In our first installment, we discussed some of the fallacies that are all-too often committed by defenders of science, when they face challenges from outside the realm of accepted wisdom. These fallacies -- ably listed by O.S. Card -- are mostly versions of credential-centered laziness. One can acknowledge that scientists and humanists are... well... human, and thus are inherently tempted by all of the same kinds of abuses that tripped up other priesthoods and orthodoxies, even well meaning ones.
Science itself is well-tuned to minimize those abuses. It has by far the best track record for self correction and openness to new ideas. Still, countless individual scientists and supporters often fail the maturity test when dealing with outside challenges, ranging from UFOs to Cold Fusion.
The reflex to resort to oversimplification, dismissal and name-calling can prove especially counterproductive when a large part of the public sees nonscientists as underdogs, rising up to challenge an entrenched system of authority, as is unfortunately the case during today’s controversy over so-called “Intelligent Design.” By reflexively disdaining such challenges as mere superstitious, defenders of the Enlightenment only fall into a trap set for them, by promoters and perpetrators of “culture war.”
Consider the deleterious effects of allowing this issue to be couched as a strict, either-or dichotomy. Even if a majority of the American people line up (as they appear to) on the side of genuine science education -- even if ID is kept out of every public school -- this could leave a very large minority of the public convinced that -- according to a simplistic choosing of “sides” -- they must, perforce, consider themselves to be anti-science.
Some may shrug and accept this as a price of victory. I say we cannot afford to leave so many fellow citizens -- and their children -- out there, in the cold.
This is not an exaggerated or unrealistic fear. It is, in fact, exactly what’s happened in the political battlefield, within the United States. Extremes of both left and right have benefitted by a polarization of camps in which the labels “conservative” and “liberal” stand for a strict litany of set-piece positions. Specified dogmas that must accompany each other, like arrows in a quiver. Even if these sides swap positions of power -- if, say, the Democrats win the next election by a landslide -- the real losers will be citizens who see complexity and nuance. Those willing to use tools like mediation and negotiated compromise.
This general problem of radicalizion is well-illustrated by the ID debate, wherein the forces who are supposedly defending the Enlightenment appear determined to cede the right wing’s most effective and damaging assertion -- that science is a system of truth interpreted by a hierarchy of experts. In other words, a tower of dogma, little different than a church. One that seems rather bossy, even.
Overall, I appear to be saying much the same thing that Orson Scott Card did, in his article. And yet, I do not conclude -- as he appears to do -- that this is all simply a matter of chilling out. Like Card, I do not believe that we have to choose sides between faith and science, so long as the fundamental integrity of science is preserved. But others are pushing exactly this dichotomy between two sides that are Pro-God and Anti-God. And if we let them pose these as the only possible positions, then we all lose.
In order to wage this fight successfully, the first mistake to avoid is letting yourself (science) be portrayed as a strawman (a stodgy priesthood, defending an orthodox and flawed dogma).
The second grievous error would be not to study the opposition and understand their capabilities. Their strengths. In the case at hand, this mistake manifests in a reflex assumption that Intelligent Design is the same thing as an older foe -- Creation Science.
There are many overlaps between these two movements. But also enough differences to merit some attention and study.
For one thing, ID assiduously avoids any reference to the Bible, or, indeed, any specific religion at all. This could be viewed as a clever tactic, in order to sneak past the bulwarks that have been erected between church and state. Indeed, many supporters and opponents of ID sincerely believe it is a wedge through which might squeeze the whole CS megillah. A means for later inserting a specific, reactionary church doctrine into state-supported schools. This suspicion is borne-out by documents published openly by the most prominent group pushing ID, the Discovery Institute, whose “Wedge Document” is quite open and blatant about motives and long-term goals.
Still, there is another way of viewing this transformation of Creation Science into a new entity -- Intelligent Design. It could also be seen as a step in... well... evolution. As a clear sign of the ongoing victory of science over superstition!
One can see this plainly by looking not at the similarities between CS and ID, but at the differences. Above all, in the divergent attitudes that ID and CS express, when it comes to the subject of TIME.
