Sunday, July 18, 2004

And Another Review

Steve Reuland of The Panda's Thumb has called my attention to this highly favorable review, in Science and Theology News, of the book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Paul Gross and Barbara Forrest, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press. The review's author is Karl Giberson, editor of the magazine. Here's an excerpt:

Forrest and Gross think it’s time the scientific community sat up and took notice. Their carefully documented account is the first full-length treatment of the political agenda of what Phillip Johnson, the acknowledged leader of ID, has called the “Wedge.” The authors describe the Wedge as a movement with a plan to undermine public support for the teaching of evolution and other natural science supporting evolution, while at the same time cultivating a supposedly sound alternative: intelligent design theory. Creationism’s Trojan Horse, in the course of more than 300 well-documented pages, does exactly what the authors set out to do: uncover a sophisticated, well-funded, religiously driven program to get evolution out of the public schools.

The review closes, however, with a bizarre criticism:

What Forrest and Gross do not understand, however, in concert with their fellow academics, is that they are a large part of the reason why it is so easy for ID to rally and recruit anti-evolutionary troops. America is a deeply religious place where belief in God and belief in creation is fundamental. America is also scientifically illiterate; Americans don’t understand science and, for the most part, don’t care what their kids are learning in high school science classes. But promote a scientific theory that undermines belief in God as creator, and all of a sudden millions of Americans do care about the high school science curriculum.

I think you'd actually be hard-pressed to find an academic who does not understand that America is both deeply religious and, for the most part, scientifically illiterate. I'm not sure what Forrest and Gross wrote in their book to suggest that they think something different.

Gibberson continues:

The champions of evolution — the self-appointed articulators of the grand vision — must decide where they want to draw the line. Many of them (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson) insist that the evolutionary inn has no room for the idea that God created the world. Others (Michael Ruse, Ken Miller, John Haught) see in evolutionary theory everything from absence of conflict to encouraging support for the idea that a purposeful creator lies behind the world we experience.

Scientists, like everyone else, can believe that God created the world, or not. They can believe that evolution is compatible with that belief, or not. They can believe that tax dollars should be used to teach evolution to children and that local public schools should reinforce community values and beliefs, or not. But these decisions belong to everyone, not just to scientists. If the taxpaying parents of America’s schoolchildren are concerned that the public schools are undermining their values, those parents need to be heard. The ID movement is listening, and listening carefully, but it is not clear that the scientific community is doing the same.

Fighting anti-evolution in America is akin to fighting drug traffic. In the long run, unless we can reduce the demand for the product, attacking the sources will be of little consequence.

Giberson obviously thinks he has made a point here, but I'm not sure what it is. I think he's just repeating the old objection that the strident atheistic rhetoric of some evolution defenders, particularly Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is used by creationists to rally people to their cause. That's certainly true, though we should point out that neither Dawkins nor Dennett has ever argued that evolution per se rules out Christian faith.

But what is it, exactly, that Giberson wants the scientific community to do that it is not currently doing? Most of the scientists who engage this issue bend over backward to avoid offending people. Most are content merely to point out the numerous errors in creationist arguments, and most specifically defend the idea that evolution poses no threat to Christian faith. What does listening to the public require of us?

It is not that ID proponents are listening to the public while scientists are not. It is that ID's are simply parroting things that are commonly believed anyway. The problem isn't that too many scientists are presenting evolution in a way that makes it unpalatable to people. It is that evolution itself is unpalatable, and all the whipped cream and chocolate sauce in the world isn't going to improve the taste for many religious people.

And I dont know any way of “ reducing the demand” for creationism except by atacking the sources. I spend so much time reading and refuting creationist literature because I cling to the belief (in defiance of all the evidence to the contrary) that people will be receptive to a good argument, clearly made. If Giberson can suggest some more effective way of spending my anti-creationist time, I'm happy to hear it.

In the end, I think Giberson is demonstrating the standard condescension of the pseudo-open-minded. Judging from the rest of his review, I don't think Giberson has any more respect for the creationist viewpoint than I have. But he chooses to close his essay with an admonition to those bad ol' dogmatic scientists that they need to listen more to the masses. Curricular decisions belong to everyone, he snorts, giving a good poke in the eye to that enormous group of people who thing scientists alone should make such decisions.

Scientists listen plenty to the masses, and they fully understand the armchair sociology Giberson describes. The question is what to do after we are done listening. When creationists defend their viewpoint with faulty logic and bogus information, what else can we do but point out that they are wrong?

And, for that matter, does Giberson believe that the taxpaying American parents who believe the public schools are undermining their values actually spend much time listening to what scientists are saying? If the issue is who is being more sensitive to the concerns of the other side, I think scientists win hands down.