I read this headline — “Mary Midgley argues that opponents of intelligent design are driving people to accept it” — and my first thought was that surely some editor had mangled the sense of an interview. No one could be that blatantly nonsensical. And then I read the first paragraph and discover that it was an understatement, and that Midgley is much more extreme.
People are not going to accept scientific fact if they think it is morally pernicious. When people are asked why they are persuaded by intelligent design, they often say that it’s the only alternative to scientific atheism and Darwinism which are pernicious moral doctrines; they see it as the only refuge from this anti-human bloody-mindedness. It’s at the level of attitudes to life that these choices are made. And people will think scientists as a whole believe this. As Professor Winston has said, science becomes discredited by this kind of stuff.
Well, yes, I suppose that is true. The peasants are also not going to accept the presence of Jews if they think it is morally pernicious — what decent human being would want to live anywhere near people who drink the blood of Christian babies, after all? They are going to be persuaded to join in the pogroms because they are going to see it as a refuge from subhuman parasitism, and it’s an entirely reasonable self-defense made on the level of moral choice. Need I point out that science then becomes discredited by the many Jews present in the field?
We have a couple of ways that we can respond to this kind of nonsense.
Some seem to favor the idea of waving around The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and, while deploring its content, suggesting that this a good reason to ask all Jews to lie low and avoid the spotlight for a while (i.e., permanently). We need to frame science as untainted by the Jews so we can get more people to accept it and to avoid other political obstacles. I have to agree: it certainly would make science more comfortable to anti-semites if we purged the Jews, and I suspect that scientific polling would back me up on that.
I wonder, though, if it might be better to oppose the false claims of the Protocols, rather than allowing the bigotry to limit what we’re allowed to say. Maybe we shouldn’t flatter the anti-semites by courting their approval. Maybe we should point out that the people who benefit from the pogroms seem to have a vested interest in portraying Jews as evil people, and that the swelling mobs of pitchfork-wielding people isn’t a justifiable response. Maybe instead we should undercut those lies by allowing Jews to be more vocal, standing up and revealing that they are good people, that they are our neighbors, our friends, even our relatives, and that they aren’t “morally pernicious” at all.
It’s even more ridiculous when this reasoning is applied to atheists. We aren’t facing death or dispossession for our ideas, but so far only a more subtle discrimination and attitudes like Midgley’s. This is exactly the situation in which we should be coming out and demonstrating the falsity of Midgley’s assumptions. It seems to me that if anyone is promoting enrollment in Intelligent Design creationism’s smear campaign against the taint of atheism in science, it’s the people who perpetuate the idea that atheism is morally suspect.
Accepting the critics’ claim of the “morally pernicious” status of their target is basically surrendering to a lie. Why does Mary Midgley want to honor a lie?