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The Super-Expansive Category: A Favorite Deceptive Tactic with the Darwin Lobby

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, unlike some of the other braying or reptilian professional Darwin defenders, stands out for her pleasing manner. She spoke recently at Kentucky's Transylvania University and began her speech, in that sweet, mild way she has, by trying to cement in her audience's mind the equation of intelligent design and creationism.

"So it is a form of special creationism," she said about ID, "even though members of the Discovery Institute break out in hives when I call them creationists. But nonetheless that really is what their beliefs hold."

She explained:

What intelligent design is -- the intelligent-design form of creationism -- it is a form of special creationism. They're saying that things that are very, very complicated or things that are very, very improbable, like the classic example of the motor rotor of the bacterial flagellum, these things couldn't possibly have evolved through natural causes. So therefore an intelligence must be involved. Now that's just a very fancy way of saying God specially created something like the bacterial flagellum motor.
What a ridiculous cartoon that is of ID arguments. This is not what intelligent-design advocates say at all. If you read ENV you'll know what they do say. But never mind that. I'm more focused on this deceptive rhetorical tactic, a favorite of the Darwin lobby: the Super-Expansive Category.

The Super-Expansive Category works like this. Between two very different entities, A and B, you point to a minor similarity and use it to boost a trivial comparison into an emphatic, unequivocal equation. First, A becomes a subset of super-category B. Then with an additional tweak, they assume a perfect identity: A = B.

Both intelligent design and creationism take issue with the Darwinian paradigm that portrays evolution as unguided and reflecting no intelligent purpose or intention. Beyond that, the two ideas have very little in common. That doesn't stop Eugenie Scott from forcing them, over and over again, into the same basket.

On intellectual and moral grounds, it's a good habit to call different things by different names. However the Super-Expansive Category isn't always worthy of out-and-out condemnation. Some chiropractors and naturopaths, for example, probably engage in a bit of it when they style themselves as "doctor," adopting the honorific that most properly goes with being an MD.

In being liberal with titles, there's no harm done. When I was an editor at National Review we reserved the title "Dr." for only two non-MDs in the entire history of scholarship: Samuel Johnson and Henry Kissinger. But the holder of a PhD in English isn't going to show up at the local hospital and, on that basis of her doctoral dissertation on the Romantic poets, try to perform surgery.

The Super-Expansive Category is also popular with people who want to make a rhetorical point, for the sake of provocation rather than to fool anyone. That's what Jonah Goldberg was up to with his book Liberal Fascism. Despite the incendiary title, which he argued for cleverly, I think his purpose was to spark entertaining outrage from the media, have some fun and sell some books, while uncovering a bunch of fascinating forgotten history. I doubt he seriously intended to convince anyone that liberalism is a strain of fascism.

This is, again, basically innocent stuff. It is very different from Eugenie Scott and the NCSE's dogged mission to convince the public that intelligent design and creationism really and truly are interchangeable expressions of the very same theological project, recasting the book of Genesis in pseudoscientific terms. The only conceivable purposes served by this insistence are dishonorable: seeking to discredit a genuine scientific challenge to Darwinian theory, intimidating scientists and non-scientists alike, and fooling the public, while dodging serious challenges.

That's more than a provocation. It's a lie and an invitation to otherwise thoughtful people to lazily shrug off the obligation to think about a profound question.

To keep peddling this untruth would require a conscious dishonesty -- or, more charitably, a willed ignorance on the part of Dr. Scott and the NCSE, a self-protective determination to remain unacquainted with what intelligent-design advocates argue and the evidence they offer.

For a sense of how unfamiliar Eugenie Scott probably is with the thinking among Darwin doubters, see how she addresses the question posed in the title of her presentation: "What Would Darwin Say to Today's Creationists?" Dr. Scott said that the very first thing Charles Darwin would say to his modern-day critics would have nothing to do with the science behind his theory or behind ID.

Instead, he would address a pious urban myth that you occasionally hear, to the effect that Darwin experienced a deathbed conversion to Christianity. According to this silly story, he simultaneously renounced his own theory.

Dr. Scott got a chuckle out of her audience by pantomiming Darwin's frustration: "Well, the first thing he would say is 'What deathbed confession?'"

Eugenie Scott, leading Darwin lobbyist, sounds like a nice lady. It's too bad she persists in seeking to make her case by confusing people. What is she doing in a disreputable and dishonest business like that?