In the wake of Bush’s statement endorsing the teaching of “intelligent design” theory alongside Darwinian evolutionary theory in the schools, I saw a debate on CNN between somebody from the Discovery Institute (the foundation behind the recent push for “intelligent design”) and Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. I was appalled. The Discovery Institute guy sounded open-minded and reasonable, with all his talk about new research and intellectual flexibility — though of course everything he said was pure garbage. On the other hand, Shermer was pompous and overbearing, the condescending voice of Authority, lecturing the public about the importance of peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals, and actually saying at one point that only allowing the expression of ideas that have been properly peer-reviewed is “how we do things in a free society.” (He also kept on referring to “the marketplace of ideas,” evidently not realizing that the “marketplace of ideas,” like any other marketplace, has no concern for the truth or rationality he was otherwise trumpeting).

If you didn’t know anything about the subject, whom would you believe? Shermer’s performance justified everything Isabelle Stengers has said about the imperialist arrogance of official spokespeople for Big Science. Though ostensibly he was talking about the importance of rationality and of the objective gathering and weighing of empirical evidence, his affect was one of argument from authority, as if to say: “how dare you contest what we, the enlightened elite, have determined to be the case!” (Not to mention that, as an academic myself, I have ample experience with “peer review,” and I know how corrupt and dishonest it is). With supporters like this, Darwin doesn’t need enemies. Shermer, just like the Democratic Party, almost seems to go out of his way to justify all the sterotypes the Republicans and fundamentalists have been promulgating for years now about “liberal elitism” and liberals’ contempt for the common person. After hearing advocates for Science like Shermer, most Americans will find Bush to be speaking plausibly when he says that “intelligent design” ought to be taught alongside evolution because “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.”

In reality, of course, teaching “intelligent design” is an historical falsification. It is equivalent to teaching the theories of people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, and of people who say that blacks were treated kindly and humanely under slavery. I doubt that even Bush would endorse Holocaust denial as a benevolent example of exposing people to different schools of thought. But the argument is never made along these lines, not in the courts, and not in the statements of any of the scientists who oppose creationism.

Of course, giving any legitimacy at all to “intelligent design” is actually a form of religio-political indoctrination; but recognizing this forces us, too, to recognize the unpleasant fact that no form of education is entirely devoid of indoctrination. (I am referring not only to formal education in the schools, but also to things like teaching my 3-year-old daughter to use the potty and to be polite and show consideration for other people). There’s no easy way out of this dilemma; it brings us to the limits of secular humanism/liberalism, which is the dogma I prefer over all others, except for the fact that it refuses to admit that it is one dogma among others, and which (like all dogmas) can only establish itself by vanquishing others.

I have no conclusions here, no suggestions as to how we can better defend historical truth against imposture (to give the whole question a more 18th century turn of phrase than perhaps it merits in these postmodern times). Currently science is losing the battle to religious fanaticism, and to a large extent this is science’s own fault (just as all the recent Republican victories are the Democrats’ own fault). Which probably just means that we are doomed (as I already said after Bush’s re-election).

16 Responses to “Creationism”

  1. Gordon Potter says:

    Hi Steven,

    I totally feel you on this one. But I am not sure what the proper response is, or should be. I tend to think most of it is a general propaganda machine that hystericizes public discourse through our media as a means of clouding the issues. While I didn’t see Michael Shermer’s performance, there have been numerous times where I have been outraged and dismayed by the failure of the “left” side in the arguments. On both Fox and CNN. And don’t get me started on Chris Mathews! I think you are on to something about the dogma. The question in my mind is what becomes the sufficient grounds to defend the dogma, even if there is no ground in a permanent sense? At the end of the day don’t we all do this in everyday practice, we defend what we believe? Isn’t our dogma really just a mechanism by which we negotiate the world with our perspective? I have long held as a personal dogma that it is (near) impossible for an individual to hold onto a point of view that that he or she accepts to be false or corruptible. In other words we truly believe that which we believe and do even if it can later be proven a false belief. Up to the very moment that we are given a different perspective we are necessarily dogmatic in our current perspective. And the second our new perspective takes hold we are equally dogmatic in that perspective even if it is diametrically opposed to our previous beliefs. I can only think that maybe there is a zen like quality to this and that perhaps the very recognition of our commitment to a given belief is enough to overcome self delusion even though we would never willingly accept that what we believe right now is false.

