THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is
easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it
happened. Deal with it.
"Is this the right room for an argument?"
Monty Python's hapless would-be student in the fine art of arguing quickly found out that the proper forum for a civil exchange of conflicting ideas isn't always available. In the case of the battle between biological evolution and "intelligent design" -- the latest brand of creationism -- the opponents rarely share the same space and time. Why is that?
A common explanation from evolutionary biologists boils down to the axiom that evolutionary biology is the only legitimate kind of biology. Remember, we are told, what the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
To "teach the controversy," as the Discovery Institute and other advocates of "intelligent design" urge high school and college teachers to do, would concede the debate. That's the reasoning behind the refusal of scientists to show up at this summer's hearings on the subject at the Kansas Board of Education, which just voted to weaken the state's science curricula.
Of course, by dismissing overtures from their critics, scientists risk coming off as aloof elitists with little confidence in their pet theory and scared of a fair fight. Ironic as that description may be, considering how solid the evidence for evolution is compared with the non-testable (and therefore unscientific) idea that an "intelligent designer" is necessary to explain the complexity of life, scientists face a lose-lose scenario.
As it turns out, many of the biggest names in biology choose to be tarred with the brush of arrogance rather than get dirty. ABC's Nightline tried earlier this month to pit the two sides against each other, as did the NPR program On Point. All the media get is intelligent designers accusing scientists of trying to hide a "raging" controversy within the community, and scientists denying any such argument.
The On Point segment, for example, was billed, right up to its airing, as a debate between George Gilder, one of the founders of the Discovery Institute, and Richard Dawkins, a leading defender of evolution and professor of public understand of science at Oxford University. But at the last minute Dawkins announced he would only discuss the issue with the program's host after Gilder's interview.
Dawkins' reasoning appears in Time magazine's recent treatment of the subject:
Many scientists have been reluctant to engage in a debate with advocates of intelligent design because to do so would legitimize the claim that there's a meaningful debate about evolution. "I'm concerned about implying that there is some sort of scientific argument going on. There's not," says noted British biologist Richard Dawkins.New Yorker columnist Hendrik Hertzberg summed up the situation succinctly this month, calling the whole affair "a last-ditch skirmish in a misguided war against reason that cannot be won and, for religion's sake as well as science's, should not be fought."
There is, not surprisingly, a lively debate about the merits of debate in the blogosphere. But for the most part, Hertzberg is right.
Occasionally, a reputable figure like Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, will step into the fray. He explained to me that, "In general, debating creationists can be counterproductive ... [and] gives the appearance that this is an two-sided issue, which it isn't." But there are exceptions:
Journalists, for example, have this quaint notion that they have to always have two sides represented on news programs.... Thus, in this context, I will be willing to debate creationists. In all such cases my intent is to demonstrate that they are, in a scientific context, marginal groups that do not represent in any way the scientific community. And, when I debated IDers before the school board in Ohio I made it clear that the debate was not fair. Instead of two scientists and two members of the Discovery Institute, it should have had 10,000 scientists on one side of the table, and two representatives of a fringe lobbying group on the other side.Krauss is walking a knife edge, recognizing the need to get involved, even if it is dangerous territory. And I think he's on to something, essentially hijacking the debate in favor of a broader subject. His approach puts into action a proposal by philosopher Michael Ruse, who appeared on On Point immediately following Dawkins. "Education, education, education," was Ruse's answer to the dilemma.
It does seem that intelligent design wins converts through ignorance; only an enlightened audience will be able to see through the holes in the argument. It's a long-term strategy rather than one that tries to win each silly battle the IDers offer up.
To the arsenal of facts and reason I would add the time-honored rhetorical weapon of wit. Satire has long been used to expose specious reasoning for what it is and this is no exception. The devastating Flying Spaghetti Monster website has attracted more than 4 million hits since it debuted earlier this year. While I'm sure it offends the pious, its creator deftly skewers the intelligent design campaign to confuse faith with science. If you make just one more click on the web today, make it the FSM site.
Such barbs are not as informative as several thousand words in The New Republic, but they are perhaps more effective than getting hit on the head lessons.