In the Absence of Knowledge: Melanie Phillips

I just ran across a column from Melanie Phillips in the Spectator. In it, she wrongly accuses Ken Miller of having given “muddled testimony” in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. DASD trial. Further, she lays it out plainly:

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it. This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science. Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days. Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism. But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith – with many scientists amongst them — the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous. In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator. The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.

As a result, both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall. Yet the two continue to be conflated. And ignorance is only partly responsible for the confusion, since militant evangelical atheists deliberately conflate Intelligent Design with Creationism in order to smear and discredit ID and its adherents.

Sorry, Melanie, but it is you who is demonstrating ignorance here. Of course, understanding the legal situation in a different country can be a large contributing factor, but it would still have paid Melanie dividends to at least have recognized that she didn’t have all the facts in hand before launching into the bogus recriminations against others.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides a guarantee that the government will not entangle itself with religion. This makes the situation in the USA quite different from that in the UK, where there is a state religion, or Canada, whose constitution has no provision for separation of church and state. Prior to 1968, three states had laws on the books that forbid public school teachers to instruct students in evolutionary science. Those laws were rendered invalid in 1968 when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that kind of exclusion of a science topic to privilege a particular religious interpretation was unconstitutional. The case there was Epperson v. Arkansas, and it pit a schoolteacher against the state of Arkansas. The take-away message there, that science could be taught in the classroom without hindrance, caused the religious antievolution movement to embark on a multi-decade campaign rooted in deception. Where before antievolutionary creationism was explicitly a religious endeavor, the leaders of the antievolution movement came up with a strategy that was both simple and dishonest: they would simply call the same old arguments made under the banner of antievolutionary creationism “science”, and attempt to argue that the explicitly religious underpinnings were separable from the putatively scientific portion they wanted to go into public school science classrooms.

Originally, this effort settled upon calling the part to be “sanitized” for public school adoption “scientific creationism” (SciCre), and the explicitly religious part as “biblical creationism” (see this page). The ICR published two versions of a textbook titled “Scientific Creationism” before the great re-naming effort. There was the regular SciCre textbook and there was the “Public School Edition”. The “Public School Edition” redacted references to bible verses, biblical history, and God in an attempt to make its message such that public school administrators would adopt it. Not too long after that, yet another shift in labels occurred to serve the cause: call the part for public school science classrooms “creation science” instead of “scientific creationism”. Apparently, it was felt that the “-ism” ending for “scientific creationism” was too evocative of philosophy and not science-y enough. The interchangeability of those terms can be seen in this page from the ICR, where to illustrate “scientific creationism” it recommends a book titled, “What Is Creation Science?”

It was under the label of “creation science” that religious antievolution was dealt its most widespread legal defeats. Two separate cases were tried based on very similar laws passed in Arkansas and Louisiana. The laws derived from text published by antievolutionist Wendell Bird, and mandated that any time evolutionary science was taught in public school classrooms, there would be “equal time” or “balanced treatment” setting forth “creation science”. The case in Arkansas was McLean et al. v. Arkansas. It was tried in a federal district court before Judge William Overton and featured expert witnesses testifying for “creation science” and pro-science experts taking those claims apart. Judge Overton ruled against the state in 1982; the state declined to appeal the ruling. The setback “creation science” received in Arkansas led to a summary judgment in a similar case in Louisiana, so there were no testifying experts in the Louisiana case. The resulting lawsuit, Edwards v. Aguillard, went all the way to the SCOTUS, and they ruled in 1987 that “creation science” promoted a particular supernatural doctrine and therefore was unconstitutional to insert into public school science classes.

A part of the SCOTUS decision in Edwards is that the majority decision refers to the purpose of legislation and how a stated secular purpose has to be sincere and not a sham. In the majority decision, the purpose stated by the Louisiana legislature was found not to be sincere on various grounds. (This was disputed in a dissenting opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia.) This element of the need to root out attempted deception in antievolution efforts was recognized in the SCOTUS decision.

