Saturday, April 22, 2006


Greasing Up the Truth

There is a very good editorial, "A new alliance against science," by Peter McKnight in the Vancouver Sun that uses the recent decision of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada not to fund a study by McGill University's Brian Alters into the detrimental effects of popularizing "Intelligent Design Theory" on Canadian students as a springboard to discuss the wider issue of the "unholy alliance" between the Intelligent Design Movement and the postmodernist academic left.

McKnight begins by recounting the actions of the SSHRC:

In its terse rejection letter, the SSHRC said "the proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularizing of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects" and there was inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design Theory, was correct."

Now those reasons would be laughable if they weren't so pathetic. First, Alters's reference to the detrimental effects of popularizing intelligent design isn't a premise, but a hypothesis. This is what the study was designed to test, so it's a bit much to expect Alters to have the evidence in hand prior to conducting the study. Indeed, were he already in possession of the evidence, there'd be no need to conduct the research.

But as it turns out, the panel's second reason for rejecting funding provided exactly the evidence Alters was looking for. That a committee of "experts" could suggest that ID and evolution are equally plausible theories reveals just how great the detrimental effects of popularizing ID have been.
Faced with a storm of criticism from scientific groups, SSHRC executive vice-president Janet Halliwell and review committee member Larry Felt, a sociologist at Memorial University, made some attempt to acknowledge evolutionary theory’s place in science, only to slyly attack the larger claim of science to objective knowledge. For example, while Halliwell issued a statement saying, "The theory of evolution is not in doubt," she also said that there are some phenomena that "may not be easily explained by current theories of evolution." Well, duh! That’s why we keep doing science (and why it is still so much fun); there is still so much to learn! That is totally irrelevant, however, to the bogus claim of ID to itself having scientific status. Felt went even further, saying that evolution and ID might "come together," and gave the excuse that the review panel feared Alters's proposed study would "dump on the religious right."

. . . I think Felt's comments reveal what's really going on here. The SSHRC, it seems, has adopted wholesale the postmodern epistemological relativism that has for years been promoted in many university humanities and social science faculties.

Central to the project of epistemological relativism is the notion that, contrary to popular belief, science doesn't occupy a privileged position, that it doesn't have any special claim to truth. Rather, science maintains its authority through power rather than truth -- through carefully controlling access to resources and bullying its opponents into submission. ...

For the postmodernists, then, all truth is relative, and all attempts at finding it ought to be equally valued. This fits in nicely with the lefty postmodernists' warm-and-fuzzy egalitarianism.
Obviously, high on that list is the "Social Constructivist" Steve Fuller, an American at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, who testified for the defense in Kitzmiller v. Dover School District. McKnight rightly cites to an article, "Steve Fuller and The Hidden Agenda of Social Constructivism," by Rutgers University mathematician Norman Levitt, for a devastating demolition of Fuller's postmodernism. More important, perhaps, to understanding the import of this situation is the fact that ID advocates have "returned the favour by becoming the chief purveyor of the left's crass relativism," a phenomenon detailed in Noam Scheiber’s article, "Science Fiction." This development is, as McKnight notes:

. . . more than a little ironic, since the religious right was once the main critic of leftist relativism, and ID godfather Phillip Johnson specifically promoted ID as an alternative to the relativism he wrongly believed stemmed from Darwinism.

This turnaround is to be found in the drumbeat from the ID advocates that "those of us who value science and object to intermixing science and pseudoscience are closed-minded." Even politicians have, for the obvious reasons, joined in, including those who should know better:

. . . Arizona Sen. John McCain, who I long thought was the only hope to rescue the Republican party from the talons of the theocrats, says that all points of view should be represented. The postmodern left couldn't have said it any better.

Thus the ostensible purveyors of "eternal truth" have become champions of the postmodern ideal: "the notion . . . that all truth, and all methods for arriving at truth, are equal."

By learning to speak the language of postmodernism, the religious right has therefore succeeded in gaining a foothold in the academy, and in influencing funding decisions in the social sciences and humanities. But it has paid a great price, a price that involves denying the existence of absolute truth.

"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows," wrote William Shakespeare, and nowhere is the truth of that nugget more in evidence than in the unhappy marriage of the postmodern left and the premodern right, a marriage made not in heaven, but consummated by the parties' mutual commitment to the relativity of truth.
Sadly, the children are bound to be ugly . . . and slippery too.

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