Sunday, March 16, 2008

Honest When You’re Telling a Lie*

Over at Quintessence of Dust, my good friend Steve Matheson has posted an excellent piece on an outfit called “Reasons to Believe” and one of its spokesman, a guy named Hugh Ross. Now, for the record, I had never heard of RtB or Hugh Ross before Steve brought them to my attention some time ago now. What I like about this post of Steve’s, and about his response to a comment by someone called ‘jsbangs’ and about Steve’s entire blog is the care he takes to sort out issues, make useful and helpful distinctions and set the record straight about the biology and science often at issue in debates about faith and science.

In this particular post, Steve takes Hugh Ross to task for peddling what is fairly obviously misinformation and outright falsehoods. What I’m interested in, however, is something Steve and I have often discussed with respect to RtB; namely, when HR makes statements like this

The assumption that the non-protein-coding part of the genome served no purpose caused researchers to abandon study of its features for nearly three decades. Then a team of physicists made an observation that revived interest. They noticed that the quantity of "junk" in a species' genome was proportional to that species' degree of advancement.

is he lying? What he says is false. But Steve recognizes the difference between saying something false and lying. And he thinks HR is lying. But is he? I have my doubts.

When someone lies they intentionally communicate a falsehood with the intention to deceive their listener. Communicating a falsehood and intending to deceive one’s listener though necessary for lying are not sufficient. If they were sufficient for lying, then actors qua actors would be lying every time they take the stage or go before the camera. So too all who play poker and have ever bluffed and all those who have ever played basketball and pump faked their defender and then driven to the basket. So, you’re not lying unless you communicate a falsehood with the intent to deceive, but communicating falsehood and intending to deceive are not enough to make what you communicate a lie.

I’m interested in this HR character and his outfit RtB which, as best I can tell, are guilty of perpetuating falsehoods in their apologetic endeavor to defend the rational integrity of theism. There’s no doubt they are purveyors of falsehoods. But is HR, in Steve’s words, guilty of an “outrageous lie”? Is he guilty of “outright fabrication”? Fabrication maybe. Lying? I'm not so sure.

Lying is morally blameworthy. HR is culpable too it seems. But not for lying. He is to be blamed for carelessness in research, misunderstanding, misattributing, misstating and misrepresenting facts, not to mention for making stuff up. But I don’t think Ross is lying. I think he’d need to be first of all a biologist and second of all a competent biologist. A quick glance at his website reveals that he is neither. His BA is in physics and his MA and Ph.D. are both in Astronomy. So what's going on in the case of HR and RtB?

Here’s what I think is going on. I think the apologetic agenda of RtB partly accounts for what HR “finds” in his research. And when something he regards as especially advantageous to furthering the cause of RtB is “found” (like the non-coding DNA elements Steve mentions in his post) HR’s enthusiasm gets the better of him and leads him to say such wildly implausible things as that a “veritable frenzy of research” (which is false) followed on the heels of a discovery by a “team of physicists” (false and false—that the team was a team of physicists is false and that there was the putative discovery is false). But those claims, though false, do not amount to lies I think. They amount to something for which HR and RtB are morally blameworthy (such as those things I mention in the paragraph above), but not lying.

What do you think?
*I take this title from the lyrics of Wilco's Misunderstood, a great song off a great album (Being There).


J said...

My take is that in most cases they are not lying, as in purposefully communicating falsehood.

I suspect there is a mind-set that doesn't bother to explain to their audience about all the "complicating" stuff that ruins the nice, neat picture they promote. I imagine that they believe they are correct, even if the details make it a "close call" or something like that. So, they just report the vastly simplified version that doesn't bother with all the details that they think just get in the way.

The other actor in their thoughts is out and out blindness. Everyone has it to some extent - having preconceived notions that slant research and understanding of facts. If the belief is strong enough, it has been exemplified throughout the ages that bothersome facts are just ignored or explained away, no matter how far-fetched the explanation. The pre-existing belief is strong enough that a person really doesn't mentally acknowledge contrary facts. When speaking and writing, this skewed view is what is presented in all sincerity.

That's my take on it. There may very well be some purposeful lies and omissions in there, but I think that's a much rarer factor than blindness and rationalized selective statements.

Ian said...

While I don't really see the difference between bluffing and lying except that in one case the deception is part of the game, I think you are giving Ross too much of the benefit of the doubt. If this were Ross' first foray into creationism, it might be reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Ross has been at it for decades, and his errors have been pointed out to him repeatedly.

