Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

An Instructive Discussion, Led by Alan Fox, at The Skeptical Zone


Over at The Skeptical Zone, there has been an amusing discussion. It can be found under the column “The Reality of Intelligent Design!” by Alan Fox. I want to respond to this discussion, as I believe it is instructive concerning the state of mind over at TSZ.  I am sure that Alan will again find my comments here “a bit wordy,” but hopefully he will not be able to say that they are “grumpy.” 🙂

Let’s start with the column itself. Alan Fox is one of those (relatively few) Skeptical Zone writers whose tone is actually merely skeptical, as opposed to polemical. However, some of his comments here leave something to be desired.

Alan writes: “I’ve seen no genuine effort to convert the claim that ID has some scientific merit into reality.”

Really? Has Alan not read the peer-reviewed online journal BioComplexity, which publishes several articles per year, and has done so for several years now? Has Alan not read the latest book by Stephen Meyer, which has garnered praise from a number of scientists, including some not previously associated with ID? (Heck, even geneticist Darrel Falk, arch-foe of ID, has on BioLogos praised Meyer for his grasp of many aspects of the science he has written about, and has admitted that some of Meyer’s criticisms of current evolutionary theory are cogent.) Has Alan not read Jonathan Wells’s book on junk DNA, which documents the rise of the “junk DNA” view, and the increasing difficulty in maintaining that view, with reference to several hundred technical articles in the peer-reviewed literature? Is he not aware that ID proponents said, long before Wells’s book, the ENCODE results, etc., that “junk DNA” was a presumptuous inference and that over time more and more of the DNA would be found to have some function?

I’m not saying that Alan has to accept the conclusions of all these books and articles, but it is certainly unfair of him to say that there has been “no genuine effort” on the part of ID people to do scientific work within an ID paradigm. (I leave aside the point that “effort” is only part of what generates results, the other part being access to institutional resources. ID would have produced much more scientific work by now if it had more funding, but ID proponents have largely been denied funding, being virtually shut out of academic jobs, post-doctoral fellowships, etc. by a largely hostile, atheist/agnostic/secular humanist biological community. If Ernst Mayr, Gaylord Simpson, Gould, Dawkins, Coyne, etc. had had to finance their researches into evolutionary biology largely by collecting handouts from private non-scientist donors, I wonder how much research neo-Darwinism would have been able to conduct. But to discuss that subject properly would require many more columns.)

Alan makes some rather shaky sociological inferences about UD commenters. He has decided that there are not many young or female commenters. How does he know this? Most commenters here write under pseudonyms, and one cannot often reliably infer the age or sex of a writer where the contents of the posts don’t provide that information. It is likely, of course, that most UD commenters are male, because male commenters dominate the internet on creation/evolution/design issues generally; but I don’t know how Alan converts that from “likely” to “certain” in the case of UD. As for age, it seems to me, based on internal references and literary style, that the commenters on UD are pretty well spread across the spectrum from people in their 20s to people in perhaps their 60s or even 70s. But I don’t claim knowledge here, only loose inference, and I don’t know how Alan can claim more. (Anyhow, I’m not sure what age has to do with the quality of one’s argument, but if age is understood to constitute some sort of intellectual disqualification to talk about religion/science issues, one might add that many of the Skeptical Zone luminaries are not exactly spring chickens: Alan’s own biographical remarks indicate a man of retirement age, and Elizabeth Liddle, the founder of TSZ, is, I believe, now over 60, and its leading evolutionary biologist commentator is, I believe, in his 60s or even 70s. Others of the New Atheist and skeptical crowds admired by many at TSZ — Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer — are getting “up there” as well. People who live in glass houses …)

Alan closes his column by asking: “Who’s left there [at UD] with anything interesting to say?” Well, it depends of course on what one means by “interesting.” Many of the items highlighted by News, concerning recent developments in the various natural sciences, are interesting. They are usually not covered or even mentioned on other sites (including BioLogos and The Skeptical Zone). I have also found the columns of Vincent Torley (trained philosopher) and Rob Sheldon (trained physicist and space scientist) quite informative and thoughtful.

