Tom Gilson

Robert Pennock the Conciliator

Robert Pennock recently wrote a guest blog in US News and World Report, calling for a sane and presumably peaceful end to polarization over the origins of life. His leadership toward that end is (ahem) rather remarkable. Pennock is a philosopher at my alma mater, Michigan State University; and his opinion, of which he has frequently written, spoken, and even testified in court, is that Intelligent Design is strictly non-scientific creationism (on which please see here). To my knowledge Pennock does not declare himself an atheist, but his approach to science and nature specifically seeks to exclude any supernatural involvement in the world, and he is a favored guest speaker and writer among atheist and freethought groups.

So here we have Pennock calling for an end to polarizing debate on evolution and Intelligent Design. As he writes at the close of his piece,

Let us forthrightly reject those false and polarizing views and hope that the better angels of our nature will eventually prevail and bring this war to an end.

I’m certainly in favor of putting this polarization behind. Who wouldn’t be? So let’s see where Pennock’s leadership in that direction takes us. He begins with this beautifully conciliatory headline: “Creation of Christian Soldiers a Chilling Sidelight of Darwin Bashing.” Such an irenic opening clearly signals his desire to move beyond bashing those who disagree with his own position. Throughout the piece he displays that same refreshing “let’s all get along together now” tone. His peace-making overtures include:

Yet another Discovery Institute urban cow-dude tries to resuscitate the dead ID horse under the guise of “academic freedom.” Casey Luskin’s claims (one can hardly call them arguments) have been rebutted many times before, so there is no point in doing so again here.

…Ralph Seelke, whom I had observed testify with such brazen misinformation in favor of one of the Discovery Institute’s recent disguised ID bills in Michigan.

I don’t believe that creationist activists themselves would makes [sic] such [threatening phone] calls; no doubt such threats come from individuals who are mentally unstable. But creationist leaders regularly say things that encourages [sic] such individuals.

As I wrote in a recent op-ed about Expelled and the ID culture wars, it is hard to know how to respond in a civil manner to such ignorant extremism. Let me go further here: Such views (and I do here mean views, not people) do not deserve a civil response.

Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of [University of Colorado philosopher Bradley] Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject. I sympathize with the department, but can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student. So far as I know, he hasn’t stooped to publishing out-of-context quotes from private E-mail without permission (no reputable publisher would allow that, in any case), but I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts. I have turned the other cheek to this calumny as well. Again, who is the character assassin?

Note carefully how he has refrained from being uncivil towards anyone. I’ll repeat it in case you missed it: “Such views (and I do here mean views, not people) do not deserve a civil response” (emphasis added). Thank you for that courteous example, Dr. Pennock!

Bradley Monton has a response to this, which we’ll come to in a moment. First, however, we need to note how all of this serves as strong and convincing refutation of an accusation that has been brought against Pennock:

Commenting upon myself and Richard Katskee, [Discovery Institute’s Casey] Luskin writes that we and other “Darwinists” aim to “stifle debate” and that we use a “poison pen” and “name-calling” as “intimidation tactics” to silence anyone who dares speak up in favor of ID.

It’s gratifying to know that Pennock would never think of using a “poison pen,” or speak in an intimidating manner. Clarifying further, he tells us,

I don’t hesitate to point out misstatements, deceptions, and fallacious arguments, but I keep the focus on the claims themselves and avoid attacks on individuals.

It’s so good to see he has left individuals out of this. And he really does want to be less polarizing. He said so himself! So inspiring is it, that it bears repeating:

Let us forthrightly reject those false and polarizing views and hope that the better angels of our nature will eventually prevail and bring this war to an end.

One must appreciate his leadership here, presenting (as it were) the first unifying, pacifying round of a sort of START talks negotiation with his ideological opponents.

Back to Bradley Monton now. He blogged a response, beginning with an interesting question:

Robert Pennock has published an article in the online edition of US News & World Report where he says some critical things about me, culminating in the implication that I’m a “character assassin”. (Is calling someone a character assassin itself behaving like a character assassin? Just wondering.)

Before we go too much further here we should identify Monton more clearly. He shares at least two important things in common with Pennock: both are philosophers, and neither believes in God. The crucial difference between them is that Monton thinks Intelligent Design is worth studying for its scientific and philosophical merits. He does not seem to have signed on to a complete endorsement of ID, but he’s certainly in favor of pursuing the question.

And there’s another crucial difference between Pennock and Monton, evident in their two articles linked here. Pennock is the craftsman of conciliation, while Monton (an atheist!) is one of those culture-war-mongering creators of Christian soldiers.

But no, never mind. I cannot sustain the sarcasm any further. I hope you caught what I was really saying about Pennock above. And I hope you’ll carefully read Monton’s response. In genuine courtesy (and I’m not being sarcastic now)—in fact with remarkable courtesy, considering with what force and in what a public venue Pennock attacked him—Monton simply documents several errors in Pennock’s piece.