It's one thing to attribute falsehoods to exuberance. But after he's been set straight a few hundred times, after he's been called on your falsehoods over and over... If it weren't his intention to deceive, don't you think he would have (a) stopped repeating old falsehoods, and (b) gotten a little more careful when it comes to fact-checking?

At some point in the last few decades of communicating falsehoods, of promoting falsehoods, and of putting together a ministry designed to further these falsehoods, I think Ross would have crossed that threshold where he would become culpable for his actions.

Maybe it's all part of the game to him. If that's the case, shouldn't he let on that creationism is merely a game? After the game is done, poker players don't go around saying "people don't bluff in poker, we're all telling the truth".

Kevin Corcoran said...


Something like that. And yet it must pointed out that not all blindness is created equal. Some is culpable. From the little I know of this outfit, however, I'm not sure it's what you're calling blindness that's at issue. It seems to me to be more a kind of negligence, carelessness or maybe even a simple and willful commitment to report selective facts in such a way as to further an agenda that explains remarks such as those Steve point to.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I think we agree that Ross is culpable. I said as much in the post. And it's obvious that you are actually familiar w/the man and his ministry whereas I am not (or I am but only insofar as Steve has brought him to my attention).

One thing I wonder (and you may actually know the answer to this) is whether or not Ross has had these mis-es (i.e., mis-representations,mis-attributions,
mis-understandings and mis-statements) called to his attention in a sustained, face-to-face sort of way and not just in print. My hunch is that Ross is not a member of the guild and so his likely interlocutors are all "true believers" like himself and not credentialed practitioners of science. If my hunch actually gloms onto reality, then a) even his reading of literature produced by members of the guild would likely only be done with the intent of using it (or selected bits of it) to further the religious cause and not really to engage it, and b) there would also be an important sense in which he hasn't been told or hasn't been told in such a way as to have any real hope of being effective at curing him. If (a) is the case, then he is guilty of lots of other things than just those I mentioned in the post. And if (b) is true, then I guess I wouldn't expect him to stop repeating the old falsehoods or to take more care in his fact-checking. The fact that I would not expect these things does not, of course, exonerate him from the guilt or responsibility that belongs to him because of these failures.

Keith DeRose said...

In a case like this, doesn't the issue of whether the guy is lying boil down to the issue of whether he is intentionally trying to deceive? Though you're right that poker bluffers and b-ball pump fakers (though not actors, I think, since they don't typically intend to deceive) show that communicating a falsehood and intending to deceive one’s listener though necessary for lying are not sufficient, it seems such characters get off the hook for lying by some exception clause that won't apply to the case at hand.

I can't really speak to this case, but I'd just like to toss the possibility that in this type of case -- where people have a strong (esp. religious) interest in the results coming out a certain way & their experience starts to buck against what they need to be the case -- there can be little to no real difference between intentionally deceiving & asserting falsehoods that you yourself believe. In many such cases of self-deception / motivated irrationality, whether the deceiver himself believes the lie/falsheood can be a very vexed question, with no clear answer (maybe even for omniscient God). Or so it often seems to me.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Help me out here. Are you saying that it's not clear that HR is lying or not lying? You say that in this type of case "there can be little to no real difference between intentionally deceiving & asserting falsehoods that you yourself believe." Is there no difference at all? Is there no moral difference?

One more question, you also say that in cases like this

whether the deceiver himself believes the lie/falsheood can be a very vexed question, with no clear answer (maybe even for omniscient God).

But isn't the question whether the 'deceiver' believes the falsehood himself relevant to the issue of whether he's lying? Maybe I'm not quite getting what you're saying is the vexed question. My sense is that this guy does in fact believe the falsehood. My sense is that the phenomenology of his attitude w/respect to the relevant 'facts' is more like the phenomenology of my attitude w/respect to there being an external world than it is to the phenomenology of my attitude toward the claim that (say) universalism is true. I'm thinking his antecedent commitments draw him, compel him, move him w/little volitional control to embrace the falsehoods. (Just like my attitude toward the proposition that there's an external world is outside of my volitional control. I don't choose to believe that there's an external world as the result of evidence or argument; I can't help but believe it.)

But maybe I'm missing what the vexed question is. At the very least I'm missing why it shouldn't be relevant to whether the guy's lying. Where am I going astray here?

Keith DeRose said...

