The stereotype about acedmics living in ivory towers does have a germ of truth to it. For the latest example, have a look at biologist J. Scott Turner’s take on the ID situation. He was writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
I’d never had a heckler before. Usually, when I’m asked to give a talk, I discuss my research on termites and the remarkable structures they build. Usually, I’m glad just to have an audience. x But what I’d learned from termites had got me thinking about broader issues, among them the question of design in biology: Why are living things built so well for the functions they perform? So I wrote a book called The Tinkerer’s Accomplice, which was my topic that day.
The trouble started almost as soon as I stepped up to the podium: intrusive “questions” and demands for “clarifications,” really intended not to illuminate but to disrupt and distract. In exasperation, I finally had to ask the heckler to give me a chance to make my argument and my audience a chance to hear it, after which he could ask all the questions he wished.
He was not interested in that approach, of course, and left as soon as question time began. I found out later that he’d complained at his next faculty meeting that the departmental speaker’s program should never be used as a forum for advancing — what precisely? That was never quite clear, either to me or to my embarrassed host.
Speakers should not be heckled, of course, and especially not in academic settings. However, I wouldn’t take Turner’s account here at face value. I’ve read his book, you see, and I felt much of the same frustration as the heckler. Turner is fond of throwing around words like “intentionality” and “design” in the context of evolution, and then acting surprised when people think he is in bed with the creationists. Reading his book makes it clear that he is really offering some imaginative redefinitions of those terms, which can make for frustrating reading indeed. But that is a subject for a different post, however.
Turner starts to skid off the road shorlty after this opening:
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Say “design,” and you imply that a designer has been at work, with all the attributes implied by that word: forward-looking, purposeful, intelligent, and intentional. For many centuries, most people drew precisely that conclusion from the designs they thought they saw everywhere in nature.
Charles Darwin was supposed to have put paid to that idea, of course, and ever since his day biologists have considered it gauche to speak of design, or even to hint at purposefulness in nature. Doing so in polite company usually earns you what I call The Pause, the awkward silence that typically follows a faux pas.
Readers with some experience of evolution/ID disputes are probably experiencing a sinking feeling in their stomachs right now. It is always a bad sign when an author starts patting himself on the back for his courage in bringing up taboo subjects. If you suspect that Turner is building up to the old canard about how scientists need to be more open-minded and gracious toward their ID interlocutors, you are right.
We haven’t quite completed our descent into breathtaking naivete. That’s coming, but we need some more warm-up first:
If just one freighted word like “design” can evoke The Pause, combining two — as in the phrase “intelligent design” — seems to make otherwise sane people slip their moorings. If you enjoy irony, as I do, the spectacle can provide hours of entertainment. I wonder, for example, what demon had gripped a past president of Cornell University when he singled out intelligent design as a unique threat to academic and civil discourse. Aren’t universities supposed to be a place for dangerous ideas?
If writers boasting of their willingness to broach taboo subjects is warning sign number one, then describing people’s heated reactions to sensitive subjects as entertaining is warning sign number two. It is simply a literary device for implying that the people getting angry lack perspective and are confused, without having to actually explain what is wrong with their arguments.
That is all the more plain in the present context. The past president of Cornell to which Turner refers is Hunter Rawlings, who penned these thoughts in October of 2005. Rawlings gives a lengthy and thoughtful discussion of what role universities should play in these sorts of disputes. He decribes in considerable detail why he believes creationism and ID pose a threat to academic and civil discourse. He points to attempts on various fronts to have creationist pseudoscience introduced as the real thing in science classrooms, and then to force universities to accept such tainted high school classes for credit. He writes things like:
I want to suggest that universities like Cornell can make a valuable contribution to the nation’s cultural and intellectual discourse. With a breadth of expertise that embraces the humanities and the social sciences as well as science and technology, we need to be engaging issues like evolution and intelligent design both internally, in the classroom, in the residential houses, and in campus-wide debates, and also externally by making our voices heard in the spheres of public policy and politics.
But Turner can’t be troubled to consider what Rawlings actually said. He prefers the simple entertainment of watching someone get passionate about an important subject to the hard work of having to address what actual arguments. Turner can’t fathom why Rawlings would single out creationism and ID? Actually, Rawlings devoted several paragraphs to explaining precisely that point. No mystery there.
And since Rawlings is explicitly calling for increased discussion and debate on the subject of ID, it’s a bit rich for Turner to reply, as if he’s showing Rawlings the error of his ways, that universities are the place for dangerous ideas.
Also amusing is the spectacle of independent-minded scientists’ running to college administrators or the courts for help in defining what is science and what is permissible discourse in their classrooms. And I find it hard to suppress a chuckle at the sheer brass of books like Richard Dawkins’s recent The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), which seem untroubled by traditional boundaries between religion and science as long as the intrusion is going their way.
Yawn. So cliched.
Let us begin with the observation that it is not scientists who are running to the courts. It is parents concerned about the quality of the science education their children are receiving who do that. And courts do have a role to play in determining what is permissable in science classes. There are certain constitutional injunctions regarding the combination of church with state, you see, and it is up to the courts to decide when certain state actions run afoul of those injunctions.
Turner may find it an amusing spectacle when concerned parents ask the courts to step in when their local school boards behave in ways that are patently unconstiutional, but I think the rest of us crazy over-reactors can be forgiven for thinking the battle is important.
