Sunday, October 08, 2006

Charles Colson's Misplaced Congratulations

I'm finally ready to admit the truth: I'm addicted to the evolutionary culture wars. Now, there's no need to lecture me; I already know what you're going to say. Sure, the culture wars are bad for you. I'm fully aware that they rot your brain and are more addictive that an eight-ball of meth laced with nicotine; I'm not ignorant to the fact that the evolutionary/creationism argument is well-known as the "gateway" conflict, leading inexorably toward more "hardcore" wars regarding abortion rights and laissez-faire capitalism; and I've often heard it said that those who engage in culture war-related activities do so because of deep-seated personal issues that have not been properly resolved; But you know what? I really don't care! I like my culture wars, okay? Is that so bad? Sure I spend hours each day reading (and sometimes participating in) obscure and often inane arguments on numerous blogs and message boards, but I could quit anytime I wanted to. Really, I could. I just don't want to right now. My habit hasn't been a problem for me so far, and I see no reason why it has to be one in the future.

Right. . .

Having gotten that out of the way, I came across this short article by Charles Colson (of, among other things, Watergate fame) that I wanted to share. It's just so silly that I couldn't not comment on it. In his brief commentary, Colson heaps praises upon Phillip Johnson, the so-called "Father" of the Intelligent Design movement. It's short, so I'm just going to quote the entire thing:

How do you honor a man who started a groundbreaking movement that challenged the scientific establishment and is changing the way the world thinks about the origins of life?

Phillip Johnson’s friends came up with a great way to answer that question. In honor of Phil’s many accomplishments, they have commissioned and published a collection of essays, in a book titled Darwin’s Nemesis. That’s the perfect title, because that’s exactly what Phil has become over the past fifteen years. This feisty Berkeley law professor became the unlikely spearhead of the intelligent design movement with the publication of his book Darwin on Trial, in which, from the perspective of a skilled lawyer, he examined and cross-examined Darwinism and found gaping holes. His legal and rhetorical training had convinced him that the Darwinists were acting like people with “something to hide.” Indeed, they are.

His investigation showed him exactly what they were hiding. As geophysicist Stephen Meyer puts it, the best Darwinists can put forth is “a panoply of euphemism and wishful thinking masquerading as evidence.” So Phil dared to start questioning what many believed to be unquestionable and to enlist many scientists to start questioning it as well. The rest, as they say, is history.

Through all the controversy—and just plain mud-slinging—that followed the publishing of Darwin on Trial, Phil has maintained his stance, continuing his lawyerly probing and careful research, and he has kept his good humor and graciousness. In these ways, he serves as a magnificent example to all of us involved in worldview teaching.

Just the list of authors who have contributed to Darwin’s Nemesis shows the effectiveness of Phil’s approach. It’s full of essays by distinguished scientists and philosophers who support the intelligent design movement. And it even includes a couple of articles by critics of intelligent design, including philosophy professor and evolution advocate Michael Ruse—the kind of balance you’d like to see in classrooms. In the contentious debate that surrounds the intelligent design vs. evolution issue, getting the participation of someone like Ruse is a testimony to Phillip Johnson.

There’s no doubt that Phil’s willingness to encourage the work of scientists and help create a network for them has allowed the movement to flourish. This book really shows just how far the intelligent design (ID) movement has progressed in a relatively short time, despite the best efforts of many Darwinists to shoot it down—because, as is becoming clearer and clearer, ID has the evidence on its side.

But Darwin’s Nemesis is far more than a tribute to one man—it’s an insightful, enjoyable, highly readable explanation of the intelligent design movement as a whole. And as the passages I’ve quoted demonstrate, this is very much in keeping with Philip Johnson’s practice of keeping the focus on the movement and the questions it is asking, not on himself. The paradox is that by doing this, he has shown how one informed and dedicated individual can literally shape the course of history—just one more lesson from Phil Johnson’s work from which we all can benefit, and one more reason why he’s one of my personal heroes.

Let's be blunt: Charles Colson is talking out of his ass. Here are a few things he didn't mention:

* The ideas of Phillip Johnson are neither ground-breaking nor are they particularly challenging to the scientific community.

