Should We Let Creationists Dictate Our Time: A Response to Tristero

In commenting on a post by SA Smith that rebuts (quite well) Behe’s latest ID creationist idiocy, tristero writes (bold original; italics mine):

But reading Smith’s post on HIV evolution, I have to confess I can’t for the life of me understand it. Ms Smith, I promise I’ll spend some more time on it later and try to puzzle it out; I like that kind of a challenge (and please don’t bother rewriting it for civilians, you’ve got better things to do!). But the tactic Behe is employing worries me, because it is so cynical, and dangerously effective.
Essentially, id creationists are slowly trying to build the case that their arguments and “data” are so subtle that only “other” scientists can possibly enter the discussion. Since the rest of us have neither the time, the inclination, nor often the analytical talent to follow the details, we have no way to come to our own conclusions based on reason alone. Yes, I suppose I could spend a few years studying up on HIV and retroviruses in general, so theoretically I could acquire the knowledge to make my own conclusion. But in reality, it is very unlikely I will do so. Nor will you, unless this, or something similar, is your field. The knowledge and data needed are too specialized.
You see where this is going? ID creationists are deliberately forcing the question of who we laypeople will trust. Since we are not in any position to judge Smith vs Behe on the playing field of the data, we must rely on irrelevant social heuristics to decide who makes the better case.

I want to get back to the “don’t bother rewriting it for civilians, you’ve got better things to do!” bit in a moment. Tristero observes a paradox (italics mine):

The more abstruse and detailed the argumentation gets in the fight against creationism, the more important emotional, non-rational cues become for the vast majority of us in weighing how to judge who’s right! What this implies is that it makes little sense for a scientist of Smith’s caliber to “engage” Behe if he is arguing in an irresponsible fashion. Two reasons:
1. If Behe has nothing to contribute to the science, Smith is wasting her time by arguing with a malicious fool. Behe has a long, documented history of making arguments that pretend to be scientific but are patently worthless. If this is another – and no doubt it is – who has time?
2. If the purpose of engaging Behe is to rebut his arguments for the benefit of we interested laypeople, there is in fact the very real possibility that even the most interested of such folks – and I include myself in that list – will simply not be able to follow it. This inadvertently aids Behe and other creationists by all but forcing us to rely on emotional cues, tribal loyalties, and social norms in order to choose sides. This is surely the exact opposite of Smith’s intent.

Where I disagree with Tristero is that most of this is not too difficult to explain to non-biologists–provided you are willing to take the time (and space) to do it. When I rebutted some nascent idiocy from creationists about antibiotic resistance and creationism, most of the post wasn’t spent on the rebuttal per se, but on providing the necessary background to enable the rebuttal. This is worth doing on its own–I see responding to creationists primarily as an excuse to discuss and educate readers about interesting biology.
This is also a royal pain in the ass: as tristero correctly notes, life is far too short to provide Behe the anterior-posterior extraction procedure he so desperately needs (not that would it take…). That, not technical complexity is the problem. I don’t think biology is so complicated, but, like many professions, there is a huge vocabulary and a knowledge base that is required to understand the subject at hand. That requires not only the tolerance of the reader, but also time to write the goddamn thing on behalf of the blogger. And there are so many things that more interesting to blog about than some creationist’s latest brain barf.
Back when I was a wee lil’ Mad Biologist, I wrote about professional creationists:

Every morning the creationists/ID supporters wake up and have one job: to debunk evolution. They can search the web and journals, practice their public relations skills, and hone their standard public presentations. This is due to the massive funding of institutes whose sole purpose to deny evolution (e.g., Jonathan Wells had his Ph.D. paid for by the Rev. Moon-yes, that Rev. Moon-so he could better attack evolution).
Contrast this with evolutionary biologists. Every morning we wake up and have to conduct research, teach, sit on university committees, write grants, review manuscripts for journals, and so on. We would also like to occasionally have a personal life. When it comes to publicizing the case for evolution, we are outgunned and outfunded.

