I’ve been corresponding with Nicolas Gotelli, a University of Vermont biologist. When I received his response to my initial email, I thought it was so ridiculous and hypocritical that I said to myself, Wouldn’t it be amusing to publish this on ENV? Then I reflected disappointedly, No, it’s a private correspondence, that would be unethical! I can’t do it without his permission and, since he’d have to be pretty thoughtless to allow someone to reprint his hysterically bristling letter, it’s not worth asking.
Luckily, Professor Gotelli has solved my problem for me. He promptly and without seeking permission sent our emails off to PZ Myers, who immediately published them on Pharyngula. You can read the correspondence there. Thank you, gentlemen.
Gotelli is the fellow who wrote an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press expressing the view that it was only proper that UVM should cancel Ben Stein as graduation speaker because the popular entertainer is also a “notorious advocate of intelligent design” who maintains that Darwinian ideas had deadly consequences in the form of Nazi racist ideology (only too true). Gotelli asserted it was appropriate to invite “controversial” speakers to campus, since “one of the best ways to refute intellectually bankrupt ideas is to expose them to the light of day.” But a commencement speaker is someone special, Gotelli went on, someone chosen for his peer-reviewed scholarship.
Someone, it turns out, like the widely published scholar Howard Dean, to whom UVM turned next and who will deliver the commencement address. What, as one online reader of Gotelli’s op-ed plaintively asked, “Was Daffy Duck unavailable?”
Prompted by a friend in Vermont who wanted to see Stein speak at UVM, I wrote to Gotelli on the assumption that just possibly he was sincere in his protestations about being for free speech. Perhaps he would agree to advise me on finding a forum for a debate about Darwinism on the UVM campus, on some occasion other than commencement. I suggested that rather than Ben Stein, it might be illuminating to put up a scientific Darwin critic like Stephen Meyer or David Berlinski against a Darwinian advocate like, oh, Nick Gotelli.
It was a pipe dream of mine. These guys always run from debates as fast as they can manage, hiding and shivering behind the excuse of not wanting to grant public recognition to doubts about Darwin — doubts shared, of course, by most Americans. Sure enough, Gotelli wrote back, all in a huff. First, he was offended by a post on ENV that mildly guffawed at his op-ed and the choice of Dean as commencement speaker — thinking I had written the post, which actually I didn’t. Gotelli had misunderstood the author identification. He called the post “sneering” — which it hardly was — and decried my “two-faced dishonesty” in now writing to him in a courteous tone.
I always try to write to and about people in a courteous tone. Not so, Gotelli — or PZ Myers, or most anyone I can think of in the online Darwinist community, where venom and vulgarity are the norm. Which is interesting in itself. I guess ideas have consequences after all.
After throwing around the scare word “creationism” a number of times and mixing it up with other insults and untruths, Gotelli closes by, first, withdrawing his earlier suggestion that Stein (or anyone associated with ID) would make an appropriate “controversial” campus speaker, and then childishly warning that if I should try to reply to him, he would not answer me or anyone else from the Discovery Institute. In other words, “Nah nah nah, boo boo!” as my kids would put it.
Hypocrisy may be the wrong word for Gotelli’s about-face on free speech. Anyone who fails, out of weakness or temptation, to live up to his own openly professed ideals is a hypocrite. That would include most human beings. The normal feeling that goes with this is embarrassment. A hypocrite wouldn’t seek to publicize his hypocrisy.
Maybe, then, the right designation for someone like Gotelli is a cynic. That’s someone who treats ideas as chess pieces. When it suits your purposes, you advance an idea — like “free speech.” When it doesn’t suit your purpose, the same idea becomes expendable, a useless pawn.
But no, that’s not quite it either. A cynic is typically smart enough to try to keep his cynicism a secret. That’s part of his game strategy. A cynic wouldn’t forward his correspondence to a buddy with a popular website, so that everyone could see how little trouble he takes to consider the words he writes.
The person who would do that isn’t a hypocrite or a cynic. He’s a fool.