Fisking Turner

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.

He begins:

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.

Turner continues:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    January 29, 2007

    From Turner’s home age:

    This contarian streak has led me to write two books that I am very proud of, one on why animals build things, and the other on the problem of design in biology. You can read more about them, and some of my other publications, on my publications page.

    It has also led me on a long odyssey to the political right, to the amusement (and sometimes dismay) of friends and colleagues. Among other things, this odyssey has led me into another of my curious obsessions: the grave threat facing intellectual freedom in the modern world. This threat is, I believe, pervasive. Paradoxically, nowhere is the threat graver than the very place that should be defending it most strenuously: the academy. You can read more about this on my blog, if you wish. (Italics added)

    So he’s becoming the David Horwitz of biology.

  2. #2 wright
    January 29, 2007

    Even as a layman, it’s clear to me that ID and its proponents have nothing to offer in terms of science. It is indeed the latest form of Creationism, one making another assault on public education.

    So for Mr. Turner as a scientist and teacher to be so uninformed and naive about the subject is disappointing. For a writer and instructor of biology, he seems to have done precious little research on the subject of ID.

  3. #3 snaxalotl
    January 30, 2007

    warning sign number two, enjoying people’s angry reaction to your bullshit, is more than “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”. It is a common aspect of people with personality disorders, especially those loners who are clever but don’t have the social skills to negotiate viewpoints with others. These people have problems coping with rejection, and equate rejection of their viewpoints with personal rejection. Thus they find it very painful. A healthy person would cope with academic rejection by improving their negotiating skills or trying harder to be less wrong. The more disordered way of coping with this pain is to simply tell yourself “I don’t care when people get pissed off with me”

  4. #4 Ed Darrell
    January 30, 2007

    Um, it’s not really clear here, but is he saying the termites don’t build their nests?

    There are a few areas in science where, it seems to me as a relatively informed layman, it would be difficult to study and be a creationist. Entomology is one of those areas, and termites are near the apex of the stack of specific studies where the idea of an intervening designer should be difficult to hold.

    It would be fun if the heckler would reveal herself/himself. Probably informative, too.

  5. #5 Ryan Scranton
    January 30, 2007

    It would be fun if the heckler would reveal herself/himself. Probably informative, too.

    So, does anyone know for sure where PZ was that day?

  6. #6 Mike
    January 30, 2007

    A critic of geocentrism 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. Geocentrism is just the latest eruption of a longstanding strain of anti-Copernican thought, which includes Galileo’s heresy trial of the 1500s, the “flat-earth” controversies of the 1970s, and many other skirmishes, large and small.

    The strain’s very persistence invites the obvious question: If Copernicus settled the issue once and for all, why does it keep coming back? Perhaps the fault lies with Copernicus’ supporters. Rather than debate the strain on its merits, we scramble to the observatory or the physics labs to expel it from our classrooms and our students’ minds.

  7. #7 Glen Davidson
    January 30, 2007

    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.

    I can only dream of attaining the open-mindedness of the god-like Turner. How stupid of us to run to courts and administrators for them to make binding pronouncements on what science is (after centuries of working that out among scientists and philosophers, btw), when we could just let local schoolboards decide what science is in each district. I must confess that it takes more of an open mind than I have to see the wisdom of letting local businessmen (for instance) decide what science is.

    What a crass and stupid statement Turner made above, anyhow. Not one of us want courts, let alone college administrators, deciding what science is. Apparently he’s as intellectually honest as IDists. Essentially, Judge Jones deferred to the real scientists (plus some input from philosophy, naturally) in deciding against the local bank managers’ (again, for example) lofty opinions of what science is. That is how it should be, once dullards like Turner have done their best to confuse the issues so that it becomes necessary for courts to intervene.

    Plus it was Dembski who wanted to put “darwinists” on the stand in a bid to knock them down. It’s the UDiots who whine repeatedly about “government support for darwinism,” as if they have the right to veto science as it is practiced (not that gov’t must support science, however if it does it has no business supporting religion as science).

    Turner missed the shenanigans of the engineers, philosophers, biochemists, and moonies who got biology degrees in order to try to destroy science from the inside? Well, from what I’ve seen so far, Turner knows almost nothing about these matters, having not actually deigned to deal with ID one-on-one, like many scientists have. His problem is that he’s been on the sidelines while others have been doing what he stupidly tells them to do now.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  8. #8 Glen Davidson
    January 30, 2007

    It has also led me on a long odyssey to the political right, to the amusement (and sometimes dismay) of friends and colleagues. Among other things, this odyssey has led me into another of my curious obsessions: the grave threat facing intellectual freedom in the modern world. This threat is, I believe, pervasive.

