Saturday, September 13, 2014

Randy Olson's Creationist Shill

I was tired of being told that my structuralism reduced to "creationism" by those who have no understanding of either.
  -- Richard Sternberg 
Randy Olson, in his documentary Flock of Dodos that purports to be an objective inquiry into Intelligent Design both as a (possibly) scientific enterprise and as a social phenomenon, talks about a subject interviewed at an ID convention who claimed to be a Darwinist but later seems to have not been.

This subject seemed noteworthy, Olson seems to present, because it seemed unusual to have a non-creationist spouting a teach-the-controversy view, let alone attending an ID conference as something other than a heckler or guerrilla documentarian.   Olson's big reveal is that this Darwinist is John Angus Campbell who is (or was) a Fellow at the Discovery Institute.  Olson is vague on this point and seems to rely on the audience to assume that Campbell's warm relationship with ID is in conflict with his conception of Darwinism.

Olson elsewhere does include footage of Michael Behe saying he believes in common descent and macro-evolutionary speciation events, and Olson presents Behe as the spokesman for ID in vague terms ("some say" he is the leading expert on Intelligent Design), so it would seem that Behe embraces some form of Darwinism being more or less convinced of several important tenets.  Behe is certainly not Darwinist enough for Olson, since he not only denies the sufficiency of natural selection for certain macroevolutionary feats but he also thinks that the influence of an intelligent agent is better explanation that the other rivals of the selectionist point of view.  (Olson's film implies that Behe is the leading idea-man of what he obviously considers an anti-evolution movement.)

Yet the damning evidence of Campbell's status of "conference shill" posing as a Darwinist is that he is a Discovery Institute fellow.

The agnostic David Berlinski is also an important figure at Discovery Institute, and as far as I know, he is still a skeptical of Intelligent Design.  He is even more skeptical of neo-Darwinism and other evolutionary explanations with grand explanatory claims, and seems to find the pluralism of the ID community engaging.  I wouldn't at all be surprised that John Angus Campbell was more a selectionist and Darwinist than Berlinsky.

John Angus Campbell can be read here reporting on the Mere Creation conference of 1996 that saw Intelligent Design proto-science in its mere infancy.  In it you can read him delighting in the tension between rival points of view, admiring Michael Denton's points about primate instincts while hoping for continued challenge and dialogue.  He seems to like challenging ideas.  This is not to say that he is not a skeptic or unbeliever in the all-sufficiency of natural selection.  He might be as much a skeptic as Behe, who is also believes in several tenets of classic evolutionary theory.  But Randy Olson's treatment of him is right out of the Barbara Forrest "trojan horse" playbook.

Richard Sternberg has become an important figure at the Discovery Institute.  He seems to avoid inferring a designing agent, but as a "neo-Platonist" structuralist, he seems to embrace the idea of Nature having formal causes of its inherent order and form.  I don't see any reason to doubt his skepticism about a designing agent. I suppose that he should identify himself as Discovery Institute fellow and preface all interviews with this so that anyone watching the interview knows what he's "really about." Campbell may be more of a Darwinist than Sternberg; but then Michael Ruse talks as though Duane Gish is more selectionist than he.

So did the Discovery Institute send one of their Fellows to the conference because they couldn't find a more obscure person to be a shill Darwinist for the cameras?  Or does Campbell, as a recognizable Fellow, take it upon himself to convince documentary-makers on tape that he is the token evolutionist?  Or is he simply describing himself?   Remember now that the filmmaker Olson has been trained in some idea of "best inference" as an evolutionary ecologist.

