Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Hills are Dead with Mounds of Fossils

If the Democrats want some advice about how to defeat Bush’s Social Security phaseout, they would be well advised to spend some time over at Panda’s Thumb, a website dedicated to defending biology against the well-funded assaults of Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. The rhetorical problem is the same in either case. How do you contrive effective arguments in an open and shut case? It turns out to be remarkably disorientating to find yourself searching for yet more reasons why 5 plus 7 does indeed equal 12. Indeed, the very act of coming up with novel things to say in a debate that should have been over long ago creates the impression that there is something left to debate and impressions are all that matters in these cases.

With negligibly small exceptions, people don’t register the logic of arguments and simply follow the lead of whoever flatters them most effectively and doesn’t challenge what they heard as small children. Under the circumstances, nothing is less useful than a cogent argument. Thus the most effective weapon deployed by biologists is the old bit about how evolution is the way that God uses natural selection as his means of creation—an utterly irrelevant sentiment that doesn’t in fact bear thinking through since what occurs in evolution is nothing like a process fit to any purpose, divine or otherwise. That it takes 4.5 billion years to synthesize the likes of me is not much of a recommendation for a chemical engineer. The yield is miniscule, the quality control deplorable. None of which matters since the point of the rhetoric about secondary causes is not to make a point but to pacify the listeners or, in many cases, to pacify the scientists who wish to go on believing themselves. A pacifier doesn’t have to yield milk. The Democrats, cursed with the right side of the Social Security debate, will probably need to contrive similarly invalid appeals in order to prevail.

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