January 6, 2007

ID's "toughest critics?" (Sidebar to "Grill the ID Guys")

[This piece appeared in the journal: Reports from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) (Vol. 26. No. 3. May, 2006) as a sidebar to the main article which can be found here.]

ID's "toughest critics?"

At the end of the event at Biola John Bloom, the evening’s moderator asked the audience to give the critics - Antony Flew, Keith Morrison, Charlotte Laws, Bruce Weber, Jim Hofmann, Craig Nelson, and Larry Herber - a standing ovation remarking, "They took a lot of heat." Bloom was not referring to the night’s intellectual exchanges. He was talking about the fact that there had been some rumblings among defenders of science regarding the choice of critics (or perhaps the critic’s choices).

Assuming that this event likely wouldn’t serve its advertised purpose many individuals initially asked to sit on the panel of critics declined. Those who did accept the invitation received some mild criticism for
a) agreeing to dignify the proceedings,
b) not being prominent ID critics, and
c) not having the appropriate scientific credentials (1)
As one of those asked to join the critic’s panel (presumably because I’m local), and one of those who declined, I wanted to take a moment to offer my perspective on this issue.

Taken in reverse order, I find “c” above to be unwarranted overreaction. Although “intelligent design” is unquestionably an attack on the foundations of science, the “theory’s” miscalculations lie substantially in how its arguments are formulated, not in the empirical data. Even the most “scientific” of design arguments involves a tedious cataloging of biological complexity (like IC) that ultimately resolves to arguments from incredulity. Investigating and exposing these problems does not require an advanced degree in science (though it certainly demands a familiarity with the literature).

As for the dearth of more prominent ID critics, there is little doubt that the event would have received more publicity and might have been more intellectually incisive had Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, and Robert Pennock replaced some of the less informed members of the panel. But the truth is that the many difficulties with ID are well known and understood throughout the defense of science community. It’s not necessary or practical to expect Scott etc. to be present wherever the tough questions need to be asked. Local responses to ID can be effective, and from my perspective Hofmann, Weber, and Craig Nelson did a good job overall given the limitations of the setting.

This brings me to “a” - should ID even be engaged in this way? There are those who believe it only helps the “intelligent design” movement to present, as these kinds of events can, an image of scientific equivalence. Others feel that the illogic of ID must be demonstrated, that the spurious arguments should not be left unchallenged. Though I have sympathy for both sides my refusal to participate in the Biola event makes clear which view I favor. The following are my reasons for taking this position.
  • I was not satisfied that there would be any real opportunity for pursuit of relevant answers. If an event is to be a pleasant experience for spokesmen and audience alike, cordiality and respect must be preserved. But however valuable these qualities are in an intellectual conversation they work against intense scrutiny of individual statements. If there is no mechanism for stopping and evaluating each element of an answer – essentially cross-examination – then responses can be evasive and wandering. I saw no prospect for holding the ID guys to their vow to answer the tough questions.
  • As much as we all try to cut through to the content, it is an unfortunate reality that presentation influences everyone’s perception of expertise and integrity. These encounters often boil down to personality and performance. Most of the top ID advocates have much more experience, and some are quite good, at this sort of thing. Content often becomes secondary to stage presence.
  • Most importantly, I regard “intelligent design” as institutionally dishonest. I accept, because it would be presumptuous of me not to, that individual ID proponents may be sincere. But it’s clear that there is an inherent corruption in the house of ID that is ignored in deference to the greater mission. That corruption is the overarching religious impetus behind both the movement’s theoretical content and it’s political activities.
ID may not be methodologically religious, but it is deliberately methodologically unconstrained so as to directly allow religious inference. “Intelligent design” theory exists because of, and in service of, the religious motivations of its “theorists” and adherents. And it is an avowed attempt to redefine science such that it is more accommodating of a religious worldview.

These realities are not acknowledged by an ID marketing machine which prefers to maintain plausible deniability. It’s a thread of duplicity that runs throughout the entire “intelligent design” enterprise and, absent change, will continue to obstruct prospects for progressive discourse.


1. I.D. Rigs Its Own Trial. 2006. ScientificAmerican.com.


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