In the discussion following the column, Alan adds this historical comment: “science does not really get going until the end of the seventeenth century, the start of “The Enlightenment” when the shackles of religious authority began to be shrugged off.” This is an instructive comment, not for its historical value but for the insight it provides into Alan’s notions of intellectual history. Where to begin? Well, we can grant that the end of the seventeenth century might be called the start of the Enlightenment (as a matter of convention, the term “Enlightenment” is usually used to refer to the period starting about 50 to 70 years later than that, but we needn’t get sticky), and we can grant that modern science got going in the seventeenth century (though the “end” of the century is inaccurate, as there were numerous triumphs quite early in the century, with Gilbert and Galileo and Kepler, and by the middle of the century, with contributions from Descartes and others, modern science was well underway). But what about “the shackles of religious authority” being “shrugged off”? A modern historian of science would blush to write such rhetorical prose. This view of the history of science was already being seriously questioned by scholars in the 1950s (though the word hadn’t got out to the popular press, which was still pushing the “warfare” view of science and theology), and over the past 40 years it has now become clear that the rise of modern science in the 17th century was a complicated phenomenon with many causes, among which religious belief was a significant one. This can be seen in the writings of Hooykaas, Jaki, Oakley, Osler and many others (many of whom, I might add, are not personally religious individuals). It is only popular historians that are still pushing the “warfare” notion about science having to burst the “shackles” of religion. (Indeed, some of Darwin’s early supporters including leading Anglican clergymen.)

But enough regarding Alan’s comments. Even more interesting is the challenge put forward by William J. Murray, which for the sake of brevity I will paraphrase as: “You guys keep saying that ID has no substance, cannot be taken seriously, is dead or moribund, etc. So why are you so obsessed with shooting it down? Aren’t there more important ideas to be skeptical about — including religious ideas that have led to murder and terrorism — which on your own account affect the world far more than ID does?” The responses to this are quite revealing.

Some of the commenters frankly admitted that attacking ID is a sort of blood sport for them, an internet recreation, an activity of culture-war gamesmanship. (In the words of Spock to McCoy: “As I always suspected.”) Others attempted to dignify their obsession with a pretense of social concern. For example, one commenter implicitly charged that ID supporters are trying to get ID taught in the schools, and that it is responsible to keep ID out of the schools, as it is to keep astrology out of the schools. But of course ID supporters aren’t trying to get ID into the schools; Discovery repudiated that goal long ago, even before the Dover Trial. The focus of ID supporters has been on getting substantive criticism of neo-Darwinian theory into the schools — the kind of criticism that is found even in peer-reviewed scientific literature written by religious unbelievers. The Dover Trial was a very rare exception, where one small-town school board contemplated actually teaching ID in a biology class. But even there, at the end of the day, the total ID content was a 4-paragraph statement read to the students, which mentioned criticisms of Darwinian evolution within modern science, mentioned ID as an alternative, and indicated the existence of a book in the school library for anyone interested in reading up on ID. Not a single class was taught on ID, and after the two-minute reading of the statement, the ninth-grade biology curriculum carried on as it always had, teaching Darwinian evolution as the scientific explanation of origins which could not and should not be doubted. That is the full extent of ID teaching so far in the public schools of the USA. Wow! What a dangerous threat to the scientific education of American students!

Glen Davidson, that paragon of the scientific attitude (readers might want to check out his old website — if it is still up — on the mystical connections between electricity and life, when measuring his status as a spokesperson for modern science), repeats the long-refuted charge that ID is creationism, even though he must be fully aware that many ID leaders, including Behe, Denton, and several people on UD (including Torley and, last I heard, O’Leary) are not creationists in the normal sense of that word, because they accept common descent and do not use the stories in Genesis against the results of modern science. Why he deliberately misleads readers on this point, I do not know.

Alan Fox’s column certainly started off a revealing discussion. It seems to remain true that, while a variety of subjects are discussed on TSZ — the most interesting of which frequently involve the academic philosopher Kantian Naturalist — the main raison d’etre of the site has been to attack ID. But since the consensus of almost all columnists on TSZ is that ID is dead or dying, with all its credibility draining away, what purpose has TSZ any longer? In countries which have abolished capital punishment, there is no longer any abolitionist movement, because the thing being opposed no longer exists. And no one attacks the views of Erich von Daniken about chariots of the gods any longer, because no one any longer takes that hypothesis seriously. So if ID is not worth taking seriously, why doesn’t TSZ dissolve itself — or at least find some new focus for its “skepticism”? (I would suggest the more extreme claims of the AGW lobby as a suitable object for a healthy, detached skepticism which cares only about the truth about climate change and carries no brief for left-wing, anti-Western global politics.)

Indeed, it seems that only Elizabeth Liddle, the founder of TSZ, is being logical here, if current TSZ writers are correct about the impending death of ID. She hasn’t posted columns or comments in months on her own web site — which would make sense if she now thinks that ID is so outdated and irrelevant that her opposition (which was formerly constant and fierce) is no longer necessary. Yet on the site she started, her allies and followers are carrying on the fight which seems to bore her. One wonders why.