Are you the gatekeeper?

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.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Are you the gatekeeper?

  1. Alex

    I don’t think too many scientists condemn creationism outright so much as the results of their studies do. Better to rely on your own judgment than that of the perceived expert opinions, no matter how glossy their websites look; there’s nothing wrong with examining contrapuntal theory/ideologies until someone tries to say one is “right” and the other is “wrong”. There are more theories about the origin of life on Earth than just Darwinism and Creationism anyway ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creation_myth )

  2. Scott

    Are you the Keymaster?

  3. What do you do? Since when is it a crime to say “I don’t know”?

    Why not exercise some healthy skepticism about both sides of debates where you lack expertise? In contrast, you can focus upon your own life concerns.

    People once lived in their own community, mostly focused upon what was going on in their immediate circumstances. There’s much to be said for such a stance in life right now.

    The proliferation of “media” creates the illusion that we can control all sorts of things that we really cannot control. And the flip side is that of one’s being distracted from the arena in life where your actions really count.

    It can be really virtuous to live YOUR life fully, to act in the circle of your own true, possible influence.

    Ann’s New Friend

  4. Anne’s New Friend,

    It’s no crime to say “I don’t know,” but one should also ask: “Should I try to find out?” Perhaps the answer is “yes” less often than we might think, but if we take citizenship seriously I think we’re sometimes obliged to inform ourselves…

    -wrb

  5. William Randolph,

    I am not making an argument for “not learning”. I merely point out that life has edges. While we are busy learning all the sides of every issue, who is minding the store? How does one even know enough to decide which issues, which questions merit this scrutiny?

    I’m all in favor of a philosophical life. I merely note that we cannot all be philosophers. Somebody has to cook dinner. And those who sit at table are wise to enjoy the food.

    Sincerely,

    Ann’s new friend

  6. Pingback: The Active or the Contemplative Life? « A Heart for Any Fate

  7. Anne’s new friend,

    I don’t think the answer to “Should I try to find out?” is the same for every person! An advantage of community: we don’t all have to do everything, no one has to know everything—and we help each other decide which issues.

    -wrb

  8. I don’t think the answer to “Should I try to find out?” is the same for every person!

    wrb,

    I agree!

    Ann’s new friend

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