Saturday, May 03, 2008

A Tale of Two Rebuttals

There has been a lot of commentary on Expelled, the overwhelming majority of it negative. Of course the Christian lobbyists like it - but aside from them I'm having trouble finding a supporting voice. Even National Review - an enemy of secularism if ever there was one - doesn't like it much. First there was Derbyshire's strong rebuke, and now we have this nice bit by Jim Manzi.

Manzi's is my favorite bit of commentary on the subject, in fact. First and foremost because it doesn't resort to hyperbole. That's important to me because, like with most manufactured issues, this is one where people on both sides tend to get a little goofy. The key word there is manufactured. Make no mistake, this is a controversy that didn't exist before the Discovery Institute dreamt it up as a PR ploy. And that's why I'm embarrassed for people who waste precious calories getting angry about "Teach the Controversy" proponents ... in the same way that I'm embarrassed for gay rights activists who claim that the government's refusal to recognize their recently-invented tradition of marriage constitutes a breach of civil liberties. A marriage certificate isn't a natural right (here's a clue: NOTHING that needs a certificate is a natural right!) - just as ID isn't and never can be a threat to science as we know it. The controversy is overblown.

Derbyshire writes that


The "intelligent design" hoax is not merely non-science, nor even merely anti-science; it is anti-civilization. It is an appeal to barbarism, to the sensibilities of those Apaches, made by people who lack the imaginative power to know the horrors of true barbarism.


Erm, maybe. Or maybe it's just a controversy made up by a bunch of hucksters who want attention. For my part, as an atheist, I don't really see much difference between religious believers who can stomach Darwin and those who can't. It seems to me that for all their much-talked-about "ignorance," the fundamentalists at least do the rest of us the service of carrying their supersitious worldview to its logical conclusions. This is as opposed to the more mainstream Christians, who constantly hedge on what they believe in in order to soothe their cognitive dissonance.

My point is that anyone who writes about ID as "anti-civilization" is giving it credit for being more than it is. It's no more anti-civilization than Episcopalianism. True that it isn't exactly kosher with orthodox science, but I strongly suspect that ID, like Episcopalianism, is something that we humans will eventually evolve out of. Religion has had its uses in the past as a civilizing force, after all.

So I much prefer Mazni's even-handed treatment. Rather than taking Stein's constant Reductio ad Hitlerum arguments as "a blood libel on Western Civilization," as Derbyshire does, Manzi simply looks the beast in the mouth:


Expelled charges, correctly, that Hitler often couched the logic of the Holocaust in explicitly Darwinian terms. It's also true, however, that we don't know whether Hitler reasoned from Darwin to Dachau, found some psychologically useful justification for his madness, or simply used this as a way to sell his program. Someone capable of murdering millions of people is probably capable of lying to himself and others about why he did it.


There, you see Derbyshire? That's all you have to say. The only reason people still use Reductio ad Hitlerum arguments in the first place is because people like John Derbyshire continue to be shocked, SHOCKED! and offended by them. In fact, all that is required is to calmly call it for the genetic fallacy that it is and move on, as Manzi does here. Call their bluff - for bluff it is, as no one actually believes for a minute, not even the intellectually-challenged Discovery Institute staff, that Hitler would've been unable to dream up the Holocaust without Darwin's helpful book!

And, really, that's all that's required with their main claim - that serious research is being systematically supressed in the name of atheist orthodoxy - as well: just call their bluff. Derbyshire prefers to attack their character:


They overhauled creationism as "intelligent design," roped in a handful of eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories, and set about presenting themselves to the public as "alternative science" engaged in a "controversy" with a closed-minded, reactionary "science establishment" fearful of new ideas. (Ignoring the fact that without a constant supply of new ideas, there would be nothing for scientists to do.) Nothing to do with religion at all! I think this willful act of deception has corrupted creationism irredeemably. ... Hence the dishonesty and sheer nastiness, even down to plain bad manners, that you keep encountering in ID circles.


No doubt in my mind that this is an accurate characterization, but why spend all the energy psychoanalyzing this crowd? Manzi's calm rebuttal works better:


But the obvious question for ID proponents is never asked: OK, this great science is being suppressed, so please show me the data, lab notebooks, scientific work papers, unpublished manuscripts, and so on that contain all of these amazing discoveries that nobody will confront. But we never see it.