    Have you read or heard of Sam Harris? I saw him awhile back on C-SPAN talking to an Irvine, CA synagogue about his book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.”

    I found his lecture very refreshing. He talked about how religious moderates allow themselves to be steamrolled by religious fanatics in all kinds of matters. And that he really would like to see a kind of “intolerance of faith” in our discussions. Here is a quote from an interview explaining the concept:

    “The kind of intolerance of faith that I am advocating in my book is not the intolerance that gave us the gulag. It is conversational intolerance. When people make outlandish claims, without evidence, we stop listening to them–except on matters of faith. I am arguing that we can no longer afford to give faith a pass in this way. Bad beliefs should be criticized wherever they appear in our discourse–in physics, in medicine, and on matters of ethics and spirituality as well. The President of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. Now, if he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ludicrous or more offensive.”

    For me this gets to the heart of the matter, the willingness to question all articles of faith. And we need to create a rhetorical space where we can be comfortable questioning these articles of faith. Isn’t that what science is in a sense and in practice?

    I can’t help but think that the media sources are already so right wing and rhetorically corrupt that they intentionally place these bad actors such as Shermer on the news to color the argument. I think the only the only thing we have is to drown out the hysteria, and call attention to the rhetorical corruption. Because ultimately that is what it is in my mind. A corrupt rhetoric, whether an appeal to unassailable authority or hateful ad hominen, or whatever other bad faith there may be. And you are certainly correct to call this out in the debate you saw on TV.

  2. Nightspore says:

    Remember that great Lewontin piece in the NYREV maybe 25 years ago about anti-Darwinian fundamentalism in the South. Lewontin made the point that this was a class and economics issue, and that the superiority of the Northeastern elite was exactly what they were responding to by refusing to accept that Scientists-know-best attitude. He was thoughtful about what was really at stake, and also what it would mean to do teach science. There was a good piece in The New Yorker not too long ago, which demolished the creationists, but not through ridicule. This has to be the way to go, if there’s any way to go. –b

  3. Ted Swedenburg says:

    I’m posting Paul Krugman’s relevant column on ‘intelligent’ design from today’s NY Times below (hope that is kosher!). I think it suggests one way to attack intelligent design–to show its relations other, rightwing and corporate-sponsored attacks on science, i.e., global warming. Another, I believe, powerful argument is that evolutionary theory has proven to be a powerful scientific model for laboratory experiments, that is, it produces practical results. Intelligent design has resulted in no, zero, laboratory/practical results, provided a model for no scientific experiments.

    Here’s Krugman:

    New York Times
    August 5, 2005

    Design for Confusion


    I’d like to nominate Irving Kristol, the neoconservative former editor of The Public Interest, as the father of “intelligent design.” No, he didn’t play any role in developing the doctrine. But he is the father of the political strategy that lies behind the intelligent design movement – a strategy that has been used with great success by the economic right and has now been adopted by the religious right.

    Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make “philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector.” That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn’t like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.

    Mr. Kristol led by example, using The Public Interest to promote supply-side economics, a doctrine whose central claim – that tax cuts have such miraculous positive effects on the economy that they pay for themselves – has never been backed by evidence. He would later concede, or perhaps boast, that he had a “cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit.”

    “Political effectiveness was the priority,” he wrote in 1995, “not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

    Corporations followed his lead, pouring a steady stream of money into think tanks that created a sort of parallel intellectual universe, a world of “scholars” whose careers are based on toeing an ideological line, rather than on doing research that stands up to scrutiny by their peers.