The analysis of textbook content so breezily dismissed by Melanie Phillips in her screed is critical to understanding the 2005 Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District case and the relationship of “creation science” and “intelligent design”. In 1982, “creation science” lost in the federal district court-level decision in McLean v. Arkansas. Shortly thereafter, the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) began a project to produce a textbook advancing “creation science” that would pass scrutiny such as was brought to bear in the McLean trial. By 1983, the FTE had a draft of the textbook, titled then as “Creation Biology”. A total of six different drafts of this textbook project were provided under subpoena of FTE to the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case. These ranged in date from the 1983 draft to somewhere prior to the release of the published edition in 1989 under the title, “Of Pandas and People”. Four drafts up until 1987 were explicit in advocating “creation science”. A fifth draft dated to later in 1987, following the SCOTUS decision in the Edwards case saying that “creation science” was unconstitutional to insert into the public school classrooms, suddenly replaced references to “creation science” with “intelligent design”. The import of this is that this draft marks the first widely distributed usage of “intelligent design” to be treated as a field of human inquiry and not, as has since been noted as long-extant usage, simply an adjectival phrase. The textbook and its documented history demonstrates that “intelligent design” had exactly the same content as the previous version of religious antievolution. In fact, a paragraph offering a definition of “creation science” became a paragraph defining “intelligent design” by the simple expedient of replacing the former with the latter in the text. This documented relationship of having identical content between “creation science” and “intelligent design” was not “muddled testimony”; it was hard evidence of the continuing strategy in religious antievolution of trying to find a new label that would pass legal scrutiny for the same old religious antievolution argumentative content.

Melanie Phillips is also ill-informed when it comes to a relevant definition of creationism. Phillip Johnson, lawyer, special advisor to the Discovery Institute, and authoritative source on “intelligent design”, put it this way in his 1991 book, “Darwin On Trial”:

Clearing up confusion requires a careful and consistent use of terms. In this book, “creation science” refers to young-earth, six-day special creation. “Creationism” means belief in creation in a more general sense. Persons who believe that the earth is billions of years old, and the simple forms of life evolved gradually to become more complex forms including humans, are “creationists” if they believe that a supernatural Creator not only initiated this process but in some meaningful sense controls it in furtherance of a purpose.

(Source: Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (2nd ed.), Intervarsity Press, p.4 (footnote).)

“Intelligent design” can hardly “stand opposed” to creationism as Melanie Phillips claims, when one has the knowledge imparted by reading the “intelligent design” advocates’ own meaning for the term.

Melanie Phillips wants us to credit that “intelligent design” can be distinguished from religious antievolution. As seen above, her argument as given founders on the fact that she didn’t even get the relevant definitions right.

What Phillips wants is a qualitative distinction between “creationism” and “intelligent design”, but her arguments would, even if valid, not deliver that as a conclusion. Phillips argues that there is “disdain” between “creationists” and “intelligent design” advocates, and thus concludes that identifying “intelligent design” as a form of “creationism” is wrong. There have been some instances of criticism of “intelligent design” from young-earth creationist advocates, but these are far from establishing a qualitative break between “creationism” and “intelligent design”. Note in this example of criticism from Henry M. Morris, a leading young-earth creationist advocate, that even he sees the religious content and intent of “intelligent design” tactics:

We disagree with this approach! We do appreciate the abilities and motives of Bill Dembski, Phil Johnson, and the other key writers in the Intelligent Design Movement. They think that if they can just get a “wedge” into the naturalistic mindset of the Darwinists, then later the Biblical God can be suggested as the “designer” implicit in the concept.

Yes, it is an example of criticism of “intelligent design”, but its import undercuts Melanie Phillips’ claim that any qualitative difference can be supported as existing between “intelligent design” and even young-earth creationism.

Nor is Melanie Phillips correct in the general claim that IDC advocates “think Creationism is totally off the wall”. The Discovery Institute’s list of fellows includes a substantial proportion of young-earth creationists. Those knowledgeable of the antievolution movement know that, contrary to Melanie Phillips, criticism of young-earth creationism is actively discouraged by “intelligent design” advocates. It isn’t hard to discern why this obtains. “Intelligent design” creationism (IDC) is numerically a tiny movement. The real numbers in antievolution advocacy are in young-earth creationism (YEC). IDC advocates know that for their success, they must have a substantial proportion of YEC believers on board with their program.