Whether the asserter of the falsehood himself believes the falsehood is what the issue of whether he's lying turns on. I was suggesting that it's often unclear whether he does believe it, and it is therefore also unclear whether he's lying.

My suspicion is that these matters are often "unclear," not only in the sense that it's hard for us to tell whether they obtain, but also in the sense that there may be no fact of the matter. In cases, especially involving religious beliefs, where people have extremely strong practical motivations to believe one way (e.g., through proto-Pacalian reasoning, loyalty to deeply rooted convictions, etc.), but in which their evidence isn't pointing in the direction they so desperately want, I think they often end up in a state in which it's unclear whether they believe. If we asked omniscient God whether such a one believed the item in question, and God were to answer, the answer would be something along the lines of: "Well, your concept of a belief is quite a mess, and what's going on in this guy's head is even more of a mess. The way these two messes compare, it would be wrong to answer your question either with a simple 'yes' or a simple 'no'." (Though, of course, being God, he'd express it a lot better than me!)

Kevin Corcoran said...


Okay, I get it that the issue of lying turns on whether or not the guy believes the falsehoods. Steve thinks the guy is lying (and so believes). My original suspicion was that he's not lying (that he believes but isn't intending to deceive). You're suggesting that it might be the case that neither of us is correct. (Steve's not correct b/c it's not clear the guy believes the falsehoods. I'm not correct for the same reason.) Do you think there is anything in the neighborhood for which the guy is morally blameworthy, even if he's not blameworthy for lying? Steve is holding the guy morally responsible for pedaling lies. And I'm inclined to believe he is morally culpable for something too, just not lying. Do you think he's morally culpable for anything in the relevant scenario?


drsyme said...

This internecine war among believers is sad and embarassing. There are three fronts at war here, the young earth creationists, the theistic evolutionists, and the progressive creationists. Ross falls into the latter camp. He, at least, does not promote a young earth, and for the most part uses scientific evidence accurately. And I think that Steve is too harsh on him. I am certain that Ross is not lying. He is trying to keep feet in both the TE and the YEC camp, so I suppose is guilty of unecessary compromise. But the name calling between the groups could not be less Christlike. Everyone forgets that the enemy is not other believers, but the atheists like Dawkins etal, who love nothing more than to see us fight amongst ourselves.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I'll let Steve and Ian jump in here if they care to. My suspicion is that they will disagree w/you about a couple of things, such as that HR uses scientific evidence "for the most part accurately," and that the real enemy is not believers (like HR), but atheistic naturalists (like Dawkins). I suspect they'll think that HR and RtB are enemies, if not of theism then enemies of something else, something important.

That's my suspicion anyway, but I'll let Steve and Ian fill in the blanks.

Jack said...

Drsyme? That was too formal! I dont know why it came out that way on my previous post, you know I have trouble with this thing.

Ross is clearly out of his element when he is talking about Biology. That is why he hired Fuz Rana.

I think it is clearl where Steve disagrees with Ross, and that is Ross' denial of common descent. Ross believes that each creature is a new creation. And the evidence from "junk DNA" is some of the strongest evidence supporting common descent, so I can see where Steve is concerned about Ross discrediting this evidence.

Nevertheless, calling Ross a liar is in my opinion counter productive. The YEC call scientists liars too, and the TE's call both the YEC and the PC's liars, and I find it all very counter productive.

Even though YEC and fundamentalist bashing of evolutionary ideas are also an embarassment and could challenge the faith of the scientifically literate, they at least believe in Christ and the Gospel, and that in the end is far more important than views on creation/evolution. Dawkins et al are much more dangerous, imo.

SFMatheson said...

I will address Kevin's criticism in a post on my blog. Here's the short version. If you read all of my relevant writing, including my posts on the topic of lying and folk science, you'll discover that I am reluctant to refer to folk science as lying. And I have never referred to Ross or Rana as liars, nor have I said that they deliberately lie. Instead, I refer to statements as lies or, more typically, as fabrications or just as falsehoods. I have deliberately chosen words like 'misconduct' to characterize their behavior.

This distinction of mine, between repeating lies and lying, between referring to one's statements as lies and referring to one as a liar, is significant, at least to me. I believe Ross to be irresponsible and untrustworthy, but I do not believe him to be a malicious liar.

Kevin did not see that distinction, and his post assumes that I did not make a distinction. I will try to clarify this in my post. There I will make it clear that I don't suspect Ross of being a malicious liar. I said exactly that about Rana in an earlier post on the concept of folk science, and I'm quite sick of repeatedly explaining this.

