Evolution Icon Evolution
Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

What I Learned from My Visit to the National Center for Science Education

Stephen H. Webb

Editor’s note: ENV is pleased to welcome Stephen H. Webb to our pages. Dr. Webb is the author of numerous books including The Dome of Eden: A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution and his most recent, Mormon Christianity (Oxford University Press). Having served as professor of theology and philosophy at Wabash College for 25 years, he blogs for First Things.

speakers-branch.jpgWell, I didn’t visit NCSE headquarters, only its website, and I didn’t learn anything about science — but I did learn a lot about rhetoric. Not rhetoric in the abstract, but the rhetorical strategies of those who make a living advocating for Darwinism and against intelligent design. I was drawn into this debate when I responded in my biweekly First Things web column to an article critical of ID that appeared in the First Things print edition. Stephen Meredith accused intelligent design of being committed to an obscure theological view called occasionalism. I refuted Meredith’s confusing criticism. Glenn Branch, the NCSE’s deputy director, then intervened by writing about my response to Meredith.

Oddly, Branch (pictured at right) never engaged the issue of occasionalism. He called it a "distraction" and says he is "not convinced that it’s especially interesting" compared to other topics. That is fine, except my whole exchange with Meredith centered on occasionalism. When, on Branch’s blog, I noted this, he responded: "I didn’t ‘gloss over’ the fact that the primary issue in your debate with Meredith was about occasionalism; I explicitly acknowledged it and explained that I wasn’t particularly interested in it." I said in my reply that acknowledging a topic as central and then skipping it is the very definition of "glossing over."

That might seem like a rather trivial exchange. Indeed, such misconnections are common in the world of blogging. What is revealing is how Darwinians treat rational debate like a game, and they treat playing games as a matter of life or death. They seem to operate under this rule: "No matter how badly you are beaten, never admit that you have lost anything, even a single point. Never back down. Never admit a mistake." That might be a good rule for armed battle, but it makes rational discussion very difficult. In my response to Meredith, I refuted the charge of occasionalism, but Branch didn’t want to get involved in that refutation, and I am sure that this charge will continue to be repeated on Darwinian blogs, as if I (and others) had never said a thing about it.

But here is the really strange thing: Glenn Branch could not even acknowledge that he had glossed over the main topic of my article! Admitting to a critic of Darwinism that he was right about even that one small point would be admitting too much. Evidently evolutionary theory is so fragile that allowing one leaf, one bit of bark, to fall from the Darwinian tree would uproot and cast the whole thing down. The stakes, even in such a seemingly minor question, are that high.

Branch is, in fact, an activist, not a scientist, philosopher, or theologian. He did some graduate work in philosophy at UCLA, where, according to the NCSE website, he "won prizes both for scholarship and teaching." He undoubtedly was a fierce debater, since he thinks the defense of Darwinism requires the use of the most militant rhetorical tactics: "It is only with the help of educated and informed activists at the grassroots level that the battle to defend the teaching of evolution in public schools can be fought." Although he is the deputy director of a group devoted to public education, he is in reality a warrior who must win every battle, no matter how trivial. "In dealing with policy makers," he writes, "you want to be perceived as a friendly adviser, not a hostile critic." Pretending that you are curious, concerned, and cooperative are good strategies for winning the war, but they are dispensable in the heat of the battle.

Even if someone accuses you merely of glossing over a topic that you have indeed glossed over, deny it. After all, the legacy of Darwinism and the cultural authority of the biological sciences are at stake. In a war, anything goes, including, evidently, the virtue of candor and the value of truth. With that kind of attitude, you wonder if science too is being jettisoned for the pursuit of cultural victory.

Photo: Glenn Branch/NCSE.