Boulder lecture

{ redirects to this blog post of mine about Pennock’s attempt to explain why he sent me the threatening email telling me to pull my paper off the internet.}

Robert Pennock published an article in the online edition of US News & World Report where he says some critical things about me, culminating in the implication that I’m a “character assassin”. (Is calling someone a character assassin itself behaving like a character assassin? Just wondering.)

While my ultimate focus in the intelligent design debate is on the arguments for and against intelligent design, I do think what Pennock said is worth some reply. Here’s the relevant part from Pennock’s article:

So on what basis does Luskin accuse me of wielding the poison pen of name-calling and intimidation? …

I did indeed write to Bradley Monton about a paper in which he criticized the judge’s opinion in the Kitzmiller v . Dover case, but not for the reasons Luskin recounts. Posted barely a week after the decision came out, Monton’s manuscript contained basic factual errors. Most errors in philosophy are just ridiculous, but some can be harmful, if only to the philosopher’s own reputation or that of the profession. Monton would have been wiser to wait to correct his errors through the peer-review process or at least to include the standard disclaimer for unreviewed manuscripts that they should not be quoted, but that was his own business. The reason I asked Monton to take down the paper was that in one place he seemed to make a libelous insinuation about myself and others in the case. I took that apparent accusation very seriously. Monton wrote back to apologize and to say that he had not intended to suggest anything offensive to me or anyone in particular. He agreed that his sentence was written in a way that could have been misconstrued, however, and promised to remove it. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter and I made no further objection to his post.

Monton has since become known as an ID apologist (from an odd atheist perspective), and I periodically get unsolicited E-mail from scientists and philosophers about his participation in their activities. Sadly, he is harming more than his own reputation. Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject. I sympathize with the department, but can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student. So far as I know, he hasn’t [as Pennock previously in his article accuses Luskin of having done] stooped to publishing out-of-context quotes from private E-mail without permission (no reputable publisher would allow that, in any case), but I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts. I have turned the other cheek to this calumny as well. Again, who is the character assassin?

There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll just reply to some select claims of Pennock.

(1) “Monton’s manuscript contained basic factual errors.”

I disagree with that claim. I think what Pennock has in mind is his accusation that I misrepresented his philosophical view. It’s true that, in discussing the decision of Judge Jones in my paper, I also discuss some of what Pennock said in the trial. Pennock was upset that I didn’t talk about what Pennock says in his 1999 book The Tower of Babel. The reason I didn’t, though, is that Judge Jones didn’t base his decision on what Pennock says in his book; Judge Jones relied on Pennock’s testimony in the trial. Now, you might think that it wouldn’t matter, but I am of the opinion that Pennock endorsed a view in the trial that’s different than the view he endorsed in the book. And for the record, I’m not the only one who thinks that; Sahotra Sarkar writes (in his paper “The Science Question in Intelligent Design”, forthcoming in Synthese) that ““Pennock’s testimony … goes against the more nuanced discussion of Pennock (1999).”

I go into all this in more detail in my book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. (For the record, I’m just providing a partial defense.)

(2) “Most errors in philosophy are just ridiculous, but some can be harmful, if only to the philosopher’s own reputation or that of the profession.”

Let me address this implication that my paper did harm to the profession of philosophy. In fact, I think the judge’s decision did harm to philosophy, and to the extent that the judge’s decision was based on Pennock’s participation in the trial, Pennock’s participation did harm too. That’s a key reason I wanted to get my paper out – I wanted to mitigate the harm that the judge’s decision did.

There are two main ways that harm was done to the reputation of philosophy (to stick with Pennock’s terminology). First, a false view about philosophy of science was promulgated by Judge Jones. Jones made it sound as if philosophers of science agree that methodological naturalism is a constraint on science, whereas in fact I think this is highly contentious in the philosophy of science community – or, if it’s not highly contentious, that’s because most all philosophers of science are on my side.

Second, Jones – whether he intended to or not – was doing philosophy of science. The issue of what counts as science vs. non-science is a paradigmatic issue in philosophy of science, and Jones’s argument that intelligent design is not science is a philosophical argument. The problem is that it’s not good philosophy of science, and that’s why I wanted people to know that not all philosophers of science are on board with his reasoning.

