Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, especially from someone with different views than one’s one, but I’m going to offer some anyway, for the benefit of those who oppose Intelligent Design.
This is not tongue-in-cheek advice, nor is it offered in a spirit of sarcasm. It’s genuine.
This is not about whether ID is right or wrong, it’s about your rhetorical strategy, which by now you must realize has been horribly ineffective, especially in the U.S. You frequently complain about how many people still disbelieve in evolution. I can explain at least part of the reason for that, if you’ll listen.
Elements of Persuasion
We are laymen. We know nothing of biology, including evolution, except for what we read in books. This is true even of us who have read widely and deeply, as I have done. There are only so many ways of learning after all. Reading, lectures, and lab or field work sum up probably about 99 percent of it. We’re not doing lab or field work. That means we only know what others tell us. (Think about it: that’s all that you know, too, other than your own observations and research, or research you have personally observed or verified.) It’s our job as responsible human beings to assess what we should believe of what we hear.
That’s background, and it’s essential for you to recognize it as the lay of the land, a set of facts your persuasive efforts must take into account.
Now for strategy.
You would undoubtedly prefer that we not even read anything that favors Intelligent Design, but you know you can’t control that. That strategy is unavailable to you.
Your next best strategy is to convince us that your side is right and ID is wrong. Lately in response to my reviews of Darwin’s Doubt, some of you have taken up the strategy of urging me to read the works Meyer cited in his footnotes, and to check for myself whether he got it right. I could do that, but I know I’m not a biologist, and that I’m probably not in any position to assess what’s written in the journals. It would be irresponsible for me to assume that I’m competent for that. So while that strategy of yours could theoretically work, its success depends on readers becoming full-blown experts in new disciplines, which not many of us have time to do.
By the way, that’s why in those reviews I summarized some of what Meyer wrote, and wrapped that part up with, “That’s the account Meyer gives of it. I’m no expert in the field, but I have to admit it’s convincing. The Cambrian Explosion remains unexplained on any standard terms.” I didn’t claim more than I knew to be true. I said it was convincing, but I specifically avoided taking the position of an authority, whom others ought to agree with based on my say-so.
So from a strategic perspective, you would not be wise to put too much hope in your readers coming up to speed on the technical issues.
You, on the other hand, are the experts, and as I read your responses, I see you calling on laymen like me to accept your word as credible authorities on the subject. If we did that, then we wouldn’t have to read all the journal articles: we could just accept your position as being factual and correct.
Since Aristotle, though, it has been well known that credibility is a composite of two factors: perceived competence and perceived trustworthiness.
We recognize your competence as biologists, paleontologists, geneticists, biochemists, geologists, and whatever related field you may work in. Your perceived competence there is high. Do you realize, though, that that’s not all it takes? Beyond your competence in the physical sciences, in order for us to trust you as credible authorities, we want to know that you are (a) competent in the philosophical questions that are attached to this issue, and (b) worthy of trust.
Perceived Philosophical Competence
Your objections to Intelligent Design are (typically) based on your knowledge of the evidence within a certain naturalistic philosophical framework. When ID presents its position from within a different philosophical framework, it’s not unusual to see you laughing it away. This is not competence on display: laughter is not argumentation. It therefore provides us no assurance that you are qualified to speak within the full framework of the discussion.
Further, from the logic side of philosophy, you engage in multiple fallacies, mostly in the general category of the “straw man.” You misrepresent the ID position you oppose. Besides being irrelevant to what ID actually proposes, this also erodes perceptions of your competence.
I’ve seen your popular leader Richard Dawkins commit one very extended non sequitur. I’ve seen Steven Schafersman begging the question in favor of philosophical naturalism. Recently Christine M. Janis committed a kind of straw man fallacy by misrepresenting my position, about as badly as if she hadn’t even taken time to read it.
I could multiply examples, but I’m not here to prove a point, but rather to offer advice, if you’re willing to hear it. I suggest you pay attention and not brush it off when we point out logical fallacies in your arguments, and when we try to get you to understand the difference between your basic philosophical position and ours. Even if you think we’re wrong, you would do well to listen.
And why? Because presumably you want to try to persuade us. And as you complain about our position being wrong, the first thing we want to know is whether you actually know what our position is. Misrepresenting it won’t persuade us at all.
You have all the competence we could ask for in your disciplines. If you were to develop credibility in the philosophical debate, that would advance your position tremendously. But remember, credibility is both about expertise and perceived trustworthiness.
Trustworthiness and demonstrated character go together, obviously; so you ought to be able to see how your trustworthiness is diminished when you engage in silly dismissive games like using such terms as, “Dishonesty Institute,” “Goddidit,” “the flying Spaghetti Monster.” Coynes “Sophisticated Theologians™” inanity (not to mention his dishonest handling of dissent) does you no good. Some of what I said above about philosophical competence might enter in here: when you misrepresent our position, is it because you couldn’t get it right (either carelessness or incompetence) or because you intended to distort it (dishonesty)? Is there a third option besides those? I can’t think of one.
The Difference Between Being Right and Being Persuasive
Very frequently I see you insisting that we believe you because you know what you’re talking about and you’re right. Maybe that’s true, but here is what you are not: you are not persuasive. Empirical facts, already alluded to above, prove that to be so. If you were persuasive, after all, it really seems like more people would be persuaded.
So it would serve you well to think this through: beyond being right, what else does it take to be persuasive? There’s been lots of recent research on this, as I’m sure you know. Other than some manipulative techniques I hope you wouldn’t stoop to, however, there’s not much there that Aristotle didn’t say first, thousands of years ago. You need not only to have expertise in your field. You need expertise in whatever else is involved, in this case the relevant philosophical issues. And you need to display the kind of character that evokes trust.