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Why Argue with Intelligent Design? Offer Drive-By Psychotherapy Instead!


Writing at The Conversation, psychology professor Jeremy Shapiro at Case Western Reserve University proffers his opinion on why many laypeople doubt the scientific consensus on questions such as climate change and biological evolution: 

As a psychotherapist, I see a striking parallel between a type of thinking involved in many mental health disturbances and the reasoning behind science denial. As I explain in my book “Psychotherapeutic Diagrams,” dichotomous thinking, also called black-and-white and all-or-none thinking, is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.

Dr. Shapiro seems not to have read much writing by ID theorists and it is a good bet he has not done psychotherapy with them. He goes on to explain:

For example, the biologist James Shapiro (no relation) discovered a cellular mechanism of genomic change that Darwin did not know about. Shapiro views his research as adding to evolutionary theory, not upending it. Nonetheless, his discovery and others like it, refracted through the lens of dichotomous thinking, result in articles with titles like, “Scientists Confirm: Darwinism Is Broken” by Paul Nelson and David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute, which promotes the theory of “intelligent design.” Shapiro insists that his research provides no support for intelligent design, but proponents of this pseudoscience repeatedly cite his work as if it does.

As it happens, a person not accustomed to black-and-white thinking might navigate without difficulty the idea that the work of Shapiro (the biologist) could support a theory of intelligent design whether or not Shapiro approves of such theories. That is not an unusual thing in science. For example, Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) apparently knew of Darwin’s work (though Darwin does not seem to have studied Mendel’s writing). Whatever Mendel might have thought of Darwinism, his work and Darwin’s were blended into a reigning but now much-troubled theory, neo-Darwinism. If James Shapiro’s thinking were similarly enfolded by ID, it would be no great oddity or injustice.

So, in attempting to illustrate his point, Shapiro (the psychologist) happened on an example that doesn’t really demonstrate it. Things often turn out that way when people feel the need to comment on people they do not really know or books they may not have read.

A Trend Worth a Second Look

That’s become common in recent years. Jeremy Sherman, a psychologist with a degree in evolutionary theory, writes a column called “Ambigamy” at Psychology Today. In March, he asked whether ID has a valid point about “agency” (the causes of events, including intelligent ones). He sounds on topic at first, but then it all goes downhill. “I am no supporter of Intelligent Design (ID), the Christian movement that wants to teach the Bible as science. I work against it.” If he knows enough to be writing about ID, he should know that his characterization is wrong. But he has an out; he reduces ID to poetry: “So how does ID explain agency? Beautifully from a poetic fictional perspective. From a scientific perspective, they offer no explanation at all.” He concedes that no one else has good ideas either; everyone, including ID opponents, is thinking “poetically.”

Like Shapiro, Sherman gives no sense of having read books by ID theorists or those of their opponents (in which neither side approaches the subject poetically). But that raises a question: If Psychology Today editors think that the idea of design in nature is worth discussing, why not schedule interviews with representative theorists and their opponents? If ID proponents merit psychological study, why not study them? It’s almost as if PT can only approach the topic by letting someone offer a private, poetical take on questions that generate considerable non-poetic public discussion, to judge from news reports.

Avoiding Information

Certainly, it’s easier to write confidently about ID when one avoids the issues ID theorists address. One can avoid the information they offer too. On the latter point, I find myself asking, for example, does Nathan Lents, author of a “bad design” book, Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, really teach biology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice? Yes, he does. And he is sure that external human testicles are an instance of bad design but cites no expert opinion. (Dr. Michael Egnor offers some thoughts on the temperature problem here and here.) Oddly, in making such a dramatic claim in an article (“there is no good reason that sperm development has to work best at lower temperatures”), Lents does not quote any authority on the subject of temperature and sperm development. He repeated (2015) a Dawkinsian canard about the “poor design” of the human eye as well. That too is safe for him if no ID proponent is consulted. (Jonathan Wells corrected Lents here.)

As Ian Tattersall, for one, observes in a blurb on the back cover of Lents’s book, “Anyone with a slipped disk knows that humans are not very intelligently design.” Challenged, however, Lents went so far as to tell Evolution News editor David Klinghoffer that he had not intended his book, despite how it sounds, as a refutation of intelligent design. ID, he explained in a tweet, is “a religious idea, not a scientific one, and my book is about science.” But he does not seem to respect the science he espouses as a cause strongly enough to dig deeply into the inevitable constraints transient living systems face. He gets away with that because, as long as he is finding fault with the design of the human body, in our contemporary culture, he experiences no need to grapple with arguments or evidence for design. The culture doesn’t expect it of him. In fact, the anomaly is when ID critics actually do grapple with ID.

Stereotypes Replace Subjects 

When skeptics are being denounced, this tendency not to demand much by way of evidence is, of course, not just a problem in the evolution debate. We see it in many areas where holding heterodox views is costly. Stereotypes effortlessly replace subjects. For example, a recent set of studies of the causes of science skepticism on climate change and Darwinian evolution features “political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science” as causes. It sails right by an obvious cause: Conflict between science-based claims and perceived reality in situations where the observer has knowledge or experience. Conflicts in one such area may spill out over into others. Nearly baseless nutrition science, “unscientific” peer review, especially in health sciences, and wrongful convictions due to corrupt forensic science get many people’s attention because correct answers in these areas matter so much. Psychologists are not doing themselves or anyone else a favor by pretending that the reasons that people come to distrust science are necessarily irrational or wrong. They’ve built a cocoon, inhabited by themselves and their stereotypes.

On the other hand, there’s hope. Not everyone goes along all the time. Recently, at Skeptical Inquirer, psychologist Stuart Vyse tackled a robust, longstanding phenomenon: Liberals/progressives (especially millennials), including the “sciencey” ones, show more interest in occult ideas than devoutly religious people do. If the idea seems counterintuitive, that is not because it counters a fact but because it counters a stereotype.

Avoiding serious discussion of design in nature (and of many other questions) fills a need. People who avoid a serious discussion usually do so because they are unprepared for it. They have not studied evidence for other positions or against their own — something that ID theorists must do all the time. But when would-be ID opponents resort to drive-by psychiatry, etc., they are entering a realm that much of the public will recognize from personal experience. A participant in a conflict has abandoned the argument from evidence by citing an unmerited claim to professional superiority: I must be right; I’m the professor (or clergyman, doctor, lawyer, coach…). 

This self-discrediting behavior frustrates anyone who wants and needs a serious discussion. But, under the circumstances, it’s arguable that ID theorists should hope psychologists and others go on doing it.

Photo credit: Lars Ploughman, via Pixabay.