So I attended Michael Klymkowsky’s talk about my public lecture on intelligent design. The room was packed, but it was a small room — I’d say there were about 40 people there. In sum, the talk was really appalling.

Let me start with the worst part — the ad hominem arguments against me. Instead of talking about the content of my talk, he accused me of lack of scholarship, and lack of intellectual rigor. (Though, he apparently wasn’t willing to accuse me by name — on his powerpoint slide, for example, he said that my talk showed that “scholarship and intellectual rigor are not being taken seriously by faculty”.) He also accused me of “academic malpractice”.

In fact, his talk was an amazing display of lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. He didn’t quote from my talk at all, but still criticized me, and most of the criticisms were of the ad hominem variety. One of my philosophy colleagues, Bob Pasnau, suggested to him during the Q&A session that he didn’t understand my talk very well, and said: “if you really thought the talk was academically shoddy I would have expected you to blast the thing”, by actually making reference to specific false claims I made in my talk, but Pasnau pointed out that Klymkoswky didn’t do that at all. Klymkowsky didn’t have much of a reply to Pasnau at this point, but later Klymkowsky said of the way he was treating my talk: “I’m telling you how I heard it, not what was actually said”. As I pointed out to him, this approach evinces an incredible display of lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. 

Here’s another ad hominem charge against me: he accused me of “self-serving career advancement”. I asked him how my taking a stand that leads to having to deal with criticisms like the ones he’s giving furthers my career, and he replied with something about increasing book sales. Well, it’s true that I want my ideas to be widely read, but there’s a difference between advancing one’s career and selling more books. One of my colleagues asked me just a couple days ago how I think my reputation will be affected once my book comes out, and I said that I’m pretty sure that my reputation will be negatively affected, becuase there’s so much animosity toward intelligent design, and yet I’m being more sympathetic to it than most atheists are. I’m not writing about intelligent design to further my career; I’m writing about intelligent design because I’ve seen a number of bad arugments on both sides, and I want to elevate the debate — that’s what will most further the cause of reason. I’m especially concerned, though, when I see bad arguments being given on the atheist side, because better arguments can and should be given. If the arguments that Klymkoswky gave represent the best arguments atheists can give against intelligent design, then the atheist position is in trouble.

In addition to the ad hominem charges, Klymkowsky spent a lot of time going through the basics of evolution, which really had nothing to do with my talk, because my talk was not about evolution-based intelligent design arguments. The next key claim Klymkowsky made was that “intelligent design creationism” (that’s what he called it) is a religious movement. In my talk, I clearly set aside the motivations promulgators of intelligent design have for their view, in favor of focussing on the doctrine itself. Klymkoswsky ignored that, and in fact he ignored it to such an extent that he made a category mistake, conflating the doctrine of intelligent design with the intelligent design movement. This is just one of many ways that his talk displayed a lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. 

The final key claim that Klymkowsky made was that intelligent design creationism is a theocratic movement to abolish separation of church and state. Here the same problem arises about not distinguishing the issue of whether the doctrine is true or false from the issue of what agenda promulgators of the doctrine have. But anyway, Klymkowsky made his claim in a sufficiently strong way that Jim Cook was able to refute it simply by pointing out that he (Cook) is a proponent of intelligent design, and yet also endorses separation of church and state. (Thanks Jim!)

There were many other claims that Klymkowsky made without adequate support that were in my opinion false. In making these claims while barely giving arguments for them, Klymkowsky again displayed his lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. For example, at the end of his account of evolution, after talking about differences between genomes of different species, he said “the data here is the designer is an idiot or there’s no design”. Another biology professor in the room actually interrupted at this point, saying that Klymkowsky didn’t give much of a defense for that strong claim. In fact, there are all sorts of prima facie legitimate reasons that one could give for why a designer might want to have created a world where life turned out the way it did. But just dismissing those hypotheses, and only considering the theistic hypothesis that “the designer is an idiot”, Klymkowsky is again showing a lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. 

Here’s another claim that Klymkowsky made without adequate support that is in my opinion false. Klymkowsky talked about God-of-the-gaps-style arguments, where one claims evidence for a designer because we don’t know what the naturalistic explanation is for some phenomenon. Klymkowsky said that he could “guarantee” that the lack in our knowledge would be naturalistically filled in by future research. While I would say that there are many phenomena of this sort that probably will be naturalistically explained by future research, I don’t see how Klymkowsky can “guarantee” that the gap in our knowledge will be filled in naturalistically. 

On a different topic, Klymkowsky criticized me for only presenting my own views in my talk. He said that when giving a talk, one should dispassionately present both sides of an issue. I pointed out that this is how I teach, but this is not how I give public lectures, and indeed it’s standard in the philosophy community to give lectures in the way I did. In making this criticism, Klymkowsky showed an amazing lack of self-awareness, because of course in his talk he wasn’t dispassionately presenting both sides of an issue; he was promulgating his own view. 

Klymkowsky wasn’t the only one who was unhappy with my talk. Physicist Allan Franklin said during the Q&A session that, in my talking about intelligent design while ignoring the cultural context, I was being “glib, superficial, and disingenuous”. To be honest, I just don’t understand the motivation for the “glib” and “superficial” claims. If anything, I would think that those who focus on the cultural issues are being superficial, because they are ignoring the prima facie legitimate arguments that intelligent design proponents give. As for the “disingenuous” part, I never claimed that there aren’t cultural issues associated with intelligent design; I just said that I was going to set them aside for the purposes of addressing the actual arguments. (And in fact, I didn’t set aside the cultural issues completely, because at the end of my talk I claimed that it would be appropriate for intelligent design to be briefly taught in science classes — not taught as true, but discussed, with arguments for and against intelligent design being presented. One of my motivations for wanting it discussed is that so many students will have been influenced by their family and their church to believe intelligent design doctrines; I think it would be helpful for the students to see the doctrines critically addressed in an academic context.)

I could tell that the philosophers in the room were generally on my side (though, obviously, they disagree with me on various specific details regarding the points I make about intelligent design). All of them I talked with afterwards agreed that the ad hominem attacks were unwarranted and appalling. I wasn’t sure about the scientists in the room though — at first, they seemed pretty clearly on Klymkowsky’s side, but then as more people (including me) took issue with Klymkowsky’s approach, the mood seemed to shift. And indeed, I got an email from someone who wouldn’t antecedently be expected to be on my side, which said:

For what it’s worth, I’d say you pretty much won that round.  I think that the problems with his approach were made clear to most of the people in the room, including many of the scientists.

I was glad to hear that. 

On the topic of emails, one of my freshman students who was there emailed me afterwards with the following thoughts:

You did a pretty good job defending yourself against the guy’s claims, even though he should have been going against your argument and not you.  It was cool to see Tooley and the other Philosophers come to your defense about his “missing your point”.  But it was a good thing for me to see people try to roast you.  haha

I agree that it’s probably good for my students to occasionally see people try to roast me. But the part that really makes me happy is that my student understands that attacking a person displays a lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor, while attacking a person’s argument doesn’t. My student gets it; it’s too bad Professor Klymkowsky doesn’t.