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Professionalizing the Critique of ID

There’s a fascinating exchange between Wesley Elsberry and Lee Silver at the Pandasthumb about the proper way to engage in the debate over intelligent design. Among other things, Elsberry remarks, “With Friends like Dr. Silver, I don’t need enemies.” He also offers the following advice to Silver: “Please leave debating ID advocates to the professionals. Or if you are determined to do so anyway, ask for assistance before the debate.” The context here is my debate with Silver at Princeton University on April 7th (for the background go here and here). Because the thread at the Pandasthumb that includes this exchange between Elsberry and Silver is so long (for the entire thread, go here), I’m picking out the relevant pieces in this post:

SILVER:

Posted by Lee Silver on April 14, 2005 10:04 AM (e) (s), Comment #24865.

I was the one who debated Dembski last Thursday night. I did it mostly for the experience (and to be able to write about it), because I knew that no one in the audience would change their mind. I told the Dembski people that I would ONLY debate if the agreed-upon question was “Intelligent Design: Is it Science?” They agreed. I didn’t provide any evidence for biological evolution, because that wasn’t part of the question (and the audience wouldn’t have understood the evidence anyway). But as we all know, ID is a smoke-screen for the Christian god of the Bible, who was supposed to have created each living thing as it exists today. So, I directed my talk toward a critique of the Christian god. I provided some visuals to demonstrate that there are lots of living things that God didn’t create. A striking example is corn, which was bred out of an inedible weed. Also, God was supposed to have put seeds in the ground for each plant, but bananas don’t produce seeds — another conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible. I believe it was these examples that led to the challenge, “why do you hate God?” The questioner clarified that he was talking about the Biblical god. I said I didn’t hate God. What I didn’t say was that it makes no sense to hate a fictional character. But, quietly, I was happy with the question because it demonstrated exactly what this debate is all about. If there was one goal that I had, it was to challenge the claim that ID is science. Natural selection should have been a side issue according to the question put to debate. I suspect that most people in the audience would have agreed that their beliefs are based on faith — not science — because that’s what their religion is all about.

ELSBERRY:

Posted by Wesley R. Elsberry on April 14, 2005 05:01 PM (e) (s), Comment #24976.

————————————-
Lee Silver wrote:

I didn’t provide any evidence for biological evolution, because that wasn’t part of the question (and the audience wouldn’t have understood the evidence anyway). But as we all know, ID is a smoke-screen for the Christian god of the Bible, who was supposed to have created each living thing as it exists today. So, I directed my talk toward a critique of the Christian god.
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With friends like Dr. Silver, I don’t need enemies.

Given an opportunity to discuss Dembski’s claims to science before an audience that was primarily people of religious faith, I didn’t take up a complete irrelevancy like “a critique of the Christian God”. The June 17th, 2001 debate in the CTNS/AAAS “Interpreting Evolution” conference at Haverford College is well-documented.

William Dembski’s presentation

My presentation

Dembski and Elsberry panel

Dembski and Elsberry audience Q&A

My PowerPoint file for presentation

I didn’t seek to offend religious believers, but took Dembski to task for problems in his arguments. And by my reckoning, I did a pretty good job of communicating to the audience that “intelligent design” had not yet demonstrated that it had scientific standing. There are plenty of Christian believers who think “intelligent design” fails to qualify as science, including Ken Miller, Keith Miller, Francis Collins, Howard Van Till, and myself.

———————————————
Lee Silver wrote:

But as we all know, ID is a smoke-screen for the Christian god of the Bible, who was supposed to have created each living thing as it exists today.
——————————————–

Silver acts as if young-earth creationist interpretations of scripture were the only ones possible.

I concur that “intelligent design” is more like “intentional deception”, but I think Silver is way out of line in his self-reported approach to dealing with the issue.

SILVER:

Posted by Lee Silver on April 15, 2005 08:55 AM (e) (s), Comment #25092.

