Glenn Branch's picture

Conant the Barbarian? Part 1

James Bryant ConantWhat is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. Obviously. But if you can’t manage that, then you can at least expose their egregious quote-mining on Amazon.com discussion threads. But perhaps I should start at the beginning. Returning to the office from the long Thanksgiving break, I was working through the mass of e-mails that had accumulated in my absence. Among them was a request for information about a putative quotation from James Bryant Conant:

The sciences dealing with the past stand before the bar of common sense on a different footing. Therefore, a grotesque account of a period some thousands of years ago is taken seriously though it be built by piling special assumptions on special assumptions, ad hoc hypothesis on ad hoc hypothesis, and tearing apart the fabric of science whenever it appears convenient. The result is a fantasia which is neither history nor science.

The request came from a member of NCSE who was arguing, under the monicker “Lew,” with someone named Rockland L. Zeiler, who reviewed Stephen C. Meyer’s screed Darwin’s Doubt (2013) on Amazon.com, giving it five stars, on October 12, 2013. Somehow the review provoked a discussion thread with over five hundred comments. Zeiler wheeled out the Conant quote on November 29, 2013, with the word “evolution” inserted in square brackets after the word “fantasia” and with the quote ascribed to “‘Origins Research’, Vol. 5, no. 2, 1982, p. 2.”

Zeiler’s interlocutors, including Lew, asked for further details about the publication in which the quote appeared—without any luck—and also researched it themselves. Lew observed, “all tracebacks of the quotation on the internet appear to lead back to an article in the creationist journal Origins Research 5(2),” and noted that since Conant died four years before the issue of Origins Research cited, it probably was not original there. He expressed a reasonable degree of confidence that the original source could be located, though: “Conant was an important figure in American science and science education. It would be surprising that such a provocative and impactful statement had not been recorded throughout the considerable discussion of his career.”

Lew was right about Conant. Although he’s hardly a household word now, he had a long and illustrious career. He studied chemistry at Harvard University, receiving his B.A. in 1913 and his Ph.D. in 1916. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War I, where he worked on developing poison gases, he returned to Harvard in 1919 as a professor of chemistry. In 1933, he became the president of the university, serving for twenty years. As World War II approached, he was appointed to the National Defense Research Committee, which he chaired from 1941 onward. After the war, he served as the United States High Commissioner for Germany and later Ambassador to West Germany. In the last twenty years of his life, he wrote voluminously on educational topics.

Nevertheless, Lew and the gang on the discussion thread couldn’t find either the text of the Origins Research article quoting Conant or the original text by Conant on the internet. Hence Lew’s e-mail to NCSE. Now, NCSE’s archives are bursting with obscure creationist periodicals and pamphlets and what-have-you, and I was reasonably certain that Origins Research was among them. Published from 1978 to 1996, Origins Research was the newsletter of Students for Origins Research, a young-earth creationist organization; in the mid-1990s, SOR morphed into Access Research Network, shifting its emphasis from young-earth creationism to “intelligent design” creationism and renaming its newsletter Origins and Design. Origins and Design ceased publication in 2000, and ARN’s activity these days seems to be conducted mainly on-line.

I was saved from a trip into the labyrinthine NCSE archives, though, by the fact that NCSE’s doughty archival volunteers Al and Barbara Miller had already scanned the complete text of Origins Research into PDF files. It was the work of a moment—well, a few moments—to find the files and discover the following, in a piece by Kevin Wirth with the title “SCIENCE EDUCATION: Only the BEST ad-hoc* will do” (capitalization, emphasis, hyphenation, and asterisk in original):

In his book Science and Common Sense, James Conant is not much less severe in his assessments of the dangers of what he terms “nonsensical speculation,” adding, “... the sciences dealing with the past stand before the bar of common sense on a different footing (than physics or chemistry). Therefore, a grotesque account of a period some thousands of years ago is taken seriously though it be built by piling special assumptions on special assumptions, ad-hoc hypothesis on ad-hoc hypothesis, and tearing apart the fabric of science whenever it appears convenient; the result is a fantasia which is neither history or science.” (emphasis, ellipsis, and parenthetical interpolation in original)

Wirth quoted Conant in the service of arguing that it is unsettled whether ad hoc explanations are admissible in science. Having quoted the philosopher Michael Ruse, who observed that scientists often tolerate apparently recalcitrant data in the hope that the problem they pose might vanish, which might involve “inventing ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the data,” he then quoted Conant, who is castigating “a grotesque account” for invoking ad hoc hypotheses, by way of refutation. (Ruse and Conant weren’t the only authors quoted.)

Wirth ultimately wanted to claim that alternatives to evolution should be presented along with evolution, because evolution is not a fact but instead, at best, “the best ad-hoc explanation,” and presenting such explanations in the absence of opposing points of view tends to convey the misimpression that they are facts. That isn’t even remotely plausible, of course, and Wirth didn’t really offer anything resembling a cogent argument for it. The point that it is unsettled whether ad hoc explanations are admissible in science, however, was incidental to that claim; Wirth seems to have discussed it in part for its own sake (and in part, I suspect, to suggest that scientists are confused about whether ad hoc explanations are licit). But I want to give Wirth credit where it’s due: he didn’t claim that Conant agreed with him about evolution. Not so his followers, as discussed in part 2.