Monday, July 19, 2004

Sisson, Part One

Having been burned by Robert Koons' contribution to William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (see here, here and here), I thought carefully about which essay to read next. I figured I already knew what Behe and Denton were going to tell me, and since there were several contributors I had never heard of I figured I'd have better luck with one of them. I eventually decided upon the essay “Teaching the Flaws in Neo-Darwinism” by Edward Sisson.

According to the short bio in the back of the book, Sisson “ is a partner at a large Washington D.C.-based international law firm, specializing in litigation arising out of multi-million dollar corporate acquisitions.” Early in his essay he tells us, a la Phillip Johnson, that he is “accustomed to the techniques of rhetoric, spin, ad hominem arguments, and other methods of verbal persuasion and intimidation.” He also assures us that he has some training in the evaluation of scientific theories, said training having been obtained from some undergraduate science courses he took at MIT. Interesting credentials. The fact that scientific theories can not be evaluated without considerable knowledge of the relevant subject area seems to have escaped him.

I had never heard of Sisson prior to reading this essay, so I looked forward to reading his contribution.

Alas, it wasn't long before I was waxing nostalgic for the logic and clear-thinking of Robert Koons. Sisson's essay is breathtakingly silly. Breathtakingly. I'm talking about a level of silliness to make the Young-Earthers weep with envy. If I live to be a hundred and fifty years old I might never again behold anything quite this silly.

I describe his essay as silly because it is almost completely devoid of any substantive argument at all. It is mostly a rehash of standard ID talking points, mostly presented with far less elan than I have come to expect from the ID's. Most of the essay is taken up with pathetic, high-pitched, goat-bleats about dastardly evolutionists being mean and snide to clear-thinking, endlessly patient, infinitely wise ID's.

Then again, perhaps I should be more careful with my rhetoric. After all, Sisson takes the view that the nastiness of evolutionists, and the civility of ID folks, tells us something about where the truth lies:

Finally, in judging the nature of the debate over the origin and subsequent diversity of life, there is another aspect of litigation that sheds light on why the debate is conducted as it is. A psychology that commonly operates in litigation is that opposing lawyers are primed to reject every statement by the other side-for there is no advantage in considering that the statements might be true. Lawyers are not engaged in a mutual search for truth. In comparing the writings of the science-trained advocates of intelligent design with the writings of their opponents, I see that psychology occurring again and again on just one side of the debate: the side of the science establishment. That psychology is not evident in the work of intelligent design proponents that I have read. The fact that it is missing from their work is one reason why I have come to trust them more than their opponents in this debate. I think that the intelligent design advocates want to talk with me about looking for the truth. In sharp contrast, the science establishment is primarily engaged in using intimidation, ridicule, and innuendo against its critics. (P.88-89) (Emphasis in original).

Sisson is so concerned with issues of tone and style that he comes back to this point later:

There is another characteristic element in litigation that also appears repeatedly in the evolution debates: the ad hominem denigration of the representatives of the other side, and the assertion that the opponent said things he or she didn't say. In litigation, lawyers regularly seize upon any action by the other side's lawyers that can be characterized as evidence that the lawyer is deceitful, incompetent, confused, or acting in bad faith. ...Anyone who delves into the books, and articles, and internet postings in the evolution debate will see instantly who employs these kinds of tactics and who does not. For example, the authors aligned with the scientific establishment always label skeptics of unintelligent evolution “creationists” in an attempt to box all doubters in with young-earth Christian fundamentalists, while adding sneering comments that denigrate their intellectual integrity. But if you read the advocates of intelligent design, you will find that these accusations are false. (P.91) (Emphasis in original).

Of course, evolutionists do not simply charge the ID folks with deceit, incompetence, confusion, and bad faith, they back it up with copious, some would say tedious, demonstrations of the validity of those charges. If Sisson finds those demonstrations unconvincing then he should tell us why. But using the fact that evolutionists often refer to ID's as “creationists” (an entirely fair attribution, in my view) as an excuse to avoid considering anti-ID arguments is intellectually lazy, to put it kindly.

Sadly, Sisson does not provide a single example of “the science establishment” primarily engaging in intimidation, ridicule, and innuendo. Not one example of an evolutionist attributing to an ID a view he does not hold. Not a single quotation from a piece of anti-ID writing to back up his charges. Not one. In fact, while he assures us early in the essay that he is well-read on this subject, he does not cite any piece of anti-ID writing at all.

Leaving this aside, let's consider the extent to which ID folks want to talk with us about looking for the truth.

Here's William Dembski, from his introduction to the present volume:

We now face a Darwinian thought police that, save for employing physical violence, is as insidious as any secret police at ensuring conformity and rooting out dissent. To question Darwinism is dangerous for all professional scholars but especially biologists.

And here's Jonathan Wells, from Icons of Evolution:

...dogmatic Darwinists begin by imposing a narrow interpretation on the evidence and declaring it to be the only way to do science. Critics are then labeled unscientific; their articles are rejected by mainstream journals, whose editorial boards are dominated by the dogmatists; the critics are denied funding by government agencies, who send grant proposals to the dogmatists for “peer review” and eventually the critics are hounded out of the scientific community altogether.

In the process, evidence against the Darwinian view simply disappears, like witnesses against the Mob. Or the evidence is buried in specialized publications, where only a dedicated researcher can find it. Once critics have been silenced and counter-evidence has been buried, the dogmatists announce that there is no scientific debate about their theory, and no evidence against it. Using such tactics, defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy have managed to establish a near-monopoly over research grants, faculty appointments, and peer-reviewed journals in the United States

And, what the heck, here's Sisson himself:

It seems that it is in order to promote deference to scientists that the scientific establishment makes and distributes in our schools “Darwin's acid”, corroding the allegiance of students to any other class of truth-pronouncers except scientists. That is the reason, I believe, that we are told high school students must learn this theory without being exposed to any of its weaknesses and inadequacies-so that deference to scientists becomes a foundational assumption of their mental make-up before they are old enough to question either the theory or the authority of the scientific establishment that is built on it, as they might if they were not exposed to the theory until college. (P. 93) (Emphasis in original).

So much for fretting about charges of deceit and bad faith.

Sisson does make a handful of substantive claims in his essay, and I will consider them in subsequent installments in this series.

But let me close this essay with a few words about tone. I am among those who pepper his anti-creationist writing with snide remarks and attacks on the honesty of my proponents. I do this for two reasons.

The first is that it makes for more interesting writing. Personally, I like my non-fiction with a little attitude, as long as it stays within some reasonable bounds of taste and decorum. A cold recitation of the facts may be good for the soul, but it's not what gets people to read your stuff.

The second, and more important reason, is that I think the behavior of creationists and ID's merits something stronger than polite discussion. It's okay to accuse your opponents of bad faith when they really are guilty of bad faith. It's okay to accuse your opponents of dishonesty when they routinely present quotations out of context. It's okay to accuse your opponents of incompetence when they make sweeping attacks against scientists but make basic errors in fundamental aspects of the relevant subjects. All of these charges have been backed up both in my own writing and in the writing of countless other scientists. What Sisson refers to as ad hominem attacks, I call telling it like it is.

Personally, when I read work by other people the first thing I ask myself is whether the argument being presented is any good. If it is, then I don't much care about the tone. If it is not, then I start asking myself questions about who the author is. Sisson never gets to any serious consideration of the arguments on either side. His essay consists almost entirely of sweeping charges against evolutionists, backed up with absolutely nothing, coupled with a blindness to the fact that ID's are guilty of precisely the rhetorical sins he attributes to his opponents.

Why shouldn't I describe such an essay as “silly”?