Friday, August 05, 2005

ID rhetoric - Part 3: Krugman gets it
Employment is intruding on my blogging time today, so I'm going to take the easy way out and point you at Paul Krugman's column today. Lucky for me, he's writing about how Intelligent Design Creationism propaganda is manufactured. Here is the Reader's Digest version:
Back in 1978 [Irving] Kristol urged corporations to make "philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector." That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn't like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.


Corporations followed his lead, pouring a steady stream of money into think tanks that created a sort of parallel intellectual universe, a world of "scholars" whose careers are based on toeing an ideological line, rather than on doing research that stands up to scrutiny by their peers.

You might have thought that a strategy of creating doubt about inconvenient research results could work only in soft fields like economics. But it turns out that the strategy works equally well when deployed against the hard sciences.

The most spectacular example is the campaign to discredit research on global warming. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, many people have the impression that the issue is still unresolved. This impression reflects the assiduous work of conservative think tanks, which produce and promote skeptical reports that look like peer-reviewed research, but aren't....

There are several reasons why fake research is so effective. One is that nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research and advocacy - if it's got numbers and charts in it, doesn't that make it science?

Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, "Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth." The headlines on many articles about the intelligent design controversy come pretty close.

Finally, the self-policing nature of science - scientific truth is determined by peer review, not public opinion - can be exploited by skilled purveyors of cultural resentment. Do virtually all biologists agree that Darwin was right? Well, that just shows that they're elitists who think they're smarter than the rest of us.


But what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the scientific consensus has shaky foundations?

Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not religious indoctrination: "creation science" was too crude to fool anyone. But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.

The important thing to remember is that like supply-side economics or global-warming skepticism, intelligent design doesn't have to attract significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy about the validity of evolutionary theory. That, together with the political muscle of the religious right, may be enough to start a process that ends with banishing Darwin from the classroom.

Go read the parts I left out. As always, Krugman is spot on.

As Krugman points out, the right has been using think tanks and manufactured experts to cloud political and economic issues for decades. Now right-wing religious extremists are using this technique to advance their agenda. This is a process that I've been watching with horror and dread for about ten years. I'll have more to say about this in a future installment (how many topics does this make that I’ve promised to get back to later? This is shaping up to be a very long series).

Meanwhile, here is some bonus reading. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton are the experts on how the public relations industry manufactures fake expertise for their clients. Their books Trust Us We're Experts and Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! should be on the bookshelf of every propaganda watcher. Stauber and Rampton can also be found on the internets at the Center for Media and Democracy.

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