Phillip Kitcher‘s Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (MIT Press, 1982) makes for depressing reading. Not because of any problems with its arguments, style, or content, but rather because, even as you read it, you realize that though the book was published in 1982, essentially the same points–in addition to others that would bolster the scientific standing of evolutionary theory–would have to be made today in any debate against creationists and their latest incarnation, the Intelligent Design-ers. Those folks are the Undead–zombies, vampires, take your pick–they won’t go away, they won’t stay down. And they certainly won’t listen to reason.
Kitcher’s thirty-one year old dismantling of creationist ‘arguments’ and polemics against evolution is careful and thoughtful and–though he occasionally lapses into an ironic or sarcastic aside–scrupulously fair to his opponents. I will confess that I have never read any creationist text in its entirety; my exposure to it over the years has been piecemeal, and perhaps the closest I’ve come to any serious engagement with its arguments was when I taught a section on intelligent design in my philosophy of biology class a few semesters ago. Thus, I was appalled to see the arguments that Kitcher set out to combat; their understanding of evolutionary theory being vanishingly small was the least of their errors. The sense of depression I alluded to above was exacerbated by the thought that a) book-length versions of this nonsense have been written, published and widely promulgated and b) they now require book-length refutations. (To Kitcher’s credit, his brief is literally so; it clocks in at a breezy two hundred or so pages.)
A dozen or so years ago, I saw an article in The Onion titled ‘Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law of Thermodynamics‘. An attached image showed a protester with a sign that read ‘I Don’t Accept the Fundamental Tenets of Science and I Vote’. I chuckled when I read the story and later that night, told a physicist friend of mine–he studied quantum many-body interactions–about it. His reaction was interesting; at first, he guffawed loudly, and then suddenly, he sobered up, his expression changing to one of concern and alarm as he said, ‘You know, that’s actually not funny. There really are people who think like that.’ Till then, I had been chuckling away too; on hearing this, I stopped. My friend was right; the Onion story was funny all right, but in a pretty disturbing way, one that reminds us that arguments like Kitcher’s–and many more that have been made since–need to be made and disseminated as carefully as they are because of a very particular context, one populated by a particularly intransigent mind-set.
The climate non-change folks aren’t quite yet at the level of those that resist evolutionary theory but they are getting there. Their attainment of that standard of hostility to empirical investigation and careful theorizing will be made visible to us–if it hasn’t already–by the marker indicated above: when they become the subject of an article in the Onion.
One that will make a scientist first laugh, and then grimace.