On the virtue of skepticism

Oh to be a reporter in Kansas these days. In early November, the Board of Education there modified state science standards to include critiques of evolutionary theory. Later in the month, a controversial Kansas University professor — the chair of the religious studies department, no less — announced he would offer a class that attacked intelligent design theory.

Only problem is, he forgot to keep a lid on his motivations for the class. Here’s how Lawrence Journal-World’s Sophia Maines covered it:

In a recent message on a Yahoo listserv — a venue where groups of people post questions and comments on a particular topic — Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s department of religious studies, described his upcoming course “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.”

“The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’” Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note “Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.”

Whoopsie! So much for encouraging intellectual inquiry and civil discussion. Ms. Maines’ piece is good but I wonder why she didn’t tell readers the name of the list-serv: Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Journal-World did do a great job of posting page after page of Mirecki’s comments(.pdf) on their website for readers to evaluate.

In any case, tons of people flipped out about the comments. He apologized, his critics weren’t appeased and the university was forced to cancel the class last Thursday. And that was the end of the firestorm . . . until today. Lawrence-area media are giving heavy coverage to the latest development: Mirecki said he was driving on a rural road yesterday morning, thinking, and ended up getting beaten up by . . . Creationists. He drove himself to the hospital and reported the attack to police.

Eric Weslander, also of the Journal-World, covered Mirecki’s account but also managed to introduce another possible angle:

One of Mirecki’s most vocal critics, conservative activist John Altevogt, said he couldn’t imagine anyone he knows doing such a thing.

“This should be investigated thoroughly, and whoever did this should be punished to the full extent of the law. You don’t beat people for either their faith or their lack thereof,” he said.

But Altevogt said he was skeptical about whether Mirecki’s report was legitimate.

“He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left,” Altevogt said. “The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor.”

When told that some people were questioning the truth of his report, Mirecki fired back.

“The right wing wants blood, period. They’re not going to stop until they see blood. They’re not into anything else,” he said. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don’t believe anything because that’s the way they are… I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want.”

Far too many stories about politically-motivated attacks on professors make the news twice: first when the attack occurs and later when the attack is revealed to have been self-perpetrated. While a roving band of intelligent designers might very well have attacked Mirecki, Weslander’s approach of gently including a bit of skepticism in the story is a great use of inches.

It’s also a good reminder for reporters to question motivations on all stories. When I was studying economics, the idea that humans have incentives for just about everything was pounded into us, and I’m glad. Reporters should be healthily skeptical and consider the motivations of everyone they cover.

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  • http://guildedlilies.tripod.com/index.html Steve Nicoloso

    Oh… would that it were true. That’d be some ID with cajones!! Heh!!!

  • Ric

    I would have liked Maines story to question how Creationists would just happen to recognize Mirecki as he was driving on a rural road. Is he that recognizable? From the listserv?

  • Molly

    Does being skeptical about reporters motives hold for this blog, as well? Why can’t we accept his account of his assault at face value? Because he is a crack pot? Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you…..

    OT: I never realized how much Gillian Anderson’s hair resembles Donna Reed’s.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What is ironic in much of this is that if you read the background of many of the scientists who are prominent promoters of the Intelligent Design theory, they are Catholic scientists- not Bible thumping “fundies” as has become the favored media sterotype. And these scientists got their theories more from their scientific research than from any kind of fundamentalist or literalist reading of the Bible–most even believe in evolution– a guided evolution by an intelligent factor drawing the universe from chaos into rational order. It is just that they are willing to state there seems to be a conjunction between their scientific conclusions or theories and some religious teachings. The Darwinist scientists seem to have become the Roman cardinals telling Galileo to shut up. It goes to prove that whoever are the gatekeepers of the reigning scientific-religious-atheist orthodoxy in an era can be as terrified of open debate now as in the Middle Ages. And that Kansas professor seems frightened to the point of near insane bigotry with a bloodlust hatred. One can see a budding Stalinist-Leninist-Mao atheist hater of Christians so full of venom even millions of dead believers might not satisfy him as it never did them.

