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.