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Open Season for Debates

Students and faculty who care about open debate should be aware of a revealing postscript to the Ben Stein imbroglio at UVM.

An entertainer and a legal scholar, Stein was first invited to be this year’s graduation speaker. Then, because he has criticized Darwinian evolution, he was pressured by University President Daniel Mark Fogel to withdraw, and he graciously did so.

In The Burlington Free Press, UVM biology profesor Nick Gotelli applauded this outcome, assailing Stein as a “notorious proponent of intelligent design” and questioning his scholarly credentials.

As a senior fellow at a think tank well-known for its advocacy of intelligent-design theory, I was taken by Gotelli’s self-declared openness, expressed in his article, to inviting “controversial” speakers to campus on occasions other than commencement.

That, Gotelli wrote, would expose “intellectually bankrupt” ideas, like intelligent design.

“We at UVM fully support this kind of free speech,” he wrote.

I assumed that just possibly Gotelli was sincere. So I e-mailed him. Perhaps, I suggested, he would advise me on finding a campus forum for a debate about Darwinian theory on some occasion other than commencement.

I suggested that rather than Ben Stein, it might be illuminating to put up a scientific Darwin critic against a Darwinian advocate like, oh, Gotelli.

It was a pipe dream of mine. Darwinists usually shun debates, hiding behind the excuse of not wanting to grant public recognition to doubts about Darwin – doubts shared by most Americans and a daring minority of mainstream scientists.

Of the latter, the Discovery Institute maintains a list of almost 800 admitted dissenters. Sure enough, Gotelli wrote back in a huff, turning me down flat.

When I read his response, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be amusing to publish this on the Discovery Institute’s blog?” Then I reflected disappointedly, “No, it’s a private correspondence, that would be unethical!”

In his e-mail, after throwing around the scare word “creationism” – associated with na’ve Biblical literalism – and mixing it up with other insults, Gotelli withdrew his suggestion that Stein, or anyone associated with intelligent design, would make an appropriately “controversial” campus speaker.

“Academic debate on controversial topics is fine,” he explained, “but those topics need to have a basis in reality.”

Wait a minute. I thought allowing controversy on campus was, in Gotelli’s mind, to be praised for exposing “bankrupt” ideas? Ah, you see, but when a Darwinist is challenged to debate, that principle doesn’t apply.

What should we make of this fellow? Hypocrisy, normally accompanied by embarrassment, is the wrong word for Gotelli’s about-face on free speech.

A hypocrite wouldn’t seek to publicize his own hypocrisy. Maybe the right designation for Gotelli is a cynic?

That’s someone who treats ideas as chess pieces. When it suits your purposes, you advance an idea – like “free speech.” When it doesn’t suit your purpose, the same idea becomes expendable, a useless pawn.

But no, a cynic is typically smart enough to keep his cynicism a secret. He wouldn’t rush to offer his correspondence to some website for publication.

The person who would do that isn’t a hypocrite or a cynic – he’s a fool – one who has unintentionally cast a troubling light on the condition of free speech at UVM.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.