25 July 2011

Conversing with Casey Luskin

Last month I wandered over to Evolution News and Views (ENV), a Discovery Institute (DI) blog, and read a piece by Casey Luskin on the topic of human/chimp common ancestry. I saw some stuff I didn't like, and left a comment, and an interesting exchange ensued. You can read it yourself, but here are some of my comments.

1. I think I was able to communicate the nature of my disagreement with Casey, namely that I object to misleading portrayals of science but not to efforts to emphasize design perspectives and theories. I've said all that before, but I really want to emphasize it in future discussions with design theorists. Unlike many critics of ID, I don't think that design concepts are ridiculous and I don't believe that wondering about design is the same as advancing "creationism." But I also have serious criticisms of some of what is said and written by DI thinkers.

2. Casey identified mistakes on my part (in some of my characterizations of his writing and his positions), corrected one error of his (and I applaud that action), and acknowledged the explanatory power of common descent. Those were all constructive aspects of our conversation.

3. We both said we'd like to have lunch sometime. I think it will happen; I'm not sure where or when.

4. Casey wrote something really important that summarizes what I hope will become the central theme of all future discussions between the thinkers of the DI and me:

Everyone makes errors sometimes. Isn’t it better to ‘judge not’ and simply rebut the arguments of one’s opponent rather than making constant accusations of general incompetence? Let’s take a more civil approach where we just critique one another’s arguments and not constantly allege intellectual or moral failings of our opponents.
I wholeheartedly agree, and in fact I'll go a little further and make it a commitment. Let me close with one caveat and then point to another example of how the conversation should go.

The caveat is this, and I know it sounds trite: it will be difficult at times to avoid the appearance of alleging intellectual or moral failure. For example, when/if I suggest that a DI commentator has significantly misunderstood a scientific concept or a report in the literature, it may seem that I am accusing that person of an "intellectual failing." (And the same applies to my critics when/if they suggest that I don't understand something.) If/when I do seem to make that accusation, I will apologize. But I think we will all have to tolerate that kind of criticism, then rebut it (or correct our own errors) without objecting to imputations of intellectual incompetence. Specifically, alleging that someone is badly mistaken, or even suggesting that they have failed to adequately study an issue on which they are writing/speaking, is not the same as accusing that person of stupidity or indecency. After all, as Casey rightly notes, we all make errors sometimes.

I hope that was clear. I will seek to err on the generous side, and will be quick to apologize and move on. I'm sure there will be problems, but I'm also sure that Casey Luskin really does want to have a productive conversation, and it sure does seem that we can disagree politely and honorably.

Finally, I will credit Reed Cartwright – an evolutionary biologist and fellow blogger at Panda's Thumb – with opening another productive and respectful exchange with Casey Luskin, also at ENV. The topic was statistics and modeling, and while I think Reed was right and Casey was mistaken, I also think that the discussion focused on rebuttal without ad hominem.

Let's shoot for that. It won't be easy, and there will be mistakes. But the goal is a worthy one.

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