A modern parable about the search for truth. (You can download a pdf version here)
Background: The great scientist Isaac Newton (1643 – 1728) developed a few simple equations descring the effect of gravity and how bodies move. He went on to explain the motion of the moon around the earth and the planets and comets around the sun, using these equations. His work showed the planets moved in a common direction and in a plane, whereas comets move more randomly. He could not explain why movement of the planets was so ordered and ended up attributing this “design” to God. He wrote: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.”
In this parable we imagine how Newton may have carried out his research in a modern scientific environment. He works in the Physics Department of a modern university.
An intelligent approach to design
Isaac was feeling good. He had been able to explain how the moon, the planets and comets moved. On the whole it had been successful. A few loose ends but he had written it up and sent the paper off to the journal Acta Cosmologica. Now he had the Editor’s letter with the results of the peer review.
First, he scanned through the referees’ comments. He was keen to see of they accepted his ideas or if they were demanding significant revisions. There were three referees.
Referee 1 was favourable. “Most of the conclusions are well supported by evidence and the literature has been well reviewed. I feel movement of the planets and their orbits are explained well but you seem unable to explain why the planets are in the same plane with the same direction of movement. Attributing this to God is weak and unexplained. I recommend the paper be published after rewriting to remove the last section.”
“Bloody hell,” thought Isaac. “That means more work.”
Referee 2 gave only a one-paragraph response. “I recommend the paper not be accepted even in a revised form. The ideas are not worth publishing. It is arrogant to think you can explain how God controls movement of the heavenly bodies.” He didn’t justify these views.
“There’s always one,” laughed Isaac. Of course this anonymous referee may have been a theologist. However, every scientist knows that at least one referee reviewing a paper will give this response. Comments like these were just a waste of time and were always ignored, both by the scientist and the editor.
Referee 3 was extremely positive. “I feel these findings will have a significant effect on future efforts to explore the solar system. However, the last section lets the whole paper down. It’s just an opinion, an expression of belief, without even a suggestion of a mechanism. As such it has no place in a scientific paper. This section needed more work. I recommend against accepting the paper in its present form. The author should do further work on the last section and submit a revised version.” The referee stressed that considering the importance of the work it was essential the final ideas on the planetary plane, the direction of movement and their mechanisms be developed and explained.
The covering Editor’s letter was also flattering about the novelty and importance of Newton’s findings. “I concur with the 3rd referee’s request for development of explanatory mechanisms for the planetary order. However, given the importance of the findings I will accept a revised paper provided that you either:
- remove the final section on planetary order, acknowledging that it required further investigation, or
- you do further work to develop that section and incorporate the resulting findings in the revised paper.”
Isaac groaned. He was depressed.
Discussions over coffee
Isaac vented his anger by complaining about the peer review system to his colleagues. How dare they demand extra work from him. “I’ll get round those bastards,” he said. “I’ll publish my results as a book, just like those mavericks in the Biology Department. Look, I’ve already thought of some titles. What do you think of these: Gravity’s Black Box, Reducing Planetary Complexity, The Edge of Disorder, The Planetary Inference, Irreducible Order. Any of these should be catchy enough to attract readers. What do you think?”
His colleagues tried to calm him down. They were used to this. Scientists always reacted badly to referee’s comments, at least initially. And Isaac was more sensitive than most. It was just something you had to work through. Try to see what suggestions were valid and make the appropriate changes. If you felt a criticism was unjustified you could usually convince a good editor by a calm presentation of your case.
“What about removing the controversial section?” said one colleague. “That way you will get the paper published straight away. A paper in a peer-reviewed journal has more credibility than a popular book. Haven’t those biologists just made themselves look ridiculous? They don’t have any support from others in their discipline.”
Isaac started to think it through. “Yes, I guess that will get quick recognition for my work. It would be another paper on my CV. But, what annoys me is the cheek. I had the right to say what I believed. They shouldn’t insist on removal of my views.”
Another colleague chipped in. “Look Isaac, you know my views. Like you I know that God is the original creator and mover. He is behind everything. He created the planets, set them in motion and controls their movement.”
“But, look, God created an ordered universe so we could discover that order. It’s up to us to find out how things work, to reveal God’s plan. I can understand the Editor’s decision. In that last section your have simply stated what we believe, but you haven’t revealed God’s plan, you haven’t discovered the mechanism.”
“But I’ve done so much work on this. I should get recognition for it. I guess I should just accept the insult and remove that section. Get the results out there. Get the recognition.”
“Hold on,” a third colleague intervened. “You might get recognition for describing the planetary movements but not for the big question – why the ordered arrangement? Why the apparent design? If you publish the current results you know what well happen. Others will solve the problem and they will get all the credit. Look at Kant and Laplace.You know they are breathing down your neck. Give them this information and they will solve the final problem. They will get the credit. Look at it. This work is important. There could well be a Nobel prize in it.”
Those words – Nobel Prize – had a chilling effect. A cold shudder went down Isaac’s spine and he felt his anger evaporate suddenly.
“You are right,” he said. “I have put in so much work and I should be recognised. I’m not going to hand it over to those upstarts!”
“That’s the attitude,” said his colleague. “You know you can do it. You were just being lazy with that final section. I can understand that – you had put in so much effort and wanted to rush to publication. It made you blind to the defects. But you can do it. You have the ability.”
“Don’t forget,” said another colleague, a department head. “It’s not just your reputation that’s at stake. This work will be a feather in the cap for our university. Just imagine, it’s going to make interplanetary travel possible. Your equations enable us to plan trajectories for such travel. There’s huge kudos in that. If you give up now those other buggers will deprive us of that.”
Isaac’s eyes lit up. “You are right of course. I did let things slide a bit at the end. Lost my judgment, I guess. I’ll withhold the paper and do some extra work on that last section. That way, when it is published, it will be a complete work.”
Six months later
Isaac had solved all the problems. He had shown how the planetary order could arise from condensation in an elliptical solar nebula. He got the idea from the work of Kant and Laplace on the rings of Saturn. All he needed was some new mathematics. This was original stuff and he was going to publish the mathematical development in The Mathematica Journal. Another one for his CV!
But first, he would send of the revised paper. He knew there would be no trouble getting it accepted now. It was much better. He could now see that he had been lazy not to have completed the work before his first submission. Now he had a full theory. It explained movement of heavenly bodies, planets, moons, comets and future manned spacecraft. But it also explained why the planetary system was so ordered. Why the planets all moved in the same direction and in the same plane. He could see now that it was not enough to state the obvious fact, the system was ordered, was designed. The real science was in researching and discovering the mechanism, the reason for this order. He had now done that, and he felt proud.
Footnote: What actually happened, though, is that Newton missed out on the discovery. He attributed the planetary “design” to God.
On the other hand, Kant (1724 – 1804) and Laplace (1749 – 1827) proposed a solar nebula or accretion disk. They showed how this led to the planets being in the same plane with the same direction of movement and the same sense of rotation.
If only Newton had not been lazy!
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Evolution’s threat to religion?