* Despite quite a lot of popular-level book, efforts to introduce ID into high school classrooms, propaganda press releases and thousands of dollars spent on marketing, ID has made little headway in its quest for acceptance by the scientific community, and as Philosopher and ID-proponent Paul Nelson has admitted, there is currently no actual scientific theory of Intelligent Design.

*Less than a year ago, in the landmark ID-case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, Judge Jones, a Bush-appointed conservative Christian, ruled that ID is not science and has no place in science class (see here for a copy of the ruling. It's actually quite an interesting read.)

The plain fact of the matter is that there is little reason to believe that ID will ever find acceptance by any substantial percentage of the relevant scientific community--ie., Biologists. This is the case, I believe, for at least two reasons:

1. Despite countless Creationists' assertions to the contrary, Evolutionary Biology is scientifically productive field of research, and there really is an enormous amount of evidence favoring the idea that life on earth is a product of descent with modification from earlier organisms via, among other things, the creation of genetic variabilty through mutation spread of this inherited variability through differential reproductive succes (ie., Natural Selection). Does that mean that Biologists know everything that they would like to know about the history and diversity of life? Not at all. Does it mean that all aspects of the currently-accepted Evolutionary theory will turn out to be correct in every case ? Again, no. But this also doesn't mean that God--err. . .the Designer--should be inserted as an answer for questions we haven't figured out yet. That's the great thing about science; there's always something more to learn and discover.

2. The second--and in my opinion, too commonly overlooked--reason is that, unlike mainstream evolutionary theory, ID really does nothing to satisy the insatiable hunger to understand how and why the world around us works that is probably the single biggest driving force behind the research that scientists undertake. Boiled down to its most basic form, ID simply states that certain features of life (there is a seperate field of ID that deals not with life but with attributes of the universe itself that I'm ignoring here) are best explained as the product of an intelligent agency. But when pressed to make statements about who the designer is and when, how, and for what reason these designs were implemented, ID-proponents are characteristically silent (except, of course, in front of "safe" audiences consisting of conserative Christians. Then, they're very open about the Designer being synonymous with the Christian God). To drudge up an old euphemism, ID simply cannot and will not cut the mustard with most scientists because it doesn't even attempt to answer most of the questions that they're asking.

It's obvious that Chuck Colson knows next to nothing about Biology (or if he does, he's doing a stupendous job of hiding it). That's not to say that I'm an expert myself. I'm certainly not. But I know enough to spot bullshit when I see it; and Colson's "commentary" is a nice pile of hot, steaming, poo.


Cath said...

As a trained therapist, I think you should analyze why this war is so important to you. If, as you believe, this is a battle between the informed intelligent and the ignorant idiot...then who even cares? Why not just say "there they go again...but what else can you expect" when you encounter the point of views that you distain? By allowing yourself to get worked up, but reading them, responding to them, posting them on your blog, etc., don't you lend them far more credibility than they deserve? Wouldn't saying "oh please - I don't have time for that, I couldn't care less," forgetting that they exist, and ignoring them forevermore be a far greater insult, all the while showing yourself to be far more mature and informed?

So, with those thoughts on the table...why ARE you addicted to this culture war? What compels you to listen to their voices and react?

(the above comment was not meant as harsh criticism but as a friendly challenge; please respond!)

Dave said...

Why am I addicted to this culture war? Because it's so gosh-darn entertaining, that's why!

As for your other comments. . .

While I'm somewhat amused by the thought that I have so much credibility that, by simply responding to an argument I disagree with, I might unintentionally pass off some of my credibility onto it, you do have a point.

Most scientists and "sciencephiles" who pay any attention to creationists--and that's a minority of them--know that addressing their arguments is almost always a Catch-22. If you don't adress a creationist's arguments, he (I can think of only female creationist with even a mildly high-profile status in the movement, and she's a journalist) can and will claim that his arguments have not been refuted, and therefore, evolution/darwinism/anything and everything that doesn't agree with his particular wacky brand of Christianity is totally wrong. On the other hand, if you do respond, the hard-core creationist, as a general rule, will

a. Not accept your argument
b. Use the mere fact he got a response to try to convince other people that there is a "real scientific controversy."

