’bout time for this BhTV dust-up to exit, stage left. Before it does, however, a few observations:
If it were, what Francis Bacon (1620) called “the kingdom of opinions” would be a lot more fluid than it is. Let’s suppose A knows B, and B knows C. And let’s define “respectability” as “no smart person I admire will ever think I’m crazy or a crackpot.”
Now, suppose A thinks of himself and his colleague B as respectable — but then B has a lapse of judgment and talks publicly to his acquaintance C, whom A sees as a crackpot. Does A = B = C, with precious respectability leaching uncontrollably via a transitive relation over to dangerous person C?
Of course not. Moreover, it’s infantilizing to treat one’s audience as if they were unable to make judgments about “respectability” on their own. Grown-ups weigh evidence and arguments, and then decide using their wisdom. Toddlers need to be protected.
2. Nuance and accuracy matter.
When Bob Wright and George Johnson call Michael Behe “a closet creationist” [see 25:30 of their dialogue] or when numerous commentators claim that Paul Nelson says the Earth is 6000 years old (just google it), when I pointedly declined to do so — such slovenliness is telling.
Here’s a lesson in Persuasion 101. Walking roughshod over the actual views of one’s interlocutor, or anyone for that matter, conveys hostile indifference to the actual content of the other person’s thinking. This can be very effective, if “I don’t give a damn about the details, because you’re an idiot anyway” is the attitude one wishes to project.
But if the audience cares about relevant distinctions — such as the genuine differences between intelligent design, old-earth creationism, and young-earth creationism — then showing that one is either too lazy or too hostile to note those distinctions is not likely to be persuasive. Rather, this attitude will have the opposite effect: “I don’t care, you shouldn’t either, and if you do, you’re stupid.”
Telling one’s audience they are idiots — now, there’s a promising rhetorical strategy.
3. If you don’t want people to pay attention to intelligent design, don’t talk about it.
One would think this is obvious, but apparently it isn’t. Francis Crick understood that what one talks about displays one’s real interests. His “gossip test” — “what you are really interested in is what you gossip about” (What Mad Pursuit, p. 17)– when applied to the day-to-day content of PZ Myer’s blog Pharyngula, or Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, unmistakably exhibits their ongoing worries about ID.
To a lesser degree, Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer also worry about ID, or more generally about the interface between the natural sciences dealing with the cosmic and biological past, on the one hand, and theology or philosophy on the other. The Bloggingheads controversy only highlighted that.
There is no escaping the central logical problem, of course. If you take the main message of evolutionary theory (Carl and PZ), or physical cosmology (Phil and Sean) to be
THE WORLD AND ITS CREATURES WERE NOT DESIGNED BY AN INTELLIGENCE, BUT AROSE FROM UNDIRECTED NATURAL CAUSES
then concepts such as “intelligent design” are never going to be far from one’s consciousness. Making the whole point of one’s theory the negation of someone else’s worldview (or theory) only ensures the other person’s view is always going to be talked about, like it or not. Logic guarantees it.
4. Comparing ideas one doesn’t like to Holocaust denial only trivializes Holocaust denial.
Again, one would think this is obvious, but — guess not [see 21:50 here, George Johnson’s comments]. From an unthinking perspective, saying “X is just like Holocaust denial” might seem the rhetorical equivalent of a high-yield thermonuclear device. There, obliterated that guy.
Actually, the trope “X is just like Holocaust denial” is the rhetorical equivalent of crystal meth. Big rush the first few times, not so much with steady use, and eventually you grind your teeth and your skin turns to spotty mush. It’s the user who ends up making no sense.
My father-in-law escaped from Poland in 1940, steps ahead of the Gestapo. My Israeli in-laws lost family between 1939 and 1945. Nothing is “just like” Holocaust denial.