Tone


{I’ve added an update below.}

As a follow up to my previous post on this topic, I want to point out that the bloggingheads.tv discussion between Michael Behe and John McWhorter is now back up at bloggingheads’ web site. But as a result of disagreements over what sorts of interviews bloggingheads should air, cosmologist Sean Carroll and science journalist Carl Zimmer have decided not to participate in bloggingheads any more. This despite the fact that the editor in chief of bloggingheads, Robert Wright, said:

1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

What was Carl Zimmer’s reason for not continuing to take part in bloggingheads? It seems to boil down this this:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.
This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I take it Zimmer is implying that Behe’s arguments are specious, and sound fancy, but are actually scientifically empty. I guess I disagree — while I’m no expert on biology, I find Behe’s arguments interesting and worth discussing, even though I ultimately think he’s wrong. There’s are some wrong ideas that aren’t worth discussing (like the claim that the moon is made of green cheese), but I think Behe’s arguments are on the other side of the line. (And even with the moon claim, it is interesting to think about what evidence we have for the claim that the moon isn’t made of green cheese, and what the moon would look like if it were.)

I’m obviously not the only educated person who thinks that Behe’s arguments are worth discussing (even though I think they’re wrong). So the question becomes: how should those who think that they aren’t worth discussing behave? Should they intellectually distance themseves from those who think that they are worth discussing? Or should they adopt more of a live-and-let-live attitude, and recognize that it’s worthwhile for those smart people who think that the ideas are worth discussing to be able to discuss them?

The latter strikes me as the right answer. Given that some smart educated people think that they are worth discussing, those who disagree should nevertheless be happy that the ideas are being discussed. Science is full of episodes where a certain idea looked silly to most all the scientists, but that idea ended up being right (or at least, widely accepted). We have to be careful about restricting discussion to what’s based on peer-reviewed science. The revolutionary ideas come first, and peer-review comes later. In my opinion, a forum like bloggingheads should be a place where the revolutionary ideas can be discussed. This means that wrong ideas will end up being discussed too, but that’s a necessary consequence of open-minded intellectual inquiry. And isn’t that the best kind of inquiry?

UPDATE: For a thought-out, but wrong, reply to this post of mine, see what Joshua Rosenau has to say.

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An interesting interview with Michael Behe was recently posted on bloggingheads.tv, by atheist John McWhorter, who expressed some sympathies with Behe’s positions. A summary of the interview is available in comment 9 here, and the interview can be watched here. If bloggingheads.tv had their way though, we wouldn’t be able to watch the interview, because it was pulled a few hours after it was posted. One obviously wonders what sort of pressure was put on bloggingheads.tv and/or McWhorter. Here is the bloggingheads.tv explanation of why the video was pulled:

John McWhorter feels, with regret, that this interview represents neither himself, Professor Behe, nor Bloggingheads usefully, takes full responsibility for same, and has asked that it be taken down from the site. He apologizes to all who found its airing objectionable.

Behe’s take on all this is here.

Sadly, this seems to be another example of open intellectual debate and discussion being suppressed because of the worry that such open debate and discussion could end up supporting intelligent design. As I argue in my book, it’s a mistake for intelligent design opponents to behave this way. What they should do instead is engage in the debate openly and honestly. Engaging in suppression tactics is just going to make it look like they have something to hide, and that they’re trying to win the battle for public opinion in ways that don’t depend on the merits of their arguments.

I’ve just finished reading Robert Pennock’s piece “Can’t Philosophers Tell the Difference Between Science and Religion? Demarcation Revisited”, in the new edition of But is it Science?. There is so much wrong in this piece, it’s hard to know where to start. If there’s a philosophy grad student out there who’s looking for a paper topic, let me know and I can give you advice on how to write a paper taking issue with Pennock. Perhaps I’ll talk about some of the philosophical problems with Pennock’s piece on this blog but that will have to be saved for another time. For now I just want to comment on Pennock’s offensive tone.

For example, Pennock writes:

Laudan’s and Quinn’s discussions of demarcation, which can only be described as histrionic and ill considered, and those of their careless imitators continue to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science. (p. 540)

Laudan’s essay “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” is standardly considered one of the most important essays in philosophy of science in the 20th century. Pennock may disagree with it, but his level of rhetoric toward it is unwarranted.

Also, Pennock approvingly quotes Paul Gross, who writes:

Larry Laudan presents in his jeremiad on McLean v. Arkansas a perfect example of a philosopher richly deserving an exclusion from ‘the conversation of mankind’. (p. 542)

To be honest, I find this highly offensive. Do I even need to explain why?

I could give many more examples, but here’s a final one for now:

When squinting philosophers like Laudan, Quinn, and their imitators such as Monton and George purport that there is no way to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or religion they bring to mind Hume’s observation that “generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”. Unfortunately, in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous. (p. 569)

Pennock and I have major disagreements, but I’ll try my best to air these disagreements without calling Pennock things like a “squinting philosopher”, or saying that he’s “ridiculous” and “dangerous”. I think Pennock is mistaken about a lot of issues in philosophy, but I’ll try my best to explain Pennock’s confusions without resorting to this sort of offensive rhetoric. It’s disappointing to me that Pennock doesn’t feel the same way.

{bradleymonton.org 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.

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.

I’m finally reading a book I should have read a long time ago, Del Ratzsch’s 1996 book The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. Ratzsch is a theist who clearly has some sympathies with creationism (and, more recently, intelligent design), but he takes a fair-minded, nuanced approach to things. This is admirable, and it’s this sort of approach that I want to emulate. 

The start of his book is worth quoting:

Some public disagreements transcend the category of mere debate and become social institutions. Each side develops its own organizations, journals, networks, buzzwords, mythologies, heroes, conspiracy theories, horror stories, dire predictions, standards of orthodoxy, loyalty tests and so forth. The “creation-evolution” dispute currently has that status in American culture — and not for the first time, either. 

Ratzsch doesn’t think this is a good development, and I agree.