Wednesday, February 18, 2009

invitation declined

more fun stuff via p.z. myers @ pharyngula:

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.

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. wherever one comes down in the darwin debate, i think we can all agree that it is healthy for students to be exposed to different views — in precisely the spirit of inviting controversial speakers to campus, as you write in your op-ed.

i'm hoping that you would be willing to give a critique of ID at such an event, and participate in the debate in whatever role you feel comfortable with.

a good scientific backdrop to the discussion might be dr. meyer's book that comes out in june from harpercollins, "signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for intelligent design."

on the other hand, dr. belinski may be a good choice since he is a critic of both ID and darwinian theory.

would it be possible for us to talk more about this by phone sometime soon?

with best wishes,
david klinghoffer
discovery institute


dear dr. klinghoffer:

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. your invitation is quite surprising, given the sneering coverage of my recent newspaper editorial that you yourself posted on the discovery institute's website:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/02/

however, this kind of two-faced dishonesty is what the scientific community has come to expect from the creationists.

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.

instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as science, nature, or the proceedings of the national academy of sciences? if you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. that would be nobel prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

"conspiracy" is the predictable response by ben stein and the frustrated creationists. but conspiracy theories are a joke, because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and on new empirical studies that overturn previously established principles. creationism doesn't live up to these standards, so its proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books, blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don't maintain scientific standards.

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? practicing scientists receive frequent invitations to speak in science departments around the world, often on controversial and novel topics. if creationists actually published some legitimate science, they would receive such invitations as well.

so, i hope you understand why i am declining your offer. i will wait patiently to read about the work of creationists in the pages of nature and science. but until it appears there, it isn't science and doesn't merit an invitation.

in closing, i do want to thank you sincerely for this invitation and for your posting on the discovery institute website. as an evolutionary biologist, i can't tell you what a badge of honor this is. my colleagues will be envious.

sincerely yours,

nick gotelli

p.s. i hope you will forgive me if i do not respond to any further e-mails from you or from the discovery institute. this has been entertaining, but it interferes with my research and teaching.


Kick the baby

update: klinghoffer responds:

what is hypocrisy, after all?

i've been corresponding with nicolas gotelli, a university of vermont biologist. when i received his response to my initial email, i thought it was so ridiculous and hypocritical that i said to myself, wouldn't it be amusing to publish this on ENV? then i reflected disappointedly, no, it's a private correspondence, that would be unethical! i can't do it without his permission and, since he'd have to be pretty thoughtless to allow someone to reprint his hysterically bristling letter, it's not worth asking.

luckily, professor gotelli has solved my problem for me. he promptly and without seeking permission sent our emails off to pz myers, who immediately published them on pharyngula. you can read the correspondence there. thank you, gentlemen.

gotelli is the fellow who wrote an op-ed in the burlington free press expressing the view that it was only proper that uvm should cancel ben stein as graduation speaker because the popular entertainer is also a "notorious advocate of intelligent design" who maintains that darwinian ideas had deadly consequences in the form of nazi racist ideology (only too true). gotelli asserted it was appropriate to invite "controversial" speakers to campus, since "one of the best ways to refute intellectually bankrupt ideas is to expose them to the light of day." but a commencement speaker is someone special, gotelli went on, someone chosen for his peer-reviewed scholarship.

someone, it turns out, like the widely published scholar howard dean, to whom UVM turned next and who will deliver the commencement address. what, as one online reader of gotelli's op-ed plaintively asked, "was daffy duck unavailable?"

prompted by a friend in vermont who wanted to see stein speak at UVM, i wrote to gotelli on the assumption that just possibly he was sincere in his protestations about being for free speech. perhaps he would agree to advise me on finding a forum for a debate about darwinism on the UVM campus, on some occasion other than commencement. i suggested that rather than ben stein, it might be illuminating to put up a scientific darwin critic like stephen meyer or david berlinski against a darwinian advocate like, oh, nick gotelli.

it was a pipe dream of mine. these guys always run from debates as fast as they can manage, hiding and shivering behind the excuse of not wanting to grant public recognition to doubts about darwin — doubts shared, of course, by most americans. sure enough, gotelli wrote back, all in a huff. first, he was offended by a post on ENV that mildly guffawed at his op-ed and the choice of dean as commencement speaker — thinking i had written the post, which actually i didn't. gotelli had misunderstood the author identification. he called the post "sneering" — which it hardly was — and decried my "two-faced dishonesty" in now writing to him in a courteous tone.

i always try to write to and about people in a courteous tone. not so, gotelli — or pz myers, or most anyone i can think of in the online darwinist community, where venom and vulgarity are the norm. which is interesting in itself. i guess ideas have consequences after all.

after throwing around the scare word "creationism" a number of times and mixing it up with other insults and untruths, gotelli closes by, first, withdrawing his earlier suggestion that stein (or anyone associated with ID) would make an appropriate "controversial" campus speaker, and then childishly warning that if i should try to reply to him, he would not answer me or anyone else from the discovery institute. in other words, "nah nah nah, boo boo!" as my kids would put it.

hypocrisy may be the wrong word for gotelli's about-face on free speech. anyone who fails, out of weakness or temptation, to live up to his own openly professed ideals is a hypocrite. that would include most human beings. the normal feeling that goes with this is embarrassment. a hypocrite wouldn't seek to publicize his hypocrisy.

maybe, then, the right designation for someone like gotelli is a cynic. that's someone who treats ideas as chess pieces. when it suits your purposes, you advance an idea — like "free speech." when it doesn't suit your purpose, the same idea becomes expendable, a useless pawn.

but no, that's not quite it either. a cynic is typically smart enough to try to keep his cynicism a secret. that's part of his game strategy. a cynic wouldn't forward his correspondence to a buddy with a popular website, so that everyone could see how little trouble he takes to consider the words he writes.

the person who would do that isn't a hypocrite or a cynic. he's a fool.

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