(3) “Monton would have been wiser to wait to correct his errors through the peer-review process”

Actually, it’s standard practice for philosophers to post their papers online before their papers are accepted by a journal, and it’s standard practice for philosophers to post their papers online before their papers are even submitted to a journal. In fact, that’s the main point of the PhilSci Archive, where I posted my paper. The Archive calls what they’re running a “preprint server”, and they explain the goals of it well:

A preprint server is used by scholars to circulate new work. A preprint is an early version of new work often in preliminary form. The archive is intended to supplement or replace an older mechanism for circulation of new work. An author used to prepare multiple copies of a new manuscript and mail it to scholars for their information and for response. Greater circulation can be achieved by posting on the archive at no cost to the author.

That’s exactly what my paper was: new work, being disseminated for information and response.

(4) “Monton would have been wiser to … at least to include the standard disclaimer for unreviewed manuscripts that they should not be quoted”

I’ve posted lots of preprints online, and I don’t think I’ve ever put in a disclaimer that my paper should not be quoted. While I would imagine some authors put in such a disclaimer, I don’t recall seeing this on other papers posted on the PhilSci Archive.

(5) “The reason I asked Monton to take down the paper was that in one place he seemed to make a libelous insinuation about myself and others in the case.”

Note that Pennock didn’t ask me just to remove that one sentence, he wanted the whole paper removed. And “asked” sounds a little too nice; “commanded” is more like it, with a veiled legalistic  threat.

For the record, the part of my paper that Pennock thought was libelous is here:

If our goal is to believe truth and avoid falsehood, and if we are rational people who take into account evidence in deciding what to believe, then we need to focus on the question of what evidence there is for and against ID. The issue of whether ID counts as “science” according to some contentious answer to the demarcation question is unimportant. Of course, on this approach it would be much harder to get a federal judge to rule that ID can’t be taught in public school. But sometimes it is more important to be intellectually honest than to do what it takes to stop people from doing something you don’t like.

Now really, is that libelous? In fact, I’m not even talking about Pennock at all. So what am I talking about? Two things:

(a) I anticipated that I would be attacked for not supporting the standard secular line on the Dover trial — that the judge made the right decision. People would point out that I was opening the door to having intelligent design be taught in schools. I was trying to forestall that sort of criticism by making clear what was important to me — what was important to me was endorsing the view that I thought was right, not saying what it would take to stop intelligent design from being inappropriately taught.
(b) In the aftermath of the last big trial about science/religion issues when philosophers got involved (McLean v. Arkansas), people like Quinn suggested that perhaps it is more important to say what it takes to get the right decision than to be intellectually honest. Here’s Quinn:
But frequently these good arguments fail to persuade or carry the day, and gradually one’s credibility and effectiveness wane. … Maybe this is a way in which we could manage to have our cake and eat it too. For a short period one might engage in giving bad effective arguments without being thoroughly corrupted. Then one could retreat back to the academy to wash one’s moderately soiled hands. After having one’s intellectual integrity restored and reinforced, one might then be ready to repeat the cycle. … So there may well be circumstances in which only the bad effective argument will work against them [the creationists] in the political or legal arenas. If there are, then I think, though I come to this conclusion reluctantly, it is morally permissible for us to use the bad effective argument…
(Quinn P.L., “Creationism, Methodology, and Politics,” in Ruse M., ed., But is it Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Prometheus Books: Amherst NY, 1996, pp.397-398)
In my mind, at least, that Quinn made suggestions along these lines is rather disturbing, and I wanted to publicly declare that I wasn’t on board with this sort of reasoning.
Moreover, Quinn isn’t the only one with this sort of opinion. Barry R. Gross is apparently on board as well — see his essay “Commentary: Philosophers at the Bar — Some Reasons for Restraint”, reprinted in the new edition of But is it Science?, edited by Pennock and Ruse. For example, Gross writes:
As a consultant, I objected strongly to the use of phrases like “natural law” to describe scientific laws, but with no success. Ultimately, and correctly, the counsels shaped the case, using the strategy and argumentation that they thought would win. Was this wrong? No. Given the boundary conditions and given the dynamics of impatient professional fighters aiming to win, what else could have been the outcome? And they did win. (p. 362)

I think that that counts as favoring getting the right decision over being intellectually honest, and I find that choice to be highly disturbing.

(6) “Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject.”

The issue Pennock is talking about is when my biology professor colleague Michael Klymkowsky was unhappy with a public lecture I gave on intelligent design, and gave a talk in reply to mine. A grand total of about 40 people were at Klymkowsky’s talk, and I wrote a critical reply, and everything has blown over (without Pennock’s help). Klymkowsky is currently working with other philosophy professors on a grant proposal, and my philosophy department colleagues continue to like and respect me (as far as I can tell).

