Mike the Mad Biologist

In response to my latest post about Michael Egnor, I received a couple of comments lamenting my intemperance towards Egnor. Below is the long version, but Mark sums up the short version quite nicely (bold original; italics mine):

But his illness is the result of the actions of many doctors – doctors like Dr. Egnore who ignore reality, and don’t practice medicine with an awareness of how their actions contribute to the evolution of the other species that surround us. It’s people like Dr. Egnor who hand out antibiotics like candy, because after all, bacteria don’t evolve, and so their prescription practices can’t possibly contribute to a process that doesn’t happen. It’s people like Dr. Egnore who’s attitudes allow the use of third generation cephalosporins – which are restricted for use in humans – to be used in cattle feed. Because after all, evolution doesn’t happen, so what harm can it possible do to have volumes of these antibiotics floating in the manure pools that are used to produce the fertilizer that used to grow the vegetables we eat?

No, Dr. Egnor. You do not understand tautologies. You do not understand science. And you are a disgrace to your profession, and a danger to your patients.

I like to use “idiot” as shorthand for the last paragraph. But “fucking moron” works too. Egnor is not worthy of respect when he discusses evolution because of his foolish and dangerous opinions. But to deal with the issue of my intemperant name-calling will take a bit longer.

I’ve been a biologist–an evolutionary biologist–for some time now. I also lived in Virginia during the cultural apogee of the theological conservatives (the late ’80s and early ’90s). So I’m quite familiar with the evolution-creationist conflict, and have even been a bit player in the whole kerfuffle.

When I started first dealing with creationism, I suffered from what I call the Halberstam fallacy. In his landmark book about Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam describes how, once he realized the horrible mistake that war was, he would talk to various civilian and military officials. He earnestly believed that if he could just provide them with yet one more piece of evidence, one more story, that these men of intellectual honesty would come around to his opinion. What Halberstam ultimately realized is that these men were not intellectually honest, that they were not interested in rationally assessing the evidence, but instead, had decided that the war was the desired outcome, and that the facts must be altered or ignored to fit the ‘reality’ of the war (if this sounds in any way, shape, or form similar to contemporary events….).

Quite simply, they were not operating from a position of intellectual honesty. Words were as weapons to such men. So too, with the creationists.

It took me a while to realize that the ‘professional creationists’ were not intellectually honest either. I am not referring to those who follow them, or those who are simply not very knowledgable about evolution. I receive emails asking me about evolution and creationism (particularly issues related to microbiology), and, believe it or not, I answer them politely (if not always quickly…).

Everyone can be misinformed, ignorant, or simply have not thought things through correctly. What I will not tolerate is willful ignorance. Creationist leaders and spokesmen are willfully ignorant. How many times do they have to be told what scientists mean by a theory? How many times will they misstate the basics of evolutionary theory, such as claiming that natural selection is a tautology? The list goes on and on. These creationists have heard the evidence-based rebuttals of their false arguments many times.

And these rebuttals did not take. They never take. Creationist speakers continue to repeat these falsehoods even though they have heard the explanations over and over again, to the point where they could probably make the arguments themselves, were they so inclined. And they present themselves as an embattled minority, struggling for the truth. They are quite simply on the wrong side of the evidence, evidence gathered from disparate fields, such as biochemistry, genetics, geology, and physics.

There has always been a debate among biologists about engaging creationists. Do we ignore them, and consequently allow them to spout their willful ignorance unchecked? Or do we engage them, and thus grant them intellectual validity by creating a situation where they can be viewed as a legitimate alternative? I think there is another way: engage them, but when doing so, make it clear that they are not only mistaken, but foolishly wrong. Make it clear that they have heard the arguments before, and that they refuse to seriously consider them. Make it clear that they are not intellectually honest, that they view words not as a means to understanding, but as tools to manipulate and intimidate.

Make it clear that their ‘science’ has as much validity, rigor, and seriousness as flat-earthism.

