Speaking of reasonable disagreement

By Sean Carroll | August 23, 2005 7:49 pm

Kenneth Chang, author of yesterday’s New York Times article on Intelligent Design, left a comment to the post here about that article, in which I called it a “disaster” (he also commented at Pharyngula, and perhaps elsewhere). He didn’t convince me that the article was a non-disaster, but it’s good to see a willingness to dive into the discussion.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
  • Aaron

    I’m sort of curious what you wanted to see out of this artice. I wouldn’t have minded a mention of talkorigins.org or something, and it there probably could have been stronger refutations of, say, Dembski, but to call it a “disaster” seems a bit over the top.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Aaron, see my reply to Kenneth’s comment. I wanted it to be made clear that there wasn’t any scientific controversy, this wasn’t something that scientists were really talking about, no serious research was being done on this by biologists, etc. It’s the outgrowth of a public-relations campaign. Those are straightforward statements, not just opinionmongering. One could even be a little more bold and point out that ID is simply the latest avatar of the venerable tradition of “God-of-the-gaps” theology, which has proven itself to be spectacularly wrong again and again. But that would, admittedly, be too much to hope for.

    This is a real problem: simply having scientists explain why ID is wrong gives the impression that there is a legitimate controversy, when really there isn’t. That’s why such quotes should always be accompanied by an explanation that this “controversy” has nothing to do with the contemporary scientific research agenda.

  • Pingback: Mark in Mexico()

  • Anonymous

    Kenneth Chang said on Pharyngula: “Rather, the intended audience is the many, many people who have passingly heard of Kansas, intelligent design, Christian, something or other, but don’t know what I.D. is or even care much about science in general.”

    I’m not sure who this audience is, especially since the president made his comments on teaching ID. I would think that regular readers of the NYT would be familiar with the controversy (assuming they don’t just check scores and stock prices). I would also think that regular internet news surfers would be familiar with the controversy. I would also think that people who regularly send each other news by email have seen stories on ID before.

    So it seems that this article was intended for people who do not know/care much about the ID controversy and who don’t regularly read the NYT, surf the internet or receive news emails, but who happened to be doing so this week. Or maybe the article is intended for people who have simply ignored ID articles until now and didn’t this week.

    Maybe I’m totally off base here, but that seems like a very specific audience to write for. Is my first paragraph wrong? I don’t doubt that the number of people unfamiliar with this topic is huge – I have doubts that they read the NYT.

  • http://tingilinde.typepad.com/starstuff/ steve

    It is a disaster – giving credibility to something as scientifically sound as witchcraft that comes out of PR is just wrong.

    I’m very disturbed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives so much support to the Discovery Institute (about 30% of their funding and 35% of their president’s salary). While it is channeled into a different study, it probably helps the institute as a whole.

  • http://yolanda3.dynalias.org/tsm/tsm.html Wolfgang


    to continue some previous thoughts:

    If ID proponents claim that there is an Intelligent Designer, then the obvious question should be: Who is it?
    And the only answer can be “The Flying Spaghetti Monster”.

    I refuse to play by the rules of the ID movement; But I acknowledge that a majority of US citizens is not that interested in science, thus the media will use their fake “neutrality” (e.g. yesterday evening on Larry King’s show – oh my FSM!) .
    Thus we should insist that the FSM is taken seriously; At least we can have some fun and provide some material to be used by the poor biology teachers in the middle of all this.

  • citrine

    But doesn’t this bring up the question of who designed the designer?

  • http://yolanda3.dynalias.org/wbpage/MH/mh.html Wolfgang

    > But doesn’t this bring up the question of who designed the designer?
    Absolutely. I suggested on my webpage (entry 2005-08-08) that the IPU (Invisible Pink Unicorn) created the FSM (Flying Spaghetti Monster).

  • http://www.woodka.com Donna

    I appreciate that Chang is trying to reach out, but I would LOVE to see a PZ Myers piece in the Times instead of the crap they’ve been spewing out. Time for newspapers to take their responsibilities to EDUCATE the public seriously, not merely inform and “entertain” with “controversy”.

  • ali

    The article is a disaster. The real story is a two-parter: (1) there is a small, but vocal group of well-funded, right-wing, fundamentalists out to discredit science, and (2) the state of scientific education in this country is abysmal.

    As is obvious, there is no “controversy” in any other developed nation concerning evolution.

    So, again, why are Americans so ignorant?

    I agree with Wolfgang: the only answer is ridicule: The Flying Spaghetti Monster creation theory SHOULD be taught in the classroom. Aren’t we all “touched by his noodly appendage”?

  • tom

    Were my comments not worthy of your blog?

