The Twilight Zone of Antiscience

Massimo Pigliucci

Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, by John G. West (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2007, ISBN 978-933859323) 495 pp. Cloth $28.00.

It must be a strange world John West lives in. His book Darwin Day in America is much more ambitious than the title lets on. It isn’t just a critique of the popular phenomenon of “Darwin Day” celebrations in the United States. It is nothing less than a concerted attack on science as the bearer of the materialist worldview so despised by the likes of West. At 495 pages and with hundreds of endnotes and a whole page devoted to my own role in the culture wars, this book attempts to look scholarly. Its tone is serious, and its putative main concern is the survival of humanity as we know it.

Predictably, West’s effort immediately descends into a simplistic caricature of science as scientism, a pernicious ideology responsible for all sorts of evils from eugenics to sex education, from the enforcement of Darwinism in public schools to the specter of forced euthanasia (in this list, the only one of the entries that is truly pernicious). According to West, the problem is that politicians and the public at large have been conned into listening to a small group of evil scientists like Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott, whose goal is to overturn the good precepts of religion, tradition, and common sense. This logically leads to the creation of a society in which Nazism, Stalinism, or Maoism is the ultimate outcome.

In this parallel universe in which West lives, religion is excluded from public schools (not in the real world), the public follows whatever scientists say (it really doesn’t), and politicians leave their decision making in the hands of a small number of technocrats (they really don’t). You see, for West, Darwin was rabidly antireligious, Alfred Charles Kinsey’s research on sexual behavior was “junk science in the bedroom,” and intellectually honest (of course) proponents of intelligent design (ID) are unfairly persecuted in school systems throughout the country by a small cadre of scientistic fascists. Even Judge John E. Jones (the conservative judge appointed by George W. Bush who presided over the Dover, Pennsylvania, ID trial) is nothing but a puppet in the hands of the evil National Center for Science Education.

When one reads West’s book, one truly enters a twilight zone: a spooky alternative reality that becomes more convincing the more the reader meanders through the book—as long as he or she buys into the fundamental tenets of West’s worldview. West weaves a complex pattern within which one can coherently (if falsely) reinterpret most of what has happened in the West during the last couple of millennia. Think The Da Vinci Code, and you’ll get a good sense of what Darwin Day in America feels like: as long as you stay within its pages and do not ask even mildly critical questions about the author’s assumptions and interpretations, everything makes sense, and you will strangely enjoy the ride. But, as with Dan Brown’s best seller, this is largely fiction.

Yes, eugenics happened, and it was a very, very bad idea. But to claim that the reason for the success of the eugenic movement was that a large number of otherwise well-intentioned politicians were conned into passing forced sterilization laws in the United States during the 1920s is a travesty. Eugenics was just one case of (bad) science being used by a deeply racist and prejudiced society to superficially justify its misguided social practices. Science did play a role as an accessory to the crime, but the crime would simply not have been possible without the erroneous but widespread opinion (shared by plenty of pious people) that certain races and nationalities are inherently inferior—so help us God—to the locally dominant ethnic group. Compare that with the evil of the Inquisition or the Crusades, where religious “truth” was fundamentally ingrained in society and used much more effectively to justify the persecution of women and minorities, as well as wars of aggression in distant lands. As Pascal (a religious man himself) put it, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” That is not to say, of course, that they do evil only out of religious conviction. The problem is the human tendency to uncritically accept ideologies, religious or not.

West insists that Terry Schiavo—whose sad case attracted national attention in 2003—was not in a vegetative state and that it was a bunch of materialist scientists who swayed public opinion (and some politicians) not to oppose her euthanasia. Again, we enter the twilight zone of West’s universe. It would be one thing to claim, understandably, that one’s religious beliefs prohibit euthanasia under any circumstances. Except, of course, that in Schiavo’s case the decision legally rested with her husband, not her parents. It is an entirely different thing to claim that a person whose brain has been largely liquefied—as was clearly visible to everyone except Senator Bill Frist from Tennessee who “diagnosed” Schiavo from a television screen—could possibly hold to any degree of consciousness. While it is true that facts cannot determine values, as the skeptic philosopher David Hume pointed out more than two centuries ago, it makes sense to consider what we know to be the facts to the best of our knowledge when making decisions. But I’m afraid West would regard that attitude as yet another example of the perniciousness of scientific rationalism.

West spends an inordinate amount of time in his book arguing that there is a legitimate scientific challenge to the Darwinian theory of evolution and that ID is not creationism. Let me be as clear and concise as I possibly can: there is no legitimate scientific challenge to “Darwinism,” and ID is a form of creationism. Now, let us elaborate a bit.

Plenty of scientists, myself included, are working toward expanding and modifying the current version of evolutionary theory, known as the Modern Synthesis. The Synthesis took shape in the 1930s and ’40s and is a significant modification of the original “Darwinism” on which creationists seem to be stuck. Internal criticism is a standard feature of science (in contrast to religion), so one cannot interpret any such criticism as a “sign of crisis” in science, much less as an indication that a supernatural “explanation” (an oxymoron) is somehow thereby gaining credence. But what West and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute mean by “legitimate criticism” is in fact the sort of nonsense spouted by the likes of Michael Behe (who admitted at Dover that if ID is science, so is astrology) and William Dembski (who has been thoroughly debunked by both professional scientists and philosophers). This is not legitimate criticism by bona fide scientists; this is an ideological attack by a small number of fringe scientists who don’t have credentials (a PhD won’t do if it’s in an entirely different field) or rational arguments.

As for the relationship between ID and creationism: ID proponents tend to stay clear of the G-word, and when pressed Dembski conceded that the “designer” could be a race of super-intelligent aliens. But this is a simple ploy to avoid the creationist label in court, where it has proven lethal. The “wink wink” attitude of the Discovery Institute fellows is overt and amply demonstrated with public quotations such as these: “. . . any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient” (Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., page 206). “But a Darwinist cannot invoke adding staples to [mouse] traps, because the angels are on our side” (Behe, speaking at Calvary Chapel, Albuquerque, on March 6, 2002). Not creationism? Yeah, right. But of course these are mere facts, and West’s parallel universe is impervious to factual truths.

West does have some good points, though he is hardly the first to make them. Yes, science is conducted by scientists, and, therefore, all-too-human attributes such as personal egos, power plays, and subjective judgment do enter into it. But as philosophers of science such as Helen Longino have long pointed out, despite all these shortcomings, science manages to be a remarkably objective and truth-enhancing enterprise largely because of that very internal debate that, according to West, is sorely lacking. And yes, Richard Dawkins is more an ideologue than a scientist, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get it right on most counts, and—more important—it doesn’t automatically disqualify “materialist science” as a whole. It takes a lot more work than Mr. West is willing to do to accomplish that, and much sharper minds, including his beloved C.S. Lewis, have utterly failed in that effort.

The only reason to read West’s book is to gain clear insight into how it is possible for so many people in the United States and elsewhere to live their lives in a fictional, ideological universe that allows them to take advantage of the latest advances in medicine while at the same time ignoring medical testimony on what constitutes a permanent vegetative state, or where academic freedom of speech somehow becomes a license to teach nonsense to our kids. It is an instructive journey—just remember to come back to the real world when you put down the book.

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at Stony Brook University. He writes regularly for Skeptical Inquirer and has published Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science (Sinauer Associates, 2002).

Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, by John G. West (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2007, ISBN 978-933859323) 495 pp. Cloth $28.00. It must be a strange world John West lives in. His book Darwin Day in America is much more ambitious than the title …

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