Thursday, March 03, 2005

Postmodernism and Fundamentalism

Joe Kaplinski has written a lengthy and interesting article about ID for the online magazine Spiked. You can find it here. It's a mixed bag of an article. At times I think Kaplinski hits it out of the park. At other times I think he's trying to hard to find something original to say on this subject.

I liked this excerpt:


The newest manifestation of creationism is a theory called 'intelligent design'. According to intelligent design theory the complexity of the living world is evidence that it was deliberately designed by a Creator. The novelty lies in the false claim that the evidence of design is scientific evidence and that it can be studied scientifically.

Intelligent design contains no new ideas about our origins. The 'argument from design' in its most basic form goes back at least to Aristotle. It was taken up by Christian philosophers and eventually disposed of by the Enlightenment thinkers Immanuel Kant and David Hume, who pointed out that there was no necessary link between puzzling complexity in the world and supernatural origins, let alone Christian theology.

On examination intelligent design's only novelty turns out to be not a grounding in science, but a promotional strategy. Its supposed scientific legitimacy rests on the work of biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski. However, neither Behe nor Dembski (nor anyone else) have published on intelligent design in peer reviewed journals. This is unsurprising, since their work is nothing but rehashes of old creationist arguments.


And this one:


No doubt taking up intelligent design is a dispiriting business. The slightest attention from scientists, no matter how critical, is trumpeted as proof that intelligent design is being taken seriously and that it is making a contribution to science. The more vigorously intelligent design is refuted, the more this is claimed as evidence that there really is an important 'debate' that needs to be taught in classrooms. Detailed refutations are met with the response that the real argument to be met is contained within a forthcoming publication.

All this is bluster and noise. It is designed to convince the creationists' base that Darwinism is on the point of collapse (although strangely it never quite falls), and to convey an impression to the wider public that there is some substance to their criticisms. There is nothing else to it. It must be tempting to spend one's time more productively than sorting through this junk. Fortunately there are enough teachers and scientists prepared to take up the work.


But Kaplinski's main point is that the widespread public sympathy for creationism is explained not by religious zealotry, but rather by a suspicion of experts and authority generally. And this suspicion, he argues, is the result of certain liberal educational policies that have undermined the notion of scientific truth.

For example, he writes:


It is important to understand what is behind the recent attacks on evolution, and to keep the supposed rise of the Christian right in perspective. The recent attacks on evolution have been coordinated by a small group of well-organised and moderately well-funded Christians, whose 'wedge' strategy sees questioning of evolution as the first step on the road to a theocratic society.

But in historical terms creationism is weaker than ever before. Christianity has long been a powerful force in US culture. It is hard to make the case that it exists today in a more fundamentalist, or a more right-wing, politically influential, form. The intelligent design activists play off widespread Christian faith, but they also play off a wider culture that is sceptical of the claims of science.


Actually, I think it's easy to make the case that American Christianity is far more fundamentalist, right-wing, and influential today than at any other time in recent history. This is reflected in the number of Congressional sympathizers with the religious right, the respectful press coverage given to representatives of the most right-wing elements of Christianity, the increasing percentage of the evangelical and Catholic votes that have gone to Republicans in recent elections, and in other ways as well.

And the idea that creationism is weaker than ever before is just plain batty. Belief in the hard-core, young-Earth, Noah's flood version of creationism has not flagged in the slightest according to every poll I've seen. The embrace of ID does not reflect a retreat by creationists. It merely reflects their increasing savviness in presenting their case. I suspect if you put it to a vote you would have young-Earth creationism taught respectfully in most of the South and Midwest, and in a distressingly high percentage of blue-state counties as well.

Another example of Kaplinsky missing the boat is this excerpt:


Forrest and Gross present such uncompromising Christianity as evidence that the threat of intelligent design is more alarming than it appears. But though they have established that the individuals associated with the intelligent design network are motivated by sincere Christian faith, they don't engage with why it is that the creationists cannot publicly argue on that basis.

The obvious barrier presented by the Constitutional separation between church and state is not sufficient explanation. After all, it needs to be explained why it is that the constitutional rule has only made itself felt since the late 1960s, and why the legal setbacks of the creationists have become steadily worse.

The formulation of the intelligent design strategy as the thin end of a wedge itself recognises the creationists' current weakness. They recognise that they cannot openly admit their full Christian programme. Such an attempt could not make headway in contemporary American culture. The wedgers may dream of a theocratic United States, but there is no chance of this coming about.