This is where a small dose of invective is not only useful, but necessary. After the Scopes Trail in 1925, it was clear that the scientific consensus accepted evolution. In the following eight decades, the evidence for evolution has increased, yet evolution is not widely accepted. Does anyone think that this is a failure of logos? The ‘controversy’ persists because the creationists still possess ethos. That is all the creationists possess. That ethos, as Mark correctly notes, is utterly undeserved. As long as they are viewed as legitimate, we will be fighting this foolish battle over and over again.

A final point: creationism has to be viewed in the larger context of the culture wars, for they certainly do. Like the other theological conservatives, they have one modus operandi:


They do not reconsider or rethink. They regroup and rearm.

Yesterday, it was evolution is just a theory, today it is irreducible complexity, until that idea is spent, at which point, they will devise a new propaganda point. So we must continue to engage them, not solely on the terms of argument, but also their intellectual illegitimacy. This may be off-putting to some. Too bad. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. Mark has explained why.

Comments

  1. #1 Doc Bill
    March 20, 2007

    I think that Egnor is neither stupid nor willfully ignorant. I think he quite understands evolution, but that it harms society (his society) in some nebulous way and he’s on a mission to save the World. His mission is to cause fear, uncertainty and doubt about evolution. Egnor has no arguments, only the creationist playbook. We’ve seen them all.

    If you string together the “arguments” that Egnor has made on several blogs it forms a distinct pattern: assertion, ignore response, change assertion slightly, ignore response; repeat.

    In one exchange alone Egnor brought up design inference, Kitzmiller, eugenics and the marvelous eye. I about passed out when he brought up the eye argument! How many times has that been covered and what possible point did it have to the subject of the thread. The answer: Nothing, just FUD.

    Orac is on the right track to issue a challenge. Put up or shut up, Egnor. If design inference is good for medicine, do tell. We’re all ears. What our ears will hear, though, are crickets chirping.

  2. #2 SLC
    March 20, 2007

    Re Egnor

    What one hears from the Egnors of the is a variation of the Gish gallop, made famous by Duane Gish, a young earth creationist with a PhD in chemistry from Berkeley (the same university that awarded Jonathon Wells a PhD). That is, repeat the the same old crap over and over again making so many points in a short period of time which causes the rebuttals to take 10 times as long. People today don’t have the attention span to hear out the rebuttals. Dr. Gish, who, because of the Gish gallop was known as a tough debater until he encountered the late John Maynard Smith. As described by Richard Dawkins, the result of that encounter was embarrassing for Gish who was made to look like the schmuck that he is.

  3. #3 MarkP
    March 20, 2007

    It is especially important to expose the Intelligent Design theo-political agenda for what it is. It can be a much more effective point of argument than getting into the “pathetic level of detail” of biological science, which can quickly surpass the interest and understanding of lay people. This, of course, is a big reason the ID rhetorical fog machine is as effective as it is in the first place. My mother doesn’t know her amino acids from her alleles, but she can understand the implications of a creationist book (Pandas and People) mass substituting “intelligent design” for “creationism”, or how dishonest quote-mining is. I love to show a Christian a blatant quote mine (ie a lie) and ask them “If Jesus were sitting here, do you think he would approve of this? Give to science what is science’s”.

    I mean really, you have to give these guys credit. They are literally selling nothing; a roundabout circuitous pollysyllabic mishmash of sciencistic nothing, but nothing nonetheless. It’s one step above “it”. What’s “it”? Whatever you want “it” to be? They are good at marketing, good at working a crowd, good at playing to people’s misconceptions, and we on the side of science had better get better at it.

    I see that as the job of those of us who are nonscientists. One great thing about how wrong they are is there are many angles of attack. So let the biologists handle the biology and the physicists handle the physics. If you are neither, but the creationist/IDer hucksters piss you off, then learn their game and expose it. Remind people that they do no science, publish no relevant peer-reviewed literature (none that supports them anyway), were basically called a bunch of charletans by a conservative Bush-appointed constructionist judge, and haven’t changed their views a whit in 10 years. Remind them that a biologist who had similarly fixed his views would be a laughing stock, and that science changes, while pseudoscience just changes names.

    Idiocy spreads when smart people stay quiet, my rant for the day.

