It seems like some unknown – but clearly mysterious – phenomenon is linking my mind with others’, because the day after I mused on Twitter about the way the intelligent design movement capitalises on the dismissive attitude of the scientific community towards people who argue against evolutionary theory, the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin wrote a blog post doing exactly that – “The Uncivil Style of Intelligent Design Critics”. Well, either a mystical force is sharing the thoughts of bloggers around the world, or Casey Luskin reads my tweets. It can’t be a coincidence, because we know, thanks to the valiant efforts of the aforementioned ID movement, that things rarely happen by chance1.
While Casey’s writing must have been a product of either the global consciousness of Gaia, our souls intertwining in a cosmic dance, or the mingling of our chakras due to simultaneous reiki treatment for a nagging sense of self-doubt, my thoughts on the matter were a product of a longtime fascination with the way the academic and science communication communities deal with the efforts of the ID movement to undermine evolution education and the public acceptance of evolutionary biology, and the way the ID movement responds to those efforts. It’s an interesting topic.
My most recent insight can be summarised in a single (albeit long) sentence: the ID movement is successfully exploiting the attitude and language of a post-anti-creationism scientific community, which – after years of fighting classical (young-earth) creationism - has resorted to language that could be construed as dogmatic and strident. But this might need a little more fleshing out.
The scientific community has had to deal with the nonsense of young-earth creationism for decades, and most practicing scientists and science enthusiasts have developed a zero-tolerance attitude towards it. When you’ve heard the arguments about the second law of thermodynamics, an incomplete fossil record, the generation of information, a lack of beneficial mutations, “Why are there still monkeys?”, living fossils, hoax fossils, “Evolution is Darwinism is eugenics is Nazism”, “What good is half of an eye?”, and many, many more, dozens or maybe even hundreds of times, you start to get dismissive. Of course, there’s good science and reasoning behind each of the detailed rebuttals to those points that you could invocate, but who has the time to get into them with every anti-evolutionary fundamentalist who comes your way, especially if you’re a full-time researcher who has proper science to do?
As such, many scientists reach a point – either through their own experiences or through hearing about the experiences of others – where they don’t want to discuss macroevolution versus microevolution with ignorant people anymore. It’s far easier to just ignore them, and, when asked to comment on creationism by reporters or high school students, to say “Creationists are stupid!” or “What, that religious bullshit?” or “I’d like to punch Ken Ham in the face and see how he likes having half of a functioning visual system!”
This, for the most part, has become the norm in the scientific community when creationism is mentioned: ridicule. Also, gossiping and bitching about creationists is fun, in the same way that people love bashing the Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyer - it’s mostly a lighthearted activity (especially here in Australia, where the menace of creationist efforts to push their views into high schools is far less looming than in the United States of America), and it’s not as if their minds are about to changed, right? They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid! Isn’t it funny that people actually take organisations like Answers in Genesis seriously? I mean, they’re so crazy! Did you hear about that giant museum somewhere in America? What loons.
The problem with this state of affairs is that the dismissive attitude being displayed by the scientific community – when it leaks out into the public sphere through the media (or through personal encounters with scientists) – reinforces the stereotypes some groups in society have of evolutionary biologists: dogmatic elitists, who don’t care about truth and wish to crush dissent from their pet hypotheses; or haughty materialistic atheists, who are defending a debunked idea in order to force people to reject religion; or snide wastes of taxpayer money, who can’t be bothered letting their ideas be tested in a free and open manner.
Normally this would be fine, when the ridicule is restricted to a group that many people clearly understand are not reasonable – young-earth creationists – and the groups that have an anti-”evolutionary establishment” agenda are also seen as fringe and not to be taken seriously. But unfortunately for tired scientists, the intelligent design movement exists.
In ecological terms, the ID movement is far better adapted to the current climate surrounding religion and evolution than the more classical varieties of creationism are or ever were. It easily outcompetes young-earth creationism for access to vital sources of attention and publicity (things that all movements need to survive) in the niche defined by moderately to slightly religious members of the public, because it – for most of its public endeavours – has abandoned the overtly religious language and appeals of scripture that creationism can’t do without, which tend to drive away those who are put off by fundamentalism. Most importantly of all, however, is its strict grounding in public relations and image control. While classical creationism is hampered by a need to proselytise and spout apologetics for evangelical interpretations of religion, ID prides itself on seeming to be a legitimately scientific program. It uses the right type of language, it shows off its shiny PhD-brandishing experts, and it sneaks religious ideas in under the guise of appealing to human design analogies, which are extremely seductive at first glance.
