Sep 21 2009

“The” Scientific Method

Or – Why are there so many engineers on the list of scientists who doubt Darwin?

At a recent live SGU show (at Dragon*Con 2009) a questioner asked why it was that so many of the scientists who have added their name to the list of those who doubt Darwin were – and then I cut him off and finished for him – engineers. He was not the first person to make this observation. (You can download the list here: http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/download.php)

First, on a separate note, this list has been the focus of much ridicule because after years of scouring the globe they have only managed to come up with 700 scientists willing to sign the list. And, whenever they add scientists to the list they boast that the number of scientists dissenting from Darwin is growing, as if the percentage of scientists is growing, and therefore the scientific community is moving away from evolutionary theory (which they tellingly equate with Darwin). No – they just added another buffoon to their list.

Also, I have to point out that the National Center for Science Education, to parody the silliness of this list, launched Project Steve, and have now listed 1,107 scientists named Steve (or some variation of Steve) who support evolution (and of which I am a proud member).

But back to my main point – why so many engineers on the Doubting Darwin list? This could be just confirmation bias. I confess I did not go through the 700 names, count up the engineers, and do statistical analysis, comparing the percentage to the background rate of engineers among scientists. If someone has the time and inclination to do this, please send me the stats and I will happily steal them from you – I mean give you full credit for this important scholarly work.

If it is true that engineers are over-represented on the list, what are we to make of it? (Please ignore my prior recommendations to avoid speculating about the cause of phenomena you have not first verified.) In any case I think there is an underlying principle that may offer insight.

The problem comes from assuming that there is one scientific method, or a limited set of methods by which science is done. I know that referring to “the” scientific method is often nothing but a convenient shorthand, not meant to be an accurate description, but it may also reflect an inherent bias. The reality, rather, is that there is a host of methods that various disciplines use under the broad umbrella of science. As long as you are testing hypotheses against reality, you are probably doing science (not necessarily good science, but science none-the-less).

Most scientific disciplines use a subset of scientific methods, and it is a mistake by the practitioners of any one scientific discipline to assume that they are therefore experts in all of science. I see the folly of this assumption most often when the field of expertise is most distinct from the field of speculation.

For example, I have read astrophysicists comment naively on the practice of medicine; biologists on the collapse of the world trade center on 9/11, and doctors and engineers on the plausibility of evolution – all with embarrassing results. The probability of folly probably increases as the disparity in disciplines increases – which leads to a plausible hypothesis about engineers and evolution.

Engineers (as an engineer recently pointed out to me) are involved with designing systems that behave predictably according to reliable principles and calculations. Engineers are pretty good at predicting, for example, if a bridge with a particular design will collapse under a certain load. This top-down process of design within predictable parameters is probably as far as you can get from the bottom-up evolution of biological systems with all their messy complexity and variation. Evolution is also a historical science – it is about reconstructing what happened in the past, and relies upon inferential methods that the average engineer probably does not need (an exception might be forensic engineers – if that is an actual term…wait, I guess it is – who have to reconstruct why a plane crashed or a building collapsed).

I would also add that a particular scientist does not necessarily understand other sciences – but they may. In my experience many working scientists are also amateur science enthusiasts outside their field of expertise. Their experience as a scientist probably gives them a huge head start in understanding other sciences, but does not give them automatic expertise. Those who understand the distinction, like Carl Sagan for example, can become a true science polymath.

What does all this mean for the average skeptic? We do need to remember to avoid the argument from authority – that a particular claim is likely to be right or wrong because of the credentials of the claimant. However, there is some legitimate authority to be had in the scientific community as the consensus opinion is more likely to have been vetted by logic and evidence and not be quirky or biased. However, only the consensus of appropriate expert opinion is relevant, and the opinion of scientists outside their area of expertise should not be looked upon as carrying any authority.

Further, I think it is critical for skeptics to realize that there is a wide variety of methods used by scientists of differing disciplines. We need to avoid the parochial opinion that classifies sciences as “hard” or “soft”, or artificially limits science to a subset of methods. Such attitudes cause confusion over the real demarcation between science and pseudoscience – confusion happily exploited by deniers and pseudoscientists.

So if engineers are actually overrepresented as doubters of Darwin (a hypothesis awaiting confirmation or refutation) it likely reflects a generic problem of too narrowly conceptualizing science, rather than anything unique to engineers (by which I mean if you are an engineer – do not e-mail me).

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