In retrospect, I would also add, ‘outmanned.’ That’s why evolutionary biologists developed talkorigins.org. There was too much time being wasted explaining the same damn thing over and over again. The irony is that if evolution biology were actually the intellectual masturbation that creationists claim it is (and creationism itself is), we would have far more time and energy to spar with creationist bozos. Unfortunately, we have worthwhile day jobs.
I want to address one other point about using ‘”social heuristics.” While biologists should make the scientific arguments, we should not shy away from the social heuristics. What annoys me most about ID creationism are not its errors (although they are legion), it’s what I’ve called Vichy science. I find it the height of intellectual cowardice to claim that because you are not clever enough to figure something out, you claim that God did it (which, despite all the claims to the contrary, is what intelligent design creationism boils down to). Strap on the ol’ thinkin’ cap and figure it the hell out. This is nothing more than the scientific version of Republicantism.
My impression is that Vichy science bugs the hell out of most biologists–not for religious or philosophical reasons, but because it is the antithesis of what scientists do. There’s nothing wrong with injecting a little humanity into the debate–from our side.

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6 Responses to Should We Let Creationists Dictate Our Time: A Response to Tristero

  1. J-Dog says:

    Excellent Post – Thanks for taking the time.

  2. ERV says:

    hehehe I wrote that last post to Behe for my usual readers– I had no idea there would be a wave of PZ/Hullabaloo readers stopping by, or else I would have made prominent links to the original essay, quick translation for laymen, and illustrated guide before I typed a word.
    Tristero makes excellent posts about the direction Creationists are headed and trust– I think the willingness of scientists to take the time to explain their work to anyone who is interested is one of the many things that separates us from the Creationists. But I think a lot of tristeros confusion stems from me not linking to the whole back story :)
    I will have up another ‘Quick Translation Part II’ later today (I hope), as well as my own response to tristero. Like I said, he has some great points… But he also perpetuates some memes that I dont like :)

  3. tristero says:

    Hi, Mike, and you, too Abbie,
    Thanks for taking the time to take my post seriously. If I had known, I would have written it more carefully (grin).
    I’ve read your post, and the comments over at Hullabaloo – can’t seem to locate Abbie’s responses, are they up yet? Anyway, Mike, I completely see your point that it is useful, and interesting to us layfolks to get the backstory on why someone like Behe is blowing hot air. I wonder, however, how long it will remain both useful and interesting. An example:
    Debunking Erik Von Daniken is a lot of fun, I’m sure, but really, the view of cosmology and ancient history he propounds is so nuts that even if you use it as an excuse to teach the real stuff, there are so many gaping holes left that one ends up with a very spotty and strange sense of what happened way back in Egypt or among the Incas, even from the standpoint of lay knowledge. I wonder if perhaps the same isn’t true of biology if you start educating from the obsessions of creationists. Some of the best posts I’ve read on evolution completely ignore their silliness.
    Abbie, I’m not sure that even I like many of the memes I perpetuate. I’m not kidding. In looking over the post, I really felt I may have mislaid some emphases, maybe seriously so. I suspect we share similar concerns and I hope, in your post, you will do me the favor of letting me have it, no holds barred.
    One final point to Mike. I absolutely agree that biologists should not shy away from deploying social heuristics. In fact, I enthusiastically agree. I think you understand that wasn’t really the point of my post but I’ll try to be clearer here, it’s a bit complex:
    1. By arguing about extraordinarily abstruse and complex biological details (even if interesting), Behe is clearly hoping that laypeople like myself will throw up our hands and say, “How can I ever figure this out for myself? It sounds like a serious scientific dispute, and ultimately I have to take it on faith as to who is right or wrong.”
    2. Paradoxically, by making the argument incomprehensible, Behe forces we layfolks to rely ENTIRELY on social heuristics to decide who to agree with.
    3. On that playing field, Behe will win in contemporary America. He has on his side the churches, the romantic sense of The Unexplainable Universe, a moral ideology which is rooted in his “scientific theories,” the myth of the lone voice taking on The Man, and the sheer ignorance of the country vis a vis science. What do you – meaing scientists – have? Well, if Behe has poisoned the well of rational argument by deliberately pretending the subject is obscure, there is not much, quite frankly, you do have in the realm of social heuristics to take you on faith except the authority of science, which speaks about its results in carefully hedged language (and properly so). I need to immediately add the words “At present” to that. I do not think this is a permanent condition. I think it can easily change, and is changing.
    4. That is why so much must be done to get science out to we layfolks. It seems to me like it’s an intellectual, existential, and moral imperative for scientists to do this. Even it strikes me as not the most enjoyable job often. Hell, I hate as much as the next musician explaining what I do to people who don’t know what a major triad is. But it’s simply part of the job. I imagine the same is true in the sciences.
    5. That does not mean the science should be watered down or serious differences finessed. In fact, it means just the opposite. It means more science not less. Sure, increase access the introductory stuff and make it so awesome that it enthralls the most cynical science phobe.
    6. But also, and this is important, don’t hide the good, challenging stuff. Make it more accessible not by toning it down but simply by making it easily available to amateurs and curious no-nothings like yours truly. Why? Because the more stuff that’s out there, the broader the entire spectrum of knowledge we can explore. I’ll happily take my chances that I’ll get lost if I can stretch my mind trying to find my way through a complex article. (I certainly hope you understood I wasn’t complaining that Abbie’s article was too hard. That really wasn’t it at all!)
    I wish I had time to expand that last point. I’ll try another time. But I think this is a wonderful paradox. I think the more levels of scientific discourse going on in public, including the very difficult subjects, the more potential there is to increase scientific literacy. Please, don’t dumb it down and hide it from us. Make it accessible, make it clear, of course. But give us more information, more detail, not less.