  • Qubit

    I thought string theory, allows for the designer, to design himself. Such ideas like these, are probably not nonsense but misunderstood. There are probably wild cards, Jokers in the ultimate theory of everything. These would have the ablity to leap from brane to brane, such Jokers would remove the need for a Higgs boson.The Joker would create the Higgs ocean, when doing a leap.

    The insertion of a Joker onto a brane, would create a low energy point on the brane, all information would flow towards it, through it and then away from it, in the opposite direction, without any information about each flow being seen by the other. The Joker would then have a chance of being accepted by the brane, if accepted the Joker would have appeared to created itself to anyone on the brane, give the illusion of a god created world.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/~quantoken Quantoken

    Sean said:

    “This is a real problem: simply having scientists explain why ID is wrong gives the impression that there is a legitimate controversy, when really there isn’t. That’s why such quotes should always be accompanied by an explanation that this “controversy” has nothing to do with the contemporary scientific research agenda.”

    Sean, you are an expert on cosmology, I am an expert in a different fields. Various readers on this blog are also probably experts in their particular professions. But none of us are experts working on the evolution theories. OK?

    So none of us are scientists, as far as this particular discussion is concerned. We are all none-scientists and none-experts. We both know quite a bit of evolution, and accept it as a valid theory and proven by experimental evidences. But you don’t know more than I do, and I know no less than you do. So we are equal footing on this debate. Do not consider yourself a scientist in this, OK?

    Now, as far as most people in the known is concerned, the debate between evolution and ID has already been settled by plenty of evidences, and conclusion has already been drawn. But why should you disallow scientists to continue to explain to the public. Do you think this particular topic should now be censored and prohibited from being ever talked again? Are you suggesting we return to the middle age? Science should always welcome discussions, no matter how solid something has been established.

    A controversy exists when a certain portion of the population holds a different opinion from another portion. In this case, it is a fact that quite a good percentage of the general population still believe there is some legitimacy to ID. So, at least in this aspect, the controversy DO exist. And it is the duty of scientists to explain to the public what they think about it, why they consider certain things right or wrong. You keep doing it until a good enough portion of the population accept your opinion, and you feel OK to ignore the remaining minority and move on. That’s when you call there is no more controversy. That’s how you resolve a controversy.

    Therefore, the controversy does NOT go away just because you claim there is no controversy. There is a huge ID movement and you’ve got to admit its very existance. Do you want to wait until there’s 50% or even 90% of people believe in ID than evolution, before you acknowledge the existance of the controversy? The only way to deal with it is patiently explain all the evidences supporting evolution. And, certainly, if IDers manage to dig up billion year old (an unlikely hypothesis) buried evidences that a genome map for modern humen existed then, or sort of things like that, I would rather be interested in seeing it and picking it apart to see if it could be real or not.


  • macho

    A controversy certainly exists, but it is not a scientific debate between evolution and ID and should definitely not be framed as such.

    We need to do MUCH more public education and outreach on evolution (and other scientific topics), engaging the public in the real, and often fascinating, controversies or issues that are part of a healthy scientific effort to understand the natural world. And we need to do it in a way that invites the public to ask questions and think about these topics — which means educating ourselves about the best ways to do this (I’ve seen too many scientists give public lectures that they thought were aimed at a general audience and instead were at a level that first year graduate students would have struggled with). Doing it poorly simply reinforces the audience’s preconceived notions that science is too hard, that they can’t understand it, and that they’re not welcome in the scientific community.
    And we need to do much, much better at science education for all Americans at every level, from preschool on.

    These educational efforts do not need to even mention ID (although it may come up in a Q&A session, which is fine — Sean’s summary can be gently but firmly reiterated).

    And Sean most certainly is a scientist in this debate, as am I and other scientists not working directly in the field of evolutionary biology. And since what we want to do is invite others without specialized training in this particular field of science or any other to utlilize their own critical thinking skills to understand the real issues involved, your attitude is not just wrong, it’s extremely counterproductive.
    The real debate here is between a scientific approach (employing critical thinking skills and logic as a means of understanding the natural world) vs. faith (belief in what some higher authority tells you simply because they said so). Unfortunately, for too many people, science also appears to be a matter of believing what some higher authority (in this case a scientist instead of a religious leader or text) tells you, and this is one of the key things we need to change. If you can handle your family’s finances, make rational decisions regarding your family’s health care, plan a special event for your parents 50th wedding anniversary, you have all the requisite critical thinking skills necessary to understand the main points of most scientific debates, assuming that the experts involved have done their part in presenting in an engaging and accessible manner.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


See More

Collapse bottom bar