Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Sorry for the grim title, but it was the only word that came to mind after reading William Saletan's abysmal article for Slate on the Kansas evolution hearings. Here's the opining paragraph:

This week, the Kansas State Board of Education will wrap up hearings on “intelligent design,” a theistic alternative to the theory of evolution. Scientists have refused to testify, dismissing ID as tarted-up creationism. Newspapers are comparing the hearings to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Liberals, editorialists, and biologists wonder aloud how people can refuse to see evolution when it's staring them in the face. Maybe they should ask themselves. It's the creationists in Kansas who are evolving. And it's the evolutionists who can't see it.

Ugh. ID is indeed “tarted-up creationism,” but that's not the reason scientists are refusing to testify. Rather, the reason is that scientists have no desire to participate in a kangaroo court whose verdict was decided a long time ago.

No one is wondering aloud about how people can refuse to see evolution when it is staring them in the face. I'm not even sure what it means to say evolution is staring them in the face. What biologists and the like do wonder about is why so many people are buying into anti-science arguments that are plainly false.

And, what the heck, we might as well point out that officially intelligent design is not a theistic alternative to evolution. Not the way its supporters present it anyway.

Now, what is it, exactly, that evolutionists are not seeing?

To understand the fight in Kansas, you have to study what evolutionists accuse creationists of neglecting: the historical record. In the Scopes trial, creationists defended a ban on the teaching of evolution. That was the early, authoritarian stage of creationism—the equivalent of Australopithecus, the earliest hominid. Gradually, evolution gained the upper hand. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn't even require equal treatment of evolution and creationism. By 1999, creationists were asking the Kansas board not to rule out their beliefs entirely. This was creationism's more advanced Homo erectus phase: pluralism.

Six years later, evolutionists in Kansas are under attack again. They think the old creationism is back. They're mistaken. Homo erectus—the defense, on pluralist grounds, of the literal account of Genesis—is beginning to die out. The new challenger, ID, differs fundamentally from fundamentalism. Like its creationist forebears, ID is theistic. But unlike them, it abandons Biblical literalism, embraces open-minded inquiry, and accepts falsification, not authority, as the ultimate test. These concessions, sincere or not, define a new species of creationism—Homo sapiens—that fatally undermines its ancestors. Creationists aren't threatening us. They're becoming us.

How do writers like Saletan keep their jobs? ID is the new challenger? It's been around for more than a decade! Trying to pass equal-time laws for creationism is beginning to die out? It died out almost twenty years ago! Kansas evolutionists aren't aware of these facts? Upon what could he possible be basing so ridiculous an assertion? I promise you, every single evolutionist in Kansas understands that ID differs from young-Earth creationism, and the tactics being used now to promote ID are different from the tactics used six years ago.

What's really going on here is that Saletan can see as well as anyone else that the Kansas hearings are a sham, and that ID is bogus science. But stating the obvious would not allow him to puff himself up as a keen political observer who sees past the superficialities that ensnare his journalistic colleagues.

Saletan goes on in this vein, trying to persuade us that the latest crop of ID folks are so much more modest than their fundamentalist brethren. He analyzes in scrupulous detial the changes in the standards that the ID's are trying to implement and compares them to the changes the young-Earthers tried to make six years ago. That this modesty is a sham born out of political necessity has apparently eluded him.

Saletan does show occasional signs of non-brain-deadness:

Essentially, ID proponents are gambling that they can concede evolutionist earth science without conceding evolutionist life science. But they can't. They already acknowledge microevolution—mutation and natural selection within a species. Once you accept conventional fossil dating and four billion years of life, the sequential kinship of species loses its implausibility. You can't fall back on the Bible; you've already admitted it can't always be taken literally. All you're left with is an assortment of gaps in evolutionary theory—how did DNA emerge, what happened between this and that fossil—and the vague default assumption that an “intelligence” might fill in those gaps. Calvert and Harris call this assumption a big tent. But guess what happens to a tent without poles.

Pretty good! If only the whole article were like that. But at this point Saletan remembers that bashing the ID side doesn't make you look insightful. After all, everyone already knows they're idiots. No, bashing the evolutionists for lacking the penetrating insight he, William Saletan, possesses is where the real money is:

Perversely, evolutionists refuse to facilitate this collapse. They prefer to dismiss ID proponents as dead-end Neanderthals. They complain, legitimately, that Calvert and Harris are trying to expand the definition of science beyond “natural explanations.” But have you read the definition Calvert and Harris propose? It would define science as a continuous process of “observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.” Abstract creationism can't qualify for such scrutiny. Substantive creationism can't survive it. Or if it can, it should.