It may be that my distinction is meaningless, and that my use of the term "outrageous lie" can only be interpreted as an accusation of lying, which can only mean that the speaker/writer is a liar. All I can do in that case is make it clear – again – that I do not infer that progression.

Keith DeRose said...

Do you think he's morally culpable for anything in the relevant scenario?

One can be morally culpable even if one determinately believes what one asserts -- if, for example, one is irresponsible in holding the belief in question. Lying may be worse, but propagating falsehoods that one irresponsibly believes can be plenty bad.

SFMatheson said...

Jack is distressed by "namecalling," perhaps because of the way in which Kevin's post did not accurately reflect my position. I hope that when I clarify the distinctions I make (and intend), Jack will feel differently about that characterization of my critiques of RTB. In any case, Jack's accusation, that my critical rebuke of Ross et al. is akin to "namecalling" that "could not be less Christlike" is not worthy of serious consideration, at least because the actual accounts of Jesus' ministry indicate that such moralizing ignores some of the most notable events of his life.

I've stressed this enough that I have every reason to be angry at the continued misconstrual of my intentions: my posts are about integrity, they're not about disagreement. Read what I've written about the young-earth creationist biologists of the BSG. I count some of these folks among my friends and colleagues, and we are actively building a working relationship based on our shared faith and our shared commitment to scientific integrity. It would be difficult to exaggerate our disagreement, and yet I have singled these people out as exemplars of integrity.

On the other hand, at least superficially, my disagreement with RTB is far less dramatic. (Note that Jack and other RTB defenders insist on emphasizing RTB's acknowledgment of the great age of the cosmos and of cosmic evolution, areas in which we obviously agree.) But I have singled out RTB "scholars" as exemplars of obfuscatory misconduct. My criticism of fellow Christian scientists is unrelated to their degree of agreement with my positions on the age of the earth or of the explanatory value of common ancestry. In my view, Jack's picture of "internecine war" is a typical evangelical complaint which misses every point I've been trying to make.

Finally, as Kevin predicted, I don't see Dawkins as a significant threat to Christianity, and I've explained why on my blog. I couldn't disagree more strongly with the claim that Dawkins draws his strength from conflict among Christians. On the contrary, Phillip Johnson is the wind beneath his wings, as is any Christian who sets up Christian belief as a gladiatorial contestant in a war with science. I see the debunking of folk science, and the public correction of Christian dishonesty about science, as a disarming of Dawkins and other enemies of the faith whose only weapon is scientific explanation. I will honor Jack's disagreement (while hoping that he'll change his mind), but I won't heed attempts to devalue criticism of the misconduct of creationists.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Right. That was the essential point of the post--HR is not lying but he's morally culpable for the sorts of things I suggested.

Steve: I see the distinction you draw. I guess I would think that lying is true or not of people. People lie, not statements, claims or assertions. Likewise it is the latter, I would say, that can be true or false, not the people stating, claiming or asserting. So, I guess I think your use of the term is a bit idiosyncratic in that I believe that most would think that it is people who lie.

I realze that upon being told something someone might say "that's a lie;" but I take it that what they mean is "you're lying, that's not true" where the "that" is what was asserted.

Anyway, I think it would be more helpful or more product or at least less likely to elicit the sort of response I have had to stick w/"untrustworthy" and "irresponsible" to describe HR.

For what it's worth.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I was composing my response to you and Keith when your last comment posted. So, here's my response to your most recent comment.

A couple of points. First, I think my failure to see the distinction you were working with was justified by my assuming (quite correctly I would think) that it is people and not the things they say that lie. Maybe if I had read the previous post to which you refer I would have responded similarly then and avoided doing so on this occasion.

Second, while I agree that you are right to hold HR morally responsible (not to do so would be not to take him seriously as a human being, I would think) for his misconduct, and for precisely the reasons you cite, I don't think it's helpful to say that what Jack said is "not worthy of serious consideration." Jack's desire that Christians not make asses out of themselves by in-fighting, thereby casting an unfavorable shadow upon the faith, is a sentiment worthy of serious consideration, I think. Just as it is lamentable, for example, that Catholics and protestants can't celebrate the eucharist together so it is lamentable that Christian scientists like yourself and Christian apologists like HR (have to) go at each other. And I think you would agree w/ that. Jack may not agree with you (and me) about the need for public correction of HR, but what is behind Jack's concern is worthy of serious consideration. Don't you think?