    Oh well, there it is, the sectarian drive to push others toward intellectual freedom. And my point is not that being on the right necessarily predisposes one toward nonsense (Derbyshire and many others get the evolution issue right, at least), but that when we see this collective whine about the “grave threat” to intellectual freedom, we know that we’re hearing one side’s rhetoric, not analysis.

    So apparently he already knew that anti-ID forces were being unfair, which meant that he wouldn’t need to read and analyze what they have written and said. We couldn’t have engaged the IDists fairly, for we’re part of the grave threat to academic freedom.

    Now if we only get in lockstep with the DI and Turner, what a happy place this world will be.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    January 30, 2007

    It is probably indicative of the pop-culture poisoning which has debilitated my brain that when I see a respectable academic say, “Intelligent design is just an idea,” I immediately think of the following:

    I’ve witnessed first hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them. . . but you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it. . . ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love. . . And it is not an idea that I miss, it is a man. . . A man that made me remember the Fifth of November. A man that I will never forget.

  10. #10 Peter
    January 30, 2007

    This type of “just an idea” thinking is nonsense. Many many dangerous things are just ideas. That you will be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven if you kill yourself in a suicidal bombing for Allah is “just an idea” as are capitalism, neo-classicism, objectivism, serialism or any other -ism. Each of those has merits of its own – the 72 virgins thing not so much and neo-classicism quite a few. I don’t really see much of a problem critically assessing ID in a university course. My father-in-law does it constantly as an anthropology professor at Penn State in his intro to biological anthropology. Guess what? ID doesn’t do spit and he shows it every day using ID claims. So sure, the “idea” is given its due and shown exactly how it should be treated, by going into the dustbin of bad ideas.

  11. #11 Jonathan Lubin
    January 30, 2007

    Turner says, “Perhaps the fault lies with Darwin’s supporters.” There is a grain of truth in this, I think: some part of the fault lies with the scientific and educational enterprise within this country, that we have done such a crappy job of educating the public.

  12. #12 Glen Davidson
    January 30, 2007

    As I noted on PT, the IDists are doing what they can to change ID from being “just an idea” to something else, policy, wedge, the demise of “materialism” (their curse word for science), whatever else is in their bag of agenda.

    Turner is, well, a boob who drank the Kool-Aid. Never mind that he’s not an IDist per se, he’s spouting the propaganda of the DI that is designed to spread the idea that we just don’t want to consider any “threat to Darwinism”. The fact that we never bothered them until they tried to make ID more than “just an idea” is lost in the hard vacuum that is his mind.

    He can’t address what’s happening because he learned what he knows about it from the IDists themselves. And they’re notoriously dishonest, at least in the intellectual sense.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  13. #13 Greta Christina
    January 30, 2007

    Rrrrrrrr.

    I keep thinking of something a friend once said: “The fact that everyone disagrees with you does not make you Galileo.”

    I see this kind of sloppy thinking a lot in people who like to think of themselves as mavericks and independent thinkers (as opposed to people who really *are* mavericks and independent thinkers). The thinking goes like this:

    1) Important, groundbreaking thinkers throughout history have defied convention and fought against widely-accepted paradigms.

    2) Therefore, if I want to be an important, groundbreaking thinker, I have to defy convention and fight against widely-accepted paradigms.

    2b) Regardless of whether those conventions and paradigms are, you know, valid, and supported by a massive body of evidence.

    Other people have said it, but I want to say it again: ID is not an honest questioning of accepted scientific thinking. ID is an attempt to shut down scientific thinking and replace it with religious dogma.

    And I say yet again: rrrrrrrr.

  14. #14 Greta Christina
    January 30, 2007

    Jonathan Lubin writes: “some part of the fault lies with the scientific and educational enterprise within this country, that we have done such a crappy job of educating the public.”

    Slightly off-topic, but I can’t not respond to this. I agree that science education in the US largely sucks. Education of all kinds in the US largely sucks. But I don’t think that’s the fault of scientists or educators. Public education in the US is grossly underfunded — a decent education in this country has become a privilege, not a right. And it’s hamstrung by political forces — many of whom don’t think science and critical thinking are such great ideas.

