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Condescension, Sneers, and Outright Misrepresentations of Intelligent Design Pass For Scholarship in Synthese

Casey Luskin

As I wrote about recently, in mid-2010 the philosophy journal Synthese published an excellent critique of neo-Darwinian evolution and self-organization by Richard Johns. Johns’ article did not argue for intelligent design (ID), but it was critical of the sacred cow of biology.

It seems that somebody may have asked the Synthese to offer penance that sin: The latest issue of Synthese is devoted to covering intelligent design, but they strangely they published not a single article by a proponent of intelligent design. Instead they published an issue where many (though not all) of the articles are full of demeaning and condescending sneers against ID, as well as many outright misrepresentations of ID. It feels like it was scripted by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE)! Here’s a review of some of the articles in the issue:

The Introduction, by NCSE’s Glenn Branch
If there was any guess as to whether the NCSE was involved with this issue of Synthese, consider the fact that the introductory article is written by no other than Glenn Branch, Deputy Director of the NCSE. At worst, Branch’s article stoops to making free association comparisons between Darwin-critics and geocentrists. Incredibly, however, he provides one accurate admission:

Owing to a dispute between the Discovery Institute and the Thomas More Law Center, which was representing the [Dover] school board, Dembski and Meyer withdrew from the [Dover] case.

That accurate statement contradicts a whole host of conspiracy theories from his counterpart anti-ID activists who have claimed Dembski or Meyer withdrew because from testifying in the Dover trial because, as Barbara Forrest states: “armed with my work and that of the other witnesses for the plaintiffs, halfway decent attorneys would make legal mincemeat of them.” Branch just contradicted Forrest–which is good because Forrest was wrong and Branch was right.

Argumentum Ad Condescension and Sneer
A tragically amusing article in the issue of Synthese is John Wilkins’ piece with the less-than-civil title, “Are creationists rational?” And of course guess what gets lumped as the same as “creationism”? You guessed it: intelligent design. Wilkins states: “Parenthetically, creationists and intelligent designists often claim that science is ‘just’ another religion, and so can be treated as commensurate with their theological views.” He argues that “Creationism is usually regarded as an irrational set of beliefs.” And what’s his solution to “eliminate” creationism? Seek to gain “conversions” to the evolutionary view when they’re still young! He writes:

Given that late conversions are improbable, the task is to ensure that the newer generations are better aware of the epistemic worth of science. Perturb the conceptual development in favor of experiential and experimental knowledge early and the outcomes are likely to be more effectively scientific. We will never be able to eliminate anti-science, for it is often an irrational (in the traditional sense as well as the bounded sense) choice, but we owe it to our society and culture to allow learners who do make boundedly rational choices of beliefs to be able to do so on better grounds than at present. (emphasis added)

So there you have it: That’s a fancy way of saying ‘convert them while they’re young.’ Perhaps this explains the Evolution Readiness Project.

When it comes to condescension and sneers, however, Kelly C. Smith’s piece wins first prize. Full of militaristic metaphors, Smith’s article laments that more scientists aren’t “involved in the fight against the creationist threat.” He further laments that “many of the reactions to the threat have been so unsuccessful” citing the “fight with the creationists” and the need for “combating creationism.” He even makes a bizarre statement that in this debate “we should think of the creationist contest as one where the interlocutors are using blunted or padded weapon.” And of course he treats ID as the equivalent creationism, by citing to a document by Eugenie Scott which says “Intelligent design creationism (IDC) is the newest manifestation of American creationism.”

Smith’s utter disdain for “creationists” peaks in this militaristic metaphor:

The most important element in the war is finding a venue in which we can engage the enemy on terms favorable to our side (or at least not rigged in favor of the bad guys.)

At least Smith is willing to admit that ID-critics seek to frame the terms of the debate so they can’t lose.

The condescending tone of Smith’s article cannot be overemphasized. He claims, “Your average creationist, however, neither understands nor cares to understand such minutia” of the scientific issues and often have “uninformed opinion[s]” or are “owefully ignorant.” In fact, it gets much worse for his main thesis is that “creationism” is a “rational pathogology”:

It’s my view that the creationism debate is fertile ground for the study of rational pathologies. I will take it as a given that the enormous weight of both evidence and argument supports the truth of evolution over creationism.

And there’s this combative statement: “Those of us who have invested time in dealing with the creationists will understand the frustration felt, not only with the adversary. … Attempting to convince one’s peers can be almost as frustrating as arguing with a creationist.” Smith continues:

Arguing with creationists is like weeding a garden, to switch similes–you can pull weeds all day and do a great job, but there will soon be more weeds, just like those you removed earlier.

And what’s Smith’s solution to defeat this “rational pathology” of intelligent design? In his own words, “Bash Harder.” Smith continues:

But now, like it or not, the days of honest combat where the loser is manifest to all (by virtue of, say, being dead) are over and done with. Now we have this circus atmosphere where the crowd is in charge and are impressed by moves worthy of professional wrestling. What reason could you possibly give under these circumstances for thinking that what didn’t work last time is going to work this time if only we do it more of it?

So does Smith not recommend “honest combat”?

It also seems that Smith feels that the evidence for evolution he wants to exist doesn’t exist. He thus charges that “what we need to do is develop a single example of macroevolution which presents a representative sample of the evidence behind the construction of the series in a very simple, user-friendly fashion.” I guess that single example doesn’t exist yet, or Smith would feel comfortable he could win all the fights. Perhaps when Smith writes, “Creationists, by and large, seem to be curiously impervious to any argumentative assault yet devised,” the problem isn’t with “creationists” but with the evidence for evolution.

And Smith’s final proscription is like Wilkins’ proscription: Again, we need to get them while they’re young:

For evolution, this has to be the pre-college science classroom. This is really the only place where the average person spends a significant amount of time thinking about science, so it’s the only battlefield which fits our purposes in addressing a mass audience. Now certainly it’s necessary to this strategy that we not let the other side take possession of the battleground, which is why it’s so important to fight attempts to inject creationism into the curriculum.

After all the condescension, Smith suggests, with a straight face, that we ought to treat creationists nicely: “There’s a real tendency to view the creationists as some kind of alien other and assume, often mistakenly, that those we respect in various ways could not be like that.” I suspect Smith is intimately familiar with what this is like. Smith even says that it’s a bad idea to “[give] in to the frustration openly in a counterproductive rant.” Ironically, a “counterproductive rant” is exactly what Smith’s article appears to be.

In two further posts I’ll discuss additional off-base critiques of intelligent design in Synthese.


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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