If ID was simply religion, most people wouldn’t care about it. In the world today, there are over 10,000 different religions and that’s counting Christianity as one religion (with 33,800 sects, many of which hold beliefs that are contradictory to each other). See http://www.adherents.com/… I, for one, enjoy talking to people about their spiritual beliefs (as an amateur anthropologist) and I have traveled to 52 countries to do just this. (Pictures at my website http://24.225.233.42/biotechspirit/indexBioSpirit.html… ) But evangelical Christians are not content to just hold beliefs and let others hold different beliefs. Evangelical Christians believe that they must convert everyone else in the world to their own form of Christianity, in order to maximize their own chances of getting into heaven. The New Testament predicts a battle in which Jesus’ angels fight against the Devil’s spirits (demons) in both heaven (inside the firmament — the hard canopy at the top of the blue sky) and on earth. When Jesus wins, all dead bodies get resurrected and the archangel Micheal decides who goes to heaven. If you don’t go to heaven, you get thrown into a lake of fire!!!

So even if you didn’t suffer during your first death, you will suffer in your second. When a 10 year child gets this kind of indoctrination, he is likely to be shaking in his boots to do the right thing. After my debate, I was surrounded by 10 year children who were like zoombies telling me that I was seriously mistaken — There is just one God and it is Jesus. I asked several children how they knew this, and their faces turned blank. Like zoombies, they repeated the phrase over again, “there is just one God and it is Jesus.”

ID is driven by Christian evangelicalism. I admit, not every ID person is an evangelical, but evangelicalism is its main driving force. Those people believe that they are the troops of Jesus fighting the Devil, and so, any tactic — whether it requires stealth, cheating, or lying — is justified morally. If they get you to argue science, they’ve scored a victory. If you argue religion, they get all huffy and puffy — Dembski accused me of “using the G-word,” as if that was off-bounds. Brilliant tactic on his part. Don’t succumb! The G-word, not science, is what it’s all about. THE REASON THIS MATTERS is because they want to take-over science teaching in the public schools. The best way to combat them is to pull the religious veils off their faces and expose them for who they are. If you’ve got a better tactic, I’d like to hear it.

ELSBERRY:

Posted by Wesley R. Elsberry on April 15, 2005 10:05 AM (e) (s), Comment #25108.

———————————–
Lee Silver wrote:

The best way to combat them is to pull the religious veils off their faces and expose them for who they are. If you’ve got a better tactic, I’d like to hear it.
———————————-

Of course I have better tactics. That’s what I was saying in my first response.

The topic of debate that Dr. Silver reported was “Is ID science?” One approach is to show that the claims of ID fail as science. That’s how I approached the task I had in 2001, and that’s the approach of Why Intelligent Design Fails from Rutgers University Press. The other approach is to show that religion underlies “intelligent design”. In 2002, I gave a talk on evolution and “intelligent design” at the CSICOP Fourth World Skeptics Conference. In that one, I did show how the “intelligent design” movement was run by religious people for religious purposes. And that’s the approach of Creationism’s Trojan Horse from Oxford University Press.

But in neither case was my goal to tell the followers of ID that their own views of religion were wrong. And it is that part of Dr. Silver’s first report that strikes me as not just poor tactics, but as Lenny Flank notes, directly counter to the cause of promoting good science education. It sure wasn’t something that would separate ID advocates from their followers. It isn’t even exposing the ID movement as inherently religious, which I have used as a tactic myself (CSICOP 2002). If you want to drive a wedge between an audience of evangelical Christians and the professionals in the ID movement, you need a third approach: show that the ID advocate on stage with you has been lying to his followers. Show misquote after misquote; demonstrate error after checkable error, and make the audience understand that if the ID advocate claims that the sky is blue, their next step had better be to look out the window to see for themselves. Evangelicals do want to take Christ’s message to the world, but they also have a deep loathing of liars. Of the three approaches, the last one requires the most preparation and care in delivery.

