Lee McIntyre has a good article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is discussing the wholesale assault on truth in our culture:
To see how we treat the concept of truth these days, one might think we just don’t care anymore. Politicians pronounce that global warming is a hoax. An alarming number of middle-class parents have stopped giving their children routine vaccinations, on the basis of discredited research. Meanwhile many commentators in the media — and even some in our universities — have all but abandoned their responsibility to set the record straight. (It doesn’t help when scientists occasionally have to retract their own work.)
Humans have always held some wrongheaded beliefs that were later subject to correction by reason and evidence. But we have reached a watershed moment, when the enterprise of basing our beliefs on fact rather than intuition is truly in peril.
It’s not just garden-variety ignorance that periodically appears in public-opinion polls that makes us cringe or laugh. A 2009 survey by the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53 percent of American adults knew how long it takes for Earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59 percent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs.
As egregious as that sort of thing is, it is not the kind of ignorance that should most concern us. There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.
The whole article is interesting, and is apparently based on a forthcoming book. But that’s not the main reason I’m calling it to your attention. It’s this part that is worth noting:
In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign. Sadly, that strategy has largely worked, and we today find it employed by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle organization advocating that “intelligent-design theory” be taught in the public schools as balance for the “holes” in evolutionary theory, …
Let me tell you, that did not sit well with the folks over at the Discovery Institute. Here’s Sarah Chaffee, parroting the party line:
Many critics have falsely claimed that Discovery Institute tries to push intelligent design into public schools. But Lee McIntyre, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is no ordinary critic. A research fellow at Boston University’s Center for Philosophy and History of Science, he claims to be nothing less than an authority on the defense of truth. His new book is Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age. Yet McIntyre did not take the time to check the accuracy of what he says about us.
Goodness! It looks bad for McIntyre. So what is the Discovery Institute’s position on science education? According to Chaffee, it is this:
Recognizing the potential for sharp conflict in this area, Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.
Apparently believing that Chaffee’s post was insufficient for correcting McIntyre’s calumny, David Klinghoffer got into the game. In a blog post entitled, “Say What You Want About Intelligent Design” Klinghoffer writes
I mean literally say whatever you want. There’s a strange ethical tenet in the media that holds that when it comes to ID, you can assert anything that seems expedient, or like it kind of ought to be true given what everyone else in your crowd says — however far that may be from factual.
It’s as if there were a special license issued to ID critics, “The bearer of this certificate is entitled to publicize any untruth about intelligent design that he pleases, and is guaranteed not to be challenged on it.” Other than by Discovery Institute.
He goes on to write:
No. In fact we’ve always opposed mandating ID in public schools, and strongly caution teachers against trying to freelance on the subject. We say this in public and private. Unambiguously. Over and over. Why? One good reason is that scholarship on ID would not be advanced — quite the contrary — by political controversies about teaching it in public schools.
On the other hand, that thoughtful adults, responsible journalists, and scientists in relevant fields should read up on it and consider the arguments, without fear of censure — yes, that we do support, but it’s a very different matter.
People more reasonable than Chaffee and Klinghoffer will be rolling their eyes at this point. They understand, you see, that there is exactly one difference between “teaching ID” and “teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” Here it is:
“Teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution” means putting before students a collection of highly dubious, frequently refuted arguments against evolution. “Teaching ID” means presenting precisely the same arguments in precisely the same way, and then adding, right at the end, “And therefore God did it.”
Let us recall that there is no actual theory of ID, beyond the bare claim that an unidentified agent of awesome intelligence and abilities did something, at some point (or perhaps many points) in natural history, for reasons that are entirely inscrutable to us. Other than that, their entire body of thought consists of nothing more than bad anti-evolutionary arguments. In short, Chaffee and Klinghoffer are asking us to take seriously a distinction without a difference.
Some of us are old enough to remember the Kitzmiller trial. That was the one where a local school board in Pennsylvania decided to mandate that ID be discussed in science classes. The Discovery Institute filed an Amicus Brief (PDF) on behalf of the school board, explaining why teaching ID in science classes ought to present no legal problems at all. And some of us remember the evidence presented at the trial that the board had contacted the Discovery Institute for advice prior to enacting their pro-ID policy. Did the Discovery Institute balk, and discourage them in no uncertain terms from taking that step? No they did not. From the judge’s decision:
At some point before June 2004, Seth Cooper, an attorney with the Discovery Institute contacted Buckingham [member of the Dover School Board and Chairman of the Board’s Curriculum Committee] and two subsequent calls occurred between the Discovery Institute and Buckingham. Although Buckingham testified that he only sought legal advice which was provided in the phone calls, for which Defendants asserted the attorney-client privilege, Buckingham and Cooper discussed the legality of teaching ID and gaps in Darwin’s theory. [transcript references].
The Discovery Institute forwarded Buckingham a DVD, videotape, and book which he provided to [Superintendent] Nilsen to give the science teachers. [transcript references]. Late in the 2003-04 school year, [Assistant Superintendent] Baksa arranged for the science teachers to watch a video from the Discovery Institute entitled “Icons of Evolution” and at a subsequent point, two lawyers from the Discovery Institute made a legal presentation to the Board in executive session. [transcript references].
That’s all pretty strange behavior from an organization that has always unambiguously opposed mandating the teaching of ID.
As for discouraging teachers from freelancing, some of us recall a certain article (PDF) in the Utah Law Review from back in 2000. It was written by Stephen Meyer, currently the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, together with David DeWolff and Mark DeForrest. The article asks us to consider the sad case of made-up teacher John Spokes, who, among other things, “wants to tell his students that a growing minority of scientists do see evidence of real, not just apparent, design in biological systems.” Does the article go on to lecture Mr. Spokes about not freelancing about ID? Not at all. Instead it goes on for page after page explaining that he is legally entitled to do so.
Klinghoffer frets that political controversies do not advance ID scholarship. Political controversies would seem to have this in common with ID proponents, but let that pass. Instead, let us cast our memories back still further, to the famous Wedge Document, in which the Discovery Institute told us in no uncertain terms about their goals:
Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.
The document then goes on to outline the three phases of their plan for cultural domination. “Scientific research” is mentioned only as part of Phase One. Apparently ID scholarship exists only to service the political controversies, which would seem to be the real point of it all.
If Chaffee and Klinghoffer are genuinely concerned about people asserting untruths about ID, they should start by scolding themselves.