Thursday, November 15, 2007

Judgment Day for PBS

The chief problem with the more radical opponents of Intelligent Design (they're not all unreasonable) is that they think they are exempt from the normal rules of fairness and rationality.

They're were a few reasonable criticisms of my piece from Wednesday about the PBS program on Intelligent Design, but many responses simply shirked off my point about the program being biased. I made two observations which, so far, no one has contested:

First, the program had two parallel extended segments explaining each position: one on evolution, the other on ID. The segment on evolution was uninterrupted by any rebuttals from the ID side. In the segment on ID, however, a rebuttal from the evolution side was included on every point about ID.

Second, in the dramatized course scenes, a number of cross examinations by the anti-ID side were shown, while no cross examinations of the anti-ID side by the pro-ID side were shown.

Now journalistically-speaking these are about as egregious as it gets. The prevailing belief among the more rabid of the anti-ID crowd seem to be that it was simply okay that the program was biased: bias is okay, they seem to suggest, as long as it is for a good cause.

Is this really the position the opponents of Intelligent Design want to take?

Now I have gone back and looked at the PBS description of the program on its website, and although the documentation for the program nowhere explicitly claims that it is impartial, the language it uses obviously seeks to give the impression that is offering some kind of impartial treatment. Over and over it uses the word "educational". And most people take the word "education" in a sense that distinguishes it from "propaganda" or "indoctrination".

Nowhere on the site does it say that the program is what it is: a polemic against Intelligent Design.

Look, I have said here before that I really don't have a hard and fast position on the issue of common descent. I've said that I think anyone who publicly declares that they know for a fact what happened millions of years ago is blowing smoke. It's hard enough trying to figure out what happened a couple hundred years ago, or a couple thousand. I'm a skeptic when it comes to exactly how we got to be what we are.

The one thing I will hang my hat on is that our human nature cannot be purely a natural product because then our rational and moral faculties would be without explanation. In other words, Naturalism cannot explain the processes we employ to determine if anything--including Naturalism--are true, or whether any of our actions are right or wrong.

The concepts of truth, falsehood, validity, right, wrong, beautiful, or ugly simply make no sense in a consistently Naturalistic world, and our only choice is between holding to a worldview in which they make sense, in which case we can keep using them, and one in which they do not make sense, in which case we have to simply give them up.

My problem with many of the opponents of Intelligent Design in not primarily that they argue against Intelligent Design (I'm still trying to figure that one out myself), but that they argue on the basis of a worldview that does not allow them to argue at all.

Furthermore, I'm a scientific layman who can only judge what I don't know on the basis of what I know. And when I am trying to make a judgment, I get very suspicious when I see one side not judging the other by the best arguments for it, but the worst ones they can find.


kehrsam said...

Excellent discussion, Martin, both here and over at Dispatches. You are, however, making two major errors.

First, the program was not a documentary about evolution and ID: It was about a trial involving those issues. Not the same thing, as I'm sure you see. For this reason, the narrative structure of the show is different from what you wanted to see, but it is the correct structure: The goal had to be to explain to the audience why the trial came out the way it did. It also needed to answer the question of why evolution won and ID lost, and what the two sides did to contribute to that. For what it is worth, in my opinion the Plaintiffs clearly had the law on their side, but the Defense contributed mightily to the loss by being buffoons and not presenting the case for ID well.

The problem carries over to your abjections about the presentations on evolution and ID and the re-enactments (which were indeed horrible). The Defense never attempted a rebuttal of evolution in reality, whereas the Plaintiffs thoroughly rebutted ID, systematically and point by point. The show was thus replicating what Judge Jones saw. As for the re-enactments, take a look at the trial transcript and see if you can find any Defense cross-examination worth replaying. Defense cross on most witnesses amounted to "So you don't deny that X is possible?" rather than anything substantive.

The second problem with your argument is that materialism cannot explain non-material things. This is pure hogwash. I have a four-part series over at DuWayne's blog on freedoms, and this is an important (if tangential) part of my analysis.

Part 1 has been pushed over to the second page.

Again, interesting discussion, and I'm glad you stopped by Dispatches or I would have never discovered this blog.


Martin Cothran said...


Thanks for your post. I think I address the first point in your comment in my post going up tomorrow morning: The program was not, for the most part, a documentary on the issues of ID as a whole, but a documentary about the trial. But a significant chunk of the program was, in fact, an extended treatment of the issue outside of the context of the trial, and that part was blatantly unfair to the ID position.

In regard to your second point, I can't contest it, since I haven't read the trial transcript yet. But even if that were true, why didn't they just go ahead and show that so that the viewer who hadn't read the transcript could at least comfort himself in the knowledge that he had seen both sides?

I have suspected all along (and seen it alleged) that Dover defense was weak. But, if that is true, and if ID opponents admit that, then it seems to me it creates a problem for the ID opponents who want us to use this trial as a basis for judging ID. They would, in effect, be asking us to judge ID on the basis of the worst arguments for it rather than the best ones.

Darwinists do not like it when Darwinism is judged on the basis of misrepresentations about peppered moths and the inaccurate drawings of Haeckel's embryos, so why would they be asking us to judge ID on the basis of Dover? In fact, if the case presented by the defense at Dover was as bad as evolutionists portray it, then would there be any more sense in judging ID on that basis than judging evolution on the basis of, say, Piltdown Man?

In any case, thanks for posting, and I will read your series over at Inalienable Rights, and, hopefully, respond to it.


kehrsam said...

In hindsight, part of my first comment is probably due to the fact that I'm a lawyer by training, and tend to see things in a certain perspective. To my view, the show pretty much recapitulated the evidence as presented. It is perhaps not the best format for teaching what the controversy was really about. Point conceded.

As to whether it is unfortunate that ID was represented by a bunch of clowns, I think it is. If you are involved in Issues Activism, your deepest fear is that the case which the Supreme Court gets is going to involve a terrible client or unfavorable fact pattern. For instance, in Texas v Johnson (the 1988 flag-burning case) everyone on the free-speech side was horrified by the Defendant, who was both a communist and a thoroughly unlovable guy. We won, but only because Scalia discovered some principles and Rehnquist's Dissent was entirely content-free.

For ID, the problem is that I'm not aware of a better defense in scientific terms than what we heard at Dover. It really isn't enough to point out evolution's problems -- and it does have problems, as any honest evolutionist will tell you. Rather, the problem is that ID does not offer any alternative explanation for the observed data.

If you want to challenge geocentrism, for instance, it helps to have Copernicus as an alternative model. ID doesn't have a model or a mechanism, and until it can find these, there simply is no controversy to teach.