Dr. Silver’s approach, on the other hand, requires very little in the way of preparation. One does not need to acquaint oneself with the arguments of the opposition, with the history of the opposition, or even the failings of the opposition. Irrelevancy does have some benefits after all. But the downside is that simply doing forty minutes of religious nay-saying does not convince people that “intelligent design” is not science; it does not convince people that “intelligent design” is another religious form of antievolution; and it does not convince people that “intelligent design” advocates are unreliable sources of information. It does help to convince those people that the “intelligent design” advocates are right when they cast the issues in terms of atheists attempting to indoctrinate kids.

So, in summary I’d say: Please leave debating ID advocates to the professionals. Or if you are determined to do so anyway, ask for assistance before the debate.

ELSBERRY:

Posted by Wesley R. Elsberry on April 15, 2005 10:24 AM (e) (s), Comment #25116.

————————————
Lee Silver wrote:

The best way to combat them is to pull the religious veils off their faces and expose them for who they are. If you’ve got a better tactic, I’d like to hear it.
————————————–

One other thing: demographics. Atheists are a small minority of the population of the USA. Exposing people as religious here in the USA should get you no more than a shrug in response. Any tactic that doesn’t expose the “intelligent design” advocate as being appreciably wrong has no chance of succeeding. Attacking the audience’s own religious views doesn’t accomplish that, and makes it that much less likely that they will attend to anyone in the future who might actually pick up the burden that Dr. Silver failed to shoulder.

My presentation to CSICOP 2002 can be seen at

http://www.antievolution.org/people/wre/present/csicop2002b/…

SILVER:

Posted by Lee Silver on April 15, 2005 10:44 AM (e) (s), Comment #25122.

“Please leave debating ID advocates to the professionals. Or if you are determined to do so anyway, ask for assistance before the debate.”

This is a really obnoxious comment. I am be wrong, but I suspect that I have studied and written about religious beliefs, of people from around the world, to a much greater extent than you have. (I have a book coming out on the topic.) You and I are simply coming at this issue from different directions. Christian evangelicals are rather unique among all the people I’ve talked to in their absolutism concerning a literal interpretation of the Bible. American evangelical LEADERS are also unique because they are dishonest about their goals (unlike Muslim or Hindu or Jewish fundamentalists in other countries). This is why it is so important to unveil evangelical leaders. If they admitted that their beliefs were based on faith — end of debate.

” If you want to drive a wedge between an audience of evangelical Christians and the professionals in the ID movement …”

I think you are deluding yourself to think that such a wedge could ever be driven between evangelicals and their ID priests, with the use of any argument. If you have evidence that you’ve ever been successful at doing this, I’d like to hear it. But that’s not the goal, or at least it’s not my goal as one who is involved in science policy. The goal is to make sure that level-headed policymakers (a rare commidity in the current adminstrator) understand that ID is faith-based and not science. Policymakers in previous adminstrations were not raving atheists, they were mostly middle-of-the-road Americans in terms of religious beliefs. But they understood that creationism is not science. Also, the only people enraged by my talk were Protestant fundamentalists. How do I know this? I post here the full and complete email note that I got from the moderator Russ Nieli, a person who is quite open about his Catholicism. Interpret it as you want. This really is my last post.

Lee,
Thursday’s debate was a great event all around. I think that you and
Dembski engaged the audience to a degree that is unsuual here at Princeton.
I can’t remember the last time at Princeton that substantial portions of the
listeners stayed for the better part of an hour after the discussion to
engage, dispute, support, question, and agree with the invited speakers as
they did with you and Dembski. It was great that both of you stayed so long
and were so patient with your questioners.

As I was walking the two ISI representatives out to their car, they seemed
extraordinarily pleased with the entire night’s performance.

I perhaps benefited the most (I still believe that in our overall picture of
reality we must take account of both a natural selection principle and a
higher order telos, but I am not sure how these two principles relate to the
emergence of life from non-life).

