Saturday, November 07, 2009

Why I Post Comments on Creationist and ID Blogs

A fellow blogger asked me recently "Why waste your time posting [at creationist and ID blogs] at all? You do not seem to have a receptive audience." Other people ask me why I generally treat creationists and ID supporters with respect, rather than taking every opportunity to heap scorn and ridicule upon them. Here's what I hope is an adequate explanation to both of these questions.

I post comments at creationist and ID blogs (when I have the time, which is definitely not all the time) because I expect that there are a lot of people who read these comments without participating directly in such debates. This is why I try to keep as civil a tone as possible, especially when my opponents use ad hominem arguments, character assassination, insults, and ridicule. The contrast between their tactics and mine undermines their credibility (and, by extension, that of their soi dissant “science”). Indeed, some commentator’s comments are so insulting that I refuse to respond to them, and I believe that this does not pass unnoticed by readers who are not yet irrationally committed to one side or the other.

Also, as a teacher (currently in my 35th year of teaching at Cornell University), I feel a professional responsibility to correct some of the more egregious misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the science of evolutionary biology which are promulgated at creationist and ID blogs. Some of these misrepresentations clearly stem from ignorance, and in a gratifying number of cases some the commentators whom I have corrected have thanked me for the information and references I have provided.

However, other misrepresentations are apparently part of a deliberate and ongoing effort to distort the public record and deliberately misrepresent the relevant scientific information for political and religious purposes. I strongly believe that this kind of mendacity should be exposed for what it is, and for what it isn’t (i.e. it isn’t science).

Furthermore, I have always tried to emulate the long-standing Quaker tradition of “speaking truth to power”, which is the opposite of “preaching to the choir”. It means confronting directly what I perceive to be misunderstanding (and what I perceive to be deliberate mendacity), rather than limiting my interactions to people with whom I already agree. I agree with Charles Darwin, who said that he paid much more attention to the criticisms of people who disagreed with him than the praise of people who agreed with him. Like Darwin, I find that debating with people with whom I disagree helps me greatly to clarify my own position on the relevant issues, and to help my opponents clarify theirs. I believe that it would be a terribly boring (and non-progressive) world in which everyone agreed upon every subject, and so I am grateful to some of the commentators here for helping me improve my understanding of the relevant issues and my ability to argue persuasively for what I perceive to be the best supported position.

Like Hegel, I believe that genuine synthesis usually arises out of the clash between thesis and antithesis, and that progress in human understanding is almost always gained at the price of diligence, honesty, and honor. As my fencing master often says, “a gentleman is always gracious and dignified in defeat, humble and gentle in victory”. I have to the best of my ability tried to account myself according to this standard of conduct, and believe that the world would be a better place if everyone tried to do so.

Finally, to the best of my ability, I try to “fight the good fight” in defense of what I understand to be an accurate description of reality. I expect my opponents to do the same. When they do, I tell them so. Indeed, if they do a good job, I congratulate them, especially if they persuade me to change my mind, as the result of sufficiently convincing arguments. However, when my opponents depart from honorable and honest argumentation and stoop to ad hominem attacks, character assassination, insults, and ridicule, I call them on it and I inform them in no uncertain terms that I will no longer respond to them.

The same principles apply to this blog, and can be read here.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 11/08/2009 06:47:00 AM, Anonymous bobxxxx said...

However, other misrepresentations are apparently part of a deliberate and ongoing effort to distort the public record and deliberately misrepresent the relevant scientific information for political and religious purposes. I strongly believe that this kind of mendacity should be exposed for what it is, and for what it isn’t (i.e. it isn’t science).

I agree with your idea that it's best to be polite to creationists, but for me sometimes that's difficult because most of them are willfully ignorant and just plain stupid. When I meet a creationist who actually wants to learn something, I treat him with the respect he deserves and congratulate him for at least trying to understand science.

