About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Shermer on Stein and “Expelled”
For instance, Shermer points out that the opening scene of the movie is a fraud. It purports to show Mr. Stein giving a lecture to an adoring crowd of students at Pepperdine University (ironically, from where Shermer graduated). But a little investigation showed that the production company for the movie literally bought the audience: there were very few students there, the audience having been created from what is known in Hollywood jargon as “extras.” What a way to start a “documentary” the purpose of which is to unmask the deceptions and conspiracies of the “Darwinists.”
What are Stein and colleagues so upset about? They claim that there is overwhelming evidence that “orthodox Darwinists” have systematically been squelching open academic debate whenever it comes close to questioning the “Darwinian dogma.” Their chief piece of evidence is the (in)famous case of Stephen Meyer’s article published in 2004 in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Though the journal is insignificant by scientific standards, the article was “important” for the ID movement because it was the first time that a pro-Intelligent Design “technical” paper got published in a peer reviewed scientific journal. (Meyer’s thesis was that the proliferation of new life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian period cannot be explained by evolutionary theory, and therefore requires the intervention of a [supernatural] designer. The first conclusion is false, the second one is a logical fallacy known as non sequitur.)
Except that there was no peer review: the managing editor of the journal, Richard Sternberg, decided that no one other than himself was qualified to review the article, and breached common scientific practice by accepting it without further review. He was roundly criticized for his action, though he was not fired or demoted (he was doing an unpaid gig at the journal anyway). Sternberg is not a martyr of the Darwinian mafia, but a rather borderline intellectually dishonest fellow who was uncharacteristically sympathetic to a pseudoscientific idea. Could it be by chance (or was it perhaps malicious intelligent design) that Sternberg turned out to be on the editorial board of the Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, a creationist organization that supports Biblical creationism? Check your baloney detector for the answer.
Ben Stein is a smart guy with a propensity for getting things spectacularly wrong. His conservative economic commentaries, ironically, would have been in line with the thinking of the robber baron’s of the 19th century -- the same ones who invoked the Darwinian idea of a “struggle for life” to justify the enormous injustices that made them so obscenely rich. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, Darwin never advocated so-called social Darwinism, and was in fact appalled by it.
The question is why smart people like Stein, ID enfant terrible Bill Dembski, and countless others fall for such preposterous ideas. Shermer hints at the answer in his commentary. Here is what Dembski told an audience of National Religious Broadcasters: “Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God…. And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.” Apparently, ideological blinders obfuscate even relatively smart people like Dembski. And yet, Shermer was able to cross the ideological divide after graduating from Pepperdine, showing that it is possible for the human brain to unshackle itself from the obscurantism of superstitious thinking. How did you do it, Michael?
(Shermer’s commentary on “Expelled” will appear both in Scientific American and at Skeptic.com.)