  15. #15 Blake Stacey
    January 30, 2007

    General comment:

    Isn’t it wonderful that a motley lot of random Interblag surfers can say more insightful things than the fellow who is paid to think and write?

  16. #16 Steve Reuland
    January 30, 2007

    Jason, awesome post. That’s all I gots to say.

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 30, 2007

    Steve-

    Glad you liked it!

    Jonathan Lubin-

    I have no doubt that science educators could do a better job, but the fact remains that at some point people are responsible for their own ignorance.

  18. #18 Coin
    January 30, 2007

    The funny thing to me is, if Intelligent Design/Creationism were just an idea it would be harmless and there would be no problem with it. If it were just an idea then it would only be able to advance in the marketplace of scientific ideas, where it would rise or fall based on its merits– and since it has no merits, it would simply quietly fail.

    Unfortunately it is not just an idea. It is an idea, and also a movement. And the idea is harmless, but the movement is not. The fact that creationism exists as a social and political movement means that Intelligent Design/Creationism can circumvent the marketplace of scientific ideas, and promote itself in other mediums, such as the political arena, or evangelical cable television. Not only does this give Intelligent Design/Creationism an unwarranted advantage over ideas that exist in the scientific marketplace of ideas (since some of the mediums Intelligent Design/Creationism promotes itself in as a movement exist for purposes, such as public policy or entertainment, other than mere uncovering of facts; and so may not be, as science is, limited to strictly honest and factual statements), but it is also the case that this movement is capable of creating real-world harm in a way that a “mere” idea might not.

    On a related note, one interesting detail concerning IDC’s nature as a movement rather than just an idea is that there are those, such as Mr. Turner here, who complain about the scientific community leaving the scientific marketplace of ideas to defend itself in federal court, yet are apparently not particularly concerned by the Intelligent Design/Creationism movement’s decision to leave the scientific marketplace of ideas to defend itself in the court of public opinion. These people seem to find science’s sojourns into courts of law– which are done only with relative rarity, and without which the body of evidence for the scientific consensus on evolutionary theory would still speak for itself perfectly well– much more significant and worthy of comment than Intelligent Design/Creationism’s sojourns into public relations and political lobbying– which seem to be done as the essentially sole operation of the IDC movement, and have been happening continuously and very publicly for decades and decades.

    This is a quite backward way of looking at things. After all, had Intelligent Design/Creationism not made evolution a public policy issue by forcing it into legislatures and school boards, then science would not have needed to defend itself in a public policy arena such as the courts. Meanwhile (although IDC has shown itself unable to succeed in the long run even in the realm of raw electoral politics), it is still worth keeping in mind that if evolution is to be discussed in a public policy medium, then the courts are a far better suited one than the arena of raw politics would be– since like the scientific marketplace of ideas, the courts are used to and suited for judging issues of fact and evidence.

  19. #19 Anon
    January 31, 2007

    Sorry, but I have to ask.
    What’s “fisking”?

  20. #20 Siobhan Doran
    January 31, 2007

    “…[intelligent design’s] very persistence invites the obvious question: If Darwin settled the issue once and for all, why does it keep coming back?” Because Gresham’s Law works. Counterfeit currency can drive out the good and, in the long run, destroy an economy. That’s why Isaac Newton was a proper bulldog when he was put in charge of the Royal Mint. Sure, you can add security strips and multicolored microprinting to a $20 bill and slow the damage, but the bastards will still try to pass phony paper until the T-Men throw them in jail. ID isn’t “just an idea”; it’s counterfeit biology, just as Lysenkoism was counterfeit genetics. You can’t be fair with it; you have to bust it. Hard.

  21. #21 entlord
    February 1, 2007

    In his remarks, he warned that everything was in a “nutshell”. I think that covered his whole point adequately.

  22. #22 Colugo
    February 5, 2007

    It is unfortunate that J. Scott Turner has naively helped stoke conflation between “Intelligent Design” and the scientific study of biological structure and function with his opinion piece and use of the term “design” in the subtitle of his new book (“How Design Emerges From Life Itself”). From my reading of the chapter overviews ‘The Tinkerer’s Accomplice’ has nothing to do with Intelligent Design or mysticism. ‘Tinkerer’s Accomplice’ is in the tradition of developmentalist and interactionist approaches to evolution; the book’s “persistors” concept seems useful.

  23. #23 coturnix
    February 6, 2007

    It’s a shame – his first book “The Extended Organism” was excellent.

    Since this post is now 9 days old, I wonder if he responded somewhere in some fashion.

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