I have already written a great deal at this blog defending Dawkins from his more ineffective critics, so I will not reply in full to Turner’s gratuitous slap here. Suffice it to say that if anyone were suggesting that Dawkins’ book should be used as required reading in a science class then he would have a point. But since no one is making that suggestion, we see that Turner is just being silly.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we are ready for what surely must be the most naive and deeply silly statement penned by a scientist in recent memory. Get comfortable, hold on firmly to the armrests, and try to believe that an actual living and breathing scientist actually wrote the following sentences:
Faced with all that hue and cry, I almost want to say: “Friends, intelligent design is just an idea.” You might believe (as I do) that it is a wrongheaded idea, but it’s hard to see how that alone should disqualify it from academic discourse. Academe is full of wrongheaded ideas, and always has been — not because academe itself is wrongheaded, but because to discuss such ideas is its very function. Even bad ideas can contain kernels of truth, and it is academe’s role to find them. That can be done only in the sunlight and fresh air of normal academic discourse. Expelling an idea is the surest way to allow falsehood to survive.
Of course! How silly I’ve been these last several years! All this time I thought intelligent design was the catch phrase of a movement trying to coopt public education for its own political and religious goals, a silly idea I got from reading their literature, attending their conferences, and responding to their blogs. Thank goodness open-minded, clear-thinking Turner has come along to point out to me that actually it’s just an idea.
Glad I’ve been set straight on that one. But wait a minute! Who exactly is saying that ID shold be disqualified from academic discourse? Then again, I guess we need to keep in mind Turner’s indiosyncratic use of language. When a former president of Cornell argues that universities shold spend more time debating and discussing ID, Turner sees only an amusing spectacle. So he has a pretty low threshold for what amounts to academic disqualification.
Next we come to Turner’s strange views about the purpose of academe. Apparently it’s to discuss wrongheaded ideas. I think that will come as news to most academics, who probably thought that academe existed to create an environment in which scholars can produce new insights into their respective subjects while also introducing students to various facts and ideas they are not likely to see otherwise. Exposing the flaws in wrongheaded ideas is something you inevitably do while fumbiling your way towards better ideas. It is not the purpose of the whole enterprise.
Then we have the stunning insight that even bad ideas can contain kernels of truth. Indeed they can, but some ideas are simply bad, period. From ID we get the ideas that certain biological structures are irreducibly complex and therefore could not have evolved gradually and that back of the envelope probability calculations are sufficient to prove the emptiness of evolutionary theory. Both of these ideas are simply wrong, and obviously so to anyone with a modicum of scientific training. There are no kernels of truth to be found there. As for the grand idea that the Earth was designed by God, most scientists simply find that to be an idea that is unhelpful in their work.
As for sunlight and fresh air, let’s first have a look at the next two paragraphs:
A critic of intelligent design could reasonably reply: “That’s all true, but there are limits to how much tolerance should be extended to wrongheadedness. Once falsehood is exposed as such, it needs to be shown the door.” It’s worth remembering, though, that we have been here before. Intelligent design is just the latest eruption of a longstanding strain of anti-Darwinist thought, which includes the Scopes “monkey” trial of the 1920s, the “creation science” controversies of the 1970s, and many other skirmishes, large and small.
The strain’s very persistence invites the obvious question: If Darwin settled the issue once and for all, why does it keep coming back? Perhaps the fault lies with Darwin’s supporters. Rather than debate the strain on its merits, we scramble to the courts or the political ramparts to expel it from our classrooms and our students’ minds.
That’s called blaming the victim. The public remains largely ignorant of science, so that must indicate that scientists are doing something wrong. If only they would stop trying to keep religion out of science classes and be more willing to debate, endlessly, ideas that have been refuted over and over again, then suddenly everyone would wake up.
And where did Turner get the idea that scientists are unwilling to debate this subject, anyway? Has Turner read Finding Darwin’s God? ? Tower of Babel? Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics? Has he ever looked at the Talk Origins Archive? Or read The Pandas Thumb? Or attended any of the hundreds of debates where actual scientists have been willing to confront the ID folks?
And while we’re at it, how much of the ID literature has he actually read? Has he read books like Icons of Evolution, where scientists are accused, on page after page, of engaging in the crassest source of incompetence and malfeasance? Has he attended the school board meetings where scientifically ignorant people drop the pretense and make it clear their goal is to teach Christianity in science classes? Has he attended the ID conferences where people are told that evolution is a hoax perpetrated by atheist scientists determined to crush Christianity?
If he spent some time really getting his hands dirty with this dreck, I don’t think he would be so flippant about admonishing his friends that ID is just an idea. There’s only so long you can stand watching scientists having their words distorted, their integrity impugned, their theories misrepresented, and their motives called into question before you wake up and realize these folks are not interested in polite discussion.
The ignorance required to write something like “intelligent design is just an idea” is simply mind-blowing. To accuse scientists of being unwilling to engage the ID folks in debate, when countless books, magazine articles, websites and public appearances show that accusation to be utter nonsense is really quite galling.
The fact is that Turner knows nothing of ID. His essay makes it quite clear that ID, in its modern form as a politically expedient gloss on creationism meant to get around hostile court cases regarding the young-Earth version, is not something he has spent any serious time studying. Which doesn’t stop him from wading into the fray, presuming to lecture the people who have been involved in this fight from the beginning. He would do better to take his own advice and spend some time in serious contemplation of what the ID demagogues are actually saying.
Come down out of your tower, Mr. Turner.