My response

There’s been a bit of a kerfluffle about a suggestion (challenge) made by a Discovery Institute associate to a professor of biology at the University of Vermont.  The first paragraph:

“Dear Professor Gotelli,

I saw your op-ed in the Burlington Free Press and appreciated your support of free speech at UVM. In light of that, I wonder if you would be open to finding a way to provide a campus forum for a debate about evolutionary science and intelligent design. The Discovery Institute, where I work, has a local sponsor in Burlington who is enthusiastic to find a way to make this happen. But we need a partner on campus. If not the biology department, then perhaps you can suggest an alternative.”

There have been a variety of “responses” to this challenge floating around the blogosphere.  Gotelli himself responded thusly:

“Dear Dr. Klinghoffer:

Thank you for this interesting and courteous invitation to set up a debate about evolution and creationism (which includes its more recent relabeling as “intelligent design”) with a speaker from the Discovery Institute. Your invitation is quite surprising, given the sneering coverage of my recent newspaper editorial that you yourself posted on the Discovery Institute’s website:

However, this kind of two-faced dishonesty is what the scientific community has come to expect from the creationists.

Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.

Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren’t members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

“Conspiracy” is the predictable response by Ben Stein and the frustrated creationists. But conspiracy theories are a joke, because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and on new empirical studies that overturn previously established principles. Creationism doesn’t live up to these standards, so its proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books, blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don’t maintain scientific standards.

Finally, isn’t it sort of pathetic that your large, well-funded institute must scrape around, panhandling for a seminar invitation at a little university in northern New England? Practicing scientists receive frequent invitations to speak in science departments around the world, often on controversial and novel topics. If creationists actually published some legitimate science, they would receive such invitations as well.

So, I hope you understand why I am declining your offer. I will wait patiently to read about the work of creationists in the pages of Nature and Science. But until it appears there, it isn’t science and doesn’t merit an invitation.

In closing, I do want to thank you sincerely for this invitation and for your posting on the Discovery Institute Website. As an evolutionary biologist, I can’t tell you what a badge of honor this is. My colleagues will be envious.

Sincerely yours,

Nick Gotelli

P.S. I hope you will forgive me if I do not respond to any further e-mails from you or from the Discovery Institute. This has been entertaining, but it interferes with my research and teaching.

I’m not about to argue with my many colleagues who feel similarly, that a “debate” such as Klinghoffer asks for is a waste of time.  But I would have sent this off to Klinghoffer, rather than a flat-out refusal.

“Dear David,

Thanks for the suggestion.  I have an alternative arrangement that I would like to propose.  Here are my reasons, and the alternative.

First, I believe that we should strive to teach our audience.  When it comes to evolution, your suggested participants are, to be frank and honest, not capable of teaching anyone anything about evolution.  We have a sterling faculty here, and they are available day and night to answer questions from the university community.  Your proposed event is rather superfluous, and will (again, frankly and honestly) serve only to sow confusion and error into a fascinating and vibrant field of study.

However, I will admit that the university community does have questions about ID.  So I would propose an event with the following format:  a panel of ID experts, chosen by you or some executive panel at the Discovery Institute, would be convened to answer questions put forth by the university community.  I would be glad to moderate the proceedings, and would promise at the outset that the discussion would focus entirely on the intersection of biology and ID.  No debates about religion, philosophy, sociology, or politics.  I would moderate in this regard with a heavy hand, and remind questioners and panelists alike when they stray from the narrow focus of the event.  I would also insist on rigid adherence to one additional courtesy – answer the question, do not bob and weave, duck and avoid, or otherwise waste time with evasive answers that do not get at the issues being queried.  (Obviously, the questions to be posed cannot be divulged ahead of time – it would be impossible to pre-screen both an audience and their questions and still promote wide participation.)

One more thing – as you may know, we live in rather trying economic times.  Thus, I must insist that the ID panel assume the costs of this event – the travel, lodging, and so forth.  (I am sure that the university will find some way to provide an appropriate venue, at minimal expense.)  And the panelists should not expect an honorarium, at least not from university coffers.

Thanks for your interest in bringing some clarity to this contentious issue.

Sincerely, …”

ID proponents are famous for holding “debates” in which they control the agenda, and where they do nothing but avoid hard questions and wander off into convoluted and incoherent flights of illogic.  Moreover, it is my suspicion that their media events are little more than fundraisers for which to pad their bank accounts.  These detestable aspects of the media circus are avoided in my hypothetical event.

Which is why they would never agree to anything remotely resembling it.

HT to Pharyngula.


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