Intelligent Design and Tenure on the Net

On the one hand, the usual suspects cry foul when Guillermo Gonzalez is denied tenure, at least in part because he is an advocate of Intelligent Design.

On the other, those who want to defend the integrity of the Scientific Establishment are just fine with it — denying tenure because a teacher believes odd and peculiar things, or because they “embarrassed his department and his University” or because they hang with the wrong crowd.

Let’s get some things straight, right off the bat: I think that Intelligent Design is flawed, incorrect, and poor science; I suspect that the Discovery Institute & friends are probably engaged in all of the sneaky, underhanded things of which they are accused; and I strongly suspect that the traditional Darwinian picture explains everything its strongest proponents — Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse — claim for it.

Here are other things I believe: denying tenure in order to promote intellectual homogeneity is dangerous to academia in general; Intelligent Design, while poor science, can’t simply be brushed off by calling it the ‘new creationism’; and that rather than being paragons of superhuman virtue, scientists are sometimes as petty as all other human beings.

But what I really think is lost in the overall debate — not just about tenure, about Intelligent Design, about Guillermo Gonzalez — is the relationship of science and scientists to society at large. Science isn’t just the value-neutral investigation of the natural world, an investigation worth pursuing purely for its own sake. Science plays an ineliminable role in our vision of ourselves as a modern, liberal, clear-thinking society. I want to stress that last part: clear thinking. Scientists — much like basketball players, movie stars, hotel heiresses — need to view themselves as role models for society; it is from scientists that we learn to think and reason clearly about issues.

So, my problem with the Gonzalez tenure case has nothing to do with the merits or flaws of tenure, of science as a process, of the nature of Intelligent Design itself; no, my problem with how things went down in this case is the message it sends to the non-scientists watching. There are plenty of explicitly religious arguments in favor of Intelligent Design. Many, if not all, of its proponents have an openly Christian agenda. But the (strong, definitive) scientific arguments against ID are undercut when scientists operate with a value-laden agenda of their own. It’s hard to read this:

Frankly, Gonzalez is an astronomer taking aim at the Copernican Principle, with horribly non-scientific arguments (have you actually seen his movie, Privileged Planet? I have, and Gonzalez and Richards did everything but use blatant astrology to argue for the Anthropic Principle). Hardly the makings of an astronomer worthy of tenure, or the license to tout his schemes with any authority.

…without hearing a bit of rancor. I’m sure the rancor is justified. Creationists and those who dishonestly promote Intelligent Design (in contrast with those who honestly believe that something like Intelligent Design is true — is Gonzalez in the first or the second camp?) are probably really frustrating. But that justifiable rancor shouldn’t feed into what should be a dispassionate examination of a junior faculty’s academic worth.

When working scientists forget this, it makes it easier for the general public to believe weird things, about science and about rational thought. When scientists publicly admit that non-scientific considerations are used to vet professors up for tenure, it feeds into the sense amongst many that the putatively neutral institution of science is taking sides in the culture war.

It’s one thing to read this; we have here someone who just isn’t capable of disentangling the intertwined intellectual history of science and religion. But it does give a sense of what working scientists are up against:

When science lost its moral foundation through hostility to religion, it became preyed upon by another corrupting influence: politics. And once infected thus, science slowly transmogrified into scientism, or the religious advocacy (by elites within the scientific, academic, journalistic, and government communities) of consensus-based theories whereby a majority-rule mentality takes the place of the traditional scientific method.

We have here a claim that science pronounces as true mere political beliefs. That the deeply religious argue like this isn’t shocking news to anyone; but it should trouble everyone that there are people out there — people who drive cars, fly on planes, use cell phones, get MRI scans, live with modern technology every day — who honestly believe that science is so plastic that working scientists can prove any arbitrary thing they want, and so use their position to promote narrow political agendas. But it isn’t just gullible religious folks who say this: trained economists make the same arguments:

[M]any … appear to me to be more or less ignorant of how science as a form of knowledge-seeking and scientists as individual professionals operate, especially nowadays, when national governments — most notably the U.S. government — play such an overwhelming role in financing scientific research and hence in determining which scientists rise to the top and which fall by the wayside. (Emphasis added)