    You might have thought that a strategy of creating doubt about inconvenient research results could work only in soft fields like economics. But it turns out that the strategy works equally well when deployed against the hard sciences.

    The most spectacular example is the campaign to discredit research on global warming. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, many people have the impression that the issue is still unresolved. This impression reflects the assiduous work of conservative think tanks, which produce and promote skeptical reports that look like peer-reviewed research, but aren’t. And behind it all lies lavish financing from the energy industry, especially ExxonMobil.

    There are several reasons why fake research is so effective. One is that nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research and advocacy – if it’s got numbers and charts in it, doesn’t that make it science?

    Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, “Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth.” The headlines on many articles about the intelligent design controversy come pretty close.

    Finally, the self-policing nature of science – scientific truth is determined by peer review, not public opinion – can be exploited by skilled purveyors of cultural resentment. Do virtually all biologists agree that Darwin was right? Well, that just shows that they’re elitists who think they’re smarter than the rest of us.

    Which brings us, finally, to intelligent design. Some of America’s most powerful politicians have a deep hatred for Darwinism. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, blamed the theory of evolution for the Columbine school shootings. But sheer political power hasn’t been enough to get creationism into the school curriculum. The theory of evolution has overwhelming scientific support, and the country isn’t ready – yet – to teach religious doctrine in public schools.

    But what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the scientific consensus has shaky foundations?

    Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not religious indoctrination: “creation science” was too crude to fool anyone. But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.

    The important thing to remember is that like supply-side economics or global-warming skepticism, intelligent design doesn’t have to attract significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy about the validity of evolutionary theory. That, together with the political muscle of the religious right, may be enough to start a process that ends with banishing Darwin from the classroom.

  4. Steven Shaviro says:

    Ted, yeah, but Krugman still talks too much about “peer-reviewed research.” Krugman says nothing that will resolve the Thomas Frank/”What’s the Matter with Kansas?” issues here.

    This is part of why I am urging a different approach, that of seeing “intelligent design” as historical falsification. Not that I know that such an approach will necessarily work either. But the appeal to scientific authority really does have problems — both in persuading people who buy the astonishingly successful Republican line that everything “liberal” is the product of “elites” with too much power and authority; but also because there are difficulties intrinsic to science itself. The reigning model of science as establishing “laws” and working by a process of Popperian falsification, comes largely from physics; it does not transfer well to other disciplines, like biology in particular, which involve contingent historical events and the sifting of historical evidence. Evolution by natural selection is the best generalization we have based on the historical facts, but it is not a “law of nature” in the sense that special relativity is. Saying that human beings and apes have common ancestors is more like saying that Thomas Jefferson really lived, wrote the Declaration of Independence, had slaves, etc., than it is like saying that mass can be converted into energy. Defenders of science are distorting things, and setting themselves up for a fall, when they fail to acknowledge (or even realize) this, and apply a model drawn from physics uncritically to other sciences, and even to pseudo-sciences like economics and political science.

  5. Gordon Potter says:

    “But the appeal to scientific authority really does have problems — both in persuading people who buy the astonishingly successful Republican line that everything “liberal” is the product of “elites” with too much power and authority; but also because there are difficulties intrinsic to science itself. ”

    This states the problem much more precisely. Good clarification!

    What do think of the use of science fiction (film, literature, etc) as an agent of edification and change? It seems that there are a lot of valid “science” ideas that get filtered out into the general public that are perhaps more revolutionary than they appear on the face of it. Despite all the hoopla about intelligent design we are still making some progress. Even rudimentary, if fanciful, notions of genetics and biological mutation are out there in the mainstream consciousness. This is a kind of progress isn’t it? I think compared to 100 years ago it is much harder to argue for a biblical literalism of creation in 6 literal days with a straight face. It seems that perhaps science fiction is useful as a device to evoke scientific imagination and desire. And it can erode erroneous indoctrination.

