Healthy skepticism

Books | How evidence led a scientist from Darwinism to design
by Matti Leisola & Jonathan Witt
Posted 8/31/19, 08:27 am

Matti Leisola was an upwardly mobile European bioscientist until he read a book questioning evolutionary theory. He started reading more in an attempt to defend Darwin. The more he learned, the more skeptical he became regarding “fossilized materialism.” The chapter titles of his book Heretic, written with Jonathan Witt, show Leisola’s ascent in knowledge and his descent in reputation: “Students Begin Listening … Professors and Presidents React … Publishers Hesitate.”

Heretic punctures the claim that almost all scientists support Darwinism: Many do so only because they fear being called Darwin deniers and labeled science heretics. We’re publishing the book’s introduction, courtesy of Discovery Institute Press, but it’s Leisola’s last chapter title that shows why honesty is best for those who want to learn: They and we can go “Through a Doorway to Adventure.”

Heretic made WORLD’s short list for 2018 Book of the Year in the Science category. —Marvin Olasky

Introduction

As a scientist in my native Finland and later in Switzerland, I have been privileged to take part in some significant scientific breakthroughs, to lead some groundbreaking research projects in biochemistry and biotechnology, and to work alongside some world-famous scientists from Europe, Japan, and the United States. While we did not always see eye to eye, we shared a love for scientific testing and discovery. But there was another side of me, as there was and is another side to contemporary scientific culture.

As a young student, I used to laugh at those who, as I thought, placed God in the gaps of our scientific knowledge. This God-of-the-gaps criticism is often leveled against Christians and other religious believers, against all those who insist there is clear evidence of design in nature. To my way of thinking, such people lacked the patience and level-headedness that I possessed. It was so clear to me: Instead of plugging away to discover the natural mechanism for this or that mystery about the natural world, these pro-design people threw up their hands and used the God-did-it explanation as a cover for ignorance. This criticism of intelligent design proponents struck me as reasonable, so I didn’t listen to their arguments.

But eventually I came to realize that this criticism cuts both ways, since a functional atheist also can reach for pat explanations in the face of mystery. It’s just that for him, the pat explanation will never be God. That is, you do not need God in your explanatory toolkit in order to short-circuit careful scientific investigation and reasoning. I realized that I myself had been all too willing to stuff vague materialistic explanations into the gaps of our scientific knowledge.

I also recognized something else that the god-of-the-gaps criticism obscures: The more we learn about the natural world, the more fresh mysteries open up before us. David Berlinski, who has taught at Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York, and the Université de Paris, put it this way in The Devil’s Delusion:

Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again. The process is inexhaustible. Einstein created the special theory of relativity to accommodate certain anomalies in the interpretation of Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field. Special relativity led directly to general relativity. But general relativity is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, the largest visions of the physical world alien to one another. Understanding has improved, but within the physical sciences, anomalies have grown great, and what is more, anomalies have grown great because understanding has improved.1

The god-of-the-gaps criticism ignores this well-established pattern. Materialists think that because we continue to make discoveries about the natural world, the pool of known mysteries must be shrinking toward zero. Instead, whole landscapes of new mystery present themselves to science precisely when some major new discovery is achieved, like the explorer reaching the crest of a mountain and finding a new realm before him.

What if there are features of the natural world—the laws and constants of nature itself, for instance—that really are the work of a creative intelligence?

Also, their argument for entertaining only material explanations in the sciences just assumes that everything we find in nature has a purely material cause. But what if that assumption is wrong? What if there are features of the natural world—the laws and constants of nature itself, for instance—that really are the work of a creative intelligence?

Scientists are supposed to investigate mysteries with an open mind, not assume an explanation from the outset. I came to see that the best approach is to evaluate which explanation among the live options is more logical and fits the facts better.

I also realized that it isn’t very scientific to simply trust the majority of scientific specialists on a subject. The majority view may be correct, but the history of science shows that often it is incorrect. Scientific progress requires some healthy skepticism. And that means resisting the cult of “Science Says” even when authoritative sources reassure us with talk of “scientific studies.”

One for-instance: In 1964 The New York Times reported that hundreds of scientific studies showed that there was no conclusive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer:

Studies made in the last ten years have found no laboratory evidence linking lung cancer or fatal heart disease with cigarette smoking, The Council for Tobacco Research asserted yes­terday in its 1963-64 report.

A 71–page booklet written by Dr. Clarence Cook Little said the council had evaluated 350 reports by scientists working with council grants and had found “little to support” the charge that cigarette smoke produces cancer.2

Fortunately, in this case there were studies and official scientific voices pushing in the other direction, and soon the Council for Tobacco Research’s 1963–64 report had lost credibility. Sometimes, however, the most prominent voices, the ones deemed to speak most authoritatively for science, have lined up squarely behind a position later found to be false. And such instances are not restricted to long centuries ago, when science was in its infancy.

The illness known as pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. The scientific consensus attributed it to an infectious agent or moldy corn. It turned out to be a vitamin deficiency.3 Also, through much of the twentieth century, the conventional scientific wisdom was that the continents were fixed. When German geologist Alfred Wegener published Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans), arguing for the idea of continental drift, he was excoriated as a sloppy crank, a man so enamored of his pet theory that he was blind to the facts. Fully half a century after his book appeared, he was still viewed with suspicion. Today his idea of drifting continents is the standard one in geology.

A third instance, even more recent: Backed by the authority of the U.S. government, the scientific establishment deemed eggs bad for your heart and pushed this narrative for years. These scientific authorities insisted eggs were bad for you, and ended up with egg on their faces.4

How could science progress if we could never question or abandon the majority scientific opinion?