SFMatheson said...


With regard to my "idiosyncratic" use of the word 'lie', watch for my response on my blog, where I'll repent of the use of that word while explaining why I will continue to characterize RTB as untrustworthy.

You wrote: "Jack may not agree with you (and me) about the need for public correction of HR, but what is behind Jack's concern is worthy of serious consideration. Don't you think?"

I know the politic answer is "yes," but I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. Jack's intentions, like Hugh Ross', are surely good, and the call for unity and harmony is obviously worthy of consideration.

But let's get back to the actual conversation. The topic is extremely serious: we are publicly discussing the integrity of a prominent Christian, in the context of evidence that this man has repeatedly promulgated falsehood in the non-trivial pursuit of establishing a comprehensive model for the concordance of natural science and scripture. Even after I remove the word 'lie' from my descriptions of these stunning falsehoods, we'll be staring at incontrovertible evidence of misconduct. Your other commenters have done a nice job of going deeper into what might be happening in Ross' head, but no one (not even Jack) has bothered to challenge the assertion that Hugh Ross wrote a completely false account of a non-existent scientific "breakthrough." The story is a fabrication.

In my opinion, to enter this discussion, at this point, and carp about manners or fret about appearances is to invite moral abdication. To characterize this discussion as "in-fighting" is to level the moral playing field in a way that I find strongly objectionable. I'm sorry, guys, but you're just going to have to accept the fact that I'm scandalized by the misconduct of this outfit, and unlike Jack I'm convinced that their lack of integrity does harm to the gospel. I just don't have any patience with suspiciously ill-timed appeals for unity.

And as an aside, my previous comment was trying to communicate my frustration with the notion that critical rebuke of a fellow Christian is not "Christlike." Do you need me to direct your attention to the events in Jesus' life that I had in mind?

Jack, I'm curious why you are so certain that Hugh Ross is not lying, and/or why you can only "suppose" that he is "guilty of unnecessary compromise." Were you unconvinced by my analysis of the "team of physicists" fable? Are you still wondering whether research on non-coding DNA was shut down for 30 years after my analysis of citations from the scientific literature? (Those claims, by the way, were made long after Fuz Rana joined RTB.) You can spare me the hand-slapping, but I'd be curious to learn why you are unconcerned about public dishonesty on the part of a major Christian apologetics ministry. You see, it may be as simple as this: you're more concerned about Christendom presenting a united front against unbelief, and I'm more concerned about Christendom having integrity. And that's nothing more than a disagreement. And that's okay with me, if it's okay with you.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Part of my aim in these comments has been to arrive at some clarity, clarity about what HR is and is not guilty of, clarity about what is and is not logically required for someone to be lying and clarity about what is and is not worthy of serious consideration in what Jack is saying.

Here's how I see things at this point:
1. Whether or not you agree that your use of "lie" is idiosyncratic you are going to abandon its use and employ other terms of moral disapprobation in your critique of HR and RtB b/c like me you take him seriously as a human being and as a Christian and not to call him to account is not to take him with the moral seriousness he deserves. I get that and agree completely.
2. The in-fighting characterization is, to my mind, a value-free description of what is going on. It's just to say that two (or more) individuals who belong to the same class (in this case the class of Christians) are fighting or in conflict. That seems just to be a true description of the facts and not at all to level the moral playing field. HR is morally culpable for all the things you say he's morally culpable for (save lying). So, in the context of the discussion, and with respect to the issue of intellectual integrity, there is one morally guilty party. So, no morally level playing field.
Those are two issues that need to be separated out--the issue of in-fighting and the issue of moral culpability attaching to one party to the in-fighting and not another.
3. You say I'll be disappointed by your answer to my question Don't you think that what is behind Jack's concern is worthy of serious consideration? But then look at what you say immediately after that. You say
"the call for unity and harmony is obviously worthy of consideration." Why would you think that would disappoint me? Don't say "keep reading b/c you'll find in the next paragraph what will disappoint you." Don't say that b/c I am in wholehearted agreement what you say there. I just want you to distinguish b/w what might be motivating Jack to say what he did (which is good and worthy of serious moral consideration, by your own admission) and what he in fact said. Your point, in my view, is perfectly appropriate, i.e., calling HR to account is wholly morally appropriate.
3. Jack seems right to remind us that what unites HR and us is more important than what divides us. That seems to me obviously true. And that is not to suggest that what divides us in trivial or unimportant. The issue w/HR and RtB is important, very important even. But it is not, all things considered, MORE important or even AS important as what unites us. Jack's comment was in no way "an appeal," let alone a "suspiciously ill-timed appeal," to unity. He was just reminding us of what is true.

