17 May 2006

Unclear on the principle

The poor reputation with which the social sciences are saddled by practitioners of the harder variety may or may not be completely deserved. (See the Sokal hoax.) But sometimes they just make it so easy.

A few weeks back, you may recall, Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council denied a Montreal researcher's request for $40,000 to study the effects of the intelligent design movement on Canadian students. He had already looked at the understanding of biological evolution in Islamic societies (see Nature, April 4, if you have access) with $175,000 of Canadian tax-payers' money funneled through SSHRC, and the recent controversy over the Kitzmiller decision in Dover, Penn., had made the subject timely. So why not?

But the SSHRC board turned him down, in part because there was inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct." Much gnashing of biologists' teeth resulted. Obviously, the social scientists aren't hip to the status of evolution as the linchpin of the field.

I, for one, had hoped the incident would have shamed the whole field of social sciences into backing off. But no. This week's Nature contains a letter (freely accessible for all) from a former member of the SSHRC board, complaining that it's the biologists who just don't get it. By "it," Yves Gingras, a historian at Université du Québec à Montréal, means scientific objectivity, it would appear:
...this excerpt can be interpreted in a less dramatic manner: the committee simply thought the study was not impartial enough in its approach. After all, social-science research should study phenomena and not promote a particular view; many scholars legitimately demand a symmetric approach.
Here we go again. A demand for balance. What we in the journalism business call "false equivalency."

Memo to all post-modern, deconstructionist social "scientists": Treating evolution and intelligent design as equally worthy scientific explanations for the diversity of life is like saying the stork is an acceptable explanation for human reproduction. Please see the quote by Michael Shermer that adorns the right column of this blog: "As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it."

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