This is an essentially Kuhnian point, and so has a bit of bite. But Higgs doesn’t stop there; he makes the move from a description of the essentially human, flawed, social nature of science to the social-constructivist claim that the actual content of scientific theories is partly determined by the politics involved. When government bureaucrats want to increase command-and-control, there are feedback mechanisms that get them what they want:

When your research implies a “need” for drastic government action to avert a looming disaster or to allay some dire existing problem, government bureaucrats and legislators (can you say “earmarks”?) are more likely to approve it.

I know it seems like a stretch from an obscure astronomer and tenure to claims about the constructed character of scientific knowledge. I am a philosopher, after all. But I also play the role of citizen-observer in all this. The usual suspects are all involved directly in the issue; after all, the majority of those I’ve found who justify the outcome of the Gonzalez tenure case are themselves scientists. I, like many others, am a consumer of science, of scientific facts and scientific reasoning. Scientists are supposed to be our exemplars of clear, non-biased thought, reason and judgement. (This is a role for which we philosophers are really not suited — because, in truth, we are all a bit crazy. That’s why we’re philosophers.) When scientists act in a biased, unclear manner it only ends up helping those who stand against the objectivity of science.

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Filed under Intelligent Design, Religion, Science

6 responses to “Intelligent Design and Tenure on the Net

  1. Dan

    When scientists act in a biased, unclear manner it only ends up helping those who stand against the objectivity of science.

    Yet it’s not clear at all that that is how the tenure case was conducted. Sure, that’s what the Christian apologetics would have us think, but is it really? You freely admit that Intelligent Design is dishonest and fraudulent – so wasn’t the rancor merely a bias towards responsible science?

  2. Some proponents of Intelligent Design are dishonest and fraudulent. But some aren’t. Some are honestly convinced by the arguments in favor of it — and could be convinced to defect back to the Darwinian side, if the proper kind of case can be made (a well-reasoned, honest, sensitive case, rather than the hardline, unforgiving tactics of, for example, Richard Dawkins).

    We’ll never convince Dembski or O’Leary and the Discover Institute. But the mainstream, thoughtful believing Christians who sit next to me in graduate-level philosophy courses? They are the ones who can be weened off Intelligent Design and towards a more Darwinian approach. But they aren’t going to be convinced by — what appears to them to be — strong-arm tactics.

  3. Dan

    Fine, Dawkins can enflame more than enlighten for some people. But you sound as though alternatives to Dawkins are lacking – have you not heard of Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, Stephen Jay Gould, Sean B. Carroll, or others?

    And I hardly think that the “mainstream, thoughtful believing Christians who sit next to me in graduate-level philosophy courses” are the fraudulent and dishonest public proponents of Intelligent Design that I’m referring to. You’re thoughtful Christian friends may be sympathetic to ID, but that doesn’t make them vocal supporters.

  4. Dan

    Not to mention, Darwin himself. I wonder, how many thoughtful Christians have actually bothered reading Darwin before concluding that he was wrong? Not many, I’m betting.

  5. You’re right — Dawkins and PZ Meyers are not the only voices in the din. But Dawkins is the one who gets to have a pretend debate on the Bill O’Reilly show. The most strident, least flexible of the pro-science crowd are — for worse, I think — the current public face of the movement.
    And I think we need to distinguish our target audience: the “dishonest and fraudulent” IDers may be misleading us about the specifics of the Gonzalez tenure case. But whether they are not not, the fact that it seems like anti-religious prejudice makes them appear more credible in the eyes of the moderately religious Christians we ought to be targeting and converting.

    ID will never supplant biology as a science, because it’s just plain wrong. But that’s not what we’re fighting for: we’re fighting for the role of science, the role of biology, in public policy and public life. In order to win this debate (especially against people like O’Leary and the Discovery Institute) we can’t alienate the majority of moderate believers.

  6. Pingback: More Commentary on Guillermo Gonzalez - Telic Thoughts

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