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Advice to a Theistic Evolutionist

David Klinghoffer

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Joshua Swamidass is a reputable scientist at Washington University, a passionate Christian speaking to other passionate Christians, and an advocate for theistic evolution. We’ve been engaging him here over the issue of common descent. (See, most recently, “In Arguments for Common Ancestry, Scientific Errors Compound Theoretical Problems.”) I’d like to offer him a bit of unsolicited advice.

I’m not exactly Dr. Swamidass’s intended audience for his advocacy. I am a Jew, not a Christian. And having done my best to weigh the evidence for myself, I’m more inclined to accept than to reject the case for universal common descent. On the other hand, I am a consumer of science, and in that role, I must say Joshua’s manner of arguing has the opposite effect on me from the one that he intends.

Swamidass wrote a post at his website, “Evidence and Evolution,” that he has since amended with clickable Q&A buttons. One such button answers a post I wrote here at Evolution News. Under the question…

Why won’t you respond to all the scientific critiques of your position?

…he begins:

The Discovery Institute has criticized my decision not to respond to the scientific critiques of my article. In this specific dialogue, it did not make sense for me to respond.

There follows a discussion of our colleague Cornelius Hunter’s responses to Swamidass — with claims and counterclaims labeled confusingly with capital letters, and criticizing Dr. Hunter for “silently” amending his post as it appears at his personal website. Swamidass assures us, “Every argument Dr. Hunter raises is easily answered scientifically,” yet refuses to answer them. He patronizes Hunter:

He certainly has a lot of of stamina. I, however, have a real job doing real science that I must return to now.

And:

Further lawyerly attacks are referred to Vincent Torley, Michael Behe, Michael Denton, and Todd Woods.

He then explains why he himself declines to offer “detailed scientific arguments”:

Detailed scientific arguments only make sense from the common ground of (1) common methodology and (2) a basic level of trust.

I am a professional scientist and a theistic evolutionist. In my experience, because of this, I am not trusted among creationists and ID advocates. Because I am not trusted, I am judicious in arguing about non-intuitive features of mainstream science. One has only to look through the comments of my critic’s articles to see this. Among many other things, I am called an “evotard” and a “dirt worshiper.” This is not a starting point for a meaningful conversation about science. I’ll save my scientific consulting services for venues and audiences where I am trusted and valued. My usual rate is $300 per hour, plus a commitment to refrain from name-calling. Of course, I reduce this rate for friends. Of course, I am free to arbitrarily donate my time as I choose.

The crude insults he refers to are from one commenter at Dr. Hunter’s personal blog. I see no evidence that Dr. Hunter has treated Dr. Swamidass in anything other than a courteous, professional manner.

In fact, when it comes to courtesy, Swamidass could take a lesson from Hunter. If Swamidass can edit his own blog post at his own website, why can’t Hunter? The comment that Hunter may have “stamina” but Swamidass has “a real job doing real science” seems unworthy. From the reader’s perspective, both Hunter and Swamidass appear to have invested more than negligible time and “stamina” in their exchange. Sorry, trying to pull rank this way is not persuasive.

Nor is avoiding answering arguments. Because one commenter at Hunter’s blog insulted Dr. Swamidass, that is not grounds for refusing to answer legitimate scientific criticisms of your position. I laughed when I read the part about charging $300 per hour for “scientific consulting services” and deferring “further lawyerly attacks” to Michael Behe, Michael Denton, and other ID advocates who support common descent.

Joshua Swamidass initiated this discussion with his parable about a tree in the forest — a story that presumed the truth of common descent, or at least the scientific appearance of it. He was challenged on the evidence behind his presumption, a challenge he avoided taking up. Now he asks us to pursue the matter with Dr. Denton, Dr. Behe, et al., but again, it was Swamidass, not they, who broached the subject on this occasion.

Then he suggests he will discuss the relevant science but only if he can invoice us at $300 per hour and if we can assure him that no unknown jackass of a troll will turn up on the Internet and call him a disrespectful name. (Do you wonder why we don’t allow comments here?)

My goodness, if Swamidass had deliberately set out to make me doubt my previous comfortable views in favor of common descent, he could hardly have done a better job. The way you counter objections to a view you’re trying to articulate is by unflinchingly addressing those objections, meeting them head-on.

You don’t avoid the challenges while implicitly insulting your interlocutor (Dr. Hunter), associating him with obnoxious comments he never made, referring challenges to other people who never signed on to make your case for you, and suggesting you’ll only answer serious scientific criticisms if someone agrees to pay you a hefty fee.

The reasonable response from the science consumer you’re trying persuade is: Huh? Come again? Is there perhaps something wrong with the argument you’re trying to make? Or rather, with the argument you’re trying to avoid having to defend?

Photo: Washington University, St. Louis, via Wikicommons.