The Single Scientist Fallacy and the Serengeti Strategy



In discussions about science and history and other popular topics, I tend to focus on the ideas rather than the individuals espousing them. Others take a different tack, seeking instead to diminish the credibility of this or that proponent or puff up the credibility of this or that opponent. During a recent conversation about David Barton and his flagrant distortions of history, a commenter decided to loop in his denial of evolution with that of uncontested American history:

“You do realize that Charles Darwin had no training in science and had only a Theology degree? So, if I go by your assessment there is no reason to consider Charles Darwin’s scientific drivel either.”

The surface claim here is actually patently false, but the underlying logic is, I suspect, of larger importance in the narrative driving reactions of this kind. We’ll deal with them in order, with special emphasis on the latter because many who defend the science tend to waste space on the exterior claim when what really needs to be addressed are the deeper misimpressions of science and other approaches to knowledge.

Those looking into Darwin’s credentials may be surprised to find no “PhD” listed by his illustrious name. Of course, no one else at the time did either, at least in the UK. In fact, PhDs weren’t awarded in Great Britain until 1917, thirty-five years after Darwin’s death. In the 19th century, most universities still followed the medieval tradition of offering degrees in three formalized disciplines: theology, medicine and law. Depending on where you lived in Europe and which university you attended, you could obtain a license in other areas, but the requirements paled in comparison to the modern PhD. It wasn’t until places like Canada, the US and the UK began adopting the educational model pioneered by Germany a century before that the scope of academic qualifications was expanded.

From an early age, Darwin was mesmerized by marine and other animals and showed a keen interest in scientific study. His precocious curiosity and passion for the natural world grew stronger and endured through his father’s entreaties to chart a more pious life. While originally enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to learn medicine, Darwin’s interests were committed to naturalist pursuits, which at that time fell under “natural history,” a catch-all title that would come to represent a number of distinct specialties in the modern day field of biology.

His activities in and out of the classroom brought him into contact with a number of eminent naturalists and geologists. Before embarking on his famed Pacific voyage with scientist-cum-Navy officer Robert FitzRoy in 1831, Darwin studied under such greats as John Stevens Henslow, Adam Sedgwick, Robert Edmond Grant and Robert Jameson. He studied marine invertebrates extensively under Grant, mapped geologic strata under Sedgwick, and gave presentations on his work at naturalist societies around the UK. It was his singular preoccupation with beetles early in his career—a real fascination among naturalists at the time—that caught the admiring eye of Henslow while at Cambridge and which led to Darwin’s work being published in Illustrations of British Entomology. Far from being out of the ordinary, Darwin’s trajectory and intellectual portfolio were right in line with other notable cognoscenti of the day.

David Barton, by contrast, has no equivalent pedigree in the discipline of history—the field on which he purports to speak authoritatively—and can boast of little more than his success in peddling historical revisionism. He is an author whose only background seems to be in religious apologetics and a brief stint as a youth pastor. I have seen no evidence that he has studied under practiced historians, given lectures at academic conferences, published in reputable journals, or submitted peer-reviewed literature of any kind. There is no meaningful comparison to be made between these two men.

The Single Scientist Fallacy

In many ways, however, focusing on Darwin to undermine evolution is a fool’s errand. A scientific discipline or theory may be associated with but isn’t defined by any single scientist. Indeed, the convergence of agreement around integral ideas is a fluid phenomenon that requires more than the insights one person can provide. Progress in the hard sciences, as with other quests for human knowledge, is attained by a plurality of voices communicating across generations, not merely by individuals plucked from a single moment in time. We have learned much since Darwin, whose sharp observations were not guided by DNA, a working understanding of the gene—the physical unit of heredity—or a robust fossil record, the confluence of which, together with Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection, culminated in the modern evolutionary synthesis laid down in the 1930s to 50s.

We have seen the same strategy deployed in the regime of climate science: contrarians have often attacked Michael Mann’s original hockey stick graph from 1998 as if it were the linchpin holding the field of climate science together, despite the fact that the graph has been replicated by other researchers dozens of times since (including by the National Academy of Sciences and the IPCC reports). It has always been more efficient to target individual scientists than try to take down an entire field by engaging its prevailing ideas and conclusions.

In his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, Mann calls this the “Serengeti Strategy.” He draws an analogy with predator-prey interactions to construe the techniques used by moneyed interest groups on both sides of the pond.

“I joined a daylong expedition to see one of the world’s greatest displays of nature: Serengeti National Park. Here, zebras, giraffes, elephants, water buffalo, hippos, wildebeests, baboons, warthogs, gazelles, and ostriches wander among some of the world’s most dangerous predators: lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Among the most striking and curious scenes I saw that day were groups of zebras standing back to back, forming a continuous wall of vertical stripes. “Why do they do this?” an IPCC colleague asked the tour guide. “To confuse the lions,” he explained. Predators, in what I call the “Serengeti strategy,” look for the most vulnerable animals at the edge of a herd. But they have difficulty picking out an individual zebra to attack when it is seamlessly incorporated into the larger group, lost in this case in a continuous wall of stripes. Only later would I understand the profound lesson this scene from nature had to offer me and my fellow climate scientists in the years to come.”

Denialist groups hope that by diverting attention to a distinguished scientist, he or she will serve as a proxy for the credibility of the field as a whole. A standing consensus, no matter how strong, is cast as the fragile whims of a lone authority. This technique is brutally effective in many cases because the average professor cannot withstand a sustained barrage of investigations and libelous op-eds, as they must now split their time between combating the many witch hunts, misrepresentations and distortions of which they are the focus rather than continuing to advance the state of the science. And as anyone familiar with the effects that press interviews and yellow journalism can have on an ostensibly unbiased jury can attest, once the claims are out there, they become intolerably difficult to crush.

Yet passing judgment on the actions or output of a single scientist, historian or other academician has no relevance to whether the central ideas and conclusions of the field to which that person belongs hold up. It is simple question-begging by people who would rather pretend that the ideas which challenge their world perspective are not broadly shared but terminate with a single individual or group. In short, discrediting Darwin gets you no closer to creationism.

Even the hard-nosed contrarian nonetheless knows that science is an exemplary tool for investigation and discovery that delivers remarkable insights and a more intimate and inspiring look at nature. And yet from time to time, science also gives us inconvenient truths. When it does, it’s best not to shoot the messenger.


Supplement with: Science as a house of cards

Feature image credit: EastVillage Images (Shutterstock)

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  • David Rice

    Very fine; thank you.