  4. #4 MarkP
    March 20, 2007

    “They are good at marketing, good at working a crowd, good at playing to people’s misconceptions, and we on the side of science had better get better at it.”

    “It” there being marketing and playing the crowd, but sans playing to misconceptions. We’ve got the evidence on our side, that’s enough.

  5. #5 Mana
    March 20, 2007

    “Creationist leaders and spokesmen are willfully ignorant.”

    I absolutely agree. Just this past weekend a friend of mine was arguing that many of the arguments of the religious right make no sense so “can’t they see the arguments are full of fallacies?” My answer was, yes they know and can see but they don’t want their church folk to know and see. My friend was thrown off by my claim that the promoters of such ideas as creationism are malicious and act based on a set of interests that might be dishonest. But I don’t see another explanation for their “willful ignorance.”

    It is very crude to position things in such simple terms but we have to face reality–the discourse of the creationists is polished by an art of rhetoric that cares little about proper argumentation or science. It has lots of ‘pathos’ and very little ‘logos.’

  6. #6 John
    March 20, 2007

    MarkP wrote,
    “Remind people that they do no science, publish no relevant peer-reviewed literature (none that supports them anyway),…”

    No. That was a rhetorical mistake. The crux of the biscuit is that they have produced no data from a test of an ID hypothesis. They can publish their data on a Web page if the data exist, but they simply don’t.

    There are no data.

    There won’t ever be any data.

    They simply don’t have enough faith in ID to put it to a test.

    In their hearts and souls, they know that it is a pack of lies, and they are afraid to expose it by producing a single datum.

    Pointing out their lack of faith is the key.

  7. #7 MarkP
    March 21, 2007

    Point taken. I was trying to be generous and was thinking of Behe’s simulation where he basically rigged the simulation against evolution, and it came through anyway. This, of course, is a test of evolution, not of ID. You can’t test nothing.

  8. #8 Decline and Fall
    March 21, 2007

    I generally agree that the ID/Creationist leaders are intellectually dishonest, but I don’t know how far I’m willing to take that with the rank-and-file believers. I say this because I was raised by some of them. I know they were wrong, but I can’t come to the conclusion that they were maliciously so. They were/are misinformed and willing to grasp at anything that conforms to their worldview. But this can be said about a lot of groups, not just religious believers.

    I think one of the major reasons scientists have failed so miserably in the p.r. department is that scientists tend to underestimate the importance of pathos, and assume that others are as sensitive to ethos and logos as they are. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that people in general are inclined to think this way. Pathos feels good; logos and ethos don’t.

    I think it’s helpful to think of irrational belief in terms of ideology. Most people seem to need something to latch onto that puts their existence into a larger perspective. Marx’s point about ideology still holds: religion may be the opiate of the masses, but to counter it, another opiate must be substituted. Communism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism, post-modernism, new age spirituality and conspiracy theories all fit that bill, and they are all, to one degree or another, irrational. (Hell, I’m sure there are plenty of unexamined notions that I subscribe to right now, and I’m willing to bet the same holds for just about everyone else. I’d like to think that I’m distinguished by my irrational dedication to examining my ideas, but the fact remains that the most difficult thing to examine dispassionately is one’s own thoughts. Now there’s a tautology for you.)

    I know this is a pessimistic view, but I just don’t see that people will one day wake up from their illogical slumber and embrace demonstrable truth in large numbers. The irrational ye always have with you. If and when ID and creationism are laid to rest, they will be replaced by some other ridiculous, undemonstrable unifying theory. All we can do is continue to expose it for what it is and be satisfied when we make what little inroads we can.

  9. #9 Susannah
    March 21, 2007

    MarkP wrote:

    “… that science changes, while pseudoscience just changes names.”

    The whole “controversy” in a nutshell!

  10. #10 TomS
    March 21, 2007

    There are no data.

    There won’t ever be any data.

    They simply don’t have enough faith in ID to put it to a test.

    Yes, but more precisely, there is no hypothesis (or theory) of ID, there is nothing for anyone to test, there is nothing that the data can be for. (Or against, because anything at all is equally consistent with ID.)

