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Michael Shermer’s Conflicted Message

Casey Luskin

Who wrote the following words: (A) Phillip Johnson, (B) Jonathan Wells, or (C) Michael Shermer?

We should not, however, cover up, hide, suppress or, worst of all, use the state to quash someone else’s belief system. There are several good arguments for this:

1. They might be right and we would have just squashed a bit of truth.

2. They might be completely wrong, but in the process of examining their claims we discover the truth; we also discover how thinking can go wrong, and in the process improve our thinking skills.

3. In science, it is never possible to know the absolute truth about anything, and so we must always be on the alert for where our ideas need to change.

4. Being tolerant when you are in the believing majority means you have a greater chance of being tolerated when you are in the sceptical minority. Once censorship of ideas is established, it can work against you if and when you find yourself in the minority.

While certainly (A) and (B) would heartily agree with this prose, the answer is…

…Michael Shermer, in his recent article “Living in denial: The truth is our only weapon.”

It doesn’t surprise me that Shermer would say these words. While I disagree with Shermer on many things, he seems like a genuinely nice guy who’s not eager to support things like censorship or intolerance. Unfortunately, some parts of his article don’t fit with his praise of intellectual tolerance.

In this same article, Shermer compares skepticism of neo-Darwinian evolution to pernicious and obviously false views like Holocaust denial. Shermer’s message seems conflicted: He wants to uphold democratic ideals of tolerance and freedom of speech, but comparing scientific doubters of neo-Darwinian evolution to abhorrent ideas like Holocaust denial doesn’t foster those values. He just can’t allow himself to fully extend intellectual tolerance to skeptics of neo-Darwinism.

Nonetheless, Shermer’s closing words are worth noting:

No matter what ideas the human mind generates, they must never be quashed. When evolutionists were in the minority in Tennessee in 1925, powerful fundamentalists were passing laws making it a crime to teach evolution, and the teacher John Scopes was put on trial. I cannot think of a better argument for tolerance and debate than his lawyer Clarence Darrow’s plea in the closing remarks of the trial.

“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the church. At the next session you can ban books and the newspapers. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy… After a while, your honour, it is the setting of man against man, creed against creed, until the flying banners and beating drums are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the 16th century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the man who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”

Perhaps Shermer’s excellent words should be forwarded as a reminder to the many people in the evolution-lobby who work hard to ban intelligent design from public schools, stifle teaching scientific challenges to Darwin, or people like those who attacked Guillermo Gonzalez not for teaching ID, but for simply having written about it.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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