The sanctimonious bombast of George Gilder

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Yesterday, I was reading a good article in the October 2004 issue of Wired: "The crusade against evolution", by Evan Ratliff. It gives far more column space to the voices of the Discovery Institute than they deserve, but the article consistently comes to the right conclusions, that the Discovery Institute is "using scientific rhetoric to bypass scientific scrutiny." Along the way, the author catches Stephen Meyer red-handed in misrepresenting Carl Woese (by the clever journalistic strategem of calling Carl Woese), and shows how the DI's favorite slogans ("Teach the controversy" and "academic freedom") are rhetorical abuses of the spirit of the ideas behind them. It's darned good stuff. I should probably say more about the good article, but I'm still picking magma out of my ears after reading a one page insert in the article -- a ghastly, ignorant broadside by George Gilder that prompted a personal eruption. I've calmed down now, so I can tear it apart more delicately than I might have yesterday.

I'm still a bit peeved at the fool, so I'm going to remonstrate against him first—but maybe later I'll say more about the Ratliff article.

Continue reading "The sanctimonious bombast of George Gilder" (on Pharyngula)

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For those unaware, the 2004 Ig Nobel prizes will be announced on Thursday. Perhaps we could convince the committee to add an award for apologetics to go to someone with impressive academic credentials who is baffled by bullshit. George Gilder would be a worthy candidate.

The Wired article is now online, in case anybody wants to read it. The Crusade Against Evolution

Sometimes on PT we see embodiments of this line from the story: “As a friend of mine said, it takes a half a second for a baby to throw up all over your sweater. It takes hours to get it clean.”

I haven’t attended public school in so long I can’t really remember how science was presented, except as a kind of litany of “scientific facts” to be memorized for tests. Certainly no sense of science as a method was imparted. Perhaps things have changed, and hopefully someone here can enlighten me. In church one is also presented with a litany of received Truths, but the church assures us that their Truths are absolute and eternal, whereas scientists can only equivocate, saying theirs might be true, most of the time, at least under certain circumstances. So science fares very badly by this comparison, providing shoddy Truths from the bottom of the barrel, nothing to be used as a psychological anchor against fate and change.

I come away from the Wired article with the feeling that it supports my conviction that this is a purely political battle, and must be fought on political grounds. The overwhelming majority of US citizens believe in (some derivative of) the God of Abraham, whom they believe is all-powerful. The implication is that this god DOES something; if it does nothing, what good is it? Yet science has in a short time (far shorter than religion has been around) accomplished too much to ignore, and done so without recourse to any gods. Scientists can make polite noises about how God can be around and busy, but the fact remains that no scientific theory or knowledge relies on anything supernatural.

But then, what does God do, really? What aspect of reality can be used to build the strongest case that God must have wielded his immense power, because no alternative explanation makes sense? And the answer is simple: it’s US, you and me! We are obviously special, arent’ we? Yes we are. We couldn’t possibly have once been primitive beasts, could we? Not a chance. When our pride is on the line, we create gods in our image and worship them for creating us in their image.

The creationists of the ID movement, the tip of the Wedge, are part of a carefully (and skillfully) organized political attempt to leverage that vast majority of believers. The sin of evolution has nothing to do with the merits of the evidence, and everything to do with leaving God out of our personal history. Believers, even those of the theistic evolution persuasion, are at some level uncomfortable with their God playing no greater role in the history of our species than just the negative role of not getting in the way and mucking things up. One need not be all that well versed with Occam’s Razor to realize that if God can be eliminated altogether without changing evolution (that us, US) at all, evolution is therefore Godless. Not acceptable. There MUST be a reasonable, “scientific” alternative. If there is not, then God does nothing, and might as well not exist. And try telling THAT to 95% of the American public.

So the political capital for the ID movement arises from this broad but (heretofore) unfocused unease, I think. ID makes inroads into public school science curricula NOT because it has even the slightest actual scientific merit, but because a large majority of people WANT it to have scientific merit. And so the ID battle plan is constructed to wrap the general if unarticulated national conviction that God must play SOME role, in the jargon of science, academic freedom, and political debate.

And I seriously doubt this strategy would be effective in any other branch of science. People can consider other branches dispassionately enough to see that magical explanations contribute nothing and damage the investigative method. But when WE are the topic, and when our deepest beliefs are ignored, the motivation is strong enough to be marshalled effectively. One need only look at the size of the creationist budget (and its source) to see the breadth and depth of the underlying political support.

ID is crafted to provide a “sufficiently plausible” rationale for people to make the emotional decision they wish to make but always knew better. God is great, science is powerful, IDists dress up in full scientistic finery their claims that they have found God in science, and we have a political marriage made in heaven.

I think the IDiots may win. Not in terms of creating an actual science, that’s probably not their real goal. And surely by know they know they’ve failed at that part. Win in terms of getting their philosophy presented as science in science classes. Their presentations, appearances, and ‘debates’ are convincing the public that the scientific community is split between two hypotheses. The Discovery Institute and its representatives are polished and impressive to laymen. Debates turn into Scientist A vs Scientist B. I haven’t seen anything from the real science side which assures me that its message will win.

I meant to say earlier that I just loved this post, Dr. Myers. We have a saying in the law that seems to apply well to Gilder’s rhetorical style here: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

Everyone is born ignorant. And without massive investment in time and effort, everyone stays ignorant. So there are far better odds that ignorance well remain the dominant state of humanity.

However, there is the long term curiosity of humans that I think is a delayed infantile brain that will also tend to rediscover lost knowledge, and in a small percentage of people, there will be the origination of new knowledge. So that even ignorance may not always prevail.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on September 26, 2004 10:41 AM.

Thoughts on KC Star Editorial was the previous entry in this blog.

Meyer and Deja Vu Revisited is the next entry in this blog.

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