When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.
~ Cersei Lannister, HBO’s “Game of Thrones”1
Bit of a dramatic quote, isn’t it? But for some reason it entered my mind when I read what David Klinghoffer wrote about me and my views on the dismissive rhetoric of the scientific community towards the intelligent design movement (which I maintain is understandable, given the history of ID and creationism), in his Evolution News & Views post “A Darwinist Worries about Darwinian Rhetoric”.
You see, I didn’t write the post for a pro-ID audience – it came about because I felt I had some helpful advice to give scientists and science communicators for when they are asked to comment on ID by the media (or in other public outlets). That’s why I didn’t justify or explain, for example, my opinion that the movement is largely motivated by religious sentiment: I was talking to a group of people who already have that point of view.
Obviously I wasn’t thinking very clearly though, because I was writing about why ID proponents love to twist, distort and spin sentiment about themselves into energy for their day-to-day operations, yet forgot to consider how the post being written would appear to those very people. How legitimately foolish of me.
Everything is a rhetorical game to the Discovery Institute! And like the medieval-fantasy political game of thrones referenced in the above quote, when you play the game of rhetoric, you win or you die a (rhetorical) death. Much like gambling, the best way to win is not to play at all, especially when facing down masters like David Klinghoffer. I mean, look at what he wrote – he twisted a post about not giving the ID movement rhetorical nourishment into rhetorical nourishment.
But while I’m undeniably now locked into a PR pact with David – wherein everything I write is now open to dramatisation and being milked for points – I’d still like to focus on the issues that are at least vaguely objectively defensible.
David’s post had three main points to make:
- My example of a suggested media statement about ID for scientists and science communicators is “spin”.
- I should be concerned about how my fellow ID critics ignore the main arguments of ID proponents.
- I’m not qualified to comment on ID, since I haven’t read Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell.
Let’s look at each one, shall we?
1. Spin-on-spin in the spin cycle
As a refresher, here’s my suggested statement, with the part David has a problem with in bold:
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.
This is what David says about it:
Nicely spun, Jack, and many a credulous journalist would no doubt be taken in. However the truth is other than you say. Darwinian scientists who blog — in other words, those whose comments are most readily accessible to us — may indeed not pay attention to ID arguments, but that’s certainly not because of any lack of “rigorous and persuasive ideas” on ID’s part. The proof is that Darwin defenders are typically very busy indeed picking on other arguments that no thoughtful and critical person would remotely regard as “rigorous and persuasive.” What those other arguments have in common is that, unlike ID, they’re too weak to effectively fight back.
I’m left feeling like David didn’t read the entirety of the statement. What do I say in the second sentence?
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.
Scientists and philosophers of science took positive arguments for ID pretty seriously in the 1990s and early 2000s, and quite a number of papers were published on the favourite arguments of the time (which have not significantly changed since then – but more on that later). For examples, look at Shanks and Joplin (1999)2, Wilkins and Elsberry (2001)3 and Sober (2002)4: to my knowledge, these papers have not been satisfactorily critiqued by proponents of ID in books, journals or even online. Many scientists and science bloggers know of these published critiques – so why should they feel the need to constantly step on trodden ground?
Of course, bloggers such as those at The Panda’s Thumb, Pharyngula, Sandwalk etc. do pay attention to claims that the ID movement makes about evolutionary biology. Larry Moran, in a splendid example of this, recently finished a long series of blog posts critiquing the anti-junk DNA arguments in Jonathan Wells’ book The Myth of Junk DNA - you can find links to posts on all of the chapters at the bottom of this page. Does the ID movement not hold Wells’ book up with rather great regard?
PZ Myers also had this to say about David’s insistence that he doesn’t take ID seriously:
But it’s silly to claim we haven’t addressed their arguments. Personally, I’ve reviewed Meyer’s Signature in the Cell and Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. I’ve tackled Casey Luskin and Michael Egnor and Paul Nelson and Michael Behe and William Dembski. I’ve written general critiques of ID creationism. I’ve trashed ID creationism repeatedly, and with bemused enthusiasm.
PZ blogs a lot too, so to argue that you only feature in a very small percentage of his posts is hilarious to say the least.
So, in essence, David spun my “spin”. Very clever. But he is a master at it, after all.
2. David may have a slight point
What would trouble me if I were Jack Scanlan — a well-intentioned Darwinian observer of the evolution debate, someone who cares about the quality of the rhetoric coming from my side, disdaining the usual cheap shots — is the way my allies in the debate make a habit of spending their time going after the weak, the widows and the orphans, as they meanwhile ignore the most serious scientific challenges to Darwinism. Even if Scalan [sic] doesn’t think intelligent design poses a genuinely serious scientific challenge, he admits that it poses a real public-relations challenge: “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.”
The point of my earlier post was to let scientists know that name-calling, snide comments and over-the-top snark doesn’t help convince people who are on the fence about ID and evolutionary biology. But what David is saying above is that the fact that science bloggers and scientists don’t even mention the main ID arguments makes it look like they don’t know how to respond to them.
He has a bit of point here. As I said before, published criticisms of William Dembski, Michael Behe and other well-known ID proponents have done a good job of cutting their arguments down to size, and as such scientists rarely feel the need to beat those dead horses. But it wouldn’t really hurt to mention, at least in passing, these papers: it would add weight to their statements about ID’s lack of persuasive ideas.
