Friday, March 31, 2006

Berlinski Amuses

Part 3 of an "interview" with him here (I use double quotes because I think it probable the Berlinski is having a lark and writing both sides of the interview). And look, I said I found it amusing, I didn't say it was gospel, so leaving comments "disproving" what he has to say, or illustrating that he is a jerk would be a waste of time.


[G]etting back to the point at issue, if you are not persuaded that opposition to design arguments is sincerely based on anxiety about fundamentalism, on what is it based?...

I wish I knew; I wish I understood it better. And I’ve tried. There is, in fact, a good deal of heterodoxy on the margins of the scientific world. You look at Tom van Flandern’s web page and the blog that he’s got up and running, it’s just full of attacks on relativity, reports of forgotten experiments, clever little thought experiments, that sort of thing; and oddly enough, a lot of it is quite plausible. Note what I am not saying. I’m not saying it’s true. Just plausible.

… And thus? …

But no one pays it any attention. And this is so of a good many other scientific issues. Two very smart mathematicians have gotten themselves interested in Krishna, a lot of weird stuff, and have published an immense book on forbidden archeology. Extraordinarily interesting claims, lots of data. I would not have the slightest idea whether there’s anything there. But ditto for attacks on Big Bang cosmology, and these are sometimes undertaken by physicists with terrific credentials. In all these cases, and you can just multiply them endlessly, the queer point is that no one cares. You get a high-school physics teacher arguing that Big Bang cosmology is seriously flawed, no one says boo, certainly not the ACLU. Why have attacks on Darwinian theories become a flash point?

… Are you saying, then, that you have no idea? Surely not …

I don’t think the issue can be analyzed in terms of its manifest content. For a better sense of what’s going on, you really must go to the blogs, and not the newspapers. The newspaper columnists do little more than express prevailing pieties of thought, and most of them are too busy sniffling at Brokeback Mountain to have anything interesting to say about Darwin. The blogs are another matter. I follow two of them: Talk Reason and The Panda’s Thumb, and I must say, I find them fascinating. Talk Reason is upscale and sober, and it gets good people to write for it: Mark Perakh, for example, or Andreas Bottrero. They make an effort to be fair. And yet the overwhelming impression conveyed by Talk Reason is a kind of insecure disgruntlement. It is the impression conveyed by men who suspect that the opinions they reject might just prove persuasive to men less intelligent than themselves, rather like a group of cigarette company executives complaining to one another about the irresponsible allegations that smoking is involved in the onset of various diseases. One of their listings is entitled The Art of ID Stuntmen. An interesting title, don’t you think? A stunt is, after all, something requiring a certain skill, and stunts are designed to fool those who view them. These five words convey an entire system of anxiety.

The Panda’s Thumb, on the other hand, is entirely low-market; the men who contribute to the blog all have some vague technical background – computer sales, sound mixing, low-level programming, print-shops or copy centers; they are semi-literate; their posts convey that characteristic combination of pustules and gonorrhea that one would otherwise associate with high-school toughs, with even the names – Sir Toejam, The Reverend Lenny Flank – suggesting nothing so much as a group of guys spending a great deal of time hanging around their basements running video games, eating pizzas, and jeering at various leggy but inaccessible young women.

Now if Talk Reason conveys an attitude of insecure and even worried superiority, The Panda’s Thumb conveys something quite different, and that is a deep, almost incoherent anger.

When you look at Talk Reason, you see a lot of smart but lazy and shallow people defending what they take to be important issues of principle in a way guaranteed to make their defense a perfect irrelevance. When you look at the Panda’s Thumb, you see an entire overlooked class demanding its right to be heard, and when given that right by the blog itself, having nothing whatsoever to say beyond a very touching demand that that right be accommodated.

I don’t have any trouble understanding Talk Reason; but why Darwinism has been able to provoke this new class into existence is something more interesting, and probably more troubling.
So I come back to my original point: Why ID and why Darwinism?

… Yes, why? …

My guess it that ID has become a flashpoint as a form of what Marxists used to call left deviationism. I’ll explain in a minute, but you’ve got to remember that there is also something taking place that could be called right deviationism. Figures like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are profoundly embarrassing the scientific establishment, and by that I mean the top biology departments, the editors of Nature and Science, the senior bureaucrats at the NSF and NIH, by going on and on about atheism, selfish genes, evolutionary psychology, stuff that everyone with their heads screwed on tight knows has absolutely nothing to do with any of the serious sciences. And I do mean absolutely, and I do mean nothing. And yet no one much cares. The ACLU is not up in arms about anything these guys say. Put Dawkins on a high school reading list with his claims about being a fulfilled atheist – that’s fine, no problems there. Everyone quite understands that Daniel Dennett is lacking a little in the top story, but he makes the most of his handicap, God Bless. And, again, no one cares what he says.

On the other hand, there is creationism and especially Young Earth Creationism. It might not exist for all the real criticism it provokes. A few years ago, I got some sharp intelligent comments from someone writing to Talk Reason. I’ll call him Mr. X, to preserve his privacy. We corresponded and by and by he showed me a manuscript on which he had been working. It comprised the most detailed, thorough, intelligent and striking critique of old-fashioned creationist ideas that I had ever seen, just tore into Henry Morris, Duane Gish, young earth creationists, Philip Johnson. I tried to get it published. I did my best. I wrote to people at Talk Reason, telling them that this is one of your own. No response, not even from Paul Gross. I sent the manuscript to the MIT press – I’m an MIT author after all. Nothing. The Princeton University Press – nothing. In the end I finally understood. The creationists did not count. The moment that anyone plumped for biblical inerrancy, he was regarded by the scientific establishment like a Czarist in Lenin’s Russia.

Ah, but ID, now that is a different matter. What makes the challenge so potent is that the ID movement has been shrewd enough to discover that it has a natural ally beyond the scientific establishment itself in the American – no the world – public at large. So what you have is a massively potent form of left-deviationism, and just as one might have expected, the prospect scares the daylights out of the biologists. It is intolerable.

The ID movement in its attack on Darwinism has simply articulated what many people instinctively feel. Darwin’s theory is plain nuts. It is not supported by the evidence; it has no organizing principles; it is incoherent on its face; it flies against all common experience, and it is poisonous in its implications.

And another thing. It is easy to understand. Anyone can become an evolutionary biologist in an afternoon. Just read a book. Most of them are half illustrations anyway. It’s not like studying mathematics or physics, lot of head splitting stuff there.

It is thus infinitely droll to see evolutionary biologists restrain themselves from debating the issue on the grounds that the public is apt to get confused. And God Knows, there’s no need to confuse the public so long as they keep those swell funding checks coming.

It won’t work, it can’t work and it shouldn’t work.

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