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Let’s Restore Civility to the Debate on Evolution and Intelligent Design

Original Article

In his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, biologist Richard Dawkins brands those who doubt Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution as “history deniers,” even stooping to compare them to “Holocaust deniers.”

In today’s highly charged political climate, scientific debates over controversial subjects such as climate change and evolution increasingly substitute such overblown rhetoric for careful analysis.

We commonly see one side depicting the other as not only wrong, but as unreasonable, irrational, or immoral. As a result, two terms are presently in vogue to describe those who question scientific ideas: “Skeptic” and “Denier.”

In practice, the terms have virtually the same meaning – a person who questions an idea – but vastly different connotations are associated with each. “Skeptic” is used when one wants to sound like a critical thinker, portraying oneself as a rogue academic who bucks the trend in order to break new ground.

In contrast, “denier” has all kinds of pernicious connotations and is used to dismiss critics as close-minded, relying on sinister motives to reject some obvious fact.

These connotations often slip by unnoticed, subconsciously shaping public perceptions of an issue. They are powerful tools of persuasion in our conformist culture, where everyone wants to be a chic, hip, and intelligent skeptic, but no one wants to be a clumsy, dimwitted, or even worse, morally deficient denier.

To be sure there are deniers of certain recent historical facts who hold unquestionably false and abhorrent views. But evolutionists abuse those connotations when co-opting the denier rhetoric into the debate over intelligent design (ID).

Dawkins’ latest diatribe notwithstanding, examples of this rhetoric abound. In an oped published by The Los Angeles Times in 2007, Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal gloated that, “Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution.”

P.Z. Myers, an outspoken evolutionary biologist, calls pro-ID biochemist Michael Behe an “evolution-denier who claims that there is no evidence for evolution.”

I submit that labels like “denier” are meaningless, conversation-stopping terms. The only information they convey is that the person levying the insult is so supremely intolerant (and unconfident) that they must assert that anyone who disagrees is in denial.

Scientists who challenge Darwin do not discard all of his ideas. No serious “evolution denier” disagrees that natural selection is a real force, and that antibiotic resistance must be fought by modern medicine.

Rather, scientists like Behe observe that the only way to combat anti-biotic resistance is to intelligently design drug cocktails based upon the fact that there are limits to evolutionary change.

Behe is not alone in his views. Over 800 Ph.D. scientists have courageously signed a “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” declaring that they are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.”

Such scientists commonly cite the inability of blind and unguided Darwinian mechanisms to generate complex cellular machinery and the billions of bits of language-based information encoded in our DNA.

As one signatory, Stephen C. Meyer, argues in his new book, Signature in the Cell, the discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA.

In place of rhetorically charged labels like denier, I suggest using more civil terms like “critic” or “skeptic,” even when describing one’s opponents. ID proponents are critics of Darwinian evolution.

And many evolutionary scientists are skeptics or critics of ID. Such terms accurately reflect that both sides have serious scientific reasons for their positions.

Once the rhetoric is toned down, perhaps we can have a real discussion about the evidence and find out which side’s skepticism is most convincing in this intriguing debate.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.