Again, this is the right strategy. We don't need to know what particular subspecies of charlatan ID proponents are to show everyone that they haven't made their case. Manzi takes the right tack: just call their bluff. If this great science is out there and the only reason we haven't seen it is establishment censorship, then you have a whole documentary's worth of time to rectify this and make your case to the public. The fact that you choose instead to spend your two hours showing pictures of Hitler says all we need to know about the actual amount of hard evidence you've been able to scrape together. Done.

The final thing I like about Manzi's column over others I've read is that he throws in a paragraph explaining why ID is fraud even from a religious point of view.


Also, it is true that many people have reasoned from evolution to atheism. But is their reasoning correct? Expelled gives lots of screen time to several prominent scientists, philosophers, and other academics who claim that it is. It doesn't bother to present those who disagree, and believe that evolution is fully compatible with faith: the director of the Human Genome Research Institute, to pick one example, or Pope Benedict. Why would the pope be part of a multidisciplinary conspiracy to promote atheism?


I don't know why the Pope believes in evoution, and I don't personally care. But I do think the point for religious types is well-taken. The thing that continues to mystify me about ID is that Christians bothered to come up with it at all. I will never understand why a worldview that believes in an all-powerful architect of the Entire Universe who cannot be seen or experienced directly, even though He constantly reads everyone's minds for signs of even the slightest deviation from the minutiae of moral orthodoxy (a good bit of which doesn't make sense in the modern era - like why NOT sleep with people before marriage?), and came up with a brilliant plan to save His own creations from their own flawed nature which we're asked to believe isn't His fault, even though he designed everything, and this brilliant plan involves someone dying on a cross, which is meant to have changed everything? People who believe in THIS have their whole worldview threatened if it turns out that natural selection is a good mechanism for explaining biodiversity? REALLY? I should think that if you're in a position to believe that someone's death 2000 years ago means you will live forever as a ghost in another dimension just by saying the magic words "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior," you should be in a position to - let's put this politely - compartmentalize your brain in such a way that pesky things you learn in biology class don't get in the way. Indeed, why doesn't the Big Bang throw them for equally much of a loop? And yet, no one's gone to the trouble to make an Expelled moaning that Geocentric cosmology is being ignored...

Point being, religion and science operate according to different paradigms and serve different purposes. It is true that Darwin's theories fly in the face of what it literally says in the Bible. But what it literally says in the Bible requires faith to accept in the first place. It requires that you deliberately ignore your daily experience and believe in things you've never seen or experienced. So if you're worried that something empirical contradicts it, then I should think that a complex biological theory would be the low on your list of concerns that need addressing. Things like "I've never seen Jesus in person" would take a higher precedence for me.

No, there's no conflict here, and to the extent that religious types think that there is, they're betraying a total lack of faith in their set of professed beliefs - or at the very least a serious misunderstanding of what those beliefs are based on. If you need empirical observation to verify God's existence, then you're "doing Christianity wrong." And if you think that science can accept as an integral part of a working hypothesis that the mechanism for the things it investigates is inherently unknowable, then you'd better give a darn good reason why (a la quantum field theory), or else you're "doing science wrong." Until we have eliminated naturalistic explanations for thing, it is dishonest and self-defeating for science not to prioritize the materialist version. Explaining things in material terms is, after all, what science does. The religious equivalent of ID would be like asking Christian theologians to honestly entertain the idea that the God of Abraham is a member of the Q Continuum. It's not logically inconsistent, strictly speaking, but surely it is a hypothesis that Christianity should selectively ignore until someone gives it a compelling reason not to? To accept such a thing as a "school of thought" in theology would be - well, "self-defeating" only begins to describe it. So it is with the cosmic watchmaker and science.

So while I don't disagree with the content of anything that Derbyshire says, I much prefer Manzi's tone. Intelligent Design is goofy, whether you are religious or atheist. So let's not give it more credit than it's due. Simply refute it (easily achieved) and move on. Don't do the equivalent of holding up a cross and warding off the evil eye by calling it a "blood libel on Western Civilization." I mean, right, technically I suppose you can get away with that. But why waste the energy? ID is a gnat more than a tarantula. It may bite, but it won't send you to the hospital.

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