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The Uncivil Style of Intelligent Design Critics

I’m going to let ENV readers in on a little secret: When many of us in the intelligent design (ID) movement read the arguments coming from our critics, we’re surprised at their low quality and style. We don’t rejoice at this — we’d much rather see a robust, civil, and fruitful scientific debate over the relevant questions. But the incivility, basic inaccuracy, and unserious tone characteristic of so many criticisms of ID all make you wonder: If the critics had stronger rebuttals to offer, wouldn’t we be hearing them?

To be sure, there are some serious scientific critics of ID out there. These critics should be praised for their civil scientific rebuttals, and rewarded with a serious and civil response. And in fact that’s what they get from ID advocates. Doug Axe’s recent reply to biochemist Arthur Hunt is a good example. Another noteworthy instance is the book Signature of Controversy, which collects scientific responses to a number of critics (some critics who were civil, some not so much) of Signature in the Cell. I’d like to think my recent exchange with Dennis Venema also meets this standard.

But the fact remains that most critiques of ID look more like attempts to dismiss ID’s arguments than to engage them. In particular, many critics try to dismiss ID by harping on alleged religious associations with ID, while ignoring ID’s scientific merits, accomplishments, and arguments. Like a boxer who wants to win a match on a technicality without ever hitting his opponent, some critics want to win the debate without having one. Fortunately, that style doesn’t usually appeal to anyone who’s actually out there seeking truth. In fact, whether or not such a rebuttal style appeals to you is a good indicator of whether you really are seeking the truth.

There are so many examples of incivility among ID-critics that it’s hard to know where to start. And I’m not just talking about the usual Internet suspects, like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, or Larry Moran. Earlier this year we covered the brouhaha that was ignited when the journal Synthese published an issue critical of ID, and the journal’s editors-in-chief was forced to distance themselves from that particular issue of the journal because it failed to “follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect.”

We also saw the methods employed by opponents of Michael Behe in Quarterly Review of Biology, in a would-be rebuttal to Behe’s paper in that same journal. As we discussed here earlier, Behe’s paper was measured, carefully argued, restrained, and cautious in its conclusions. But the paper critical of Behe was almost completely unhinged, making charges like “ID suffers from “complete lack of scientific merits,” or “the IDC [Intelligent Design Creationism] movement was never driven by its arguments but by its religious ideology” or Behe “dodges and weaves like a hunted rabbit.” Of course, no rant against ID would be complete without some comparison between ID and an unwanted, parasitic plant:

We think of creationism as a cluster of ideas that reproduces itself by spreading from mind to mind and struggling with competing ideas for a home among a person’s beliefs. Sometimes it loses out to more powerful rival ideas, but sometimes it finds receptive mental soil, takes root and waits to be passed on again.

(Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman, “Irreducible Incoherence and Intelligent Design — a look into the conceptual toolbox of a pseudoscience,” Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 85 (December 2010).)

This tendency of ID critics to replace sound scientific arguments with uncivil rhetoric goes back for years. It has even attracted the notice of academics, who aren’t pro-ID, and who study the rhetoric of science.

A few months back, I discovered a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Science Communication which evaluated the discourse adopted by evolution-defenders on blogs. It found that the frequency of uncivil attacks at the blog Pandas Thumb in particular “undermines the goals of rational debate and criticism.” The article continued:

In the excerpt below evaluations serve as a technique for reinforcing the boundary between two opposing groups of actors: “us,” the pro-evolution authors of the blog and those readers who agree with them, and “them,” the members of the creationist movement (emphasis added).

Excerpt 4 — Panda’s Thumb
It is another mark of the incompetence of the ID movement that they actually hand out an award named after Casey Luskin. Pick the most ineffectual, uninformed, pathetic loser on the creationist side, and use his name to inspire the next generation of IDiots. It’s actually amusingly appropriate.

Emotional and often insulting evaluations are very common for this and some other blogs that seem to be eager to demonstrate not only their rightness, but also to distinguish their group of reasonable and worthy individuals from others, who are wrong, unintelligent, and overall worthless. The frequency of such evaluations and mockery undermines the goals of rational debate and criticism. Such activities can foster solidarity among the like-minded individuals, yet at the same time, they may spur hostility in those who are undecided or hold a different opinion.

(Inna Kouper, “Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities,” Journal of Science Communication, Vol. 9(1) (March, 2009) (emphases in original).

Yes, the Casey Luskin mentioned above is the same as the author of this article. You’ll just have to accept my assurance that I don’t take this at all personally. You get accustomed to these things, learn a thing or two about the dark side of human nature, forgive and move on. I cite the passage here only because of what it reveals about the way that even scholars of scientific communication are noticing the uncivil style among ID-critics.

Another scholar who has noticed the uncivil style of ID critics is Dale L. Sullivan, head of the English Department at North Dakota State University. In 2000, he published an article in the journal Technical Communication Quarterly recognizing that proponents of evolution often use “ridicule” as a means of defending Darwin:

Whereas correction is a public reprimand or censure of insiders, ridicule, usually in the form of an exposé, holds heretics up to public scorn in displays of derision, attacking heretical belief and usually denying opportunity for rejoinder in the same forum.

(Dale L. Sullivan, “Keeping the Rhetoric Orthodox: Forum Control in Science,” Technical Communication Quarterly, Vol. 9(2):125-146 (Spring 2000).)

Sullivan then explains what happened after Stephen Jay Gould used this strategy against Phillip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial:

The ultimate rhetorical effect … is to silence the voices of the authors and thereby to control the scientific forum. Gould tries to make a case that these books are not worth reading and certainly not worth discussing. One could argue that he is placing them on the index of heretical and dangerous books. …. Gould’s reviews are good examples of ridicule or expos�. They are public attempts to de-authorize publications that could be perceived as dangerous to the community.

Keeping Sullivan’s and Kouper’s evaluation schema in mind, I’m going to post a few short articles here at ENV looking at some recent examples of ID critics who use “mockery,” “ridicule,” “emotional and insulting evaluations,” and “public scorn in displays of derision” in order to “demonstrate not only their rightness, but also to distinguish their group of reasonable and worthy individuals from others, who are wrong, unintelligent, and overall worthless” and “de-authorize publications that could be perceived as dangerous to the community.”