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Why I Feel Sorry for Callan Bentley's Students

Never let it be said that Darwin defenders invariably shy from a debate with advocates of the theory of intelligent design. Why just the other day geologist Callan Bentley went head-to-head with ID movement leader Stephen Meyer ("The Discovery Institute feels sorry for my students").

Oh wait, sorry, my mistake. Actually he went mano-a-mano with Stephen Meyer's executive assistant, Andrew McDiarmid, and triumphantly published the results on his blog (sponsored by the American Geophysical Union). This won him hurrahs and congratulations from leading lights in the Darwin Internet brigade. PZ Myers, for one, snickered at the "nice smackdown" by Bentley. The next day Bentley was bragging about how he received "a lot of attention, including tweet love from @NCSE and @BadAstronomer, and a blog post at Pharyngula."

Here's the background, which I bring up at all only because it tells you something about the caliber of people we often have to deal with in the Darwin debate.

On Dr. Meyer's behalf, our friend and colleague Andrew had sent Bentley a gracious request for permission to include, in an upcoming publication, a photo that Bentley had taken. Bentley replied with a snippy and self-righteous refusal:

I hold the Discovery Institute in the lowest regard, and it sounds like the new book will be a further perversion of reason in the name of pseudoscience. As a science educator, I could never support such an effort! I will not grant reproduction rights to any of my photos or drawings to any creationist effort such as the one you describe here.

Best wishes for your good health, and the speedy demise of the sham institution that employs you.

He then proceeded to exchange emails with Andrew and, without permission, finally published the interchange on his blog. Bentley mocks and argues with Andrew's emailed responses almost line-by-line.

Notice that Andrew properly contacted Bentley in the first place to seek permission to use Bentley's work for publication. Fully within his rights, Bentley said no. But he then published Andrew's own work, private emails, without seeking or receiving permission on the American Geophysical Union website. Not too classy.

Andrew is a wonderful and intelligent young man who, besides working for Dr. Meyer, is a media relations contact for Discovery Institute. He wrote nothing he wouldn't say in public, maintaining his dignity throughout, but that's not the point. I think it's clear that Bentley, even as he haughtily wished for "the speedy demise of the sham institution that employs you" -- in other words, calling for Andrew to be put out of a job -- committed a breach of ethics and certainly of decency.

Their exchange was on the themes of materialism and academic freedom. They didn't go deeply into either, but it's evident that Andrew got under Bentley's skin. The other guy simply wouldn't leave well enough alone. If I were a professor -- in Callan Bentley's case an assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College -- you'd think I would have papers to grade or lessons to prepare. Teachers at his level always complain about the workload. He also mentions caring for a baby while this was going on!

What set him off was this, from Andrew:

I'm sorry to learn that you do not support true freedom of scientific inquiry. As Charles Darwin himself stated, "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."

I only hope the materialist, reductionist scales fall off your eyes one day. Until then, I feel sorry for your students.

I only disagree with Andrew on that last point. I too feel bad for Bentley's students but not for the same reason. You could take a very good course in geology or any evolution-related scientific field from someone who's a strict materialist, so long as you remain aware of your professor's presuppositions.

What's so silly about Callan Bentley isn't his philosophical blinders but that he tries to argue against ID without knowing what Darwin skeptics and intelligent-design advocates say. In his blog post, he cribs a bit from Wikipedia and the National Center for Science Education but otherwise has zero idea even of what we cover here on ENV, much less, for instance, what Steve Meyer says in Signature in the Cell, Michael Behe in The Edge of Evolution, Gauger, Axe and Luskin in Science and Human Origins, Berlinski in The Deniable Darwin, Nagel in Mind & Cosmos, and on and on.

In their email conversation, Andrew engaged Bentley on the question of peer-review, which led Bentley to a list of recent pro-ID peer-reviewed publications. (Of course the volume of literature critical of orthodox neo-Darwinian evolution theory, from scientists who are no friends of ID, would be much greater.) On his blog, Bentley dismisses those as if he had considered them with all due care. Yet the only thing he seems to know about ID is the bacterial flagellum, which he thinks he's answered, as I said, by pinching a comeback from Wikipedia.

He writes about how he would be open to evidence of design in nature but then offers three ridiculous possible "proofs" including "'Hey there; it's me, the Invisible Space Teapot. I made this.' written in nucelotide base pairs of ever [sic] nucleic acid ever examined."

Count the number of stupid, stupid misunderstandings of ID in this paragraph alone:

The Discovery Institute is the creationist think tank in Seattle that serves as the principle promulgator of Intelligent Design creationism: the idea that certain aspects of living organisms are so complex that they cannot be explained by evolution, and must therefore imply being created whole-cloth by God a Creator an Intelligent Designer of Unspecified Provenance. It's a funny idea: to cling to the idea of a Creator, they imply that he did a job that was (a) almost completely indistinguishable from an evolved system but (b) just sloppy enough that we can find his fingerprints hidden in life's unexamined details.
For starters, Callan doesn't understand the difference between creationism and intelligent design. That's typical, as our readers will be well aware. Here, by the way, is a brief video of an actual creationist who explains the difference.

In fact, these guys always run from a fair and well-informed fight on the merits of ID. They'll dissect misappropriated emails from Stephen Meyer's assistant, but let them devote similar care to explaining what's wrong with the evidence and arguments in Signature in the Cell? No, not that.

I feel sorry for Professor Callan's students because they're under instruction from a gentleman like this who's not only challenged in his grasp of ethics as a writer, but who feels that he's done his homework when he has glanced at an article from Wikipedia -- someone who, in trying to critique a position he thinks is false, is satisfied with going off not even half-cocked, knowing so pathetically little about it.

Would he accept this kind of shoddy writing and thinking from his students? Would his employers at Northern Virginia Community College accept it from him if they knew he did?