These examples underscore what should be obvious: How could science progress if we could never question or abandon the majority scientific opinion? We would all still be geocentrists who thought the continents were fixed and that eggs were terrible for you.

Swimming against the current isn’t easy, of course. My own voyage away from the naturalistic evolutionary faith was long and painstaking. In this book, I describe that journey. I also detail the evasions, hatred, suspicions, contempt, fears, power games, and persecution that face scientists who oppose the evolutionary paradigm and the naturalistic worldview behind it.

I speak from firsthand experience. Over and over again I have encountered materialist fanaticism from people who are not ready to give up their views in the face of contrary evidence. Actually, they usually are not even interested in considering the evidence.

More on this later. Here a single example will suffice. In 2012 the results of a project called ENCODE5 were published in the journal Nature. The name of the project comes from the words Encyclopedia of DNA Elements. Since 1970 leading evolutionists had claimed that most of the human genome is garbage left over from the random mutations said to fuel the evolutionary process. (See Chapter 8.) But the ENCODE project showed that the great majority of our genome is transcribed into RNA, suggesting that it is functional. These results were inconvenient to neo-Darwinists, but rather than objectively assessing the new findings and returning to the drawing board, many Darwinists responded with knee-jerk, sarcastic dismissals of the ENCODE results. The tone of the following passage is indicative (emphasis added):

This claim flies in the face of current estimates. … This absurd conclusion was reached through various means. … Here, we detail the many logical and methodological transgressions involved in assigning functionality to almost every nucleotide in the human genome. The ENCODE results were predicted by one of its authors to necessitate the rewriting of textbooks. We agree, many textbooks dealing with marketing, mass media hype, and public relations may well have to be rewritten.6

Such reactions are telling. They suggest that many Neo-Darwinists are ready to dismiss out of hand any observations that do not fit their theory.

In science we should follow the evidence, not cling to pet theories. Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman well described the scientific ideal. “If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong,” he commented. “In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is—if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”7

In science we should follow the evidence, not cling to pet theories.

Wise words, but easier said than done. This book is the story of where the evidence led me after I decided to follow it into the wilderness of heresy, and of the battles I was drawn into along the way.

The journey, understand, hasn’t been all blood and bruises. I started out as a scientist in my native Finland, then spent several years as a scientist in Zurich, with many wonderful experiences in both places. I then returned to Finland in 1988 and worked as a research director in the biotech industry and then for fifteen years as a professor of bioprocess engineering. During this period I lectured on biotechnology, but also gave talks in several Finnish universities about chemical and biological evolution, with titles such as “Evolution: A Modern Creation Myth,” “What Differentiates Men from Stone?” “From Stone to Man,” and “The Riddle of the Origin of Life.” The lecture halls were often full to bursting.

During these years I have spoken throughout Europe, North America and Japan, in polytechnic schools, scientific meetings and Rotary clubs, at private research companies and public universities, often to highly engaged and animated audiences. But the most interesting and rewarding visits I have had were in high schools, and this despite the fact that the headmasters are not always excited about my visits, since I challenge some of the material in their assigned textbooks. While a research director at Cultor, I visited a nearby high school many times from 1991 to 1996. The students were more than interested listeners and discussion partners. One teacher expressed astonishment that when the lunch bell rang during my talk, the students did not bolt for the cafeteria, but instead continued listening and asking questions. One of the students later became one of my students and completed a doctoral thesis under my supervision.

This should not have surprised the teachers. Teaching biology (or any field of science) as settled dogma, and a dogma moreover that points to a universe drained of meaning and purpose—that is an approach hardly calculated to fascinate and draw young people into the sciences. But imagine teaching biology and other disciplines, like physics and astronomy, so that students are encouraged to think critically about scientific theories. Imagine the students being exposed not only to the evidence for a reigning theory but also to evidence contradicting the theory. And imagine the students not being force-fed one worldview masquerading as science but being freed to consider which worldview the evidence best supports. That’s an approach all but guaranteed to energize and excite.

From Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey From Darwin to Design by Matti Leisola and Jonathan Witt. Copyright © 2018 by Discovery Institute. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

 

ENDNOTES

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 183–4.

2. “Smokers Assured in Industry Study,” The New York Times, Aug. 17, 1964, accessed Oct. 6, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/1964/08/17/smokers-assured-in-industry-study.html?_r=0

3. “Pellagra in the United States of America,” History of Pellagra, accessed Oct. 11, 2017, http://historyofpellagra.weebly.com/pellagra-in-the-us.html.

4. Jonathan Wells, Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2017), 15–16.

5. Ian Dunham et al., “An Integrated Encyclopedia of DNA Elements in the Human Genome,” Nature 489 (Sep. 2012): 57–74, doi:10.1038/nature11247.

6. Dan Graur et al., “On the Immortality of Television Sets: ‘Function’ in the Human Genome According to the Evolution-Free Gospel of ENCODE,” Genome Biology and Evolution 5 no. 3 (March 2013): 578–590, doi:10.1093/gbe/evt028. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23431001.

7. Richard Feynman, Seeking New Laws (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1967), 156.

Comments

  • OldMike
    Posted: Sat, 08/31/2019 04:49 pm

    Dr. Leisola is a very insightful man.  It’s encouraging to learn that someone of great intelligence, and education and experience in science, can look at the world with an open mind rather than simply relying on the currently approved dogma. 

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