So who made this ostensible phone call? It turns out that a colleague of mine contacted Pennock in a benign way, and Pennock is misrepresenting the conversation in a way that makes my department look bad. The basic story is that because the intelligent design talk I gave in on my campus recently was (a) well-attended, and (b) generated some controversy, some people thought it might be a good idea to have another philosopher give a talk on intelligent design, from a more standard anti-intelligent design perspective, and Pennock was contacted about doing this. My colleague who contacted him says:

I certainly never said that Brad’s talk had done any damage. … I’m sorry that [Pennock] saw fit to use a private conversation in his blog post, and to misrepresent the content of that conversation.

One of the many ironies associated with Pennock’s piece is that he criticizes Casey Luskin for making public a private email from Pennock in a way that makes Pennock look bad, and yet by making public a private conversation with my colleague (and misrepresenting it in the process, no less), Pennock is doing the same sort of thing to me and my department.

(7) “can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student”

Pennock’s email to me did not give me the benefit of the doubt, and I had been a professor at U. of Kentucky for years when I wrote that article (and I’m now a tenured professor at U. of Colorado at Boulder).

(8) “I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts”

I don’t think I’ve been making personal attacks against Pennock, but I have cited his email to me as an example of the sorry level of discourse the intelligent design debate has reached. For the record, the times I’ve talked about Pennock in public have been recorded, so if you really care, you can listen to them here and here, and judge for yourself. But I hope that you have better things to think about, like the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments for and against intelligent design.

Finally, it’s worth reporting that I found out (on March 6, 2009) that Pennock is conveying concerns about me to the chair of my department. If that’s not an attempt at intimidation, I don’t know what is. Fortunately I have a fair-minded and supportive chair.


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.

Apparently a biology professor at U. of Colorado at Boulder was sufficiently unhappy with my THINK! public lecture that he’s giving a talk in reply to mine. Below are the details. I don’t know much more about it than that — in fact, I first found out about it when I saw the announcement of the talk. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Please Join
The Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science
at the University of Colorado, Boulder

in a Coffee Talk with

Michael Klymkowsky
Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
University of Colorado, Boulder


“Why the ‘Atheist/ID’ THINK! Public Lecture matters scientifically, historically, politically, and academically”

Tuesday, December 9th
at 3:30 pm
in Hellems 269

Stop by early for coffee, tea, and cookies, and join the inter-department discussion.

The palpable unhappiness that some people on the atheist side of things expressed at my THINK! talk has got me wondering — why is it that some people who are opposed to intelligent design or theism are so emotional and angry about it? It’s not intellectually healthy, in that it leads them to give bad arguments for atheism and against the positions they oppose. I came across an interesting discussion of this point by William Lane Craig, in response to two questioners (one an atheist, one a theist) who are also wondering why this is the case. When you click that link, scroll down for Craig’s reply to the questions; it’s worth reading.

One of the reasons it’s worth reading is that Craig, one of the most prominent Christian apologists around, says:

atheism is not an implausible worldview and … therefore the poverty of atheist argumentation cannot be written off to the bankruptcy of atheism itself.

I appreciate his intellectual honesty in saying that. 

Anyway, regarding the trend of atheists being angry and emotional, I wish I had an answer as to why this trend is happening, but I don’t. I can form various hypotheses for why this trend is happening, but none of them seems plausible enough to bother typing out here — I’m sure the hypotheses that you can form are at least as good as mine. 

More perspective on this is provided by this previous post of mine.

A nice summary of and commentary on my THINK! lecture is available here.

James Cook, of InterVarsity Faculty Ministry, has kindly posted his audio recording of my THINK! lecture. You can get my handout for the lecture there as well.

UPDATE: the lecture is now available here.

So my THINK! talk went really well tonight, in my opinion. There were about 240 people there, and we had some good questions after I gave my spiel. I was especially happy that multiple people came up to me afterwards and said that they appreciated my intellectual honesty in the way that I dealt with these issues. 

I told some jokes too; it’s nice to keep the audience engaged with occasional laughter. I wish I could remember what my jokes were though! I was concentrating so much on saying insightful things, I wasn’t devoting enough brain power to remembering what I was saying… :)

Anyway thanks to all who attended.

I’ll be giving a talk, as part of the CU Philosophy Department THINK! public lecture series, entitled “An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design”. The talk will be on Tuesday October 28th, and it will be at Old Main Chapel from 7:30 to 9 pm. I’ll talk for 40 minutes or so and then the rest of the time I’ll take questions. (I anticipate that the Q&A session will be quite interesting….) This event is free and open to the public (as are all philosophy talks at CU; the difference with the THINK! series is that the talks are designed for a public audience).