One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers voices something I’ve struggled with for years:
I take issue with your use of the phrase “get pissy” to describe Nick Gotelli’s refusal to debate members of the Discovery Institute on evolution. The DI has a proven history of antipathy towards sound science. Their behavior a few years ago around the Dover, PA trial on teaching intelligent design in public school classrooms is ample evidence . . . Why reward such behavior with a debate?
Had you asked me about this a few years ago, I would have unreservedly endorsed Sullivan’s response, which emphasizes the importance of debate and free exchange. But now I’m less sure of myself. Am I really in a position to assess the merits of the Discovery Institute’s work? Or is there some benefit to deferring to the judgment and credentials of the vast majority of scientists who condemn creationism? Sullivan might be happy to publish creationists and race theorists, but I’m not sure I’m competent to assess all the rebuttals and counter-arguments.
Internet triumphalists tend to discount the value of cultural and scientific gatekeepers, and there’s some truth to their criticisms of filtering public discourse. But in a fragmented media environment, I’m genuinely disconcerted by the lack of visible authority figures. To add to the confusion, fringe individuals and institutions have become very adept at copying the aesthetics of mainstream organizations – witness the Discovery Institute’s glossy website, which lends an air of plausibility and scholarship to arguments that fall well outside the mainstream. To take a more extreme example, sophisticated Holocaust denialists are also very good at trotting out convincing facts and figures, styling themselves as legitimate historical revisionists rather than fringe cranks.
So what do I do? How do I choose sides? I don’t have the scientifc background to evaluate the Discovery Institute’s claims. I don’t have the time or resources to investigate the scope of Nazi genocide. In both cases, I defer to expert opinion, but now I’m less certain of my ability to distinguish between trustworthy figures and talented impostors. Instead of absolute deference to authority figures, I now rely on a vague sense of where the boundaries of acceptable discourse lie. So far, I’m not very happy with the results.