  4. Gibbon1 says:

    Heuristics? You want a heuristic? I’ll give you a stinking heuristics!
    1) With any source you need to ask the question is this person in a position to know what he’s talking about? That is how much training, knowledge and direct observational experience does he have.
    2) Sources with direct knowledge when challenged fall back to proving explanations, examples and data. Sources without direct knowledge tend to throw poo.
    3) The weight that you put on any source that is known to lie is zero.

  5. tristero says:

    Gibbon 1,
    If only it were that easy. The thing is that Behe, when he makes, and then is engaged by others, in abstruse arguments that no lay person can possibly understand, we have to rely on things other than the content of the argument. So we look at his background and we find scientific training. And a quick scan shows us that he has been published. If you are a typical American, you also add in other social cues for knowing whom to trust, namely his religious background.
    I hope it’s clear I find this utterly appalling. I’ve been consistent about that. I’m trying to give you a sense of how difficult the problem is for us to know who we should trust.
    The problem is made even more difficult when Behe provokes knowledgeable people to respond to his abstruse misreadings. We layfolks simply throw up our hands. So the question comes up: for whom are those detailed discussions intended? Not for other scientists, because they know Behe’s full of it. And certainly not for us, because we’re in no position to understand them. It seems to me they benefit mostly Behe by making him appear – appear – to be able to sling the bull just as well as a real scientist.
    I am suggesting there are better ways to confront Behe than arguing with him. Abbie actually realizes this. She ridicules Behe without mercy at the same time she shoves incredibly specific journal articles his way. I think I was wrong to get on her case and will say so some time soon, when I can make it matter a lot.
    Regarding liars, I agree with you. But whenever I meet someone who claims s/he never lies, I know I’ve met a world class liar. Or at best, someone who simply doesn’t listen to what s/he actually says.
    That is the problem. Creationists have taken this commonsense view of falsifying the truth and systematically exploited it. We don’t have concise phrases, let alone words, to distinguish properly between the kinds of lies and distortions they employ and those which everyday interaction accepts and excuses. It is despicable, but it is also a fact and we must find a way to confront it.

  6. Dr. Puck says:

    I like ‘Vichy Science’.
    Anyway…from the perspective of critical evaluation of implicit propositions rather than of the abstruse terms of the scientific argument given to its own domain, Behe’s argument is ramified at a other logical orders. For example, if the HIV argument is taken as true than similar arguments will necessarily be true for all sorts of other biological phenomena. Yet all sorts of other biological phenomena may aid falsification of the HIV argument simply because the expected truth claims (‘elsewhere’) are not true, or cannot be tested.
    This follows directly from the proposition that an agency )of the type Behe supposes,) is required to effect the alteration he proposes. If this agency is true for HIV it will necessarily be true for all sorts of other phenomena. Given the proposed agency is supernatural or supranatural or beyond the bandwidth of naturalistic experimentation, nevertheless Behe’s argument, (really we might call it a class of arguments,) will beg the question of how the agency works its…magic. And, this will necessarily be magic instigated and pervasive throughout most biological phenomena.
    In other words, it’s “turtles all the way up and down.” But, there’s nothing critically ventured in Behe’s arguments. They should strike the layperson as being dubious precisely because their question-begging core is so obvious, and, after all, unless the designer specializes in only the most arcane biological venues for interference, it’s the implicit ramifications that drive the ID arguments right off a cliff.
    And, there’s no experiment to be done unless it’s about proving a hypothesis about the agent/effect interface. For me the numbing abstruseness is a red herring in light of the lack of science supporting the idea that an agent is intentionally messing with biological mechanics.

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