Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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10 Comments on “Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition”

  1. eanes Says:

    Good post. I’ve also thought a lot about the term “scientific orthodoxy”, and how it is used somewhat as an epithet against scientists. On another blog, I’ve had debates over climate change, in which people have told me that the “contrarians” are simply “challenging scientific orthodoxy” in the same way that Galileo challenged orthodoxy during his day– as if the oppressive Inquisition and modern scientific peer-reviewers were equal.

  2. Tom Says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Your example is right on; most of this “debate” turns on the persistence of false equivalences.

  3. […] The Inverse Square Blog science and the public square — by thomas levenson « Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition […]

  4. Eric Roston Says:

    Outstanding. And I say this as a Tim-Berners-Lee-ist, which means I believe that the Web is a plausible way to communicate with many others publicly and simultaneously.

  5. “But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?”

    I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

    By the way, Habgood is a trained biologist, and one of his jobs after hanging up his mitre was as the British Government’s scientific adviser on genetics. It is common nowadays to see the syllable neo stuck in front of Darwinianism, but I doubt if his colleagues in the scientific community would hang him for missing that out.

  6. Tom Says:

    Sorry Leslie, but you are just being silly here. Or obtuse, I’m not sure which. You self-contradict, in fact. Calculating the trajectory of a comet, as you say, is an exercise in mechanics, not in non-existant Newtonism.” I think you missed the point — which for me forms another bit of circumstantial evidence in support of the hypothesis that the need to affirm an assumption not in evidence weakens one’s capacity or critical thinking.

    As for Habgood’s scientific qualifications, so what? Leaving aside the nullity of the argument from authority, the fact that Habgood had the training to know better than to use the Darwinism ahistorically, or to know better than to use the rhetorical device of false equivalence makes his culpability here the greater not the lesser.

  7. […] Darwinism as a Term of Abuse A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 […]

  8. jre Says:

    It is clear that Leslie Dellow has discovered a tree, and missed the forest, with

    I think your problem is that having the syllable -ism tagged onto a word, or somebody’s name, automatically has pejorative overtones in your ears, and perhaps that is the result of hearing creationists use the word “Darwinism” in a pejorative sense …

    Yes, “Darwinism” is pejorative, and no, it is not pejorative simply because “ism” is tacked onto someone’s name. A great scientist is frequently honored by having his or her name attached to a species, a physical unit, a constant, an observed relationship (or “law”), even an interpretation of the natural world (as in “neo-Darwinian synthesis”) — but never to an entire field of study. The reason is that the universe of knowledge does not belong to any researcher, however brilliant. Once a community of natural scientists had confirmed and expanded Darwin’s findings to the point that no reasonable person doubted their validity, the field was “evolutionary biology.” Darwin was, and is, rightly honored as the greatest pioneer in that field, but he doesn’t own it any more.

    We see the same tactic employed wherever some group wants to oppose an established body of science for political or philosophical reasons. It’s been a long time since the germ theory of disease was controversial, so we don’t hear microbiology referred to as “Pasteurism.” But there are still those uncomfortable with vaccination or antibiotics, and for whom it is always “Western medicine” or “allopathic medicine” rather than plain old medicine. Similarly, we often hear those who resist the political or economic consequences of discoveries in climatology speak of the “church of Al Gore” because — in this context — a religious reference is a pejorative. I find that fact perversely comforting: dramatic confirmation that science has so earned the respect of the public mind that it is a far more effective debating trick to call your opponent’s position religious than to describe it as scientific.

  9. jre Says:

    I goofed, and posted the comment immediately above on this thread, instead of (as I’d intended) here. My apologies to the whole class.

  10. […] he expresses in a couple of hundred words here what I labored to put in more than a thousand in (a) my critique of Archbishop John Habgood’s misuse of the term “Darwinism” and (b) the boom I […]

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