  • Jack ONeill

    This is beyond parody: creationist gangs roaming the flint hills of Kansas, bent on…what? vengeance? Who is next? Lock your doors, well-meaning, timid but righteous atheists; it could be anyone; it could be YOU. What nonsense. I think our professor friend needs a rest.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    ““The right wing wants blood, period. They’re not going to stop until they see blood. They’re not into anything else,” he said. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don’t believe anything because that’s the way they are. . . I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want.”
    And what does Mirecki say are the motivations of “the left wing” for refusing to believe when I tell them what “anti-war protesters” did to ME? Is it because THEY “aren’t going to stop until they see blood”, or will we be told that “that’s DIFFERENT”?

  • Michael

    Here’s a story about the guy doubting Mireck’s story; he’s not exactly a reasonable wallflower either. Skepiticism appears to be necessary on all sides.

    http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/dec/03/conservative_critic_known_inflammatory_speech/?evolution

  • Lizzy M.

    I would have liked Maines story to question how Creationists would just happen to recognize Mirecki as he was driving on a rural road. Is he that recognizable? From the listserv?

    Maybe he had a darwin fish on his bumper.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Or maybe they beat him up for some other reason entirely. Maybe they’re violent jerks, and he cut them off in traffic.

    John, we have the evolution-vs-intelligent-design argument just about every time this topic comes up. You might want to look back through earlier posts in the Science section. Scientists have very good reasons for not taking ID proponents seriously.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And as usual with “freethinkers”, “open-minded” means “agrees with me”.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Will, you appear to be having a conversation with yourself. Care to let the rest of us in on it?

  • Brad

    It looks like there are some nutty people on all sides in this one!

    As to evolution VS. intelligent design, it annoys me to no end that people act like it’s EITHER one OR the other. It seems to me they’re perfectly compatible, even friendly, so to speak, as long as people remember to distinguish between science, philosophy and religion.

    Brad

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Avram– the ID scientists may be a small minority–but so were the original Copernicans, Darminists, and non-Darwinian evolutionists. And the Darwinian evolutionists may have seemingly irrefeutable arguments— BUT many of the books I saw in the Borders science section were by ID leaning scientists who had impressive academic backgrounds. I don’t see any reason for squelching debate even if 99% of scientists disagree. If the ID arguments are absurd or as whacky as their opponents claim, then the classes exposed to all points of view will laugh the ID ideas “out of court.”

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    John, have you actually examined the IDers arguments, read the rebuttals, examined their blogs, perused their fund-raising letters? I’ve done all these things. I don’t care about their academic credentials, plenty of loons and liars have graduated from great schools. I care about the quality of their arguments, and the motives behind their tactics. The former are crap, the latter dishonest.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    John Bresnahan: you might like to check out this NY Times piece on Intelligent Design. In actual fact most scientists at even Christian institutions think ID is not much good, and should not be considered to be science. There’s also this pretty damning pair of paragraphs:

    The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

    “They never came in,” said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

    So much for your Communist-atheist conspiracy.

