August 29, 2005

Lysenko's New Endrun

Soyfer's Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, again: is Intelligent Design (ID) the new Lysenkoism? This is hardly a new idea, and while ID hasn't caused (and isn't likely to cause) the thousands -- perhaps millions -- of deaths that Lysenkoism caused, directly or indirectly, it's difficult to miss the parallels, especially the relentless populist end-run around the niceties of science as an institution, method, and tradition.

Both movements are faith-based insurgencies that believe in the primacy of revelation and authority over experience and experiment; in both cases it's really not about science, but about power, and the ability to impose your own worldview and rules on others; both are unholy alliances of the deeply-cynical and True Believers; both rely on sleights of hand with language (equivocating on loaded words like "theory", using terms like "secular science" or "bourgeois science" to demonise opponents, etc.). Both movements see themselves as a small band of righteous little people going up against the powerful elites -- never mind that both movements are (or were) fundamentally rooted in Power. And both movements maintain -- in a deeply dishonest and hypocritical way -- to be doing "real" science, even to be saving science by putting it back on its true path again with the help of Marx or a God-behind-the-curtain.

Until very recently, with the ID kerfuffle the science side seems to have been particularly naive, believing that truth will out, and missing the points that a) this isn't about science -- it's a political argument that won't be won without matching the immense PR and marketing resources available to the ID movement; and, b) even if the truth is recovered again in a decade or two, the damage done in the meantime (as with Lysenkoism) can be immense. And the trouble with ID is that, if you don't know much about evolution or science in general, ID sounds so emminently reasonable -- as does the idea of "teaching the controversy" (never mind that the controversy is entirely political, ideological, or religious, with no science component at all). Any attempt to denigrate ID without taking this into account just makes things worse -- you seem to be attacking an obviously reasonable and safe proposal.

What to do? I don't know. In my gloomiest moments I think it'd be best to hitch evolutionary science to some sort of religion just to give it the heft and fanatical support ID can get from the same crowd... (no, I'm not serious. Not yet, anyway). In any case, in the US at least, the science side has already all but lost the argument, and I'd guess that ID's going to be an increasingly-integral part of the educational landscape for the next generation or so in American schools. And as America, so often so Australia...

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