Friday, August 26, 2005

Idiocy from The American Thinker

With a name as pretentious as The American Thinker, you just know it has to be the product of right-wing cranks. You can check out their archives here.

They recently published this ridiculous essay by Jonah Avriel Cohen, entitled “Why Intelligent Design Ought to be Taught.”

Of the many reasons why intelligent design – an argument I reject – ought to be taught alongside evolution in our public schools, perhaps none is more compelling than the ignorance and demagoguery which is evident in our current national debate over the issue. Below are four myths you frequently come across while reading the political literature on the subject, followed by the facts.

It's always suspicious when a writer begins by disavowing the viewpoint he is about to defend. But let's leave that aside and consider his supposed myths:

Myth: The theory of intelligent design is a modern version of Creationism.

As examples of people perpetuating this myth, Cohen offers quotes from Charles Krauthammer, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. Then he writes:

Fact: The theory of intelligent design goes back at least as far as classical Greece and it has been debated in nearly every century since then.

Our century is no different. Those who advocate intelligent design are not “disguising” anything; they are not furtive men. They are offering for your consideration an idea that has intrigued the minds of everyone from Plato to Kant, an idea that possibly began when Socrates asked:

“With such signs of forethought in the design of living creatures, can you doubt they are the work of choice or design?”

Now, because the design argument can be found in Plato’s dialogues, we can deduce that the theory not only predates the theory of creationism – which was but one religious response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) – it is also not wedded to Judeo-Christian scripture.

Krauthammer, Coyne and Dawkins are wrong here.

Certainly, there have been updated versions of the intelligent design theory – see, for example, Oxford professor Richard Swinburne’s article, “The Argument from Design” in Philosophy, vol. 43 (1968) – but the design hypothesis is no more modern than the Epicurean hypothesis that the universe consists solely of particles in random motion.

Let's begin with the obvious: The Old Testament, which is, after all, the founding document of creationism, came well before Plato's dialogues. See what I mean about idiocy?

More to the point, of course people throughout history have wondered whether there is a designer behind the workings of nature. But some generic design hypothesis is not what anyone is talking about in the current debate, such as it is. People who advocate teaching ID are not saying we need more discussion of Plato's philosophy. What they have in mind is a specific set of scientific assertions intended to discredit evolution and show that design is by far the most likely explanation for the complexity of the living world. And if you believe ID's leading practitioners, the arguments they have in mind are not only new, but will revolutionize science in the very near future.

As it happens, however, anyone familiar with the literature of “Scientific Creationism” will recognize that the arguments of ID's are different only in style, not in substance, from those of the YEC's. Furthermore, ID hit the scene shortly after YEC suffered several court defeats during the eighties. And considering the copious writings from the Discovery Institute and leading ID proponents about wanting to destroy naturalism and restore their version of a Christian worldview to intellectual respectability, it is not at all unfair to describe ID as a form of creationism.

Here's Cohen's second myth:

Myth: The theory of intelligent design claims that the designer is the God described in the Bible.

Actually, I don't know anyone on my side who makes this claim. Everyone agrees that as a matter of logic the designer suggested by ID could be any one of a number of entities. The claim that is made by people on my side is that ID folks are just being coy when they leave open the possibility of super-intelligent aliens and the like. This reticence to identify the designer is born out of political necessity, not scientific open-mindedness. The quote Cohen provides backs up my claim:

ID advocates are also coy about the identity of the designer, claiming that it doesn’t have to be God. But, token allusions to the possibility of extraterrestrial or time-traveling biochemists notwithstanding, no one is fooled into thinking that the designer is not the Designer: God.

This is from a recent op-ed by Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch. They are perfectly clear that ID makes no necessary claim about the identity of the designer, but the fact remains that everyone knows who they have in mind.

Cohen's subsequent analysis adds nothing to this point.

His third “myth” is the most ridiculous of them all:

Myth: Conservatives and Christians necessarily accept the intelligent design argument.

The quote Cohen uses to back up this “myth” comes from blogger Jean Chen. Prepare to snicker:

Intelligent design is just another strategy from conservative Christians to ban evolution.

Yes, you read that right. The “conservative Christians” of Chen's quote became the “Conservatives and Christians” of Cohen's myth.

And just in case you think I am being unfair to Cohen, he makes things explicit in his next paragraph:

Fact: You can consistently be a political conservative or a devout Christian and still totally reject the argument from intelligent design.

Indeed. Many people describing themselves as conservative come from the libertarian side of things, and many of them reject ID. Likewise, there are a great many Christians who have no problem with evolution. Absolutely no one is confused on this point.

But what you will almost never find are people who describe themselves as conservative Christians who accept evolution. I have no doubt that such people exist, but they are a tiny minority. There's a reason that every single school board dust-up on this subject is instigated by religious right organizations and supported by the Republican politicans who pander to them.

We could stop there, but Cohen's next paragraph is so delightfully condescending that we ought to look at it:

How many are aware that, of the many critics of the design argument,
none were more formidable than a political conservative, on the one
hand, and a Christian fundamentalist, on the other?

He's about to lecture us about David Hume and Soren Kierkegaard, but that's beside the point. I have often said that frequently you can spot a crank even if you know very little about the subject in question. And the line above could only have been written by a major league crank.

