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).