I don’t agree with all of Monton’s beliefs, obviously, but I am with him 100% on his pursuit of what is true, and his quest for courtesy. His courtesy admittedly exceeds my own: he did not resort to sarcasm, whereas I couldn’t restrain myself from it this time.

The tone Pennock takes, on the other hand, is no surprise to anyone who has followed this debate. (Consider Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb, for example.) Pennock’s article contains numerous errors, as Monton shows, it’s rife with unconcealed anger, and it is unabashedly anti-Christian. Pennock wants the culture war to end. He wants the polarization to be resolved. His simple proposal for accomplishing that seems to be that everyone who disagrees with him—and especially the “Christian solders”—should just go away. I guess if that happened, that would solve Pennock’s problem, wouldn’t it?

Related: Opponents, Not Enemies

Series Navigation (Pennock, Monton, Matzke, Luskin):How Wrong Is It To Suggest a Darwin-Hitler Link? >>>
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9 thoughts on “Robert Pennock the Conciliator

  1. From Gotelli:

    \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.\

    Existence of a god is a scientific question for him! Gotelli was arguing against Pennock’s claims. Gotelli is not following methodological naturalism: if I understood him correctly, he claimed in his email that science can include also supernatural explanations.

  2. This is certainly an interesting exchange, and thank you for posting your (enjoyably sarcastic) thoughts. For what it is worth, I attended Monton’s controversial lecture at CU Boulder. 1) He is a self-proclaimed atheist, and 2) He never attacked Pennock personally. He did quote a passage from Pennock’s book *The Tower of Babel* as an example of what he believed was very unscientific and unfair, biased thinking. Overall, Monton’s talk was extremely impressive and refreshing, as he firmly believes in intellectual honesty and following evidence wherever it leads. He said that while he is an atheist, there are some ID arguments (particulary one regarding probability) that have given him pause. He is certainly one young philosopher to watch.

  3. What a fascinating story. Somehow I missed the whole thing. Thanks for catching me up.

    This is a tad off-topic and a little sideways, but I think ought to be on record.

    Monton quotes his own preprint, which Pennock wanted removed:

    If our goal is to believe truth and avoid falsehood, and if we are rational people who take into account evidence in deciding what to believe, then we need to focus on the question of what evidence there is for and against ID. The issue of whether ID counts as “science” according to some contentious answer to the demarcation question is unimportant. Of course, on this approach it would be much harder to get a federal judge to rule that ID can’t be taught in public school. But sometimes it is more important to be intellectually honest than to do what it takes to stop people from doing something you don’t like.

    Pennock thought this libelous.

    It reminded me so much of what I had heard before. This time from one promoting the opposite tack:

    But frequently these good arguments fail to persuade or carry the day, and gradually one’s credibility and effectiveness wane. . … Maybe this is a way in which we could manage to have our cake and eat it too. For a short period one might engage in giving bad effective arguments without being thoroughly corrupted. Then one could retreat back to the academy to wash one’s moderately soiled hands. After having one’s intellectual integrity restored and reinforced, one might then be ready to repeat the cycle. … So there may well be circumstances in which only the bad effective argument will work against them [the creationists] in the political or legal arenas. If there are, then I think, though I come to this conclusion reluctantly, it is morally permissible for us to use the bad effective argument, provided we continue to have qualms of conscience about getting our hands soiled. But I also believe we must be very careful not to allow ourselves to slide all the way down the slippery slope to intellectual corruption. Perhaps, if we divide up the labor so that no one among us has to resort to the bad effective argument too frequently, we can succeed in resisting effectively without paying too high a price in terms of moral corruption.” (Quinn P.L., “Creationism, Methodology, and Politics,” in Ruse M., ed., “But is it Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy,” Prometheus Books: Amherst NY, 1996, pp.397-398)

    This seems particularly germane to the conversation between the two that has Monton saying of Pennock:

    The reason I didn’t, though, is that Judge Jones didn’t base his decision on what Pennock says in his book; Judge Jones relied on Pennock’s testimony in the trial. Now, you might think that it wouldn’t matter, but I am of the opinion that Pennock endorsed a view in the trial that’s different than the view he endorsed in the book. And for the record, I’m not the only one who thinks that; Sahotra Sarkar writes (in his paper “The Science Question in Intelligent Design”, forthcoming in Synthese) that ““Pennock’s testimony … goes against the more nuanced discussion of Pennock (1999).”

    I go into all this in more detail in my forthcoming book, provocatively titled Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. (For the record, I’m just providing a partial defense.)

    I’m putting the link here, although it’s in the main post already.

  4. Tom — thanks for your post, and for appreciating my quest for courtesy.

    Sarah — thanks for your kind words about my talk!

    Charlie — thanks for quoting that passage from Quinn. In fact, it was that passage (and a similar passage from Ruse) that I had in mind when I originally wrote the ostensibly libelous paragraph.

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