As with almost anything on Wikipedia related to the evolution issue, the normal give-and-take of opposing opinions is absent, and John Angus Campbell's entry seems written by the "pro-science" defenders.  A question that should be asked is why the information about Campbell that appears in another Wikipedia article isn't in the entry about himself, information that shows him to be an authority on the use of "rhetoric in science" and in particular on the use of persuasive speech in Darwin's "Origin of Species."  If Olson's homework on Campbell consisted of looking at the Campbell entry in Wiki, it's no wonder he think that all anyone need know about Campbell is a Discovery Institute Fellow.  Does this make Olson a dodo? [see Update at bottom]

Having watched his film in entirety, I think many Darwin skeptics are much more open-minded than Randy Olson was at any point during the making of that film. (I'll intend to eventually have a post devoted to his interrupting his interviewee with "human designer! human designer!")

What I would like to know from Olson is exactly which tenet of the Modern Synthesis he believes Campbell to deny.  Is he implicitly claiming that one has to be a materialist to be a Darwinist?  Is he claiming that being an agnostic about certain developments of the Modern Synthesis makes one a Darwinist?  Or is he claiming that being some kind of theistic evolutionist who believes strongly in debate is antithetical to the Institute?  Or is Olson simply short on claims and long on insinuations?  Does Olson present anything more substantial than Campbell's involvement with the Institute?

This evokes an article in which Eugenie Scott levels the same criticism as Olson, as a religion-pushing shill, not believing it possible that a believer in neo-Darwinian theory would ever want the "Modern Synthesis" questioned in school.
By phone from Belfair, Campbell insists he isn't hiding anything. He says he hasn't mentioned his work on intelligent design because "it hasn't come up as an issue" and "it's not part of my motive in running."
"I am not going to touch curricula," he adds.
He also says that, despite his advocacy for bringing intelligent design into the classroom, he himself is a "Darwinist." He says he sees debating Darwin as a way of engaging students' interest and sharpening their critical thinking skills. "Rather than demonizing people that believe in ID, I think there are ways people could use their ideas to study Darwinism more closely," he explains.
[Eugenie] Scott [of the NCSE] isn't buying it, not least because she says evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin's 19th-century tracts, so that a real follower of modern science would never call himself a "Darwinist." As for Campbell's opponent, an incumbent named Glenn Landram who teaches business at Evergreen State College, he says he doesn't know enough about intelligent design or the Discovery Institute to make an issue of it.
At least Olson doesn't question Campbell's use of "Darwinist."  Maybe because he's actually aware that it is used by self-proclaimed Darwinists and used in scientific literature...

Olson's longstanding correspondence with his mother "Muffy Moose" over the creationist bogeymen is like a microcosm of the modernist-postmodernist coalition against both Christianity and social conservatism, both of which feature as bugbears in Flock.  C.P. Snow's Two Cultures have mostly called a truce as long as they have a common enemy.  Perhaps the same reason the "Science Wars" ended (or rather declared a sort of truce) is the same reason for the apparent silence of Stephen Gould in the 80s and 90s about Haeckel.

In general, the pro-science defenders of society against the threat of theocracy have trouble believing that dissenters are not creationist shills.  For example, "RationalWiki" insinuates that Bradley Monton is a shill for ID (and, since these sites inevitably conflate ID with creationism ... Yes, Monton is a 'secular creationist') since they have no evidence that he is not simply pretending to be an atheist as he claims.  Perhaps this explains why Richard Dawkins has called agnostic David Berlinsky a creationist.

Update 6/30/2015:  I called it! John Angus Campbell clarifies his positions on his website and how Wikipedia mischaracterizes him.  He is politically liberal, a subscriber to neo-Darwinism who has long advocated "teaching the controversy."  He ended his association with Discovery Institute when he started to find himself in the cross-hairs of Discovery Institute's political enemies.
When Wikipedia and The Weekly [a tabloid] mistakenly assumed I was supporting ID (and the religious right!) rather than promoting argument as a way of engaging a classic text - (and this before audiences who particularly needed to read it) the DI [Discovery Institute] affiliation had outlived its usefulness and it was time for me to move on.
Congratulations, Campbell. You too are a "secular creationist" for aiding and abetting.  You gotta know when to hold 'em...

See Campbell's rebuttal to Wikipedia:
Errors in Fact
Errors in Implication

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