However, science bloggers such as PZ should take no shame in critising the arguments of fringe players in the debate, such as Hamza Andreas Tzortzis (mentioned by David), Ray Comfort, Ken Ham and others! People exist who do take them seriously, and showing where their ideas fly in the face of what we know about the universe does have benefit. Often you will find that these critiques are only written when the creationist in question is making a novel argument, because, like with ID, who has the time to go over already-destroyed ideas all the time?
Anyone want to take bets on how David will spin my admission that he got something right?
3. ID is not as complex as the Discovery Institute would have you think
David’s last major point in his post is:
Even Scanlan himself, however, complains in another post that due to poor “time management skills” he hasn’t had time to read Signature in the Cell and similar titles: “Remember my pile of pro-intelligent design books? I never got around to reviewing them, for various reasons.”
Here’s a crazy idea. If you don’t have time to read up properly on ID or are otherwise disinclined to do so, perhaps refrain from deciding whether its arguments are “rigorous and persuasive.”
I’m not going to lie, this made me a little angry. It also provides a stunning example of the way ID proponents can rhetorically poison the well against people they want to marginalise. I’ve read most of Signature in the Cell, I just haven’t written a comprehensive review of it on this blog. But even if I hadn’t read it, David’s assertion would still be nonsense.
Intellectual movements and ideas often have overlapping publications and manifestos. Each new contributor to the pool of argument and evidence around an idea will inevitably comment, critique and build upon the writings of those who came before them – this is especially prominent in science, where citing those who came before you is absolutely necessary. In the ID movement it’s slightly different, as it’s not exclusively based around science (or the philosophy of science), but realistically, you should be able to get a fairly good grasp of all the major ID arguments by reading the output of the online discussions on the topic.
Evolution News & Views is arguably the best source for the views of the top-tier ID proponents. Whenever a favorable, new book on the topic is released – such as Signature in the Cell or The Myth of Junk DNA – Casey Luskin and the other writers vociferously regale their readership with the essence of the arguments contained within. A similar thing happens when such a book is critiqued or reviewed unfavourably by a prominent member of the anti-ID or scientific communities, with EN&V contributors defending the books themselves.
With this in mind, I’ve been reading EN&V rather closely for over two years, and I’ve seen many, many arguments repeated, over and over again. This includes Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity, William Dembski’s arguments from complex specified information and his “explanatory filter”, and – most recently – Stephen C. Meyer’s argument from abductive reasoning to the best explanation. These four arguments are the ones that ID proponents most often cite as being the cornerstones of intelligent design, and they have all been adequately explained on EN&V, in a good amount of detail – as well as in published critiques of these arguments: see Shanks and Joplin (1999)2 and Wilkins and Elsberry (2001)3 for Behe and Dembski respectively. Do I need to read Behe, Dembski and Meyer’s books in order to comment on these arguments? Has the Discovery Institute’s official online mouthpiece been severely misrepresenting their views?
Arguing against evolutionary biology, which is what the ID movement attempts to do, is a very different matter. Biology is a complex and difficult discipline to master, and the arguments and evidence in favour of evolutionary theory are orders of magnitude more overwhelming than those for ID. Evolution is arguably reducible to the field of population genetics5, which is a topic you can only really dig your teeth into once you understand some reasonably complex mathematics. Evolutionary genetics is full of weird and wonderful ideas, molecular evolution is at the intersection of high-level physics and chemistry and requires lots of memory work to master, and phylogenetics and systematics are rooted in intense statistical theory and computational analysis. You cannot grasp enough of evolutionary biology to have any meaningful chance of accurately or persuasively critiquing it from just reading blogs, even the blogs of working scientists. You need to pour over technical books and journals, attend conferences… In essence, you need to become a scientist yourself: otherwise you won’t know enough to fully understand the arguments that the experts are making.
ID is a thimble of ideas compared to the Olympic-sized pool of real biology, and I think I’m more than qualified to have a look down the microscope to see what’s swimming around inside, David.
Then again, I’m glad he didn’t go the ageist route, like Uncommon Descent did when they mentioned me:
Here, Jack Scanlan (“Naon tiami[sic]”), an Australian biology student, holds forth, from decades of experience:[…]
The rest of the outburst is just Darwin’s bilge pipe’s runoff, maybe written to impress his Darwinist profs, so we’ll leave that aside.
Don’t even get me started. David’s probably already going to turn up the spin to 11 when/if he responds to this, I don’t need to give him more nourishment.- - - - - - - - -
- Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 7. ↩
- Shanks and Joplin. Redundant complexity: a critical analysis of intelligent design in biochemistry. Philosophy of Science (1999) vol. 66 (2) pp. 268-282 ↩ ↩
- Wilkins and Elsberry. The advantages of theft over toil: the design inference and arguing from ignorance. Biology and Philosophy (2001) vol. 16 (5) pp. 709-722 ↩ ↩
- Sober. Intelligent design and probability reasoning. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (2002) vol. 52 pp. 65-80 ↩
- Please don’t argue about this, biologists – I’m merely a young, impressionable undergraduate. ↩