It's too bad liberals and scientists don't welcome this test. It's too bad they go around sneering, as censors of science often have, that the new theory is too radical, offensive, or embarrassing to be taken seriously. It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things. In the long view—the evolutionary view—good science consists of using evidence and experiment to find out whether what we thought was right is wrong. If they do that in Kansas, by whatever name, that's all that matters.

Scientists don't wlecome this test? I guess Saletan was too busy patting himself on the back for his courage and insightfulness to bother reading books like Finding Darwin's God or Why Intelligent Design Fails. Scientists don't reject ID because its radical, offensive or embarrassing. Saletan just made that up. They reject ID because the arguments made by ID proponents are totally false. Obviously false to people who, unlike Saletan, know what they're talking about. Saletan apparently overlooked that angle.

So why the despair? Because it looks to me like there's almost no one who is willing to stand up for decent science any more. It seems like no one will stand up for a value as fundamental as understanding the basic facts of the scientific discipline you are writing about.

On the one hand you have the organs of the right, like The Weekly Standard, National Review, Commentary and The American Spectator bashing evolution every chance they get. Outlets like The New York Times and The Wshington Post will whip out a good editorial now and then, but in their news coverage they are perfectly happy to treat ID respectfully, and they are perfectly happy to give plenty of room on their op-ed page to the likes of Michael Behe.

Meanwhile, the organs of the left, with the exception of The American Prospect, stare on in stone-faced silence.

Even Nature, one of the most respected science periodicals in the world, feels they have to be respectful towards ID. They recently did a very polite feature article on my occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova. There are countless scientists toiling away in labs right now trying to push back the frontiers of ignorance just a little bit, and Nature chooses to give polite coverage to someone who prefers the ignorance.

Slate used to be a place you could turn to find sensible center-left commentary. But that was back when Michael Kinsley was editing it. Now its just another rag.

Oh well. What can you do? We're running out of oil, Antarctica's melting, Iran's about to get nukes, and I'll probably get mercury poisoning from that can of tuna I ate earlier today. Maybe I'll dwell on that for a while...


At 7:08 PM, Blogger L said...

after a while you just get sick and tired of the whole thing. stupidity is exhausting to deal with...

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saletan is pretty good on this stuff for a guy who is not an afficionado of this subject.

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nevetheless, i will be emailing him your stuff.


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At 7:38 AM, Anonymous outeast said...

OUCH! WTF?? Hey, look, love the blog, some good posts, but where in hell do you get off saying the following:

"ID is the new challenger? It's been around for more than a decade!"

Come on! ID has been around several thousand years at least...

Now, consider your knuckles rapped and don't let the Emperor's new clothes fool you into even that much of a concession again.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought that all the ID proponents were Christians. They obviously are not good ones. No Christian of good moral quality would resort to quote mining in an effort to distort facts and denigrate others simply to prove themselves right. Such activity smacks of arrogance and borders on libel. Of course, a Christian person would never do that. It would be immoral.

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous tshandy said...

...the latest crop of ID folks are so much more modest than their fundamentalist brethren.
gee, he's not familiar with the Isaac Newton of IDiocy, is he?

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaaawww, are the big bad people who don't like evolution getting to you? I would have thought that as much faith as you all seem to have in the Darwin Dogma, it could stand up to a little examination and criticism, but I guess evolution is just a religion after all, you accept it and don't dare ask why things don't seem to fit the way they should, or stand up to true scrutiny.

At 1:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evolution is constantly being scrutinized and examined, so you are just uninformed on that one. The problem here is that ID proponents know that they have no solid ground for their theories and thus resort to trickery to gain ground with the ignorant masses. Who ever said we have faith? I think you are mistaking faith for what we really have, which is a strong indication that Darwin is right. The funny thing is that with science you have a constant need to rexamine all ideas in order to better validate them, but with pseudo-science such as ID, you have people who are frightened by the thought of rexamining their own beliefs for fear that they are completely wrong. This fact alone leads me to believe that they know they are, but just don't want to admit it.

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