The Problem with Gregg Easterbrook, Redux

Jason over on EvolutionBlog has some interesting commentary regarding Greg Easterbrook and string theory. Like Jason, I find Easterbrook to be tiresome and a less-than-worthy commentator on topics scientific. I had written my own frisking of Easterbrook with respect to Richard Dawkins on a previous incarnation of the Refuge some time ago. It follows, below.

I was reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day. Quite nice. Dawkins is his usual clear and straightforward self regarding the public’s take on evolution versus so-called intelligent design. What caught my eye, however, was a link to a story by Gregg Easterbrook entitled Bullied and Brainwashed in which the author expounds his thoughts on “The trouble with Richard Dawkins”. Easterbrook doesn’t waste any time before launching into Dawkins:

Don’t take this personally, but if you are an American adult there is a one in two chance that Richard Dawkins, a renowned professor of science at Oxford, thinks you are ‘ignorant, stupid or insane,’ unless you are “wicked.” These are the adjectives Dawkins chooses to describe the roughly 100 million Americans adults who, if public opinion polls are right, believe Homo sapiens was created directly by God, rather than gradually by evolution. Ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. Not much to choose from there!

No, there isn’t much to choose from because those words pretty well cover all of the bases. Anyone who takes the ideals of the Enlightenment seriously and who engages in the study of evolutionary theory versus creationism can only come to the conclusion that evolution fits the observed data and dovetails with other scientific theories far better than creationism does. If one cannot see that, then the individual does not have sufficient data (ignorant), does not possess sufficient reasoning skills (stupid), is mentally incapacitated (insane), or has another agenda that requires them to place truth in the backseat in order to favor the competition (wicked). My guess is that most of those 100 million Americans probably fall into the first two categories, although if my cable public access channel is an accurate representation, then a certain number of clergy fall into the fourth category.
Easterbrook continues:

..the first problem with Dawkins’s positions: he is arrogant.

My my. He’s arrogant. This little cut, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the positions Mr. Dawkins holds. Mr. Dawkins could be the nicest or the most foul individual on the planet but that does not effect the veracity of evolutionary theory. Easterbrook then extends this argument saying that Dawkins wishes to stifle all counterarguments. I believe it would be more accurate to say that Dawkins does not wish to expend further time and resources on arguments that have already been hacked to tiny bits. For example, there are those who take a literal interpretation of the Bible, believing that the Earth is a mere 6000 years old. They explain away dinosaur fossils by saying that humans and dinosaurs lived together in the antediluvian era; humans going so far as to saddle and ride them like modern horses. No modern individual with even an inkling of scientific schooling buys into this. Should we spend money and time teaching this “alternate theory” in biology and history classrooms? Hey, for that matter, there are some folks who believe that the moon landings were faked. Do we need to rewrite our textbooks and alter curricula to appease them? Some might say that the difference here is in the number of adherents, that the beliefs of large groups should be taken into consideration. After all, only a small handful of people believe in a young Earth or in faked moon landings, yet 100 million US adults think creationism is “just groovy”. Mass opinion does not equate to objective truth. It never has. If it did, the Earth would be flat and the Sun would be orbiting us instead of the other way around.

“Theology is all ridiculous superstition, Dawkins said, and unworthy of being dignified by study.” said Easterbrook.

That’s because it is. This is not a new idea. Indeed, one need only peruse Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason to get the low-down on the “good book” from one of formative writers of the late 1700’s. Calling it “ridiculous superstition” is a light touch compared to Paine’s disembowelment of it. Ultimately, how do you study something which, by definition, claims its own perfection and infallibility? You can perform no test or probe, develop no hypothesis, or hope to validate any theory of human origins. Its interest lay primarily as an historical document, not a factual explanation. I do not mean to imply that only items of scientific curiosity are generally useful. Far from it. One need only consider the subjective domains of art to refute this. Fortunately though, most humans are smart enough not turn to a painting or symphony and use it as a guidepost to explain human origins.
Easterbrook mines some gold with this one:

I suspect one reason so many Americans have a poor understanding of evolutionary theory is that overbearing figures such as Dawkins talk down to them and act contemptuous of their religious beliefs. So people respond–perhaps quite rationally–by screening out the views of scientists whose motives they distrust.

Right. It’s the scientists’ fault that people screen them out or don’t understand the issues. It wouldn’t have anything to do with ministers and over zealous evangelicals insisting that they will suffer eternal damnation and hellfire, a seed planted in many a mind in early childhood via propaganda from “religious education classes” or Sunday school. Easterbrook continues:

It is telling that polls show Americans overwhelmingly accept many findings of modern research, such as the theories of relativity and of cosmic expansion. The scientists who favor these ideas generally aren’t in the habit of mocking peoples’ faiths, and so they are believed by the general public.

