May 05, 2008

Berlinski as Fisher of Red Herring

David Berlinski has written a rebuttal to John Derbyshire's flaying of Ben Stein in the National Review Online. It's rife with red herrings; Berlinski manages to harvest enough of them in this one piece that I think he may be responsible for putting the species on the endangered list. There are a couple of real stand-outs, though, and I'll focus on those in the interest of brevity.

The Dang Thing

A blood libel, one might recall, refers to the charge that the Jewish people are irredeemably stained by their occasional, if modest, need for Christian blood. Some terms have acquired through their historical associations a degree of repugnance that persuades sensitive men and women not to use them. If Derbyshire has been repelled by the smell of blood, it is a revulsion that he has successfully overcome.
Red Herring #1: Derbyshire was clearly expressing his revulsion with Stein when he chose this term. His entire point was that what Stein was doing to science in the name of political expediency was of the same nature as Nazi propaganda's exploitation of anti-Semitism. Berlinski may be dimly aware of this, but his objection to the term as used by Derbyshire is a dodge in any case. Of course the term has negative connotations; that's the point.
The scientific community is intolerant of dissent and morbidly so when it comes to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Those who reject criticism because it is unwelcome have in John Derbyshire acquired an ally of the best sort. He is not disposed to ask questions of his friends; and he is eager uncritically to attack their enemies.
This excerpt starts with a complete falsehood based on a failure to qualify "dissent." If one is familiar merely with scientific literature from any given discipline, it isn't hard to point to dissent. Numerous dissenting conclusions are published every day, in fact. I have in just the past month read papers that dissent on topics ranging from the importance of endosymbiosis in evolutionary history, whether or not there has been so much horizontal gene transfer in prokaryotes that it is meaningless to think of them in terms of species, what factors are important in the selection of ovaries for the deposition of eggs by fig wasps... you name it. I'm most familiar with biology, but there have been recent dissenters in numerous other disciplines as well. The point that Berlinski fails to note is that not all dissent is treated equally, nor should it be. Dissent can be based on a reasoned interpretation of data, pure fantasy, religious belief or mental illness. The merits of an argument are examined independent of their source. It's not enough to simply say, "I don't agree." That's a tactic employed by Neocreationists, like those at the Discovery Institute — of which Berlinski is a senior fellow. The arguments put forth by that group and their adherents aren't new ones. They've already been examined and no evidence has been found to support them. The rejection of dissent a la Ben Stein and David Berlinski is based on this and this alone. Berlinski may also know this, and so quickly switches to an attack on Derbyshire's character. The two points have nothing to do with each other, but Berlinski is only to eager to embrace any logical fallacy that supports his overall specious argument.
Derbyshire at once reprises two errors. The first is that the animations in Expelled were copied.

They were not.

And the second is that the brief segment of a John Lennon song used in the film required Yoko Ono’s permission before it could be aired.

It did not.

The facts are easily available from the Expelled website.
The animation originally shown in Expelled was certainly copied from the XVIVO video. That was only shown during "private screenings." When the film was released publicly, that original video was removed and a more cartoonish and briefer snippet was included. That much has been substantiated.

As far as the use of John Lennon's music, Berlinski may believe that Mathis and Stein had the right to use it without licensing it, but the people who own the rights to the song disagree and a district judge in New York, Sidney Stein, sees enough merit to the resulting lawsuit that he has ordered that no new prints of the film be made precisely because of the unlicensed use of "Imagine." A snippet from the injunction follows:
IT IS ORDERED BY STIPULATION OF THE PARTIES in open court on April 30, 2008 or as otherwise ordered by this Court, Defendants Premise Media Corporation, L.P., C&S Production L.P. d/b/a Rampant Films, Premise Media Distribution L.P. and Rocky Mountain Pictures, Inc. (the "Defendants"), be and they are hereby are enjoined PENDING THE HEARING of the motion for a preliminary injunction from distributing any additional copies of the Movie "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," (the "Movie") beyond those third party venues which possess and are showing the Movie as ofthe date of this Order. Defendants ALSO AGREE THAT pending the hearing of the motion for preliminary injunction they WILL NOT MANUFACTURE or PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTE ANY CDs or DVDs of THE MOVIE anywhere in the world...


