Last summer, many Kossacks took as much delight as I did in this diary. It involved a series of e-mail exchanges between Andrew Schlafly and Dr. Richard Lenski, in which the scion of Conservapedia demanded that the good doctor turn over to him the evidence Lenski had accumulated in a laboratory over 20 years demonstrating bacterial capacity for evolution. Lenski's response was excerpted in that diary and was truly one for the ages. Well, if that was the Greatest Creationist Smackdown of 2008, then we have an early nominee for that award for 2009.
First, a bit of background is in order. As many of you know, Howard Dean has replaced Ben Stein as the commencement speaker for this May's graduating class at the University of Vermont. I can't imagine why there was such an uproar by students and faculty against conferring an honorary degree to Stein. If I had to guess, it would be that he served as the narrator for the wretched piece of trash that IDiots tried to pass off as a documentary film, entitled Expelled. Presenting, as scientific evidence, claims that can easily be refuted by any freshman-level biology student is bad enough, but Stein's film had the gall to suggest that the theory of evolution promotes Nazism and eugenics, and intimated that only a vast conspiracy by entrenched powers prevents ID from sweeping into prominence in academia.
After Stein "withdrew" from his commencement speaking role at UVM, there was a predictable backlash from those believing that this provides another example of "Darwinists suppressing free speech". In response, a biology professor at UVM by the name of Dr. Nick Gotelli published an article in the Burlington Free Press, defending the position of those who opposed picking Stein as commencement speaker. He astutely pointed out that there is a difference between respecting free speech and inviting someone to speak at a commencement, the latter of which is supposed to be an honor signifying high scholarly achievement. Dr. Gotelli even went so far as to say that the best way to refute the claims of Creationists is to provide them with an open public forum to present their views, so that the absurdities are revealed in the light of day.
Apparently, the kooks at the Discovery Institute interpreted this position by Dr. Gotelli as a genuine respect for the scientific positions of IDiots. Following a link I saw at Andrew Sullivan's blog, apparently an employee of the Discovery Institute sent a letter to Dr. Gotelli, inviting him to set up a public debate between himself and ID proponents. Dr. Gotelli flatly refused, and promptly submitted the letter he received and his reply to PZ Myers for publication in the latter's science blog, Pharyngula. (I can think of no better recommendation for this blog than the tagline: Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.) Hilarity ensues, causing enough of a stir in the science community to attract a comment from none other than Richard Dawkins (comment 99). I'm going to quote directly from the exchange, but I encourage everyone to check the links out themselves as they are well worth reading.
First, there is the letter from the Discovery Institute.
Dear Professor Gotelli,
I saw your op-ed in the Burlington Free Press and appreciated your support of free speech at UVM. In light of that, I wonder if you would be open to finding a way to provide a campus forum for a debate about evolutionary science and intelligent design. The Discovery Institute, where I work, has a local sponsor in Burlington who is enthusiastic to find a way to make this happen. But we need a partner on campus. If not the biology department, then perhaps you can suggest an alternative.
Translation: We are desperately attempting to persuade scientists to take our medieval ideas seriously without success. Would you care to engage us in a public debate to bestow upon us the veil of credibility that tenured biology professors seem so loathe to give?
Ben Stein may not be the best person to single-handedly represent the ID side. As you're aware, he's known mainly as an entertainer. A more appropriate alternative or addition might be our senior fellows David Berlinski or Stephen Meyer, respectively a mathematician and a philosopher of science. I'll copy links to their bios below.
Translation: The movie "Expelled" was such an unmitigated disaster for our credibility that we can't allow Ben Stein to speak for us anymore, so we're throwing him under the bus. Instead, please accept our request for an opportunity to discredit you from people whose names are not tainted by our recent public relations flop.
The letter then goes on to refer to the Darwin "debate", as if there is any lack of widespread scientific consensus on the theory. Of course, it suggests a backdrop for the debate in their own terms, attempting to make the scientist argue in a box. Dr. Gotelli's response is pure gold, and I encourage everyone to read it at PZ Myers' website. Below are some of the highlights of the response, and my interpretations of them.
Thank you for this interesting and courteous invitation to set up a debate about evolution and creationism (which includes its more recent relabeling as "intelligent design") with a speaker from the Discovery Institute.
This is the only place in the letter where Dr. Gotelli refers to the term "Intelligent Design". Afterwards, he just lumps everything together with "Creationism", no doubt seeking to enrage the recipient since the Discovery Institute goes out of its way to deny that ID=Creationism.
Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.
PWNED! This speaks for itself. I particularly enjoyed the comparison to Holocaust deniers, as a retort to the ludicrous claim that the theory of evolution is responsible for Nazism.
Finally, isn't it sort of pathetic that your large, well-funded institute must scrape around, panhandling for a seminar invitation at a little university in northern New England?
Translation: With all the donations you get from the Creationist-believing public, you ought to be able to have the money to fund sufficient research activities to get published in mainstream journals, if in fact there is any scientific merit to your claims. Instead you prattle about writing books and magazines that don't live up to scientific standards.
A related point brought up in the comments to that blog entry is important to stress to those that think biologists should engage in public debates with the IDiots. Public debates are not the ideal forum for arriving at truth. The reason the IDiots relentlessly press for public debates is because debates tell one little more than which party is a better bullshitter. They seek to remove the scientist from the realm of laboratories with his mountains of evidence, and force the scientist to summarize his position in a few minutes, while the IDiot will practice for the debate by memorizing propaganda points. If the IDiots were serious about acceptance in the scientific community, they would express their ideas at conferences, places where a bit more nuance and evidence is required in order to come across as well-informed. But that's the whole point. IDiots aren't really aiming for academic acceptance. Their aim is to convince the public, so that they can obtain political power and thereby force their positions on everyone. Hence the Discovery Institute spends all of its money on setting up public debates, rather than conducting scientific research.
Once again, I encourage everyone to read the articles I linked to, especially the entire letter from Dr. Gotelli on the PZ Myers blog. I'll conclude with a poll.