“Creation Science” earned ridicule for the way adherents fought to ignore the overwhelming sweep of evidence showing that our Earth is over four billion years old. A position that became increasingly absurd -- even inane -- as more people became aware of the marvelous methodologies of science. You can pick up any rock -- digging samples out of mountains, seabeds or mines, anywhere on this planet, or even another planet -- take this sample into the lab, and use it as a crystal ball to sift through ages, catching glimpses of past volcanoes or impacts or sedimenting seas. The results will always fit spectacularly well into some portion of the vast, complex tale, with consistency to half a dozen orders of magnitude! Moreover, only a blithering ninny would still hold that all those fossils come from creatures drowned in Noah’s Flood! Isotopic dating techniques are just too good, too powerful, too overwhelmingly congruous and consistent, for any but the most ignorant people to clutch notions of a cramped, myopic creation, just 6,000 years old.
(Why supposedly reverent people would even want to do that -- casting a grotesque insult in the face of a Creator who has proved capable of doing so much more -- is a topic worth discussing another time.)
Alas, in their reflex to resist a foe, scientists have largely failed to notice a substantial victory -- or concession -- when it is offered to them on a silver platter. As it turns out, the top-most proponents of Intelligent Design claim to have no interest in disputing the scientific age of the universe, the planet, or even humanity. While they may evade the issue in order not to offend their most troglodytic supporters, many of the movement’s spokespersons -- when pressed -- will admit that they now accept -- as has the Catholic Church -- that time is no longer an issue. Either the “billions and billions” story is true... or else the Creator worked awfully hard to plant evidence that it’s true, in every smidgen of the Earth’s substance.
Moreover, to a large degree, top ID supporters no longer dispute the coalescing fossil record, which shows that evolution has, indeed occurred, resulting in a magnificent tapestry of species undergoing transformation and change, a story almost as relentlessly convincing as the tale of mineralogy and rocks.
Instead, they have zeroed in on one of the few large gaps, or unanswered questions, of evolutionary biology -- the problem of irreducible complexity in the most primitive wholly sufficient living cells. Lacking any research program of their own, or any large number of reputable scientists to call in support of an alternative, ID support groups have chosen to concentrate on hypotheses of “irreducible complexity” proposed by Michael Behe, a biochemist, and arguments by a mathematician, William Dembski, about “complex specified Information.” Tacitly (and perhaps temporarily) they seem willing to cede every other portion of the old Creation Science battlefield.
Now, many opponents of ID assume that these concessions are just tactical maneuvers, aimed at narrowing the wedge for penetration, so that the whole catechism of Creation Science can follow. And, for sure, some fundamentalists -- the aforementioned “troglodytes” -- must look at it that way. Indeed, according to the Discovery Institute’s own “Wedge Document,” this is the rationale used in seeking donations from genuinely anti-science forces in society. Certainly, the fact that the Institute funds no genuine research, concentrating almost solely on “culture war” battles, would seem to reinforce this point.
Still, it is wrong not to acknowledge genuine change on the other side, even when it is surficial and hypocritical. It is always a mistake not to study your adversaries, especially when they show signs of real adaptability. *
By dropping a whole slew of hopeless battles and useless baggage -- shifting their focus and concentrating on a few narrow points -- specifically, the problem of ex nihilio biochemical evolution of a fully complex ancestral cell -- the newly reconfigured ID movement showed some of the resiliency and adaptability that social conservatives have notably displayed in many other areas. (e.g. count how many politicians who once fought against Martin Luther King now display big portraits of him in their offices!)
An adaptability that liberals and scientists appear, sometimes, to sorely lack.
Indeed -- and alas -- many seem unable even to recognize the need.
* (Indeed, are the Enlightenment forces missing an opportunity to strike a powerful public relations coup? Suppose we were to seem forthcoming by explicitly congratulating the ID crowd for this suite of concessions. It might be possible to drive a wedge into their movement, for a change, and/or permanently lock the concessions in place! At minimum, it could force the Discovery Institute to backpedal and choose. Either they withdraw the concesions having to do with the vastness of time, in order to protect their base, or they must sacrifice their most hardcore supporters, in order to seem modern. This is the kind of "have you stopped beating your wife?" dilemma that is used by their side all the time. What poetic justice to turn it around, exposing hypocrisy at its source.)