Saturday, August 13, 2005

Altering the Facts

Journalists traipse onto dangerous terrain when they presume to pontificate on Intelligent Design. They almost never look good in the doing of it.

Marcia Mercer, for example, inanely criticizes President Bush for answering a question about his opinion on teaching ID. His answer was honest and straight forward, but that's not good enough for the censorious Ms Mercer. She protests, oddly enough, that the president should've followed the example of Calvin Coolidge who, even during the provocative days of the Scopes' trial, said nothing about the subject of evolution.

It apparently hasn't occured to Ms. Mercer that President Coolidge may not have had an opinion on the matter that he deemed worth sharing, but never mind. Her suggestion is too weird to spend any time contemplating. After all, if all occupants of the White House should observe presidential precedents what should a future president do when he finds himself alone in the Oval Office with a young intern and a cigar?

As silly as Mercer's advice to the president was, an essay by Newsweek's resident philosopher Jonathan Alter wins this week's prize for polemical ineptitude. Alter writes:

A teacher in Kansas, where war over Darwin in the schools is still raging, calls the theory of intelligent design "creationism in a cheap tuxedo." Great line, but unfair to the elegant tailoring of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank that has almost singlehandedly put intelligent design on the map. Eighty years after the Scopes "monkey trial," the threat to science and reason comes less from fundamentalists who believe the earth was created in six days than from sophisticated branding experts and polemical Ph.D.s who are clever enough to refrain from referring to God or even the Creator, and have now found a willing tool in the president of the United States.

Lest you think this is merely of academic interest, consider the stakes: the Pentagon last week revealed that it is spending money to train certain scientists how to write screenplays for thrillers related to their specialties. Why? Because the status of science has sunk so low that the government needs these disciplines to become sexy again among students or the brain drain will threaten national security. One of the reasons we have fewer science majors is the pernicious right-wing notion that conventional biology is vaguely atheistic (emphasis added).

One wonders where Alter dug up this interesting little factoid. He doesn't tell us and gives us no reason to accept his assertion that we have fewer science majors today than, say, twenty years ago. Even if it were true however, it is much more likely to be a consequence of the reality that science is hard and the marketplace may be offering higher rewards for less difficult pursuits. Alter's assumption that the (unsubstantiated) dearth of science majors is due to right-wing suspicions seems dubious on its face. The "pernicious right-wing notion" that biology is vaguely atheistic, after all, is no more widely held now than it's been since the end of the 19th century.

Moreover, even if the suspicion that conventional biology is hostile to faith is more widely held today, there would be good reason for it since scientists and Darwinian philosophers, especially those who popularize science for a wide audience, keep telling us it is. Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others insist that Darwinism is a universal acid, to use Dennett's phrase, that is corrosive to religious belief. Dawkins is adamant that an anti-religious stance, to borrow from an article on him in the September issue of Discover, is a natural outgrowth of evolutionary thought. The article quotes Dawkins as saying that "It is very clear that much of the opposition to evolution in this fed by the suspicion, which I happen to think is justified, that evolution really is antireligious." Little wonder that people have absorbed the "pernicious right-wing notion."

Alter continues:

Now President Bush has given that view a boost. When Bush was asked about intelligent design last week, he answered, "Both sides ought to be properly taught... so people can understand what the debate is about." This sounds reasonable until you realize that, as the president's own science adviser, John H. Marburger III, admits, there is no real debate. "Intelligent design is not a scientific concept," Marburger told The New York Times, committing a bit of candor that will presumably earn him a trip to the White House woodshed.

Mr. Alter has concluded from his no doubt copious reading of the literature on the subject, and his attendence at the numerous conferences where the matter is on the agenda, that the idea that a debate exists out here in the hinterlands between Darwinians and Intelligent Design theorists is just an illusion. The matter has been settled and we can all just go home. That's a relief.

After proclaiming victory and an end to hostilities, Alter stumbles by irrelevantly citing Mr. Marburger. The question is not so much whether ID is science as it is whether Darwinian naturalism is science. If ID and Darwinian naturalism are philosophical mirror images, which they are, then whatever perquisites one enjoys in science education should also be available to the other. Alter unwittingly confirms this point in his next paragraph:

Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute claims ID uses a scientifically valid "inference to the best explanation" to back up its theories. That might be good enough for a graduate course in the philosophy of science (and the ACLU should not prevent it from being discussed in high-school humanities and philosophy classes), but the idea of its being offered as an alternative to evolution in ninth-grade biology is a cruel joke. Its basic claim-that the human cell is too complex to be explained by natural selection-is unproven and probably unprovable (emphasis added). ID walks like science and talks like science but, so far, performs in the lab worse than medieval alchemy.

