14 August 2005

The Appearance of Reason

In the news lately has been George W.'s increasingly vocal support for so-called "intelligent design" to be taught in schools alongside the theory of evolution. As it happens, I have spent a lot of time discussing this issue on the talk.origins newsgroup, and feel like I know enough about the subject to discuss it here.

Creationists and their only-slightly-more-respectable younger cousins IDers are really engaging in a rhetorical battle, not a scientific one. The honest truth of the matter is that the theory of evolution has been shown to be true so many times, in so many different ways, with so many years of hard empirical evidence backing it up, that it is highly unlikely to ever be overturned by anything; in particular, the arguments put forward by so-called "doubters" of the theory are, in a word, bullshit.

See The Talk.Origins Archive for more details.

So if the arguments are nonsense (and they are), then what exactly are the advocates of ID and/or creationism really doing? Some of them, I feel, are simply honestly deluded; they are convinced that the arguments they espouse are correct, and either have not been exposed to their errors or are willfully ignoring responses from scientists. Others, however (and most of the "respectable" ID crowd like Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe fall into this crowd in my opinion) are seeking not so much a scientific advance, but a sociological one. The point isn't to make arguments that are, in and of themselves, valid and sound, but to make arguments that seem valid enough to the average nonscientist to force respectable men of learning to get down in the muck and argue with the creationist/IDer.

Let me put it this way: there is, quite simply, zero evidence that supports any form of intelligent design, in a scientific sense. (Whether the argument holds water theologically is another matter that I won't get into here.) When a certain class of fundamentalist Christian sees ideas contrary to a narrow reading of the Bible taught in schools, he or she is already incensed against that teaching, but can do nothing to overturn it from a religious viewpoint, due to the separation of church and state enshrined (and rightly so) in the U.S. Constitution. In order to get their voices heard, they must at least sound scientific -- if they do so well enough that real scientists feel the need to respond, if they can even stand on the same stage as a real scientist and be seen as roughly co-equal with them, their battle has been won; they can scream "teach the contreversy" at the top of their lungs.

It is for this reason that notable biological scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased) and Richard Dawkins have long had a policy of refusing to debate anti-evolutionists. But it seems that we have been pushed into a corner, rhetorically-speaking, anyway. The anti-evolutionists appear, to the uneducated eye, to simply be seeking academic freedom and to "let all voices be heard" -- there is nothing more basic to the ideals of liberal democracy than that. In the eyes of the disinterested observer without a grasp of the issues, they are the reasonable ones, they are the downtrodden minority seeking simple redress of grievances. The fact that their arguments were heard, given proponents as lofty as the greatest scientific minds of their time (see Louis Agassiz), and rejected based on evidenciary support, is not given a hearing in the minds of John Q. Public.

Make no mistake: evolution is true. But in order for evolutionary supporters to get their point across, they're simply going to have to get better at the rhetoric and, dare I suggest it, the politics of the situation. The Supreme Court is about to become 5-4 (or even 6-3 or 7-2) the other way; we can no longer rely on the courts, and the courts alone, to save liberal democracy and mainstream science as we know it.

I only wish that the ignorance of the persons we're trying to sway was not as astounding as it is. But the future of our country, and in many ways, the world at large depends on there being not just an appearance of reason, but the true gem of rationality itself. May God have mercy on us if we fail.

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