March 7, 2006


Immersed in science, religion (Susan Palmer, February 6, 2006, The Register-Guard)

You would not expect a meticulous researcher such as Charley Dewberry to want to knock science off its cultural pedestal.

But there it is.

Dewberry, a stream ecologist, has been studying coastal coho salmon in the Siuslaw watershed for more than 20 years. He's helped create salmon recovery plans and spends weeks each year snorkeling creeks and streams - from shallow riffles to deeper pools - to track the impact of watershed recovery efforts.

His careful work along Knowles Creek has made him an expert on the species that winds through so much of our public and private discourse about the Pacific Northwest and its well-being.

But Dewberry is also the academic dean of Gutenberg College, a little-known liberal arts institute in Eugene dedicated to the careful study of the Bible as well as the world's great books.

In a society torn by extremist debate that often pits science against religion, Dewberry is uniquely positioned to comment on both realms. For him there is no separation between scientific and religious inquiry, no boundaries in his search for the truth.

Neither the robotic researcher rejecting intelligent design, nor the devoted creationist outright refuting Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Dewberry finds strands of truth in both arenas.

Until now, he's stayed out of the public debate, but that's about to change. Next month, Gutenberg will publish a book by Dewberry - still untitled - that will examine the dispute. [...]

[H]e stumbled onto two seminal works critiquing the philosophical underpinnings of science, one by physicist Thomas Kuhn, the other by medical doctor and chemist Michael Polanyi. Both called into question the notion of objectivity in the scientific method. Their writing resonated with Dewberry, who came to agree with them. Values and beliefs can't be completely distilled out of empirical science.

Rather than an amalgam of bias-free facts, science is just one more way of obtaining knowledge.

Endangered species: Interview: Author and expert field researcher Charley Dewberry wants to save science from itself (Marvin Olasky, 1/14/06, World)
WORLD But isn't the role of science to provide the facts?

DEWBERRY Science plays an important role in providing facts. Those that argue, however, that science has a privileged role because of the greater certainty and objectivity inherent in its method are wrong because human subjectivity is always involved in how we know things.

WORLD So are you opposed to peer-reviewed empirical science?

DEWBERRY No. Good scientific research is valuable information. What I am opposed to is the belief that peer-reviewed empirical science journal articles have inherently greater assurance and objectivity than other forms of knowledge, such as the discovery of a theory, or other forms of inquiry, such as history. It is just not true that a science journal article reviewed by several reviewers has inherently any greater objectivity than, say, a history journal article reviewed by several reviewers.

WORLD You also think the role of statistics is minor compared with that of experience and skill gained in the field.

DEWBERRY If science is viewed as a method that leads to more certain knowledge than other pursuits, then doing science is reduced to carefully following the method which has a mechanical nature; the mechanical method, not the scientist, ensures the outcome. Statistics is the means of reducing human judgment to a mechanical process. Unfortunately, science can never be reduced to this mechanical process. Doing science is an art. It is a human endeavor that takes skill and genius as well as a little luck to be great. Skills are honed by experience. Therefore, statistics play only a small role in the science.

WORLD You're knocking aside just about everything on which the rule by scientists is based. What about the review of manuscripts submitted for publication. Is that "value-free"?

DEWBERRY No. When I am asked to review a manuscript, one question always included with the review instructions is, "Is this paper interesting or significant?" This question screens all manuscripts based on the values of the reviewer. If the paper is not interesting or significant, then it will never be published. Furthermore, reviewers are doing much more than checking the experimental methods, data collection, and the appropriateness of the conclusions, and thus their beliefs and values enter into the process at many points.

WORLD Who, then, wears the robes of authority concerning the truth of science?

DEWBERRY Virtually everyone involved in salmon recovery—and people in general, I believe—assumes that the authority of science rests with the scientific community through the peer-review process. I find this curious and ironic.

At the dawn of modern science, it was the Catholic Church that argued that the authority of science rested with the community of practitioners (theirs, of course). It was the Copernicans, especially Galileo, who argued that the authority of science and truth rested with the individual scientist. Moving the authority of science to the individual scientist was one of the key steps in the Copernican Revolution and the foundation of modern science. We have essentially come full circle. We just replaced one priesthood for another. We have returned to the model of authority of the medieval Catholic Church.

You can hardly blame the scientists for wanting to claim the authority of priests.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2006 1:51 PM
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