You see, to the crank the really important thing is not discerning the truth of a situation. It is not weighing the evidence in a sensible way to arrive at a correct conclusion. No. The important thing is establishing the crank's intellectual superiority over anyone who takes a different view. That is why debating a crank is usually a very frustrating experience. While you are busy trying to conjure up sound arguments and clear logic, the crank is going through his aresenal of obscure, out-of context facts, looking for one he can use to shut you up.

That is why Cohen expresses his point in the tone of a teacher lecturing a small child. It is why he begins by announcing to the world that he is in possession of an obscure fact that refutes some bit of conventional wisdom held by the masses.

Incidentally, applying modern labels to people like Hume and Kierkegaard is a highly dubious proposition. Kierkegaard's religious views were far more nuanced and subtle than what we nowadays refer to as “fundamentalism” And it has little meaning to apply the modern label “conservative” to someone like Hume.

Cohen's fourth myth is a change of pace. He gets this one right:

Myth: The theory of evolution and monotheism are logically at odds or, at least, inimical.

This one I agree with. Cohen backs it up with a quote from the Jacob Weisberg essay I skewered in this previous post.

Cohen begins his conclusion as follows:

The dispute between intelligent design versus a randomly ordered cosmos is age-old and fascinating and still unresolved. That smart and honest writers are now busy promulgating sheer fictions about this debate suggests that we are indeed in need of education on this topic. And that is a sufficient reason, in my opinion, for it to be taught in our schools, perhaps not in biology classes, but at least in mandatory philosophy classes, something our school systems do not demand to our national shame. (Emphasis Added)

Now he tells us. Sadly, the whole argument is about what to teach in science classes. That's what all the school board flare-ups are about. That's what all of the recent and pending legal activity is all about. Yes, of course, you should teach such things in philosophy classes. Who has ever said otherwise?

As I said, standard crank. In his attempt to show how clear-headed and above it all he is, Cohen has merely demonstrated that he has no understanding of what people are arguing about.


At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Fact: The theory of intelligent design goes back at least as far as classical Greece and it has been debated in nearly every century since then."

I think you missed a particular point concerning the above 'fact'. And that is, Plato [b]is[/b] taught in school. In philosophy class where it belongs.

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Dan S. said...

But . . .but . . . if ID creationism evolved from yong earth creationism, why are there still YECs around?


The American Thinker really seem to be flogging this "ID goes back to ancient Greece, so there!!" meme. Early in August another piece argued that:

In other words, Intelligent Design scientists haven’t gotten their tickets stamped by Darwinian scientists. This notion that Intelligent Design is a novel and essentially Christian theory would come as a surprise to Aristotle. In his book, The Physics, he addressed an early form of  Darwinism, which came through Empedocles, and rejected it as an irrational account of nature.

[They quote Aristotle's objections to Empedocles' idea, a sort of quasi-mythological precursor of natural selection where body parts grew out of the ground and hooked up under the influence of Love, with only the best formed surviving (I think?)]

"Can this passage from Aristotle's Physics be taught in schools? Or would the Post consider it insufficiently scientific? The debate over evolution didn't begin with Bush, Schonborn, or the school of Intelligent Design. The debate goes back to the time of the Greeks, but the elite, in order to preserve a phony “scientific consensus,” is working overtime through the press to make sure that students don't hear it."

The idea that we would discussing long passages of Aristole's Physics in 9th grade biology, even as a rhetorical question, makes me want to stab myself in the eyes with sharp objects.

This - and the resulting discussion on Dembski's blog- really just sums it all up for me. Not that I wouldn't mind giving a bit more history-of-science for evolution, but . . . ah, words fail me.

"Or would the Post consider it insufficiently scientific?" The argument, again, is that ID isn't really some newfangled religious idea (addressed quite well in the above post) , but look where it leads them. Backwards, backwards, backwards, in frantic flight both from scientific reality and educational reality.

Shame. As in "What a . . . " and ". . . on them."

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Dan S. said...

We definitely need to stress critical thinking, logic, etc. in school - and high school is a great place, developmentally speaking, to do it. Whether it should be a specific required class, as well as pervasive cross-cutting approach . . . I dunno.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Pierce R. Butler said...

>> The Old Testament... came well before Plato's dialogues.

Well, the Genesis part did. To be utterly pedantic, a few of the later sections of the OT, such as the book of Daniel, are usually considered by historians to have been written later (about 150 years later in Danny's case).

At 1:07 AM, Anonymous Nort said...

To answer your quesiton about whether there are conservative Christians who accept evolution: yes, there are. There are many members of the American Scientific Affiliation who are conservative Christians and who accept evolution. There are others, although it is hard to find us.

Frankly, we don't mention our views much in public because we get flooged from both "sides." The conservative Christians who don't believe evolution tell us we're not really conservative Christians (and sometimes not Christians) becasue we don't literally interpret Genesis 1:1-2:3 while the non-Christians accuse of being backwards for the fact that we take any of the Bible literally or accuse us of hypocracy because we claim to believe both the Bible and science.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Thank you for your comment. Do you think I was wrong to say that people like you are a small minority of conservative Christians generally?

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At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"With a name as pretentious as The American Thinker, you just know it has to be the product of right-wing cranks."

It has interested me for a long time that those on the left nearly always revert to ad hominem attacks whenever they debate. I only surmise that they feel that it enhances their argument. I suggest that they try it otherwise.

At 11:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must be joking. Ad hominem attacks were developed into an art form by the right a long time ago. I find it hilarious whenever I hear yet another righty complain about this with such mock sincerity.

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