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In Debates over Cosmic and Biological Origins, Here’s the "My Good Friend" Meme

David Klinghoffer

We have a thoughtful reader, Ryan, who is perceptive, generous with his time, and interested in debunking phony debate tactics. Ryan is the guy who tracked down the source of the fake "tailed baby" photo that Karl Giberson used in a debate with Stephen Meyer and in a follow up article for The Daily Beast.

Now Ryan writes in with a further "Ah hah!" insight: Did you ever notice how in debates about cosmic and biological origins, academics on the Darwin Defense Force have a funny way of throwing in irrelevant asides about their "good friends" in the scientific community, sometimes famous friends, as a way of propping up an argument because the friends in question presumably agree with them?

Writes Ryan:

It seems clear to me that this tactic is an act of desperation. It’s not simply an attempt to improperly discredit some piece of evidence used by their opponents without having to produce any actual counterevidence or argument. Even more than this, it’s a psychological tactic intended to manipulate the audience, painting themselves as being within the real scientific community, and therefore "in-the-know," while their debate opponent, whether arguing for ID or theism, is outside the real scientific community, guilty of the worst of all possible crimes: not being one of the cool kids.

He gives a bunch of examples. There is Donald Prothero brandishing "my good friend" Douglas Erwin, co-author of the book The Cambrian Explosionthat reinforced key points in Steve Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt. Prothero accused ENV‘s Casey Luskin of "quote-mining":

Mostly he quote-mines Erwin and Valentine’s new book to make it appear that these distinguished paleontologists are creationists! (When I pointed this out to my good friend Doug Erwin, he found it laughable and made it clear to me that in no way does his book support creationism or Meyer’s misinterpretations…).

As I’ve already pointed out, Prothero misinformed his distinguished "good friend" since Casey said just the opposite, making clear that

Erwin and Valentine are not proponents of intelligent design. So obviously they’re not going to agree with everything Stephen Meyer writes in Darwin’s Doubt, especially when Meyer argues for intelligent design.

Ryan made me laugh by sending me YouTube citations from the wonderful debate between University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward and Stephen Meyer, the one where Meyer, in his faultlessly polite way, wiped the floor with Professor Ward. That is a funny exchange — see the whole thing here — because Ward must know he’s losing since he tries to patronize Meyer in this strange, awkward way, complimenting him on his looks (!) and so forth.

I had forgotten that Ward also repeatedly calls out to colleagues in the audience. I have no idea whether the colleagues were actually present that evening at Town Hall in Seattle. But it’s the cloyingly chummy way that Ward points them out and appears to josh with them that is supposed to carry the point for him.

Here he is shouting out to University of Washington biologist Joseph Felsenstein:

I see Joe Felsenstein in the audience, probably one of the world’s greatest evolutionists. I see him — well, you should see his expressions. I would love if Joe could come up here — I guess he can’t — and talk to us about your [Meyer’s] comment about intelligence and this digital code business.

Ward all but begs for a helping hand from University of Washington paleontologist Christopher Sidor:

Is Chris Sidor here? Chris! What do you think about that? No transition? Do you go along with that? Not going to go for that, right?

Questioned by the moderator on a point about quantum physics, he drops all pretense and pleads for assistance from University of Washington astronomer Bruce Balick:

Bruce? Bruce Balick? Help!

Ryan gives other instances from experiences of our Discovery Institute colleague William Lane Craig. Two involve Lawrence Krauss:

Krauss used this tactic when debating [Dr. Craig]. He referred to [Tufts University cosmologist] Alexander Vilenkin as "a good friend of mine," again basically saying "Don’t try to use that guy cause he’s my friend/colleague." In this instance, Krauss said that he sent an email to his friend, Vilenkin, about WLC’s use of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem to support a beginning to the universe and that Vilenkin responded and said WLC was wrong. Krauss then showed the email with some suspiciously placed ellipses. WLC questioned them and Krauss’s characterization of Vilenkin’s response. Afterwards, WLC contacted Vilenkin to ask him about the response and what had been removed by Krauss. As it turned out, whether intentionally or not, Krauss had completely misrepresented and mischaracterized the nature of Vilenkin’s reply, and Vilenkin affirmed that WLC was right all along within the confines of the way he’d been using the theorem.

Here is Dr. Craig’s account of the affair, which doesn’t make Dr. Krauss look particularly good, I must say.

In the very same debate, Krauss gives a shout out to Stephen Hawking:

Stephen makes public pronouncements. He’s a good friend of mine and he knows I get press.

From the context I’m not sure why Hawking’s being "a good friend" of Lawrence Krauss makes any difference at all. It merely serves to remind the audience — if this is even true — that Krauss has the world’s most recognizable and famous scientist as his buddy while Craig does not.

In another example, physicist Sean Carroll is debating Dr. Craig, again touching on Borde-Guth-Vilenkin. Here Dr. Carroll tries to take a page from Annie Hall and the famous scene where Woody Allen imagines pulling Marshall McLuhan into a conversation with a pompous college professor while they’re waiting in line for a movie. He announces:

I happen to have Alan Guth right here, one of the authors of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem.

He doesn’t have Guth himself but some pictures of Guth on the screen behind him. Guth holds a series of signs in his hands evidently supporting Carroll’s understanding of the theorem over Craig’s.

It’s a cute moment but as Ryan astutely points out, the purpose is the same as with Prothero, Ward, and Krauss. The audience is supposed to be impressed that Carroll has Guth as his good buddy, who would even pose for a series of photos supporting Carroll, while Craig doesn’t.

Ryan goes on:

This tactic involves a debate participant making appeal to the personal opinions of an individual not involved in the debate, generally claimed to be known as a result of some personal friendship or acquaintance with that individual (who is often referred to as "my good friend"), and using those opinions as a method of 

  1. trying to diminish the force of their opponent’s use of professional, published scientific findings, especially those findings generated by the very individual in question, and
  2. trying to diminish the audience’s perception of their opponent’s credibility by presenting themselves as part of the scientific in-crowd, while presenting their opponent as a know-nothing outsider.

A bonus point to this tactic is that the personal opinions the individual is said to hold don’t necessarily have to be identical to the ones they hold in fact, as in the case of Krauss appealing to the personal views of Vilenkin in his debate with William Lane Craig.

On the other hand, let’s cut these guys some slack. Invoking buddies in the audience, on a screen, or by quoting (and misreprsenting) their email correspondence is a cheap trick to pull, cashing in social status in a way that’s straight out of junior high school. But at least all four of these characters — Prothero, Krauss, Carroll, and Ward — have had the guts to go face and face and head to head with us in live public debate. (Prothero has debated both Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg.) Kudos to them.

That’s a lot more than you can say for some prominent Darwin defenders (Coyne, Dawkins) that I can think of.

I’m on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.