Not long ago, a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, resolved that the notion of "Intelligent Design" be taught in science classes. The school board was sued (Kitzmiller v. Dover) and the plaintiffs won the case. For reasons suggested in my post yesterday touching on this subject, that legal decision was clearly right. ID is not a scientific theory; the proper amount of time to accord to it in science classes is zero.
One of the expert witnesses for the defence in that legal case was a sociologist at Warwick University called Steve Fuller. Professor Fuller has since written a book expounding his ideas, called Science vs Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution. I concede immediately that I haven't read the book; but I did enjoy this review of it by a Rutgers mathematician and redoubtable defender of science education, Norman Levitt. (My thanks to Nick Cohen for sending it to me.) Professor Levitt comments:
"The book under review is Fuller’s subsequent effort to justify philosophically the position that failed so miserably to sway the Kitzmiller ruling in ID’s favor. It is with frank satisfaction and not a little glee that I can report that it is a truly miserable piece of work, crammed with errors scientific, historical, and even theological, a book that will find approving readers only amongst hard-core ID enthusiasts hungry for agreement but indifferent to the quality of evidence offered in support of their position. Fuller really does make it up as he goes along, laying out arguments that hardly need serious thought to refute in that they are based on howlers and solecisms that collapse under the lightest scrutiny."
The glee is indeed not disguised, and is all the better for that. But there is one issue, to do with his political analysis, on which I take issue with Levitt. He notes "Fuller’s utter failure to come to terms with the political nature of the Intelligent Design movement", i.e. Fuller is a populist of the Left who overlooks the right-wing theocratic inspiration of Intelligent Design. Levitt doubts that "any large segment of the science-studies community, nor of the larger 'academic left' will join [Fuller] in the attempt to find comrades-in-arms in such venues as the Discovery Institute or the wider Intelligent Design movement".
I'm not convinced Fuller is as much of an outlier - in political debate, at least - as is here claimed. The notion that people's deeply held beliefs are entitled to respect is common, and it's not such a great step from that misconception to the principle that those beliefs are entitled to protection. It's unusual to find a professed left-winger (if that is indeed Professor Fuller's position) applying the principle to Protestant fundamentalism, but it's inherently no odder than (to take an entirely typical example) the insistence of my sometime debating opponent Jeremy Corbyn MP, at a rally against "Islamophobia", that: "We demand that people show respect for each other's community, each other's faith and each other's religion." For reasons I've argued here, that demand is both impossible and highly undesirable. It's impossible, because respect is not an entitlement: beliefs earn respect to the extent that they can withstand criticism in the public square. It's undesirable, because if public policy concerns itself with people's feelings then there is no limit to the intrusions of the state.
Levitt also has sport with what is definitely a theological misconception by Fuller - and not one that is incidental to his wider thesis - concerning the religious inspiration of Isaac Newton. Newton is thankfully revered for other work, but his passions included Biblical numerology and alchemy (there's an interesting account here by the polymath and sceptic Martin Gardner). Well might Levitt say that in Newton's case "we have evidence of the enormous waste of scientific talent and intellectual energy that can be caused by an obsessive concern with religion".
This is worth mentioning also because a few months ago there was a rash of commentary on one facet of Newton's wasted energy. Here, under the title "Bloomberg's bigotry", is James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal criticising the Mayor of New York for lamenting the prevalence of creationist beliefs: "This columnist is among the 26% of Americans who hold a strictly naturalistic view of life's origin. Yet even we find Bloomberg's remark appalling in its arrogance and ignorance."
Taranto explained his appalled state with reference to - yes - an exhibition of Newton's papers setting out the great man's detailed calculations concerning the date of the Apocalypse. "The AP [report] notes," says Taranto, "that the Newton papers, according to the exhibition's curator, 'complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion.' No kidding. When Bloomberg endorses that idea, is he really expressing a devotion to science, or just a fashionable urban prejudice against serious Christians?"
Mayor Bloomberg had of course been doing the first, and the fact that Taranto wasn't able to distinguish the beliefs of "serious Christians" from unadulterated crank numerology underlines the point. (It's a minor observation, but note that other reports of the curator's comments are slightly different and make more intuitive sense. The Scotsman, for example, gives this account of her comments: "Such is the extent of the prophecy and interest in mysticism inherent in the Newton papers, she added, that they further complicate the idea his science was diametrically opposed to religion." The possessive pronoun in that sentence is not a trivial qualifier compared with Taranto's account, especially when you consider the case that Taranto is advancing on its absence.) In his way, Taranto is advancing a similar principle to that of the ostensibly radical Corbyn. In either case, it's wrong and illiberal.