Melanie Phillips has, in her uninformed arrogance, missed a significant piece of information: the “Wedge” document. This 1999 fund-raising document from the Discovery Institute lays out the strategy that would guide the promotion of “intelligent design” creationism. It serves as a glimpse into what “intelligent design” meant for the people who would aggressively promote it.

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

[…]

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.

[…]

Governing Goals

* To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
* To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

[…]

5. Spiritual & cultural renewal:

* Mainline renewal movements begin to appropriate insights from design theory, and to repudiate theologies influenced by materialism
* Major Christian denomination(s) defend(s) traditional doctrine of creation & repudiate(s)
* Darwinism Seminaries increasingly recognize & repudiate naturalistic presuppositions
* Positive uptake in public opinion polls on issues such as sexuality, abortion and belief in God

“Intelligent design” was sold by its primary advocates not as a scientific movement, but as a religious counter-attack on “materialism”.

Given what I’ve covered, let me re-examine Melanie Phillips words.

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it.

Wrong. The textbook analysis demonstrated identity between the content of “creation science” and that of “intelligent design”. “Intelligent design” came out of and is comprised of the same ensemble of arguments seen in “creation science”. It presents a subset of the “creation science” arguments, as “creation science” presented a subset of antievolutionary creationism arguments. IDC does not repudiate the arguments it does not carry over from “creation science”; IDC instead provides a “big tent” to hold all the opponents of evolutionary science. This can be seen in various of the answers from the IDC “experts” brought in for unofficial “hearings” in Kansas in 2005, where when asked how old they thought the earth was, several held that it could be either several thousand or several billion years old, and some said simply that it was under 100,000 years old. (Responses are compiled here.) “Intelligent design” only stands against “materialism”, since many of its principal advocates are themselves YECs and protection of YEC dogma from critique is still an organizing principle of the IDC movement.

This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science.

Wrong. The “Wedge” document demonstrates quite clearly that the focus of “intelligent design” was on advancing a particular form of theism, not science. IDC advocates must, in order to have some hope of foisting an effective sham, declare that they aren’t religiously motivated. Their self-report is therefore suspect, and they must be judged on other criteria, like what actions they take and the actual argumentative content that they use. For both of those criteria, IDC advocates are indistinguishable from either “creation scientists” or “biblical creationists”.

Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days.

Wrong. Even Phillip Johnson, the “intelligent design” advocate’s “intelligent design” advocate, defines “creationism” as far broader than young-earth creationist belief. This is the sort of thing that even a cursory examination of the topic should have revealed to a competent journalist or commentator.

Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

Unsupported. When one looks at the list of fellows of the Discovery Institute, scientists are not a majority of of folks on the list. By my count, there are eleven fellows with some scientific credentials there, out of forty fellows total. Instead, one finds a bunch of lawyers, philosophers, writers, and other non-science professions taking up the majority of the list. Nor does Melanie Phillips bother to try to somehow turn what is putatively a general career choice among “intelligent design” advocates into an exclusion of having religious motivations for their advocacy.

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism.

Wrong. The correct perception of “intelligent design” as simply another form of creationism comes from knowledge of the religious antievolution movement, its history and its people.

But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith – with many scientists amongst them — the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous.

Wrong. Melanie Phillips again runs afoul of not knowing how broadly “intelligent design” advocates define “creationism”.

In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator.

This may be about the closest that Melanie Phillips came to a true statement in the whole quoted block. However, any implication that “intelligent design” advocates only say things with that minimal content would be utterly misleading, and the notion of IDC advocates “concluding” something is misleading in its implication that there is a valid chain of argument there.

The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.

True, but misleading. There are two or three people routinely offered as agnostic or atheist advocates of “intelligent design”. All of the remainder, including every single high-profile IDC advocate, are theists. The signing-up of a couple of contrarians should not be considered as defining what the preponderant motivation is.

As a result, both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall.

Wrong. There are some criticisms made of “intelligent design” by YEC sources, but none of those rise to a level that could be called “disdain”. As seen above, many IDC advocates are themselves YEC in belief, and protection of YEC beliefs from criticism in the IDC ranks is a priority for the controlling IDC advocates.

