November 04, 2005

Debunking Michael Balter

Last month I wrote a rant about an October 2, 2005 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Balter. Yesterday Gary Hurd posted an extensive review of that piece on The Panda's Thumb. Hurd makes most of the points I made and quite a few more. His post is well worth the read.

Posted by DuaneSmith at November 4, 2005 08:12 AM | Read more on Evolution |

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I only just saw Gary's rebuttal of my Times piece yesterday, as no one informed me about it. Here is the response I have posted on Panda's Thumb:

Let me start of by answering Lenny's question, What am I doing here? On 3 November, Gary Hurd posted a lengthy, point by point rebuttal of my Los Angeles Times piece of 2 October. As I pointed out to Gary in a private email, neither he nor anyone else associated with this site contacted me to let me know that my piece was under discussion here. I did not see these posts nor have any idea about them until yesterday, 8 November. Gary apologized, saying that he thought I would see it via other means, and I accepted his apology. But in fact, were it not for a somewhat tardy Google Alert, I might never have seen any of this.

Some of the posts refer to my short time as a member of the DebunkCreation group, which I joined and then posted my Times piece in which I offered as an alternative strategy to countering ID. (Obviously the people who have posted here don't think much of my strategy, which is fine--I will get to that in a moment.) With the exception of a sharp but reasoned response from Mikey Brass, my posting was followed by a flurry of personal attacks, questioning whether I was a dupe of the ID'ers, whether I was pretending to be an academic when I wasn't, and including a number of statements from Lenny and others that anyone who believes ID or creationism is stupid and/or ignorant. It was then that I formed my impression that some defenders of Darwin are intolerant, dogmatic, and filled with missionary zeal that has religious undertones--in other words, some people involved in this, although certainly not all or even a majority, have come to resemble the caricature of the Darwinist that the creationists have always tried to paint. I do indeed detect some of that attitude here, but as I said, I have had discussions with a number of scientists who had a more nuanced reaction to my Times piece. This gives me hope that there is room for discussion about strategy and tactics.

I make all of these remarks because I think they are relevant to the issue of whether or not it is possible to have disagreements within the ranks of the scientific community. That is a key issue for me, because I think that many scientists and defenders of science are in denial about the extent to which religious belief trumps evolutionary thinking in the United States. And I think that this denial has led to a sort of take-no-prisoners approach to the fight against ID that could end up with science losing bigtime. Again, more on that in a moment.

Lenny and Chris Noble have raised here the same issue that came up on DebunkCreation, ie, who I am and what my credentials are to have an opinion on these matters. Since they have engaged in the same personal innuendos as on DebunkCreation, I am going to take another moment to tell you who I am--something that anyone who has read Science for the past 15 years should have a good idea about already. I am from Los Angeles and am 58 years old. From 1974-77 I was a graduate student in the biology department at UCLA, during which time I taught undergraduates and engaged in laboratory research. For various reasons of personal choice I left the department after three years with an MA in biology and went into journalism. In 1991 I became the first correspondent on the European continent for Science, and from 1993 to end 2002 I was the journal's Paris correspondent. After quitting my staff position to write my book about prehistoric Catalhoyuk, The Goddess and the Bull (yes, it is good and yes you should read it) I became a Contributing Correspondent at the magazine, and my name is on the masthead indicating such. After finishing the book, I have continued in that capacity, and am one member of our three-person team specializing in archaeology and human evolution. Some of my articles, including several on human evolution (including the recent "Are Humans Still Evolving?"), can be found on the Articles page of my Web site:

You might read some of these to see whether you can find any hints of creationist thinking. And while you are on this page, please scroll down to the very bottom where my Los Angeles Times piece is posted and read it again or for the first time to see what I really say there. Then you will be ready for what I have to say next.

Gary has provided a very detailed rebuttal to my Times piece and it makes no sense for me to do a point by point rebuttal of his rebuttal, as my arguments are in the piece itself. But let me respond to certain things he says in yesterday's post and in his original post in a way that seems suitable to me as a response.

Gary says that he is "irritated" by the fact that I entered the discussion by writing an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, which does indeed have some 800,000 subscribers (not all of whom read the editorials, of course), and put out some "very poor suggestions" about debating ID. For one thing, I obviously did not, and still don't, agree that my suggestions are very poor, or I would never have written the piece in the first place. What does Gary think I should have done instead? Does he think that I should have debated my ideas about debating ID on The Panda's Thumb or DebunkCreation before going public with them, to see if they passed muster? Well, they have not passed muster with this group, but I still think they needed to be aired. I assume that Gary is also irritated by the fact that I made sure my piece got the widest possible dissemination, with some help from the Times syndication service and bloggers all over the world. Again, I did this because I think the current strategy is a loser. I state my reasons in the piece.