    Not everything it is going to be strictly translateable to the science lab, but nonetheless fundamental notions of ourselves and our bodies and science are modified over time by the culture that we inhabit. While someone might not read the journal Nature, they will probably watch Jurassic Park or X-Files, or the sci-fi channel, and likely without the resentment of so called “liberal elitist authority”. And this has to have some bearing on shifting the boundaries of the discourse. Does it not?

  6. Lynn says:

    I saw that happen before on the Lou Dobbs show. Dobbs interviewed a biologist, an intelligent design lobbyist, and a creationist lobbyist. The biologist had no presentation or communication skills, and was overbearing. The other two guys completely out slicked him.

    It’d be nice to see some scientists who are good communicators get on these shows. I suppose they are all too busy with their day jobs, doing science. Still, I find it difficult to believe there isn’t a gun for hire to represent evolution for these sound bites. You sure don’t need to be a scientist as the Krugman article points out.

  7. Niels says:

    You know, this is perhaps more a matter of form than of substance. These guys are very well trained in talking in public and talking to the media. I have recently received some training in this area myself and it is an art. The right has understood this and they don’t send anybody on the air who hasn’t been properly prepaired. They frame issues in a particular way not to make an argument make to make them sound good. They know how to interact with a camera, where to sit, how to interrupt and how to come off sounding reasonable. And then these poor arrogant scientist disdain the media, disdain reporters, and they don’t stand a chance. No matter how strong their arguments are, they are interested in substance alone and not in form. Form without substance won’t work, but you can have all the right ideas and loose the debate. This is what the Right has understood long time ago. they package everything and they do it well.

  8. Need I say anything more than “Separation of Church and State”?

    Doesn’t our open society thrive only when there is a distance between what people take on faith and what scientists try to prove (or discredit) by empirical methods?

    Faith (as essentially a religious method) should remain a private mode of what the good life means to the believer, as Stanley Fish implied in his lecture on Procedural Justice in the Winter Semester 2005 at Wayne State. The procedures of a liberal society are guaranteed only in so far as they are kept from all interference from private faith, based on what the individual finds good about life. Contrary to the belief that a liberal society should take into account all opinions is the idea that keeping those based on faith out of the system safeguards all opinions. What a liberal society finds Good for itself and its members is not always in line with what the individual finds good for herself. Those going against empirical methods in science in the name of exposing American youth to new ideas are merely imposing their faith (their version of the good) onto others.

    This is clearly a matter of The Separation of Church and State.

  9. Michael Wild says:

    However, alternative Christian views are possible …

    Render unto Darwin

    I have a problem with Creationists. No, not that I think that they are wrong. As a good postmodernist, how could I think that? No, my problem is that they have not understood the import of Mt 22:15-21.

    Where does creationism, as advocated today, come from? The answer may seem obvious : “the Bible!” – well, ignoring the slight difficulty of having two creation narratives. But hang on a minute – until about 1400, scientific method as we now know it didn’t exist. So the Bible could not then have been regarded as a scientific explanation of origin, for the simple reason that there were no scientific explanations of anything. Our medieval ancestors may have regarded the creation narratives as true, but could not have seen them as scientifically true in the sense claimed by modern creationists. The idea that creationism was accepted as true until science (in the shape of Charles Darwin) came along is therefore pure eyewash. In fact the opposite is the case : creationism in its current form was impossible before the advent of science. It is as much a creature of the Enlightenment as science itself. In effect, it accepts both scientific method and modernist worldview as normative and tries to take them on on their own terms.

    Which is where Caesar comes in. In Mt 22 the Pharisees try to trick Jesus into comparing Caesar with God, but he’s having none of it. Creationism falls into just this trap, trying to trick us into comparing God and Science, and like Jesus we too should have none of it. Jesus in effect warns us not to drag God into such a debate as a sort of trump card, telling us very clearly that God sits above all that. Instead of placing God in his right place, above science as above everything, creationism confines God’s word to be scientifically true, demeaning both it and us.