This does pose a real dilemna, and different people have various opinions about when, if ever, scientists should be engaging directly with creationists. Most "evolutionists" agree that appearing with creationists in live debates (especially in front of church audiences) is a waste of time, mostly because this format is simply much more condusive to persuasive rhetoric than it is to rigorous thought and highly-technical evidence-based arguments, and this gives a great advantage to creationists who almost always rely on rhetoric more than evidence (there's even a name for the technique often employed by creationists where they throw out one false statement after another, each one taking mere seconds to state, but minutes to refute. Called the Gish Gallop, it's named after an infamous Young Earth creationist named Duane Gish).

Having said that, I, for one, believe that there is a place and a time to respond to creationists' arguments--namely, on the internet and whenever possible. I say this for a few reasons:

1. My personal education has benefited--and continues to be enriched--from having ready much of the counter-creationist internet literature (which is, of course, based upon the solid, mainstream findings of the biological, chemical, and physical sciences). I would like to see that education continue.
2. When polled, something like fifty percent or more of Americans believe that humans are not the products of descent with modification from ancestral hominid species, but were specially created in their present state by God. Fifty percent. Fifty percent is not a number that you ignore and forget about, hoping that it will just go away. Left to itself, with no counter arguments presented, that number will only increase.
3. I don't think that most creationists are dishonest, evil people (while, at the same time, I think that many of the creationst leaders are without shame in their rank dishonesty), and, hopeless romantic and optimist that I am, I believe that people can be persuaded by solid arguments based upon empirical evidence. Now, I realize that examples of creationists coming to accept evolution are few and far between, but I have seen it happen, and it is a sight to behold. :)
4. Finally, and most importantly, everyday, there are parents, schoolboard members, and politicians trying to get creationism and bogus creationist arguments inserted into science-class lesson plans around the nation. Won't somebody think of the children? Err. . .I think you know what I mean. :)

Anyway, I could go on--and I probably will if you respond to this--but I've said far too much already. This topic is pretty much a perennial controversy within the evolution culture war community (if such a think can truly be said to exist), but I think it's an interesting and important conversation to have.


Dave said...

Oh, and just because I don't think my response adequately responded to your question regarding my personal motivation for involvment in the culture wars (other than my semi-facetious comment about it being entertaining), let me make this brief addition: Evolutionary theory is something that is very important to me, and I don't like to see it denigrated unjustly. The metaphor may be of only limited value, but imagine how you would feel if there were was a massive idologically-driven industry of people dedicated to supporting the idea that family therapy is not only worthless as a profession and academic pursuit, but that it is actually an activally harmful concept. Read Phillip Johnson or any Young Earth Creationist; that's what they believe about evolution.

I'd also like to make it clear that, for me, this is not about supporting any particular philosophical position. That's not to say that I don't have any opinions about what philosophical positions or ideas may or may not be implied by the reality of evolution; I just don't consider them to be anything other than my own personal, idiosyncratic opinions. I've joked a few times that I'm considering converting back to Christianity (oops, I guess I just let that one out the bag. Oh well.) just so I can gain "street-cred" with creationists. It's a tempting idea. :)

Anyway, that wasn't exactly brief, sorry.

Literacygirl said...

My mom would flip if she read this post. She was SO into creation science for awhile. But now she's into saving Haiti and all the slum children of Kenya, so you might be off the hook.

Literacygirl said...

As a trained therapy client, I can affirm that your journaling through these topics of your passion and furies is a much healthier mental health strategy as opposed to smoking cannabis and/or crack-cocaine. (So I've heard...) I like to say crack-cocaine as opposed to just crack or just cocaine. Or as opposed to "crack" or "cocaine". Remember what Whitney Houston said... "Crack is whack!". I have no idea about her theories on creation science, evolutionary studies, nor on managing mental health issues.
PS: can you smoke cannabis? Is cannabis weed, or isn't it marijuana? I think cannabis is NOT weed, and that mary jane IS weed. I should know this stuff, I used to teach a unit on drug prevention. However, whenever I read the little book on "Marijuana" to my kids, I kept on giggling, so I made my teamteacher read it aloud. Guess I'll never grow up, and nor will I be able to differentiate between all drug substances. Sigh. Guess, I'll go journal on Whitney Houston's creation.