Who decides what scientific truth is?

This comes from “Why Evolution is true” by Jerry A. Coyne.

At the beginning of the book, Coyne talks about the recent (2005) Kitzmiller et al v Dover Area District School et al, a case that had clear historical parallels with the “Scopes Monkey” trial of 1925, regarding the teaching of evolution and creationism in US public schools.

In the preface, Coyne writes of Kitzmiller:

By all accounts it was a rout. The prosecution  was canny and well prepared, the defense lackluster. The star scientist testifying for the defense admitted that his definition of “science” was so broad that  it could include astrology…

But the case was not open and shut. Judge Jones was a George W. Bush appointee , a devoted churchgoer and a conservative Republican – not exactly pro-Darwinian credentials. Everyone held their breath and waited nervously.

In the event, Judge Jones came down very hard against the notion that “Intelligent Design” was anything other than a religious argument masquerading as a scientific one, that “Of Pandas and People” was a creationist text and not a scientific resource. Jones also had this to say about the theory of evolution:

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

So far so good. But then Coyne then produces a fallacious proposition that never should have been written.

Coyne writes:

But scientific truth is decided by scientists, not judges. What Jones had done was simply prevent an establish truth from being muddled by biased and dogmatic opponents.

Now here I have a problem, and I don’t yet have a full answer. Not to the question of whether Evolution is true or not, because frankly Evolution is the best, most coherent, most complete answer to the question of human origins and life on earth that we have. Creationism (or its bastard child Intelligent Design) is simply false.

I have a problem with the notion that scientific truth is decided by scientists. It begs the question as to which scientists get to decide which is scientifically true or not. Certainly, the scientists supporting the Dover Area School Board didn’t get to decide scientific truth.

I had always assumed (naively, no doubt) that what decided scientific truth were experiments which aimed to falsify a scientific proposition with testable and repeatable results.

It goes to the heart of the problem I have had with the whole Global Warming episode (now winding down as reality, in the form of observations, have repeatedly undercut the prognostications of climate modellers and the IPCC).

Who decides what is scientific truth? The Royal Society? The American Association for the Advancement of Science? Greenpeace? The United Nations?

Scientific truth? Is it like other truths? Are scientific truths unchanging and axiomatic? I’m pretty sure that geocentrism was a scientific truth, that Phlogiston theory was a scientific truth. When did they get voted out of the realm of scientific truth and who conducted the ballot?

The history of science is replete with examples of scientists, even large numbers of scientists being completely wrong on a subject that those people thought they were carrying the torch for scientific truth.

The plain fact is that scientists don’t get to decide what scientific truth is – only experiments and well thought out hypotheses being shown by the Universe to have happened (such as the fossil record of life on Earth).

The Geological community didn’t get to decide what the scientific truth of continental drift was – experiment and observations did. Wegener was no geologist, yet it is his name that graces an Institute and not the august geological luminaries who derided his observations as the ravings of a crackpot.

Never mind. I look forward to reading the rest of the book. Maybe I’ll have some more observations from it to share in this weblog.

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