    One of the oldest complaints about creationism, which goes back before Darwin, is that there is no description of what they’re talking about. At least, however, “young earth creationism”-”flood geology” had a few things, things which are simple to refute. ID has taken this “lack of a hypothesis” to an extreme – an extreme which I didn’t think could be surpassed, but “teach the controversy” has managed.

  11. #11 John
    March 21, 2007

    “Yes, but more precisely, there is no hypothesis (or theory) of ID, there is nothing for anyone to test, there is nothing that the data can be for. (Or against, because anything at all is equally consistent with ID.)”

    Not necessarily. To expose that, you have to point out that they are afraid to test any hypotheses about when or how the design was implemented.

    So by framing it as nothing for anyone to test, you’re just helping them pitch it as a mere debate in which they can hide their fear of producing any new data. It’s better to point out the obviously testable hypotheses that are out there, and ask why they lack the faith to do so.

    The only hypothesis that explains the universal fear of testing a single ID hypothesis is that deep down, they already know that they are wrong. If they had faith, they’d be pursuing careers in science and pharma, with the ultimate confidence that their approach is more scientifically productive than ours.

  12. #12 Edward
    March 21, 2007

    Decline and Fall’s points about ideology need to be kept in mind. Particularly:

    “I’m sure there are plenty of unexamined notions that I subscribe to right now, and I’m willing to bet the same holds for just about everyone else. I’d like to think that I’m distinguished by my irrational dedication to examining my ideas, but the fact remains that the most difficult thing to examine dispassionately is one’s own thoughts. Now there’s a tautology for you.”

    Some people get so wedded to a particular ideology that it forms the lens through which they see everything. In college, there was a guy I knew who completely bought into USSR Marxism and dismissed the evidence of Stalin’s purges as western propaganda. One day, most of the dorm floor-mates were in the lounge and someone started listing all the evidence and that the soviet govenment pretty much admitted that it had happened (this was in the 1980′s). He literally curled up in a fetal ball and just didn’t want to hear it. People do not like to have their world view shaken, and many, if not most, will get highly defensive and go into denial if you shake their views enough.

    I agree that the leaders of the creationist movement are inellectually dishonest. I think many of them are in it for money and power and they don’t care if they are wrong. However, I think many of the “followers” are honest people who have been lead astray. I’ve read a couple of accounts of people who were brought up as creationists, and trained as scientists. They turned to “creation science” as a way to reconcile the world-view with which they were brought up with their training as scientists, but eventually became turned off by the intellectual dishonesty of the leaders of that movement and rejected it.

    When dealing with creationists, I think it is important to look at whether they are more the dishonest power-seeking type or the honest believer type. If they are the former, then it is not worth having any sort of debate with them. However, if they are the latter type, then I think something may be gained from debating with them.

    Also, one need not attack all religion to defend evolution. That is, in its own way, also intellectually dishonest, and will not help you convince the honest believer. The creationists have power because of their honest believer followers, and those are the people who need to be convinced of the errors of the leaders of the ID movement.

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    March 21, 2007

    “So we must continue to engage them, not solely on the terms of argument, but also their intellectual illegitimacy. This may be off-putting to some.”

    Off-putting to who? Offhand, I can’t think of anyone here who is against being hard on those who persist in intellectual dishonesty.

  14. #14 Mana
    March 21, 2007

    “Also, one need not attack all religion to defend evolution. That is, in its own way, also intellectually dishonest, and will not help you convince the honest believer.”

    Point taken Edward, but I have to point to the fact that Mike is talking about “professional creationists,” not your true believer who goes to church and merely listens and applies learnings to his own life. The discussion here has to do with people who make it their “profession” or career to preach creationism (preach as in to advocate, to urge acceptance of or compliance with).

    I also disagree that creationists have power because of their honest believer followers. Creationists have power because they have funds, podiums and microphones, satellite broadcasts, networks and direct phone lines to the white house (see Ted Haggard).

  15. #15 Mvfusion
    March 22, 2007

    Off topic, sort’ve, but I was curious if anyone could point me in the direction of a transcript or even a video of the Maynard Smith vs. Gish debate.