But Gary's rebuttal at the beginning of this thread confuses a number of different issues, all of which I agree are important in their own right: Whether or not we should debate the ID'ers, whether or not ID is science or religion, whether ID is correct, and whether I am naive or uninformed on these issues. He also complains that I helped ID and creationism by not refuting their positions in my Times piece but simply stating their position without comment. In fact, it was not the point of my piece to refute ID--plenty of others are already trying to do that--but to say that the best bet for scientists was to debate ID. Thus the fact that ID is wrongheaded or is not science is not relevant to the issue of whether we should debate them. The whole point in a debate is to try to prove the other side wrong. If you read my piece again, you should be able to see that I imply very heavily that scientists would win the debate as a result of their superior arguments. That is the meaning of my "bring it on" ending.

Thus when Gary asks, "Do you now understand that the ID proposals… are false," he is attacking a straw man. I am sorry if debating an opponent means acknowledging that the opponent exists and has a point of view that he or she has a right to defend, but that is the way it is. And that's where some of the intolerance comes in: The self-satisfied feeling of many people on the DebunkCreation group that anyone who disagrees with them is stupid and/or ignorant serves to LESSEN THE INFLUENCE THAT SCIENTISTS HAVE IN THIS ONGOING CULTURE WAR. To the extent that others adopt this attitude, you will lose in the long run.

So back to my point about denial. As I cite in my piece, and as everyone here knows, the opinion polls (Gallup, Pew, etc) consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans accept either ID or straight out creationism. That is the point from which we start. Scientists and educators have relied heavily on the courts to keep religious objections to evolution out of the classroom, with considerable success until recently. The Dover case is not yet decided, and when it is, most likely it will be appealed to a Supreme Court that will probably include a lot of judges you might not want to see handling this issue. Yesterday there was a setback in Kansas and a victory in Dover. But the battle for the hearts and minds of school kids and adults on the issues of religion vs science has been largely lost up to now, as the opinion polls show. You may keep ID out of some classrooms but you won't keep it out of American life unless you are willing to confront your opponents directly in debate--that is my view, agree or not.

That brings me to one last major point, and a minor one. The claims by some ID'ers that ID represents an alternative scientific hypothesis to Darwinian approaches drives many scientists wild with anger, and I understand and sympathize with that. But really, you have fallen into their well-laid trap. ID is really a religious explanation for how we all got here, and if there was a debate between Michael Behe and, say, Jerry Coyne or Allen Orr on national TV it could be very enlightening in that regard. This in fact was one of my proposals; do you really not want to see this debate take place? The fact is, however, that the average American, and by that I mean the overwhelming majority of Americans, don't care at all whether ID is really science or not. What they care about is which has the better explanation for how we all got here, religion or science. So keeping debate about ID (which is NOT the same as teaching the controversy, although some, including the ID'ers themselves, have myopically tried to see my piece as suggesting that) out of the classroom does not help win converts to Darwinian or scientific thinking because only a confrontation between religion and science can resolve the issue. Again, my support for this is the opinion polls which show that the percentage of Americans who think science has the better explanation is dismally low and has not risen in 20 years.

The minor point is Gary's statement that I said scientists are afraid to confront creationists. Search the Los Angeles Times and see if I said that. What I said is that they did not want to debate, for reasons that may seem sound but which I find self-defeating. But that does raise an interesting issue which came up in the emails I received from some scientists about my piece. While agreeing that a debate was a good idea in principle, they expressed a lot of concern that the concepts of evolution were too complex to be handled properly in a high school biology class. My response to that is, if evolution is too complicated to teach to high school students, on what basis should they be expected to accept it as the best explanation--as a matter of faith?

Bon courage, as we say here, to everyone in this struggle--because there are rough times ahead and you are going to need it. And if you don't understand that I am on your side, then go back and read my Times piece, and my articles for Science, one more time.

Posted by: Michael Balter at November 9, 2005 12:17 AM

Duane, I liked your piece on Mr. Baulter's editorial. We had several independent points of agreement.

I expect further exchanges at Panda's Thumb.


Posted by: Dr.GH at November 9, 2005 11:31 PM

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