Unfortunately creationists who want to educate themselves are extremely rare. Most creationists will forever live in their fantasy world, and there is nothing that can be done for them.

When a professional liar from the Christian creationist organization called the Discovery Institute visits a thread, I have to point out to that person that I know he's a compulsive liar, and that he is no better than a terrorist.

At 11/08/2009 11:56:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...


Rather than accusing a commentator who has posted something that is clearly a misrepresentation or misunderstanding (or an outright lie), I find it more effective to post a response with citations (preferably links to public websites), where the reader can find information that clearly indicates that the commentator has either misrepresented, misunderstood, or lied about the subject in question. I leave it up to the reader to decide which of us has misrepresented, misunderstood, or lied, and find that generally those readers who are not unalterably committed to one side or the other accept my version of the story.

By so doing, I have accomplished five things:
1) corrected the public record;
2) shown to almost everyone's satisfaction that my opponent has indeed either misrepresented, misunderstood, or lied about the subject in question;
3) increased my credibility in the minds of most of the uncommitted readers of the exchange; and
4) discredited a discreditable opponent; and
5) presented a model for how a member of the "community of scholars" can accomplish all of these things while still upholding the highest traditions of the academy.

At 11/08/2009 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

An interesting development; apparently civil discourse is not tolerated by the moderator(s) of Uncommon Descent. IN a thread labeled "Civil Discourse Not Tolerated by Darwinist" Zach Bailey asked in comment #39,

"Why waste your time posting here at all? You do not seem to have a receptive audience."

I posted the blog post here as a response to Bailey's query over 24 hours ago, which was held in moderation until early this morning, when it "mysteriously" disappeared completely.

As a consequence, I no longer expect any of my comments to appear there. If this one does, please ask yourself the following two questions:

1) was my response to Zach Bailey in anyway "intolerant" or "uncivil"?

2) if not, then why was my response to Zack Bailey deleted by the moderators at Uncommon Descent?

BTW, this response to the deletion of my answer to Zach Bailey's query (which should be comment #41 at ) was posted on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 11:47 EST. Let's see if it also disappears, or if it is finally posted, how long that process takes, shall we?

At 11/08/2009 05:16:00 PM, Anonymous Zach Bailey said...

Hi Allen

My question to you was rather flippant and I am glad to give you the lead in to make a much broader point about the free exchange of ideas. I have always been interested in the truth and utility of arguments rather than in who wins any particular exchange and it is obvious from observing the coming and going of ID critics at UD that such an interest is not shared by the moderators or particularly cherished by the remaining pro-ID commenters. But as ID as an intellectual pursuit is in such rapid decline, I think we can all move on while maybe keeping a weather eye out for any actual progress in ID theory.

At 11/08/2009 06:03:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Thank you, Zach. Indeed, as I pointed out in an earlier blog post ( ), there are convincing empirical signs that ID is on its last legs as a viable intellectual movement. This may explain why traffic at UD has become reduced to generally repetitive posts by the same small group of contributors, with a similar small group of commentators endlessly repeating the same misconceptions and misrepresentations. No new research (indeed, no empirical research at all), no new ideas, no explosion of interest and excitement that characterizes an intellectual field of endeavor on its way up. Just the opposite, in fact: the only actual scientists in the ID movement (Drs. Behe and Dembski) basically keep publishing the same untested ideas, dressed up with a few modified terms, but still with no empirical tests or analysis.

In other words, ID once presented itself as a shiny new "science", but since its overwhelming defeat in December of 2005, it has slowly sunk into what it always was: a glitzy reworking of a tired (and thoroughly discredited) apologia for quasi-religious speculation.

At 11/09/2009 09:14:00 PM, Blogger John Wendt said...

Hi, Allen,

It's good to see you at places like Telic Thoughts. I'm afraid I'm some of the time not quite as polite as you are...

I'm recently more on ARN. Makes me thing more deeply about Why Evolution Is True. (ht Jerry)


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