Intelligent Design as an Orange Flag
A couple of colleagues in the office have been amusing themselves reading a novel with an "intelligent design" theme, The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein. I have not read the book, reviewed here in the Seattle Times. But from what I understand Ms. Grodstein, who teaches at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, went ahead and wrote about ID without taking the time to learn much about it.
That's typical. The mention of ID seems to give many writers and commentators what they regard as a green light to blather on without taking a moment to grasp what they're writing about. Denouncing ID is one thing. Denouncing it without comprehending what the phrase refers to, which is amazingly common, is quite another.
I continue to find this amazing. What other subject, both controversial and somewhat recondite, seems to license apparently smart people to write and speak in such an uninformed way? For a while I've been trying to come up with a metaphor to help convey this strange phenomenon.
Over the weekend we were out walking with our kids, and it struck me. At a street corner regarded as hazardous for pedestrians, our Seattle-area suburban town has thoughtfully provided orange traffic flags. The flags sit in little slots on the side of the crosswalk sign. The sign on the other side has slots too and the idea is you take out the flag, walk across the street, and replace it on the opposite side for the next pedestrian going the opposite direction.
The problem is, for kids, these flags are an invitation to disaster. Our own children grab one and automatically feel licensed to dash heedlessly across the street without looking for cars. After all, they've got a safety flag in hand! What could go wrong?
From our critics' perspective, it's very similar with ID. You're talking about intelligent design! No need to spend time finding out how ID advocates actually argue about evolution. Say whatever you want about them! Attribute to them any ideas, however silly, that seem rhetorically advantageous to you.
Of course the difference is that with a crosswalk there's always a corrective to faulty thinking, namely the potential of getting run over. Something remarkable about the evolution debate is that, apart from us in the ID community, there's no one to act as a check on the dissemination of misunderstanding.