ID’s tight awareness of its public image is also the reason why it is perfectly suited to exploit the anti-creationist attitude of most scientists. The academic community has long known of the real history and motives of the ID movement, and because of this, it routinely places ID in the same category as other varieties of creationism and subjects it to a similar mocking. As mentioned, that strategy may sometimes work for movements that have a self-defeating image, but against the slick-looking rhetoric of organisations like the Discovery Institute, it backfires horribly.
Intelligent design is rhetoricotrophic: it gains nourishment from the rhetoric used against it.
Proponents of ID are easily able to twist the words of disparaging scientists into ad hominem attacks, making them seem petty and unprofessional, like they’re attacking the people making the arguments and not the arguments themselves. The dismissal of anti-evolutionary and pro-intelligent design arguments is also made out to be unfair and unscholarly. “Why,” cries the ID movement, with a moral tone to its collective voice, “would a scientific theory as supposedly well-supported as evolution need to be defended in such a way? Surely the evidence could speak for itself!?”
Casey Luskin, in his psychically-inspired blog post, characterises this attitude very nicely:
But the fact remains that most critiques of ID look more like attempts to dismiss ID’s arguments than to engage them. In particular, many critics try to dismiss ID by harping on alleged religious associations with ID, while ignoring ID’s scientific merits, accomplishments, and arguments. Like a boxer who wants to win a match on a technicality without ever hitting his opponent, some critics want to win the debate without having one. Fortunately, that style doesn’t usually appeal to anyone who’s actually out there seeking truth. In fact, whether or not such a rebuttal style appeals to you is a good indicator of whether you really are seeking the truth.
Once you enter the field with angry rhetoric, you’re playing right into the ID movement’s hand, to mix metaphors slightly. PR is a game they plan to win and they’ve got the tools to do it. They’re publicly adamant they’re not creationism rebranded, yet they really do want scientists to dismiss them as such: it makes them look like victims, being treated poorly simply for having a fresh, new scientific viewpoint. Even people who are not all that religious respond to a message like that – what if the scientific community really is being unfair and dogmatic? It makes them want to investigate further, except with a starting bias against the consensus of biologists. That’s all it can take to suck someone into the movement: once you’re on the inside, the arguments all seem to make sense, given some hidden and soon-forgotten assumptions about the philosophy and nature of science.
Suddenly “Darwinists” are the enemy, and there’s little the scientific community can do about it.
What this all means is that scientists and science enthusiasts need to be mindful about how they refer to intelligent design in the public sphere. It might be really easy to dismiss it like young-earth creationism, to cite religious motivation and a shady past, but a better approach is probably to explain why it isn’t a scientific concept, why scientists don’t take their anti-evolutionary arguments seriously (in that they’ve been dealt with before, in considerable detail) and an idea of what people could expect the ID movement to respond with to those claims.
For example, if asked by a journalist to comment on the intelligent design movement, instead of saying “ID is religious dogma, wrapped up in fake smiles and alligator tears!”, consider:
ID is a pseudoscientific hypothesis that does not make testable claims or predictions, which are necessary components of scientific ideas. The arguments put forward by its proponents have been taken seriously and analysed by scientists and philosophers of science for nearly two decades, but all have found to be lacking in merit. It is widely known that the ID movement is a recent offshoot of creationism and its internal language is sometimes explicitly theistic – while this does not necessarily invalidate its claims, it does help explain its patterns of behaviour and the way its proponents think. The mainstream scientific community no longer pays much attention to the movement and will continue not to do so until ID proponents formulate more rigorous and persuasive ideas.
Seem like a mouthful? Maybe. But you wouldn’t be giving the ID movement a rhetorical leg-up. I think that’s worth the effort.
- - - - - - - - -
- I know this is a misrepresentation of their views, but humour, people, humour. ↩