Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Unclean! Unclean!

David Klinghoffer:

The imbroglio over editorial policy at would be of minor interest if it didn’t present such an evocative window on the psychology of the Darwin-believing community. Did you ever think about what actually drives these people?

To recap: Robert Wright, the site’s editor-in-chief, was out of the shop when his staff pulled down an interview, six hours after it was put up, between linguist John McWhorter and biochemist Michael Behe. Somehow, pressure was applied to McWhorter resulting in his actually issuing a public apology. He was forced to cringe and beg forgiveness. Anyone could see the reason he had given offense: McWhorter in the interview expressed undisguised admiration for Behe’s specialty in the intelligent design field, irreducible complexity. When Wright returned, he reversed the move and restored Behe/McWhorter. The lesson to be drawn is that were it not for Wright’s doing the decent thing, then intelligent-design advocate Behe would have remained censored. Whoever intimidated McWhorter would have won the day -- illustrating a dynamic well known to ID sympathizers in the academic science world, and in intellectual life in general. When it comes to intelligent design, silence is the safe policy. The preferable strategy is to align your view with Darwinian orthodoxy.

The next act has involved more public pronouncements -- this time from disgruntled science contributors to Bloggingheads: physicist Sean Carroll and science writer Carl Zimmer. The two participated in a conference call with Wright, demanding that he formulate a policy that would never again allow a “creationist” to speak for himself on Bloggingheads. Wright knows the difference between creationism and intelligent design -- he articulated it nicely in a 2002 article in Time magazine. Carroll and Zimmer seemingly don’t. That or they prefer to use the more inflammatory language to refer to Behe, who merely disputes the mechanism of evolution.

As he wrote in a comment on Carroll’s blog, Wright wasn’t pleased either by the McWhorter interview or by another with Paul Nelson, but he was unwilling to capitulate and make the blanket promise that Carroll and Zimmer wanted, forever to exclude from attention anyone who dissents from evolutionary dogma. So both men wrote preening, self-congratulatory declarations on their blogs that they were through with Bloggingheads. They quit.

Carroll wanted “a slightly more elevated brand of discourse.” He wrote, “Certainly none of we [sic] scientists who were disturbed that the dialogue existed in the first place ever asked that it be removed.” Yet it should never have been posted. An ID advocate could speak on Bloggingheads if he has “respectable thoughts” on other subjects. But not on ID. That would create a “connection with a brand,” that brand would be shared by the “creationist” and Sean Carroll, and that would not be acceptable. Participants should be “serious people.” Some years ago he “declined an invitation” to a Templeton Foundation conference because “I didn’t want to be seen” at such an event. Harry Kroto was disappointed “that I would sully myself” by indirect Templeton connections. And no wonder: “we all have to look at ourselves in the mirror.”

Notes of self-regard peek through again and again in his long blog post. Respect, brand image, the appearance of seriousness, personal associations, sullying yourself by down-market affiliations, gazing upon yourself in the mirror.

In a comment on the blog, David Killoren of Bloggingheads cements the point by unabashedly flattering:

I want to voice agreement with Sean about a few things. I agree that creationists and ID’ers are crackpots. I agree that these crackpots do harm (e.g. by corrupting public perception of science). I agree that appearing on a site that has featured crackpots could damage the reputation and integrity of reputable scientists, so I fully understand Sean’s choice to stay away from BhTV (although I’d be very happy if he were to reconsider) [emphasis added].

He concludes: “One Sean Carroll diavlog is worth any number of creationism conversations. If I could rewind and start over I’d aim to do it all differently.” David Killoren too is seeking someone’s regard, whose prestige should rub off a bit on him. As the guy who himself set up the Paul Nelson interview, he anxiously wants no one to mistake what side he is on.

How much of this is about science and how much of it is about personal status, social and professional esteem? Evolution, the history of life, whether any known material mechanism alone can account for life’s development -- these are scientific questions but they are surrounded by auras of psychological and social significance that can’t be understood simply in scientific terms.

Everyone wants to be esteemed by others and, more importantly, by himself. Dangers to your status are scary things, for all of us. But in the world of Darwinism, as this Bloggingheads episode reveals, the normal, healthy care for your personal reputation becomes intensified. The touch of “creationism” becomes something weirdly akin to ritual contamination as the ancients understood it. No one is going to think Sean Carroll is soft on “creationism” just because he appears on Bloggingheads, even if the latter were to invite Michael Behe to interview a different intelligent-design theorist every week of the year.

But if he continues his association with Robert Wright’s website, even if Wright in fact never again has an ID advocate on, just because Wright has failed to offer the demanded promise, then this does threaten to contaminate Sean Carroll by a mechanism that can only be characterized as magical, occult, beyond rational. Sitting on a chair or bed where a creationist sat, being under the same roof as his corpse, being associated with a website that provided a platform for two “creationists” and won’t absolutely promise it will never do so again -- it’s all the same.

As for poor John McWhorter, he presents us with the dread spectacle of the person already contaminated, seeking a remedy for his affliction -- and not finding it. This incident will contaminate him with creationism for years to come. He is the man in Leviticus, afflicted with a skin contamination, and compelled to live for some time outside the camp. “His garments shall be rent, the hair of his head shall be unshorn, and he shall cloak himself up to his lips; he is to call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”

Am I scoffing? Not at all. Evolutionary psychologists no doubt have their own explanation, another just so story, for why so many ancient cultures share ideas of contamination. We could probably all agree that there is an underlying structure in the human mind that responds to the idea of contaminants. Where did we get it from? You tell me.

One thing’s clear. Social anxiety plays some role in the fear and dread that intelligent design provokes among people who are too dedicated to their own brand image. We’ve long known this. But it doesn’t explain entirely the absolute horror not of being thought of as a “creationist” but merely of being touched by the slightest taint, the merest hint, of the idea. For that, I think we need to go a little deeper.

In any case, this is the current culture of science. Does anyone seriously think it doesn't impede the free exploration of ideas?

No comments: