June 19, 2008

A Bad Day for Skeptical Blogging

My busy day kept me away from the blogs I normally read; by the time I got around to it my reader had accumulated over 140 new entries. Among these were two of the most disappointing things I've seen from the skeptical/rationalist blogosphere in quite a long time — perhaps ever.

The worse of the two was an update posted to Skepchick entitled Why I Support Intelligent Design, authored by writerdd. It's a very good example of very bad thinking, putting forth the proposition that teaching Intelligent Design Creationism in public schools would be just fine since public schools already teach erroneous things anyhow. As I commented there, one doesn't solve a problem by adding yet another problem to the situation. If schools are teaching incorrect lessons, then the mistakes need to be corrected. Adding a little more bad teaching makes the problem that much worse.

Writerdd is of the opinion that ID is a backdoor to an understanding of evolutionary biology in a scientific sense — a patently mistaken impression for which I am unaware of any evidence at all. Plumbing the absolute depths of misdirection, however, is saved for the very end of the entry:

Yes, I want to improve education, but I'm really tired of all the fear mongering of the left and skeptics over this stuff. I spent half of my life being afraid of liberals and secularists dragging the world to hell and I most certainly am not going to spend the second half of my life being afraid of conservatives and religionists dragging the world to hell. Let's get a grip on the actual severity of these problems and stop blowing everything out of proportion.
There is a big difference, of course, between the religious belief that the world could be literally dragged into hell by the behavior of people with whom a deity disagrees and the metaphorical use of "hell" as a signifier of highly unfavorable conditions. Moreover, opposition to bad science and bad thinking being taught in schools (and writerdd herself refers to ID as a "god of the gaps" argument) isn't a left-vs.-right issue except insofar as certain politically divisive figures like to paint evolutionary theory as part of a larger liberal conspiracy. Science itself is empirical, not political and I can point to at least one blog — Darwin Central — which is authored by Republicans and certainly doesn't espouse any left-wing political views. In short, writerdd's tripeful article fails every skeptical sniff test and to see it appearing in Skepchick, one of my favorite blogs, is quite a disappointment.

Effectively at the other end of the spectrum are the majority of comments on an article entitled Darwinists for Jesus on RichardDawkins.net. The article discusses Michael Dowd's efforts to reach evangelicals with the message that there is no conflict between evolutionary theory and religious belief and that literalism isn't a positive stance. I admit that I haven't had time to read Dowd's book and that I no doubt would disagree with his theology. By the same token, the next non-pure science item on my reading list is Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Miller counts himself a Christian and I doubt that I would agree with his theology, either. The point is that the message that either Dowd or Miller is promulgating should be evaluated on its own merits and the value thereof appraised independently of the messenger. That, to me, is logical, and so skeptical, thinking.

I thus find it more than a little disappointing to see multiple comments like this one in the discussion on RichardDawkins.net:
He is just trying to square the circle. How can someone understand evolution and still beleive in the fairy tales of any religion?
Only thing missing here is the lack of courage to admit that religions have no place whatsoever in any scientific circle. These type of pseudo-scholars are more pathetic than the plain-old stupid religious folks because they have successfully conned the general public into thinking that there are two sides to the evoultion theory.


From a logical standpoint, this shouldn't matter at all. My own curiosity about Dowd can be boiled down to two questions:
  1. Is he passing on realistic information about evolutionary biology?
  2. If so, can his message be effective in defusing the issue among evangelicals and so removing, or at least reducing the utility of, a wedge issue that American fundamentalists are trying to use as a means by which to reshape both culture and science in their own image?
Now, it may be that Dowd fails on both counts, and it may be that he's a nutter (as commenter lozzer describes him). On the other hand, the potential exists for some good to come of Dowd's efforts and the properly skeptical thing to do here is to hear what he has to say.

As I've mentioned before, I will be attending Dowd's appearance in Connecticut this evening. I'll be bringing along a notebook and either late this evening or tomorrow morning I expect to write an update here reviewing Dowd's statements about science and possibly about theology as well if I feel that there is reason to address the latter. Dismissing his ideas about culture and science without prior consideration, though, is really not much different from religious literalism itself. The fact that Dowd counts himself an evangelical believer but sees no conflict with science and his beliefs should make him interesting, not a subject for derision out of the starting gate. As rational thinkers, it is incumbent upon us to consider an idea before rejecting it and not refusing to consider it because we disagree with the messenger on some other issue.

It's sad to see sloppy thinking and intellectual militancy in fora that are generally dedicated to precisely the opposite of these things. I take solace in that these are isolated incidents, though, and that both are the sorts of things that other reasonable people will take the time to analyze and correct, as in another comment on the RichardDawkins.net article:
I've actually read Thank God for Evolution, and it is very very good! It was bought for me by my fundie friend who thought it might convert me to christianity so I approached it quite dubiously but when i saw it included Dawkins' letter to his daughter about good and bad reasons for believing I was really impressed!
All the science in the book is accurate, all the religion is metaphorical and its basically just about showing how science can have the poetic beauty that many religious believers don't want to let go of - so similiar to Dawkins and Tyson in that respect. Also his simplified description of our evolved mind as a way of reworking the tired concepts of good and evil are quite useful.
I have a lot of support for Dowd and would highly reccommend his book.


Sphere: Related Content