We should point out that Paul Gross certainly can not be accused of overlooking the pernicious role of liberal anti-science. After all, he is the coauthor of Hgher Superstition (with Norman Levitt) and the coeditor of The Flight From Science and Reason (with Norman Levitt and Martin Lewis).

As for the point Kaplinsky is making, I think the Constitutional barrier is indeed the complete explanation for why the creationists have scaled back their ambitions. Why did these legal challenges not make themselves felt until the 1960's? Because there was almost no mention of evolution in science classes before that time. It was in the sixties, in response to the Sputnik launch, that evolution was again reinstated as a major part of the science curriculum. Before that time it was almost universally ignored. On top of this, most of the church/state separation cases that angered fundamentalists occurred in the sixties and beyond. There was little legal activity before the sixties because the fundamentalists did not see it as necessary. Since Kaplinsky discusses this hsitory, I'm not sure why he ignores it in this section.

And I'm also not sure what he means when he says that creationist legal defeats have gotten progressively worse. Creationists have tried a variety of legal strategies and so far none has worked. Someday they will find one that will work. Until that time, one defeat is as bad as another.

Anyway, it is only the courts that would object to an overtly Christian message being taught in the schools. In most parts of the country that message would be welcomed.

I think Kaplinsky is correct that a sort of left-wing relativism about truth and authority is part of the problem. He is surely correct to say


But even on a seemingly clear-cut issue such as creationism, the division is not so sharp. Liberals have often been at the forefront of questioning the authority of science. It is liberals who have argued that science education should respect cultural differences and that the curriculum should be immediately relevant to everyday life of students. Creationists have leapt at the opportunity presented by educational theories to put the knowledge of pupils on the same level as that as scientists, by putting forward the demand to 'teach the controversy'.


Basically, Kaplinsky is arguing that this sort of left-wing relativism and Christian fundamentalism are both threats to good science education. I agree. He further argues that the former is a bigger threat than the latter. It is there that we disagree.

But I have only commented on a small portion of Kaplinsky's article, and I encourage you to go read the whole thing.

3 Comments:

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Certainly there are strands of anti-authoritarian science-doubting within the left, but the idea that
"science education should respect cultural differences and that the curriculum should be immediately relevant to everyday life of students."
is by no means in itself a threat to good science teaching! Indeed, the opposite is probably true. The whole idea is to build a bridge between kids' own experiences, homes, communities, etc, and formal science - to reveal that it is a meaningful part of their lives, not some alien, unfamiliar, unwelcoming thing. Yes, you can go overboard, but really, that applies to *everything . . . *

And at its root, the idea that science can be abused isn't a bad insight - it just gets twisted out of shape, misapplied, and grossly overgeneralized.

 
At 3:38 AM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

"And the idea that creationism is weaker than ever before is just plain batty. Belief in the hard-core, young-Earth, Noah's flood version of creationism has not flagged in the slightest according to every poll I've seen. The embrace of ID does not reflect a retreat by creationists. It merely reflects their increasing savviness in presenting their case. I suspect if you put it to a vote you would have young-Earth creationism taught respectfully in most of the South and Midwest, and in a distressingly high percentage of blue-state counties as well."


Dr. Rosenhouse,

I concur Young Earth Creationism is strong. ID has strenghtened the YEC case immensely.

Creationism is becoming an even more popular topic in the Evangelical churches than it ever was. The Christian Campus Organizations are not overtly creationists, but are solidly behind intelligent design, and for the first time overtly and forthrightly anti-Darwinian.

The Evangelical Theistic Evolutionists (like Lamoureux) are on their way to extinction. Evangelical college students love creationists and IDists.

YEC is becoming popular in the Evangelical Physics community, especially after Paul Davies was featured in Nature, 2002 for his work on variable light speed. YEC is advancing also because the big bang theory is getting openly critized by non-creationists. For example, 3 professors at George Mason University seriously question or reject the Big Bang.

I correlate the rise of YEC to the delcine of ICR and Dr. Dino, and the rise of better YEC institutions and independent proponents. The most academically respected YEC institution is Loma Linda University/Geosciences Research Institute. They actually had a peer reviewed article on the cover of February 2004 Geology. Their medical university and hospital is a real institution.

The best YEC in the world right now is MIT PhD Walter Brown, National Science Foundation Fellow.

 
At 10:02 PM, Blogger reyt said...

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