Yet the two continue to be conflated.

Wrong. “Conflated” implies that the demonstration of identical content between “creation science” and “intelligent design” was somehow improper.

And ignorance is only partly responsible for the confusion, since militant evangelical atheists deliberately conflate Intelligent Design with Creationism in order to smear and discredit ID and its adherents.

Wrong. For myself and other theists who object to the deceptive nature of religious antievolution advocacy in the USA, pointing out the actual and demonstrable identity of content between “intelligent design” and precursor forms of creationism is upholding truth and accuracy. The demonstrable fact that the “intelligent design” creationism movement is continuous with, identical in content, and sharing the same deceptive strategy as prior religious antievolution means that Melanie Phillips has ironically defended the wrong-doers by smearing others.

Melanie, just a word of advice: when writing, it helps if you know something about the topic at hand. When you don’t, you end up blithering, as in the quoted passage from your column. Further, basing odious attacks on the integrity of people like Prof. Ken Miller on nothing more than one’s arrogantly held ignorance quite well fits Richard Dawkins’ characterization of the “wicked” component of religious antievolution. Melanie, you owe Prof. Miller an apology, and you owe your readers informed commentary.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

6 thoughts on “In the Absence of Knowledge: Melanie Phillips

  • 2009/07/27 at 9:42 am
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    “Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.”

    “Complexity of science?” “Origin of matter?”

    Dr. Elsberry I think you were too kind in providing a detailed refutation. Her statements are pure word salad; she obviously does not understand the creationist position she’s seeking to defend.

  • 2009/07/27 at 12:25 pm
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    We have a state religion here in Canada? I did not know that. ;-)

  • 2009/07/27 at 2:00 pm
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    OK, I was working from conversations with people who were discussing fighting antievolution in Canada when I made the statement about a state religion there. It was one of the few things in the essay I didn’t check. Looking now, though, it appears that a distinction between the USA and Canada is the lack of a constitutional provision in Canada to separate church and state, so I have altered that sentence to reflect that. Ignorance is curable

  • 2009/07/27 at 6:33 pm
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    Wesley R. Elsberry: “Sorry, Melanie, but it is you who is demonstrating ignorance here.”

    [It is important to note that my comments below, like the Wesley R. Elsberry quote above, are in response to the preceding posted excerpt.]

    I must agree with Elsberry on this one. Melanie is demonstrating ignorance. But I will go much further: she is demonstrating jaw dropping ignorance. Consider this kind, Melanie, because the only other option (deliberate misrepresentation) makes you wicked and “I would rather not consider that.”

    Ray Martinez, Protestant Evangelical, Old Earth-Young Biosphere Creationist-species immutabilist, Paleyan Designist.

  • 2009/07/28 at 4:32 pm
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    It appears Phillips does not understand science.
    Or evolution.
    Or Intelligent Design.
    Or Creationism.
    Does she gets paid to write about all of these?

  • 2009/07/29 at 6:54 am
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    Perhaps the most important point about distancing “Intelligent Design” from “Creationism” is that it demonstrates that there is no positive, substantive content to ID. At least “Young Earth Creationism” takes a “risky” stand on Who the “designer” is, and When the “design” took place. Creationism, from its beginnings, has always been dogged with the problem of “What is the theory of Creationism?” ID takes this avoidance to an extreme: What happened (or happens), what results and what does not? Why or How or Where?

    I’d also suggest that narrowing the word “creationism” to the variety known as “Young Earth Creationism” does not recognize the wide variety of anti-evolutionary beliefs. Historically, YEC was an insignificant fraction of anti-evolutionism up until about 1960. And even today, as Ray Martinez’s self-description gives an indication, there is a wide variety of anti-evolutionism.

    It would be “interesting” to hear of the advocates of ID making it quite clear to the public that they think that YEC is “totally off the wall”. Does the DI have some tendency to distance themselves from “off the wall” people? Do advocates of ID hasten to correct anti-evolutionary statements which associate “intelligent design” with “off the wall” beliefs which many Americans think of as being “Biblical”?

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