Pharyngula

Luskin’s foolish credentialism

Chris Mooney gave a talk in Seattle, and you know who else is up there in my home town: the Discovery Institute. They tried to go on the offensive and sic their version of an attack dog on him…which was, amusingly enough, Casey Luskin. This is the kind of attack dog that goes “yap-yap-yap-yap-yap-yap-yap,” though, and annoys you by peeing on your shoes. His initial volley was this:

Why do so many people eagerly listen to a journalist with neither scientific nor legal training discuss a complex scientific and legal issue like intelligent design?

It is awkwardly ironic for an unqualified stooge of the Discovery Institute to question anyone’s credentials; if we start down that path, it’s going to lead to pointing out that very, very few of the people at that institute have any credentials in biology at all, and that maybe we should wonder why anyone should listen to a collection of ideologues with degrees in philosophy and law and theology when they pontificate on science (although, to give the other side of the argument, one of their favorite people, Ann Coulter, thinks “biologists are barely scientists,” so maybe they think the dearth of fellows with training in evolution is a plus).

But I’m not going to go down that path. I don’t think the formal credentials are as important as that gang of poseurs and con-men would like to believe.

Mooney seems to have chewed out Luskin a bit at his talk, and now Luskin has put up a longer whine about the credentials issue:

Chris Mooney asked me if a person has to have a degree in a subject in order to write a book about it. After thinking about it more, I firmly convinced the answer is no. If Chris Mooney so desires, he can write a book about whatever he wants. I even praised him in our personal dialogue, saying that he clearly is an intelligent person and I was extremely impressed with the broad range of issues and topics he writes about. I also conceded that he probably knows much more about some of these subjects than I do. (Yet as I will document in my response, his characterization of intelligent design is completely flawed.)

But this isn’t about an attack upon Chris, and the question I asked in the press release was not aimed at Chris. It was aimed at those who listen to him. The interesting point has nothing to do with Chris Mooney. The interesting point has to do with the scientific community, academia, the intelligentsia, and many in the media who have overwhelmingly embraced him and his words about intelligent design.

Chris Mooney has every right to write a book and talk about whatever he wants. That’s what journalists do, and that’s not an interesting point. The interesting point is how many academics and well-credentialed members of the intelligentsia crave his words about intelligent design, despite the fact that he has no formal credentials in neither science nor law. As a sneak preview of what is in my rebuttal to Chris, I answer that question posed above with another question:

Is it perhaps because Mr. Mooney tells ID-critics in academia exactly what they want to hear, even if it isn’t true?

Explaining why much of what Mr. Mooney writes about intelligent design isn’t true is what the balance of my response is devoted to. It isn’t devoted to attacking Chris Mooney personally.

Teaching gives a person some perspective on this. Every year, we get a crop of bright, interested, thinking students who lack any kind of degree. I’ve found children in grade school who show a solid natural understanding of the scientific method—who are willing to ask questions and follow through to good answers without bias. You don’t need a formal degree to be able to understand and use science. It may take considerable detailed training to pursue research in a field (which Mooney is not presuming to do), but being able to assess and accurately evaluate evidence? That takes intelligence and discipline, not a set of letters after your name.

The reason ID critics will listen to Mooney is that he’s smart and he demonstrates a willingness to present the evidence honestly. We can read his work and see that he isn’t making outrageous errors; he doesn’t give us cause to distrust him, and his work reveals the basis of his conclusions and allows us to see the chain of logic and see whether his interpretations are reasonable. That’s what I’m looking for, not just whether he’s got the right degree. It also helps that we can compare his discussion of scientific subjects with what those scientists with the degrees say, and see that he isn’t contradicting them.

On the other hand, take a look at representatives of the Discovery Institute…such as, say, Casey Luskin. I just put up a repost of a critique of one of Luskin’s analyses of science. It isn’t just wrong. It’s stupidly wrong. He makes serious errors in basic genetics of a kind that I don’t excuse in students who take my genetics classes, and he compounds the problem with an obtuse insistence that he knows the genetics better than Ken Miller, who wrote a textbook that summarizes that same material. He mangles arguments and misrepresents quotes from the scientific literature. He fails the exam—he babbles ignorantly at length on subjects that anyone with a familiarity with genetics can immediately and unambiguously identify as obfuscation.

If Chris Mooney had done something like that in his book, we wouldn’t trust him. That he can write competently on general subjects in science is what tells us he is worth reading.

People like Casey Luskin, or Jonathan Wells, or Tom Bethell, on the other hand, promptly expose their ignorance in their writings. Their degrees or lack thereof also don’t matter in our judgment of their work—we can spot the phonies easily enough.