The real issue here is that cosmologists and physicists are never in a position of being perceived as “mocking peoples’ faiths” because these days most so-called “holy men” don’t go running around saying that the Theory of Relativity is anathema to the Bible. One need only go back a few centuries to find examples of scientists (e.g. Galileo) who were persecuted by the church for saying similar sorts of things.
Easterbrook’s article was apparently written a few years ago judging by this section:

But Dawkins is often guilty of sins of which he accuses others, including arguing against straw men and playing fast and loose with the flaws in his own ideas. In the “ignorance” article he declares, for example, that doctrinaire creationists “dominate the school boards in some states.” Oh really? Which ones, exactly? Creationists did take over the Kansas State Board of Education and issue a non-binding recommendation against teaching some aspects of Darwinian thought. The recommendation was rejected by Kansas’s Republican governor and ignored by all Kansas school districts, and the creationists were voted out last year. Today, every U.S. state requires basic instruction in the theory of evolution. By pretending otherwise, Dawkins tries to exaggerate his opponents’ influence and cast them as a looming anti-intellectual menace.

They say hindsight is 20-20. The recent uproar in Dover, PA bears this out as does the reversal of the situation in Kansas, plus similar situations regarding school textbooks in other states. Dawkins sees this as an on-going threat, not an odd one-off, and recent happenings support this view. Hopefully, this will all die away but one cannot be certain of that given the blind fervor of extremist religious groups.
Here is a classic misunderstanding (dare I say a show of “ignorance”?):

Dawkins, like others who want evolution to win on all counts, tends to glide past the little problem that Darwinian thinking cannot explain (and in Darwin’s work itself, does not even try to explain) the origin of life. This is no small detail. I haven’t the slightest doubt that evolutionary mechanics explain how eohippus became the modern horse, or how Homo hablis became Homo sapiens. But why was there eohippus or primitive humanity or any kind of life in the first place? Maybe the ultimate explanation is natural, but today biologists don’t have much more than wild guesses, much less a solid theory.

First of all, this is not the domain of evolutionary theory. This complaint is similar to the often heard “If they can put a man on the moon why can’t they XXX?” Simply because one has little to do with the other. Evolutionary theory says nothing about the origin of life, only its adaptation and variation over time. This is not to say that “biologists don’t have much more than wild guesses”. Easterbrook is just plain wrong on this point.
Easterbrook closes with the following:

It’s hard to think of a topic that’s more interesting to talk about, and there could be an engaging, ongoing discourse on this point among scientists, theologians, and others, if only the doctrinaire believers would stop denouncing the scientists and the doctrinaire scientists would stop denouncing the believers. In this, Dawkins, an extremely smart man with a great deal of interest to say, has managed to make himself part of the problem. But maybe I think that because I’m insane–or wicked.

As long as we’re slinging around personal opinions of others, I’d vote for ignorant–or stupid.

Author: jim

Jim is a college professor with a fondness for running shoes and drumsticks.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Gregg Easterbrook, Redux”

  1. For one thing, it’s not justifiable to lump “ignorant” in with “stupid, insane or wicked.” Everyone I know is ignorant in some way. I’m ignorant when it comes to automobiles, the stock market and Aramaic. Easterbrook is ignorant when it comes to evolutionary biology (and, it seems, all forms of science).
    For another, when someone insists on consistently referring to the entire body of knowledge of evolution as “Darwinism,” “Darwinian thought,” and “Darwinian thinking” — as if ol’ Chuck is the only one to ever do research in this realm, with other scientists having simply parroted all of his ideas unchanged for the past 150 years — you can be 100% sure he doesn’t have a clue.
    I’m guessing Easterbook is a conservative Catholic. Usually their anti-evolution pieces are the whiniest of all, substituting much grousing about the goshdarned unfairness of arrogant scientists for the crappy pseudoscientific rebuttals favored by fundagelicals.

  2. Nicely skewered! Per Kevin’s guess (above, is GE a conservative Catholic), Mr. Easterbrook is a former Baptist and now a born-again Christian. It was not a bad guess as, at the risk of citing an N =1, I do find such whinging is indeed often at its worst in my own Catholic relgion. All is not lost though I do miss George Coyne (former papal astronomer, now battling several diseases) who trashed ID and related arguments.

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