What Alter fails to tell us is that the Darwinian claim that specified and irreducible complexity can self-organize and/or result from chance, energy, and physical law alone is also unproven and definitely unprovable. It walks like science and talks like science, but it's a purely metaphysical assumption. So why should it be allowed to be taught in public schools?

Alter presses on:

It's not God who's the problem but ID's assault on Darwin. Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller (who attends mass every week) says the "unspoken message" peddled by the Discovery Institute is that evolution is the single shakiest theory in science. In fact, despite its flaws, it remains among the most durable theories in all of science.

Of course, though perhaps one despairs by this point of Alter's willingness to grasp this, it's not evolution that's under assault by ID theorists. It's the Darwinian version of evolution which denies any role in the process of the differentiation of life to intelligent agency that ID theorists are challenging.

Even as the president helps pit faith against science in the classroom, popes and other clerics have long known that religion and evolution are not truly at odds. Evolution does not, for instance, challenge the idea that the universe began with a spark of divinity. Darwin himself wrote movingly of God. Only the scientific process-not the scientist-must be agnostic. Long before Darwin, enlightened Christians understood that religion and science are best kept in separate realms. In the fifth century, for instance, Saint Augustine criticized other Christians who "talk nonsense" about the laws of nature.

Alter slyly perpetuates in this passage the error that ID is religion. This appears to be a tactic consistently employed by opponents of ID to discredit it among the public by constant repetition of the libel. There is nothing about ID that is religious. It has religious implications, certainly, but then so does Darwinism.

The most clever thing about intelligent design is that it doesn't sound like nonsense. It conjures up Cambridge, not Kansas. The name evokes Apple software, the MoMA gift shop or a Frank Gehry chair. The scholarly articles are often well written and provocative. But the science within these papers has been demolished over and over by other scientists. As Miller explains, science is perhaps the last true marketplace of ideas. After a decade in circulation, intelligent design has failed the market test. So now its backers are seeking the equivalent of a government bailout, by going around their scientific peers to Red State politicians trying to slip religious dogma into the classroom.

This claim is simply false. The science (More correctly, the philosophical conclusions drawn from the facts of empirical science) has not been demolished. It's been challenged, it's been attacked, it's been derided, misrepresented, slandered, and maligned, but very little of what ID theorists have written has ever been refuted. Alter seems to think that if someone responds to an opponent's argument in strong cadences with an overlay of dogmatic certainty that he has thereby "demolished" his opponent's case.

Alter says that the most clever thing about ID is that it doesn't sound like nonsense. It could be, somebody might tell him, that that's because it's not.

While the Discovery Institute calls God the "designer," to appear less creationist, some of its biggest funders are serious fundamentalists. An internal fund-raising memo leaked in 1999 laid out its theological agenda and intention to use ID as a "wedge" to triumph in the culture wars. Last week Fox News lent a hand. Bill O'Reilly says that the National Academy of Science is guilty of "fascism" for arguing that ID should not take up valuable class time in high-school biology. (Not to be outdone, Dr. James Dobson compared embryonic-stem-cell research to "Nazi experiments.") These are the same modest gents who decry relativism and curricular inclusiveness in the humanities, where it is far more justifiable than in the sciences.

Ah. The old guilt by association chestnut. Rather than use his space to consider what the ID theorists themselves are saying and doing, Alter just trots out some of right-wing boogeymen with which to frighten the children. It's ironic that evolutionists get upset when people concerned about the philosophical implications of evolution quote Richard Dawkins' screeds against religion, but Alter thinks it perfectly reasonable to cite the opinions of Bill O'Reilly and James Dobson as if they were somehow relevant to the question of the merits of ID.

Undaunted by his embarrassing lack of understanding of the topic upon which he professes to instruct us, Alter turns oracular:

Bush's policy of politicizing science-retreating from the field of facts and evidence on everything from evolution to global warming to the number of cell lines available to justify his 2001 stem-cell compromise-will eventually wreak havoc with his legacy. Until then, like his masquerade-ball friends, the president will get more clever at harming science while pretending to promote it. Monkey see, monkey do.

"Wreak havoc with his legacy"? Alter adds the office of prophet to his already distinguished roles of in-house scientist and philosopher. That he knows the future with such assurance is breathtaking for those of us limited by the constraints of space and time.

"Harming science"? How, exactly, have Bush's policies harmed science? Alter needs no justification for these simple-minded asseverations, of course. His readers can be expected to understand that Bush is a dolt so whatever Alter says about the catastrophic nature of anything he does just has to be true.

One is left wondering how many books by any prominent ID thinker Alter has ever read. My guess is that the answer is zero, since he understands so little about the matter. Too bad that doesn't stop him from writing about it. It makes you wonder who the real dolt is.