01 March 2006

Dirty Laundry

Attention spans being what they are, the fuss generated by the posting of a personal email exchange by two of the giants of the skepticism community -- Michael Ruse and Dan Dennett -- has already evaporated. But it was good while it lasted, and it's worth reviving for a least a few more nanoseconds, in part because it sheds light on one of the biggest challenges facing defenders of reason in the political sphere.

The words exchanged were not, I suspect, among the most cordial or well-chosen that either Ruse or Dennett has committed to the ether. It boiled down to a strong difference of opinion over the role of atheism in the evolution-creation skirmishes, a debate that looms large among those who worry about how to deal with the decline of respect for science and reason in American society.

Ruse, who teaches the philosophy of biology at the Florida State University and the author of The Evolution-Creationism Struggle, has in the minds of many gotten a little too cozy with creationists and is doing a disservice to the good fight by not making it absolutely clear that faith has no place in a scientific debate. He annoyed a lot of skeptics by co-editing a book on intelligent design, Debating Design, with none other than ID-maven William Dembski. (Ruse is against it, by the way, but apparently not strongly enough for some.)

Dennett, a philosophy prof at Tufts, is more hard-core, and has little time for religion in any guise. His new book, Breaking the Spell, is attracting lots of attention, both pro and con, for its failure to give an inch to anyone who thinks religion is anything more than an obsolete evolutionary adaptation to help our distant ancestors build strong communities.

It came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the characters involved that they might not share a common strategy on how to deal with irrationalism. But the private emails they exchanged a few weeks ago exceeded most expectations of just how little love is lost between them. The fact that one of them (Ruse) unilaterally chose to release their letters to a third party (Dembski of all people) and granted permission to post them on the web (here), was doubly shocking.

To summarize: Ruse begins by asking Dennett where's he's been lately, wondering why he hasn't seen some "scathing letter that you and [Stephen] Pinker penned about my inadequacies" in recent editions of the New York Times Book Review. Harmless enough; it could even be taken as tongue in cheek, I suppose. But Dennett replies with:
I'’m afraid you are being enlisted on the side of the forces of darkness. You may want to try to extricate yourself, since you are certainly losing ground fast in the evolutionary community that I am in touch with. As you will see, I do lump your coinage in with '‘reductionism' and '“scientism' etc. and think you are doing a disservice to the cause of taking science seriously.
It goes downhill from there. Ruse lets loose in his next reply:
I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design -- we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classroom-- what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues --– neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas ... we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.
You don't usually see this level of nastiness between two people who are supposed to be on the same side (that would be the evolution good, creation bad alliance). Lengthy commentaries ensued at The Intersection, Pharygula and Evolution Blog, among others.

Before I sat down to write my take, I asked Ruse whether he had indeed given the emails, and permission to post them, to Dembski without first checking with Dennett. He replied in the affirmative, noting that "I guess if you are as naive as I am about the internet, these things pass one by."

In a followup email, he hoped some good may come of the whole thing.
I just wish that there were more of us trying to think this whole debate through and talk about strategies etc -- perhaps my spat with Dennett will spark some thought on these issues.
I certainly hope so. There already seems to be a fair bit of internal analysis going on among those of us who worry about the failure of the Enlightenment to take hold in against the rising tide of fundamentalism. The subject deserves a more indepth treatment, and I will try to do my bit in the coming days.

For now, consider the political challenge of a worldview that embraces diversity of opinion. How do we engage in a healthy and complex philosophical debate with those who see philosophical complexity and healthy debate as weaknesses? We can't. This is why the Democrats have failed to assemble a credible alternative to Bush's Republican Guard.

At the moment, it would seem that our side, a side that includes both Ruse and Dennett, is doomed to be relegated to the political margins precisely because we haven't sorted out our differences and reduced our arguments to simplistic sound bytes. But should we ever stumble upon a catchy and simple strategy, we'll have abandoned the most cherished principles of our philosophy. Damned if we do....

The long-term solution is to cultivate a broadscale respect for complexity and heterogeneity in all things political. While we wait for that brave new world, though, it probably isn't a good idea to air our dirty laundry. Scientists are supposed to be reasonable people who choose their words carefully. If we lose that repuation, what have we left?

I'm not suggesting we should try to keep differences of opinion à la Ruse v. Dennett secret -- I wouldn't have drawn attention to the emails if I was -- just keep the epithets to a minimum when engaging in debate within our own community.

To close, one more quote from the infamous emails, one that other commentators have unfortunately ignored:
I really like you and Richard [Dawkins], but my liking for you and respect for what you two have done matters not a bit with respect to what I think that I, Michael Ruse, should do – I would be ashamed of myself if I thought and acted otherwise.
Exactly.

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