On behalf of all involved, let me say “many thanks”.

Best,
Russ Nieli

ELSBERRY:

Posted by Wesley R. Elsberry on April 15, 2005 11:08 AM (e) (s), Comment #25129.

———————————
Lee Silver wrote:

“Please leave debating ID advocates to the professionals. Or if you are determined to do so anyway, ask for assistance before the debate.”

This is a really obnoxious comment. I am be wrong, but I suspect that I have studied and written about religious beliefs, of people from around the world, to a much greater extent than you have. (I have a book coming out on the topic.)
————————————

Dr. Silver: I certainly would not claim anywhere near your expertise concerning religious belief in general. On the other hand, I suspect that I have studied and written about “intelligent design” in particular to a much greater extent than you have. You asked about better tactics, and I gave you three of them. You’ve taken issue only with the last one. No, I haven’t applied that one myself. However, I have been in the audience and seen it applied successfully. This was long before “intelligent design” was around and when I was part of evangelical congregations myself.

I have to admit that I was being obnoxious with my parting shot. I have only the weak excuse of being rather offended by your opening shot. There’s still some lessons to be had, probably in both directions. But that won’t come out unless we do have some discussion.

————————————–
Lee Silver wrote:

Also, the only people enraged by my talk were Protestant fundamentalists. How do I know this? I post here the full and complete email note that I got from the moderator Russ Nieli, a person who is quite open about his Catholicism. Interpret it as you want. This really is my last post.
—————————————

Bill Dembski got a similar email from Nieli, and had his own conclusion to draw from it:

————————————–
William Dembski wrote:

Russ Nieli, who moderated the debate and has taught at Princeton since the 80s, didn’t think the debate was stacked. Here is what he wrote to me in a email:
————————————-

What I find fascinating is that neither Silver nor Dembski are justified in drawing the conclusions that they do from the presented item of evidence. Nieli didn’t address the issue of “stacking” that Dembski refers to. Nieli didn’t poll the audience afterward to assure that no non-“Protestant fundamentalists” were offended; he merely gave evidence of his own state following the talk. Whatever happened to avoiding non sequiturs?

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3 Responses to Professionalizing the Critique of ID

  1. Lee Silver emphasizes what an expert he is about the Christian religion, but apparently he thinks the Bible says that God planted seeds in the ground to create plants, etc. What the Bible actually says is “Let the earth bring forth vegetation, etc.” (Genesis 1:11)–i.e God spoke and the earth did the bringing forth. I agree with Elsberry that people who oppose ID ought to stick to making reasonable, scientific arguments, as opposed to engaging in personal or religious attacks.

  2. Lee Silver claims to have extensively studied the beliefs of evangelicals and then he makes a claim like this:

    [QUOTE]Evangelical Christians believe that they must convert everyone else in the world to their own form of Christianity, in order to maximize their own chances of getting into heaven.[/QUOTE]

    For someone making a claim like that he sure has missed out on the core beliefs.

  3. [...] There’s a larger issue at stake here. I’ve now seen on several occasions where critics of design give no evidence of having read anything on the topic — and they’re proud of it! I recall Everett Mendelson from Harvard speaking at a Baylor conference I organized in 2000 decrying intelligent design but spending the whole talk going after William Paley. I recall Lee Silver so embarrassing himself for lack of knowing anything about ID in a debate with me at Princeton that Wesley Elsberry chided him to “please leave debating ID advocates to the professionals” (go here for the Silver-Elsberry exchange; for the actual debate, go here). More recently, Randy Olson, of FLOCK OF DODOS fame, claimed in making this documentary on ID that he had read nothing on the topic (as a colleague at Notre Dame recently reported, privately, on a talk Randy gave there: “He then explained how he deliberately didn’t do research for his documentary, and showed some movie clips on the value of spontaneity in film making”). And then there’s Derbyshire. [...]

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