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.