Berlinski here misleads the reader again. He has no basis other than personal opinion on which to stand. To send readers to the Expelled website for the facts in this matter is entirely dishonest. It's a bit like walking into a prison and asking "How many people here are innocent?" It is every bit as comical, too.
Derbyshire’s generous conviction that Expelled is an exercise in dishonesty owes much to the charge that those participating in the film were duped. It is an accusation made by both P. Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. I appear in the film, and I read and signed the same release that Myers and Dawkins did. I knew precisely what the film proposed to do. So did they. Myers and Dawkins now regret their appearance. This is because they seriously overestimated their own ability to think nimbly before a camera...
Again, this is misleading in its entirety. Berlinski is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and knew about the film before production ever began, so of course he knew what movie he was being interviewed for. Myers, Dawkins and Eugenie Scott were told they were being interviewed for a different film than the one in which their interviews appeared. Moreover, the comments of scientists appearing in Expelled were selectively edited and numerous accounts of the dirty tricks used have been written. Being a propaganda piece from the outset, those who were on the same side as the filmmakers are cast in a good light (the best possible, anyhow; critics who've reviewed the film thought they came off as not saying anything substantial, anyhow) and were in on the whole project from the beginning. Berlinski doesn't mention that little fact, of course. It doesn't support his argument. As usual with the Neocreationist crowd, facts be damned.
That Dawkins was duped is undeniable; but as in so many of the better crime stories, the victim of a crime turns out to have been its perpetrator.
Within a few sentences, Berlinksi now tells us that Dawkins was duped. This is blatant stuff. Moreover, this isn't a crime story unless Berlinski is accusing Dawkins of committing some criminal act. This is ostensibly a documentary and, as Berlinski has now revealed all by himself, in truth nothing more than a hit piece.
The Discovery Institute is a special target. He regards its very existence as an affliction. His indignation has prompted him to impertinence. Knowing nothing of my life, he has nonetheless concluded that I am one of a number of “eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories.”

Non-Christian? There is no need for euphemism. I am a secular Jew, reason enough apparently for Derbyshire carelessly to suggest that I am in it for the money.

Ah, that old familiar smell — blood, I mean.
Hmmm, that's odd. I read Derbyshire's article and Berlinski is never once mentioned in it. I just went back and checked again and, no, not once does Berlinski come up. How is it that he here accuses Derbyshire of making a personal — and anti-Semitic — attack against him, then? Are Berlinski's personal boundaries so poorly defined that he cannot distinguish calling the Discovery Institute as a whole a group of "non-Christian cranks" (I don't agree with that characterization, by the way. The DI is overwhelmingly Christian) and an accusation specifically against himself that he is a stereotypical "money-grubbing Jew?" It would appear that this isn't the case. Again, Berlinski is misleading the reader here. He is accusing Derbyshire of being an anti-Semite. I don't know John Derbyshire so I can't say whether or not he is one, but I can say that Derbyshire's article is making a point that Ben Stein has been complicit in a misappropriation of the Holocaust for the most cynical and dishonest of political ends and, not inconsequentially, the Anti-Defamation League agrees with Derbyshire on this point.
Like so many men who have reached late middle age, John Derbyshire suffers the impression that the “the barbarians are at the gate.” Women no longer topple blood-ripe into his lap. A “gaggle of fools and fraudsters” is everywhere disturbing his tranquility. Things that he treasures are under ceaseless attack.
This is some pretty vile stuff on Berlinski's part. It's nothing but ad hominem against Derbyshire and against men of a certain age in general. Moreover, it's rather ironic that a senior fellow for the Discovery Institute, an organization founded by arch-conservative Bruce Chapman, with a charter that seeks a return to traditional religious values, and which blames Enlightenment thinking for the ills of society, is playing the rebel here. That's almost as ironic as a former Nixon speech writer and conservative activist pretending to be a rebel in a movie, dressing up in AC/DC Angus Young-style shorts while "Bad to the Bone" plays in the background. These are the tactics to which Berlinski and Stein resort to cover the condition of their arguments, and of course Berlinski now has to cover this up by launching a baseless personal attack against someone just after complaining about a baseless personal attack that Derbyshire himself never made. Nobody in their right mind can look at this and see anything legitimate to it, which leads me to suspect that Berlinski simply isn't in his right mind in advancing on this front.
Stein is, in fact, doing no such thing, and I have seen the documentary in which he appears. He is asking that certain possibilities in thought not be struck from the table prematurely. In so doing, he is offering Darwin the homage that a serious thinker deserves. It is the only homage to which he is entitled.
Ummmm.... what? Among the "ideas" that Stein advocates in his film is that evolutionary biology has the murder of millions of people as one of its results, and Stein has stated publicly that "science leads to killing people." In what sort of twisted world does Berlinski dwell that he can call this an homage?

Oh, that's right... the Discovery Institute.

I hope Berlinski has some strong soap at home. It's going to take a lot of washing to get the stink of all those red herrings off him.

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