  16. #16 Edward
    March 22, 2007

    Mana -

    But those funds, podiums, etc. come largely from the donations of followers. What is a leader with no followers? Don’t get me wrong, I understand that Mike is talking about the “professional creationists.” I’d love to see them all taken down and shown for the dishonest power-seeking fear mongers they are. What I’m suggesting is that the way to win in the long run is to target our pursusive efforts at the honest believer followers. The leaders of the ID movement have shown they care nothing for truth and honesty, so engaging them in debate to show them the error of their ways is futile. The problem with with all-out attacks on the “professional creationists” is that all to often such attacks wind up offending the followers and result in the followers increasing their support of the “profesional ceationists.”

    In some cases, pursuading the honest followers may mean using theological rather than scientific arguments, and especially avoiding blanket attacks on religion.

  17. #17 Decline and Fall
    March 22, 2007

    I’ve read a couple of accounts of people who were brought up as creationists, and trained as scientists. They turned to “creation science” as a way to reconcile the world-view with which they were brought up with their training as scientists, but eventually became turned off by the intellectual dishonesty of the leaders of that movement and rejected it.

    For an example of what Edward is talking about, see Why I Left Young-earth Creationism. This part is particularly revealing as an example of someone who saw the dishonesty of ICR for what it is:

    But eventually, by 1994 I was through with young-earth creationISM. Nothing that young-earth creationists had taught me about geology turned out to be true. I took a poll of my ICR graduate friends who have worked in the oil industry. I asked them one question.

    “From your oil industry experience, did any fact that you were taught at ICR, which challenged current geological thinking, turn out in the long run to be true?”

    That is a very simple question. One man, Steve Robertson, who worked for Shell grew real silent on the phone, sighed and softly said ‘No!’ A very close friend that I had hired at Arco, after hearing the question, exclaimed, “Wait a minute. There has to be one!” But he could not name one. I can not name one. No one else could either. One man I could not reach, to ask that question, had a crisis of faith about two years after coming into the oil industry. I do not know what his spiritual state is now but he was in bad shape the last time I talked to him.

    Some will no doubt point to this and chide the author for not becoming a full-fledged atheist. But I see this as an example of a battle that can be won, and you can’t win the war without accumulating victories in battle.

  18. #18 factician
    March 22, 2007

    Is someone dishonest if they think they’re being honest? I don’t accuse creationists of being dishonest, (though intellectually dishonest might be more accurate) because it doesn’t help to tell someone they are dishonest when they themselves don’t see it that way. Then it merely becomes us calling them dishonest, and them calling us dishonest, and what are the people in the middle to do? How do they decide who to trust?

    At the end of the day, the average Joe is going to trust his pastor before he trusts a scientist, because he *knows* his pastor, and he’s never met a scientist. That’s one of the reason that I try to engage with my neighbours. I think it’s important for scientists to become trusted figures in society again.

    America is in the contradictory position of being one of the most anti-intellectual countries in the world at the same time as being the science and technology capital of the world. How do we fix the former? Engage with our neighbours and show them that you’re just like them, but that instead of having your expertise be in plumbing/business/carpentry, your expertise is science. And would you ask your pastor for plumbing advice?

  19. #19 MarkP
    March 22, 2007

    I don’t accuse creationists of being dishonest, (though intellectually dishonest might be more accurate) because it doesn’t help to tell someone they are dishonest when they themselves don’t see it that way. Then it merely becomes us calling them dishonest, and them calling us dishonest, and what are the people in the middle to do? How do they decide who to trust?

    The same way we decide if anyone else is honest or not. Look at their track record. Do they alter their views when contrary factual information is presented, or do they keep blathering on? Do they represent their opponent’s position accurately, or do they distort it? Do they admit mistakes? Do they allow contrary opinions on their blogs? Are their views consistent, or do they tend to change depending on the moment or audience?

    In this case it’s really easy, since one side of the debate wins every category.

  20. #20 azd?r?c?
    April 2, 2009

    thanks for all