Image: Chimpanzee on rock. Free to use Pexels image by @jokassis, resized, cropped.

Retweeting and commenting on the last in a series of articles by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CSC)’s Dr. Jonathan McLatchie, a molecular and cell biologist, got me briefly embroiled in some discussions with the disciples of a YouTube “science educator.” Though the “educator” himself contributed the first tweets, the way he conducts himself on Twitter can’t rightly be called “discussion.” The initial interactions with him were more like passing through a very loud construction zone on the way to a meeting: just a lot of noise and unpleasantness.

In any case, I thought I’d take a little time to do a quick postmortem of the discussion. First of all, here are the relevant articles by Dr. McLatchie:

  1. Answering Farina on Behe’s Work: Irreducible Complexity
  2. Answering Farina on Behe’s Work: Bacterial Flagella
  3. Answering Farina on Behe’s Work: The Edge of Evolution
  4. Answering Farina on Behe’s Work: Darwin Devolves
  5. My “Debate” with Professor Dave

Except for the last article, these are hard-core science papers. The science is biological, so you won’t need advanced mathematics to grasp them. Still, if you are not a bit of a science geek, you may find them challenging. Do try to at least read the first, since that includes some key philosophical points in addition to the science.

Now, as a new follower of the Discovery Institute’s CSC on Twitter, the last of these articles was one of the first tweets from the organization I saw. Because it highlighted the lack of civility in online discussions and throughout our culture that I’ve taken to railing against lately, I retweeted it, commented on it, then retweeted my comment to put it on my main timeline. “Here’s another good example of someone who thinks he’s smart behaving like a vile and uncouth barbarian and ruining open and civil discourse for everyone,” I likely thought as I did so.

Speak of the Devil and he shall appear. Enter the “educator” with a stream of insults and profanities and who knows what else. The man could not write a single sentence without an insult or vulgar language in it. As best I can tell, the “educator” thinks the proper way to conduct himself is to treat tweets like weird territorial dominance or intimidation exercises. The foul language and name calling, I suppose, are as close as he can get online to the sort of dominance maneuvers would-be alpha-male apes go through when one of their fellow subhuman animals acts in a way failing to show proper deference. I guess we should expect this kind of behavior from people who make crusading for belief in materialistic evolutionism their lives’ work. They are just naked apes evolved by chance processes with no real purpose or meaning to their existence but to reproduce and rise as high as they can in some pack or tribe, after all.

After some ineffective banter with the “educator,” I made clear that if he wanted to continue conversing with me he would have to comply with certain rules of civility. He refused. For good measure, he always directly contradicted what I said, even when I expressed my own beliefs, motives, and civility requirements. (“You don’t believe that; you believe this. That’s not your motive; this is. You don’t have civility requirements; you just can’t answer my vulgar insults — er, I mean, brilliant arguments.”) So I wrote him off. After that, I just ignored him. Maybe he lost interest and went away after that; maybe he didn’t. Maybe he came and went then finally left. I’m not really sure and don’t really care. Meanwhile, some more interesting discussions with his disciples had begun.

Though the “educator” never showed any hint that he even understood what civil discussion in a public forum means, his disciples were mostly civil until I just became too exasperating for them. (“It’s a gift, and a curse.”) The one with the most interesting observations took my failure to respond to some of his assertions as proof that I’d “ignored” him. He rejected my suggestion that we correspond by email so I could keep track of his thoughts better, think through them, and do some supplementary research and fact-checking. Because I was “obviously” just “ignoring” his best points and “feigning ignorance” (like their leader, most of these disciples are big on rejecting what other people say are their motives in favor of less charitable imputations), he didn‘t see the point. Nor, in retrospect, do I, I suppose.

Though disciples of the “educator” are all unique individuals, most of them do seem to share one thing in common: they are unshakably certain that the Intelligent Design (ID) advocates at the Discovery Institute’s CSC are all liars who, though they know that real science means materialistic naturalism, are pretending to think otherwise, and to honor scientific methods and rigor, as a ruse to take over public education, end the teaching of evolution, and indoctrinate all of America’s children in creationism. Their basis for this belief is a 1999 CSC planning and fundraising document typically styled “the Wedge Document.”

What’s interesting is that I found that I could not, by any means, convince any of these disciples (save one who was already objective and unbiased to begin with) that labeling the Discovery Institute’s CSC “dishonest” was inaccurate and unfair. I shared the CSC’s own explanatory document (which I had not yet completely read) and tried to show why a different view of what qualifies as “science” (the disciples mostly hold that materialism and naturalism are essential features of science, making anything that isn’t materialistic and naturalistic non-science), or the planning out of tactics or strategies for influencing other scientists and the broader culture over time, should not be called “dishonest” or construed as “lying.” My words, doubtless lacking the force and eloquence of CSC’s own document of self-defense (which I commend to you), achieved nothing.

Now, as I noted when I shared the set of CSC articles behind the debate via a thread of tweets, I’m not even philosophically on the same page as the CSC. I hold that Christian faith is indispensable to a coherent thought system and that faith necessarily precedes and provides a foundation for…trust in one’s senses, reliance on one’s rational faculty, everything. The CSC, on the other hand, takes for granted all the worldview assumptions essential to science: nature and its laws remain constant over time; one’s senses and faculties are fundamentally reliable regardless of how one thinks they originated; the laws of logic and probability are real and abiding entities that can be relied upon throughout time, etc. Given these presuppositions, which we in the presuppositionalist camp would say are unjustified on either a “neutral” or non-Christian basis, the CSC goes from there.

Though this isn’t the presuppositionalist approach, I’ve noted previously that I think this kind of “playing along” with unbelievers and seeing where the things they take for granted without justification lead can be a useful intellectual exercise. The success of the Discovery Institute’s CSC proves this is so. I speculate that this is what most perturbs unbelievers like the disciples. Even a group of mixed- and no-faith thinkers who, in common with the disciples, just take all these things for granted without justification — keep reaching persuasive conclusions that don’t fit the materialistic or naturalistic viewpoint. It’s like if you had a boxing match where the favored contestant (materialistic or naturalistic evolutionism) was allowed to set up all the rules for the fight, excepting that he could not simply declare one side the winner beforehand (science can’t be assumed a priori to require materialism or naturalism) — and the favored candidate still lost, repeatedly.

Before this set of discussions, I knew little about the Discovery Institute’s CSC. Now I’m a fan. And I owe it all to the “educator” and his disciples. Thanks, guys.