Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Misrepresenting liberalism: How the IDers got it (and still get it) wrong

In response to one of my recent posts on intelligent design (see the follow-up here), Annie of AmbivaBlog wrote this:

It isn't genuine relativism. It's a ploy to call "diversity" liberals' bluff and hoist them by their own petard. The religious people behind Intelligent Design believe that God is the Designer. They've simply come up with an argument they think liberals can't refute without exposing their own dogmatism and hypocrisy.

She's right, and I need to clarify my argument: The proponents of intelligent design, including political proponents of the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in the schools, are not relativists. Some of them may be, for all I know, but most seem to be absolutists in the sense that they are what we would generally call believers. That is, they believe that God (their God, or at least their version of God, a god) is the Creator, the prime mover behind all life, indeed, behind the universe more generally. Where relativists hold that there is no absolute truth, just a multiplicity of truths determined by power and perspective, creationists, whether open about their beliefs or hiding behind the political convenience of intelligent design, believe that there is but one ultimate and overarching truth.

The proponents of intelligent design may not be relativists, but they have adopted the rhetoric of relativism. They know that creationism isn't likely to offer much of a challenge to the teaching of evolution, but speaking the language of diversity, that is, adopting the language of liberalism, or more specifically of the new liberalism that eschews moral absolutes, including the moral absolutes of classical liberalism, and embraces relativism in some form, may force their opponents into an uncomfortable choice: either they accept intelligent design as an equal alternative to evolution or they deny its validity as an equal alternative to evolution and thereby turn hypocritically against their own philosophical foundations.

In short, if Annie is right, they expect their opponents, including the proponents of evolution, to cave. But this strategy, such as it is in any way strategic, betrays a serious misunderstanding of their opponents, and that misunderstanding results from a simplistic understanding of liberalism long fostered by its right-wing critics. Forget for a moment that American conservatism is essentially a distillation of classical liberalism, neo-liberalism, mixed with various illiberal strains of modern and pre-modern thought. Forget that America is the liberal nation par excellence. Conservatives have largely succeeded in vilifying liberals and liberalism in the public imagination. If you're a liberal, you're somehow un-American, well out of the mainstream of American life and belief. But they've done this by reducing liberalism -- the political philosophy of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness -- down to relativism, that is, to moral bankruptcy, to an absence of what are generally referred to as values. In reality, liberals may defend the natural rights of the individual, as those rights were set down by Locke, America's philosopher, and his early-modern liberal contemporaries, but conservatives want you to believe that they represent a profound threat to all things American.

To be sure, some of today's liberals are relativists, more or less. But liberalism is the philosophy of a rival absolute truth to creationism, an absolute truth discovered in nature through reason and/or experience. It is not relativism. Relativism, which denies even the primacy of reason and the certainty of experience, is illiberal, just as much so as any illiberal ideology of the right. In short, conservatives have attempted to reduced liberalism down to an element of postmodernism, where nothing is true except the absence of truth, and this is where the proponents of intelligent design have hoped to catch their opponents in that bind.

Conservatives have intentionally distorted liberalism, equating it with illiberal relativism, and the proponents of intelligent design have picked up on that misrepresentation, predicting that their opponents wouldn't have much to say in response to their challenge. Liberals have generally failed to counter the larger conservative offensive, but they are now fighting back. If liberalism is relativism, then there really isn't much to fight for, including evolution. But it isn't.

I do not mean to equate liberalism and science. The two are clearly distinct. And it may be true, as one of my other readers put it, that political liberals may believe in intelligent design (although I would suggest in response that such liberals, including certain supporters of the Democratic Party, may actually be philosophically or theologically conservative). But I would argue that science is very much akin to liberalism. Like liberalism, science sought to liberate humanity from the errors of superstition by placing reason above, or at least in contradistinction to, faith. Is it any wonder that many of the early-modern liberals were scientists? Indeed, far from rejecting truth altogether, liberals hold that truth may be uncovered through the scientific method and that, in short, truth must be empirically demonstrable. Evolution is a theory, not a belief, but much of it is empirically true. Creationism is a belief based on biblical revelation, not a scientific theory and certainly not empirically demonstrable. And intelligent design is just silly.

Regardless, terms like "liberal" and "conservative" are just labels. What's important is that science, however liberal in a philosophic sense, is not about to give in to such silliness. And now that the proponents of intelligent design are making a name for their silliness, science is finally fighting back. Not by employing the postmodern left's rhetoric of relativism, which wouldn't get it anywhere, but by defending the truth of evolution and empirical truth more generally. As Tufts Professor Daniel Dennett -- author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and, once upon a time, of a letter to the editor of The Tufts Daily criticizing one of my columns on education and multiculturalism -- put it recently in a brilliant piece in the Times, "contemporary biology has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt... that natural selection -- the process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite resources and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error from which improvements automatically emerge -- has the power to generate breathtakingly ingenious designs," a sound, scientific refutation of the central claim of intelligent design, that evolution cannot explain the profound complexity of life.

Ah, but it can.

Admittedly (and positively), "genuine scientific controversies about evolution... abound," but intelligent design has failed to offer anything in the way of an alternative to evolution:

To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.


In short, no science. Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

Yes, intelligent design is content-free. It has no place in America's, or anywhere else's, classrooms -- science, philosophy, religion, or otherwise.

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