    (PS the NYTimes article is even more fun when read with PZ Myer’s commentary)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Avram–I have read “Darwin’s Black Box” By Michael J. Behe, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University and have discussed a few of his ideas with some people more knowledgeable in science than me, and his ideas don’t strike us as “crap” nor do we sense
    he is being dishonest. I have read other articles that seem logical, rational, and reasonable on the issue though I don’t have them at hand right now. As a Catholic I need agree with no particular mechanism, procedure, or methodology God may have used in the process of creating intelligent?? life. I need only believe God is the sculptor or potter (the Biblical image) who is the ever-present, “personal,” force creating and sustaining the universe and the life therein. Thus I consider this debate more fascinating than frightening. Why there is such fear (throwing words around like “crap” or “dishonest” gives off the smell of fear) coming from those who are so certain they are right sort of baffles me. Overall The ID people (and there seem to be many types) seem to think the fact the universe appears to be so basically rationally ordered it must mean something. On the other hand I don’t think the Darwinian evolutionists think the universe is in the grip of pure chaos and TOTAL randomness. They just don’t think there is any meaning, purpose or intelligent force giving a direction to it all.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I don’t mean to sound so strong in favor of all ID ideas or against all forms of evolutionary theory, my argument is against closed minds on scientific issues where there may still be room for debate. And that Kansas professor who recently made the news seems a poster boy for closed minds combined with hatred for those who are iconoclasts on some of the issues at hand (in this case-for various reasons- mostly Christians.)
    We quickly forget that only morons in the field of mental health science were against lobotomies in the 1950′s, only “traitors” to the progress of the human race were against Master Race theories and racial eugenics in the early 1900′s,and phrenology was a genuine science–along with bleeding by leeches– in the 1800′s. Even when 99% of scientists agree–they may still be wrong and to answer challenges with invectives achieves nothing-it was this Kansas professor’s hate-filled diatribes against Christians that I used such strong language about in an earlier post, not any rational contribution about science.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    I’m sure there are plenty of scientific advances which were made by religious lobbies taking over school boards and holding court cases – I just can’t think of any at the moment…

  • http://www.idlefellows.com/speculativecatholic Steve

    I’m appalled at Mirecki’s injuries, but …

    I just started wondering if he could prove that his injuries were caused by an intelligent agent as he claims, and if they might not be instead the result of a random, unguided phenomenon?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Avram, the gang who beat me up called themselves “the peace movement”.
    When I try to point this out to the likes of Mirecki as they rant about the evil “right wing”, they insist that it didn’t happen, without explaining whether they say I am lying or dreamed it or what.

    Instead of his experience giving him sympathy for the victims of the thugs on “his side”, he carries on about the unique perversion of “the right wing”.
    What part of that don’t you understand?

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    The part I didn’t understand, Will, is who you are, who beat you up, when this happened, what the heck you’re talking about. I’m sorry if there was some introduction to this that I missed, but to me it looked as if you were just dropping some long-standing grievance of yours into an unrelated conversation.

    I’m sorry that you were beaten; there are plenty of jerks on all sides of political disputes. Keep in mind that Mirecki, when he talked about thugs, had just been beaten up a few hours earlier, and is as upset as you were just after your beating.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    John, I don’t hold much with the argument that, just because some minority theories turned out to be true, that all minority theories are worthy of respect. As Carl Sagan said, “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” The Flat-Earthers are still around, and the guys who claim that the moon landing was faked, and the Patent office still gets submissions for perpetual motion machines.

    Behe’s “irreducable complexity” argument is inherently flawed, because it’s based on the notion that each part of a biological structure must always have performed the same function that it’s now observed to perform. In actual observed biology, structures often perform multiple functions, or different functions in different organisms.

    The irreducable complexity argument isn’t new — it’s usually presented as “What good is half a wing?” or “–half an eye?”. Presented in those simple terms, it’s easily refuted by presenting actual animals that have functioning partial wings or eyes. Behe’s version isn’t any better in scientific terms — structures that he claims are irreducably complex have been shown not to be — but it’s better for ID purposes because it’s harder to understand. A scientist known enough to refute it, but a layman has trouble following the argument, and is therefore more likely to just shrug his shoulders, decide the matter is too difficult to resolve intellectually, and go with whichever side suits his emotional temperment.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Yes, Avram, the Flat-Earthers are still around. BUT how much influence do they have?? How are they anything but a joke? So why are Darwinian evolutionists so afraid of open debate? That the lower intellectual beings (non-scientists) won’t “get it.” But if science is eventually able to put intelligent design theories into the same public dust bin as flat-earth theories–so be it. Religion does not need a “scientific” theory to uphold the insight into the “heart” of the universe faith provides.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    What makes you think Darwinists are afraid of open debate? Scientists — including evolutionary biologists — debate about scientific issues all the time.

