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What Is It about Professors and Reading Comprehension?


How is it that many professors in the humanities and the sciences seem unable to read an opinion they don't like and then accurately relate the argument -- say it back to their interlocutor -- before trying to rebut it? This is a basic skill in communication that comes in handy in many areas of life, including personal relationships. You can hardly maintain a marriage without it:

Wife: Honey, you didn't take out the garbage like you promised.

Husband: So you're saying I'm a liar and you hate me and and you want a divorce! Fine, I'll see you in court.

Ben Carson's critics on the faculty at Emory University read a 2004 interview with him about evolution and distorted his meaning, accusing him of saying that believers in evolution are ethically suspect. As he replied in his Commencement speech,
Somebody thought that I said that evolutionists are not ethical people. Of course I would never say such a thing and would never believe such a thing nor would anybody with any common sense. So that's pretty ridiculous.
Of course it is. Now another professor comes along and responds to Richard Weikart's op-ed in the Baltimore Sun defending Carson on evolution and morality -- and gets the point of Weikart's article totally wrong. Professor Joe Pettit teaches philosophy and religious studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. In a letter to the editor, he writes:
Mr. Weikart...is very wrong to suggest that Dr. Carson might be justified in opposing evolution on the grounds that it threatens morality.
But no one I know of, neither Weikart nor Carson, has ever said such a silly thing: that "opposing evolution" is "justified" because "it threatens morality." Evolution is an account, whether satisfactory or not, of what happened in the history of life's development over the course of billions of years and, much more importantly, why it happened. It's a narrative and an explanation of the mechanism (natural selection operating on random genetic variation) that purportedly lies behind the narrative.

It would make no sense to deny the truth of the evolutionary story -- if it were true -- on the grounds that believing the story undercuts morality. Carson in that 2004 interview said two separate things: (a) that he finds the evidence for Darwinian theory unpersuasive. And (b), independently, that if true, Darwinism would undercut any coherent account of moral principles and why they are objectively true.

If the second point (b) is accepted, it provides an additional reason for taking a careful and critical look at the scientific evidence on offer that is the object of interest in (a). But no more than that. No thoughtful person would say that because (b), therefore (a). An account of events in history might very well be true despite the corrosive effect that comprehending and accepting that history has on moral principles.

The Holocaust happened, an objective historical reality, notwithstanding the troubling questions that raises both about men and about God. The fact that the Holocaust has made some people wonder about God's omnipotence, goodness or existence is not an argument against accepting that the event happened. What kind of fool would say otherwise? No one I've ever heard of. Even Holocaust deniers aren't that stupid.

Joe Pettit continues:

Mr. Weikart never gives us a single reason to think that evolution is wrong, but his support of Dr. Carson's opposition to evolution will leave the impression with many that there are good reasons to think evolution is indeed wrong. There are no such reasons.
Of course Weikart didn't address the scientific evidence for evolution at all because that's not what he was writing about. The subject of his op-ed was the impact of the idea of Darwinian evolution on our ability to offer a convincing defense of morality. And that's all.

Can Professor Pettit not read?

Photo credit: De Vleermuis/Flickr.