  10. Carl Sachs says:

    I’ve been mulling over the ways in which evolutionary thinking requires us to think of nature as itself a historical entity, and in that regard not merely a static backdrop against which the trials and tribulations of human history are played out. For this reason I entirely agree with Steve Shaviro’s argument that denying evolutionary processes is akin to denying that the Holocaust ever happened.

    Earlier today I found this nice generalization in Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: “Some want to understand too much and too quickly; they have explanations for everything. Others refuse to understand; they offer only cheap mystifications. The only way forward lies in investigating the space between these two options.”

    I don’t know if anyone has yet explored evolutionary thinking from a perspective informed by “Continental” reflections about historical knowledge and historical consciousness. But this could be very intriguing.

  11. mynym says:

    In reality, of course, teaching “intelligent design” is an historical falsification. It is equivalent to teaching the theories of people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened….

    What odd choices of examples ignorant people sometimes come up with, “historical falsification” of what exactly?

    One of the reasons that the Holocaust happened:

    Our whole cultural life for decades has been more or less under the influence of biological thinking, as it was begun particularly around the middle of the last century, by the teachings of Darwin, Mendel, and Galton and afterwards has been advanced by the studies of Ploetz, Schallmeyer, Correns, de Vries, Tschermak, Baur, Riidin, Fischer,Lenz, and others. Though it took decades before the courage was found, on the basis of the initial findings ofthe natural sciences, to carry on a systematic study of heredity, the progress of the teaching and its application to man could not be delayed any more.

    (Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in
    Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People
    By Max Weinreich
    (New York:The Yiddish Scientific Institute, 1946) :33)

    The scientism of the eugenics movement was applied:

    To be sure, other movements, Marxism and Soviet Communism, for instance, have also claimed scientific validity. But only the Nazis have seen themselves as products and practitioners of the science of life and life processes—as biologically ordained guides to their own and the world’s biological destiny. Whatever their hubris, and whatever the elements of pseudo science and scientism in what they actually did, they identified themselves with the science of their time…..

    The contribution of the actual scientific tradition to this ethos was exemplified by the quintessentially German figure of Ernst Haeckel, that formidable biologist and convert to Darwinism who combined with ardent advocacy of the Volk and romantic nationalism, racial regeneration, and anti-Semitism. He was to become what Daniel Gasman has called ‘Germany’s major prophet of political biology.’

    (The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the
    Psychology of Genocide
    By Robert Jay Lifton :441)

    It is a scientism typical to progressives that can be seen when they begin to try to define “science” itself as agreement with their pseudo-sciences, like Darwinism.


    For the biologists, the test of a scientific outlook was generally identified with a society’s attitude towards eugenics; that is, its willingness to adopt a genuinely scientific stance towards questions of what used to be called “race betterment.” The Marxist and Fabian biologists believed that Western societies had largely failed this test.

    (Eugenics and the Left
    by Diane Paul
    Journal of the History of Ideas,
    Vol. 45, No. 4. (Oct. – Dec., 1984), pp. :569)

  12. mynym says:

    Currently science is losing the battle to religious fanaticism…

    That’s an ignorant view.

    ID is a basic aspect of science, I say it is very basic because using systematic thought and/or mathematics applied to empirical evidence it is applied in anything from forensic science, archaeology and SETI to biotech copyrights.

    The issue becomes philosophical and politicized because Darwinists want to make some sort of special exception in the case of historical biology in order to protect the power and orthodoxy that they have built based on a history of frauds and scientism. It’s a false distinction and a propagandistic game of definitions to say that science can touch on ID in many fields yet when it comes to historical biology it must be excluded.

    Some examples of the science of ID:

    In forensic science there can be evidence of a naturalistic accident as opposed to an intentional act of the mind. I.e., the person fell, they were not pushed. In archaeology there can be evidence of a naturalistic happenstance in rock formation, vs. purposeful formation by a mind. In that case we know it when we see it most of the time, yet when working with artifacts that are more alien in nature a closer study of information would be necessary to detect what is a formation of Nature vs. an artifact design. I.e., the rock is worn by water, it is not engraved. In SETI formation of Nature is evidence of solar pulsars, etc. I.e., the radio signal is not based on any sort of code or encryption written by a mind, it is of natural process.

