Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Talking Sense To PZ Myers

Gordy Slack wrote in The Scientist:

[I]n the debate over evolution, I also think creationists' doggedness has to do with the fact that they make a few worthy points. And as long as evolutionists like me reflexively react with ridicule and self-righteous rage, we may paradoxically be adding years to creationism's lifespan.

First, I have to agree with the ID crowd that there are some very big (and frankly exciting) questions that should keep evolutionists humble. While there is important work going on in the area of biogenesis, for instance, I think it's fair to say that science is still in the dark about this fundamental question. It's hard to draw conclusions about the significance of what we don't know. Still, I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology. Evolution should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it. And right now we are nowhere close. I believe a material explanation will be found, but that confidence comes from my faith that science is up to the task of explaining, in purely material or naturalistic terms, the whole history of life. My faith is well founded, but it is still faith.

Second, IDers also argue that the cell is far more complex than Darwin could have imagined 149 years ago when he published On the Origin of Species. There is much more explaining to do than those who came before us could have predicted. Sure, we also know a lot more about natural selection and evolution, including the horizontal transfer of portions of genomes from one species to another. But scientists still have much to learn about the process of evolution if they are to fully explain the phenomenon. Again, I have faith that science will complete that picture, but I suspect there will be some big surprises. Will one of them be that an intelligent being designed life? I doubt it. Even if someone found compelling evidence for a designer, for us materialists, it would just push the ultimate question down the road a bit. If a Smart One designed life, what is the material explanation for its existence?

The third noteworthy point IDers make has its roots, paradoxically, in a kind of psychological empiricism. Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God's existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can't imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn't really love my children. And if there were such an argument, I have to admit I'd be reluctant to accept it, however compelling it appeared on paper. I have too much respect for my own experience.

Which leads me to a final concession to my ID foes: When they say that some proponents of evolution are blind followers, they're right. A few years ago I covered a conference of the American Atheists in Las Vegas. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn't know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection. They came to their Darwinism via a commitment to naturalism and atheism not through the study of science. They're still correct when they say evolution happens. But I'm afraid they're wrong to call themselves skeptics unencumbered by ideology. Many of them are best described as zealots. Ideological zeal isn't incompatible with good science; its coincidence with a theory proves nothing about that theory's explanatory power.

PZ Myers, of course could not let this little travesty stand without comment.

Slack then elaborated further on Myers blog:

Where in my piece did I suggest that the few points that creationists get right are their own invention or discovery? I said no such thing. Look, I don't buy ID even in its most discounted forms, and I never have. The point I make in The Scientist essay is that hurling insults at IDers when they say things you agree with makes you look rabid, not rational. And it drives the growing number of Americans who already distrust the proponents of evolution further away. Which is a dangerous and stupid thing to do in times like these.

My essay in The Scientist does nothing to promote ID; I'm just pointing out that everything IDers say isn't wrong and that when they do say something true it would be better to keep quiet or say "good point" than to riddle them with insults. Why not save the humiliation treatment for the plenty that they say that IS wrong. It's still a full time hobby.

It surprises me that PZ is so pissed off by my efforts to understand why so many Americans reject evolution. If you ask them, and I have bothered to ask hundreds or thousands over the past two years, many will tell you that more than anything else, it's the arrogant zealotry of cocksure ideologues that turns them off to evolution. They see people calling their intuitions and worldviews retarded and corrupt, and they march the other way. That's one reason why we evolutionists have done such an abysmal promotions job even though we're armed with the most delightful and seductive and potent theory ever. If we can't sell evolution, we must be doing something wrong. Right? I'm just saying that we might start by resisting the urge to spit bile in the face of potential buyers.

I like to watch PZ turn red and stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin as much as most of you probably do. (Otherwise, what would we be doing here? We're not really learning very much here, are we?) So go ahead PZ, rant and rave about the idiocy of those who don't see the world as you do or don't write about it in a way that pleases you. It's fun to watch, even when you're ranting and raving at me. But I don't want the point of my piece to be smothered by your performance art...

Slack then proceeded to dismantle Myers point by point in this comment.

The funny thing is Slack is actually on Myers side, but suffers from an inexcusable lack of rabidity as far as Myers is concerned. It's good to see Slack stand up for himself, though. And also to point out that the atheist True Believers (who he happens to agree with) are way overplaying their hand. Search for the string "Gordy Slack" in the comments to see him take on all of PZ's know-nothing sycophants, whom he characterizes as "mangy retired hyenas" who frequent PZ's blog in order to "hear the same old tired truisms amplified in a feedback loop of self-congratulation".

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