    What scientists don’t like to do is grant a non-scientific endeavor — and intelligent design goes further than being non-scientific to actually being anti-scientific and anti-rationalist — the status of science. The ID movement is a political campaign, not a scientific one, and scientists resent being told to treat it as if it were scientific.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    AVRAM- what makes me think some evolutionists are afraid of debate is the arrogant, insulting attitude too many of them have-of which that Kansas professor is a perfect example– toward those who raise problems with aspects of evolutionary theory. Some of the invective directed against ID theorists reminds me of some of the invective directed against those who challenged Master Race theories in Germany many decades ago. I find it odd that science intellectuals so easily “lose it” when challenged.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    John, have you seen the invective directed against mainstream science and scientists by ID supporters? William Dempski says mainstream scientists are delusional (see here and here) and said Charles Krauthammer was “senescent” for writing an anti-ID editorial. Phillip Johnson said that “Darwinism [is] all circular reasoning, deception, and pseudo-science” and “unscientific, illogical, and dishonest”. Arrogance, insult — IDers must be afraid of debate too! In fact, Phillip Johnson refuses to debate about the effects of his philosophy in other fields than biology, and recommends that other IDers do likewise. (I started out writing “evolutionary biology,” but Johnson’s also an HIV skeptic.) Since he’s trying to overturn philosophic naturalism, the cornerstone of all the sciences, his theories must have implications for all the sciences, but he just doesn’t want to talk about that. Any idea why?

    Scientists have short tempers about this sort of thing because, well, how would you feel if somebody kept pestering you with stupid questions all the time, making you take time away from doing your real job? Nothing odd about it.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Point of information, Avram. “Philosophic naturalism” is not “the cornerstone of all the sciences.” Methodological naturalism is.

    One can be a supernaturalist and still refuse to settle for a supernatural explanation of a commonly-observed event.

    ID is not only poor science, it’s crummy theology. And I say this as someone who is absolutely convinced that we live in a created universe upheld by God.

    There are lots of references. I recommend Finding Darwin’s God, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? or Tower of Babel.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Arg, Dan, you’re right, I was sloppy there. Actually, Phillip Johnson is opposed to both philosophic and methodological naturalism, and conflates the two in his arguments. (I mean that he says he’s attacking philosophical, but the ID movement’s actual attacks are against methodological.) So I was half-right.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Update: Mirecki has stepped down from his post as department chairman, on the recommendation of his colleagues in the department.

    I haven’t found anything new about the beating that doesn’t come from WorldNetDaily editorials.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Avram,

    I might write an update on this. I feel that this attack story needs coverage because it’s basically huge no matter what the truth is.

    If Creationists brutally beat a man because of his evolutionary views, that’s huge.

    If he lied about it, that’s also huge.

    I don’t think I need to explain why the first one is huge, but just think of how huge the stories are when white folks blame imaginary black folks for violent crimes.

    If he did make the story up, it’s a vicious thing to do. And, of course, if creationists beat him up, that’s rightfully a huge story, too.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    “Huge” isn’t the word I’d use, either way. Maybe my scale is calibrated differently.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Avram,

    Good point. I simply meant it’s huge for those reporters who are covering ID/Mirecki/Kansas.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    That reminds me: Have you seen this bit of online-only content on the New Yorker‘s site, with Margaret Talbot talking to Daniel Cappello about her expereinces reporting on the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania? Here’s the bit that might be especially interesting for journos:

    One consistent division I noticed, and that I wrote about, was between people who read and trusted the very good local newspapers (nearby York has two, which is pretty unusual for a small American city these days) and those who just didn’t trust them. The plaintiffs were the newspaper readers; the pro-intelligent-design school-board people were the newspaper rejecters.


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