    In contrast, Darwinist will not allow their numerous hypotheses to be falsified in the same sense. Instead, in the face of evidence for design they just make another hypothesis because their sort of anti-design dogma is unlike all those other instances.

    The real reason that Leftists are against ID is not because it is not scientific but because it undermines the philosophic Naturalism at the foundation of both socialism and its heretical branch, national socialism.

  13. nick says:

    I suppose that one line of attack against the ‘intelligent design’ crew is to point out that it’s bad theology. No better way to create a wedge between the Deist proponents of a non-interventionist Great Architect and those who ‘perceive’ a tinkerer-God. Oh, and bring in other mythologies of design, too. Suggest, in very polite terms, that they’re making it possible to embrace the Hindu (or Muslim) creation myth through science.

    In short, sow doubt in the minds of those literalist Christian fundamentalists that see ID as a stalking-horse.

  14. Brian says:

    Intelligent design is not science.

    Let us assume for the moment that we accept the premise of intelligent design.

    This intelligence can theoretically take two forms. Either it is bounded by natural phenomena (e.g. space aliens) or it is unbounded by natural phenomena (i.e. god).

    If we assume the space aliens, then their appearance has three possible causes: natural phenomena (evolution), intelligent intervention via space aliens, or intelligent intervention via god.

    If these space aliens appeared via evolution, then ID (more generally the teleological argument) fails because it means that evolution can produce intelligence without an intelligent cause.

    If our space aliens appeared via other space aliens, then we go back to our three choices (nature, space aliens, god) and choose all over again. It cannot be space aliens backward to infinity, so it must be god. This means the principle of intelligent design can be restated as such:

    For phenomena where no clear undirected process can be determined it is reasonable to assume god is the cause.

    This also gives us a basic property for god:

    God is not bounded by natural phenomena.

    We should be able to take these as the fundamental tenets of ID if my logic isn’t faulty. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    If this is the fundamental principle for ID, then there is a ton of evidence for it. Every phenomena we don’t fully understand is now explained by by “god is the cause.”

    It sounds great, but there are several difficulties:

    Since our ID tenet is now a fundamental premise, it cannot be invalidated. Our god is not proven to be true, but rather is assumed to be true.

    This assumption gives us no new knowledge. Rather, we have simply invoked that where knowledge is lacking, god is the cause.

    Here is what I conclude from this: Intelligent Design makes no predictions and contributes no new understanding of the world. It is simply a way to invoke a “god of the gaps.” Whereas traditional science provides all the knowledge we have on natural phenomena, and where knowledge is lacking simply remains silent.

    What am I missing here?

  15. Alternative Medicine…

    Alternative Medicine…

  16. Jack Chapin says:

    I agree with your insight about the voice of pompous authority that Shermer exhibited. If you view the DVD “Unlocking the Mystery of Life”, it speaks to the dissatisfaction that some scientists felt about the present scientific paradigm. ID may not be the perfection of the road to truth … but for the “authority” voice of the present majority paradigm to be allowed to marginalize honest scientific questioning will lead to dark … not enlightenment. All major scientific breakthroughs have occurred when we adventured … when we didn’t allow ourselves to have our thoughts boxed in by the short sight of others. What scientific arena has not benefited? Astronomy through the telescope observation, infectious disease through the microscope and an understanding that micro-organisms exist, manned flight through the Wright brothers efforts, physics through the insights of Einstein coupled with the observations of Hubble etc. It just happens to be the time for biology to take it’s turn at scrutiny. Scrutiny in my experience benefits the science being scrutinized. The question is if, in this arena, the fevered protestations of the majority paradigm will be allowed to prevail … or if instead we’ll look at the potential adventure of ID as an opportunity to honestly review our world view. The result may not be ID, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we ended up with a paradigm that had more accurate scientific predictive capability than the present theory.

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