boast that, "The field of science studies has been engaged in a moral struggle to strip science of its extravagant claim to authority." "We have challenged the assumption that there is only one way of doing things right, that there is only one way to investigate our social worlds or to investigate the earth and the universe where we live," claims Sharon Traweek likewise. "How can metaphysical life theories and explanations taken seriously by millions be ignored or excluded by a small group of powerful people called 'scientists'?" Andrew Ross chimes in.

None of this, needless to say, will lead science studies to join Steve Fuller in a passionate embrace of Phillip E. Johnson and company (although Harvard's Sheila Jasanoff once briefly flirted with the idea). But it does illuminate the primal source of Fuller's folly and the overall surliness of the practitioners of science studies, which, to speak brutally, consists of a subterranean desire to bring about a world in which superstition, in one form or another, has clawed its way back into respectability. For all its progressive posturing, "postmod­ernism," at bottom, reflects a deeply reactionary cast of mind. Steve Fuller's enthusiasm for the Intelligent Design movement, therefore, is not a contra­dic­tion so much as it is a consummation.

Discussion