I'm of the view that this is a very important point. Christians argue over homosexuality and universalism, for example. Indeed the Anglican Communion is headed for a split over the issue of homosexuality. Is it an important issue? Of course it is. But important as it is what position one takes on the issue is not as important all things considered as what unites the parties to the discussion.

So too the issues involved here. At least that's my view.

Alright, nuff said.

Jack said...

I am not at all saying that disinformation, factually correct information, or even opinions that one disagrees with should not be challenged.

I am saying that 1) if you say someone is lying, that implies that you think they are intentionally being deceptive, and that they are doing so for some secondary gain. This by definition, I think, calls into question that persons character. Even though Ross is wrong, (and I think he is wrong on many issues, but right on other issues,) I think there are more constructive ways to refute him other than saying he is lying. If you say he is lying, then you call into question everything he stands for and that includes his religious beliefs.

2) I constantly hear this sentiment that the YEC's, or in this case the PC's, are our enemy, and that their position is more dangerous to the gospel than TE. This is the sentiment that my post was about. Even though those positions are scientifically incorrect, in my opinion, the proponents of those positions are not the enemy. As far as I can tell they are fellow believers, they are part of the Church, they are part of the Body of Christ, and as such should be seen as brothers. Like Kevin said, what we have in common is more important than what we disagree on, and that is my main point.

Jack said...

A couple of corrections sorry about that, (can you edit posts once they have been saved?)

Regarding my last post, at the end of the first line it should say factually INcorrect information.

In the last paragraph it should say "their position is more dangerous to the gospel than ATHEISM"

SFMatheson said...

This will be my last contribution to this discussion. I value the criticism immensely, and I know that the critique here adds context and credibility to my criticism of RTB. When I post my response at QoD, I will welcome comments there, and maybe another small discussion will ensue, but I don't think there's a whole lot more that needs to be said.

It seems we are worrying about two things: 1) the nature of the term 'lie' and the implications of referring to a statement as a 'lie'; and 2) the importance of acknowledging our kinship, as Christians, with RTB apologists.

1) While I am unconvinced by Kevin's arguments, I am concerned about the distraction that such semantic disputes present, and I am concerned about the ways in which my critiques can be misunderstood (by well-meaning folk) or twisted (by morally-challenged folk). Jack and Kevin might be glad to learn that I don't want to be understood as accusing Ross of being a malicious liar. But fans of RTB should not find this to be encouraging. Ross and Rana are guilty of significant misconduct, and Ross' fairy tale is evidence of a very serious ethical lapse. I don't need to be reminded of the seriousness of my critique of RTB. With all due respect, Jack, I think you're a lot less concerned than you ought to be about RTB's integrity.

2) It is because of – and not in spite of – Ross' identity as a Christian brother that I have elected to expose his dangerous lack of integrity in his writings in biology. I will happily affirm our Christian bonds, then just as quickly note that this is precisely why, when considering Ross' reckless misconduct as a public minister with significant influence in Christendom, I seek to expose his unethical conduct.

OF COURSE our creedal unity is more important than anything else. Does that mean that it's more important to talk about our Christian brotherhood than it is to talk about dangerous falsehoods that put peoples' faith at risk? I say no. Your mileage may differ, and I think it's pretty clear that Jack does not share my concerns. Vive le difference.

Yes, Jack, I think that folk science and other forms of low-integrity "apologetics" are more dangerous to Christians than are atheists and their polemics. I take it you disagree. That's fine with me. I gather, moreover, that you see the major conflict as one between/among YEC, PC and TE. I don't, and if you keep that in mind you might find my comments more comprehensible, and even less irritating. I can dream, can't I?

Kevin values the moral critique of Ross because it affirms Ross' moral significance, and he's right about that. But that's not my motivation. I'm worried about the people who believe Ross and Rana, and who are now roaming the world while wearing around their necks a weapon that Richard Dawkins is eager to use against their faith. Ross, as near as I can tell, is well insulated from criticism. His followers, on the other hand, are in peril. I've explained all this before.

Kevin is not happy with my reference to "suspiciously ill-timed appeals." I understand his defense of Jack's comments, but I think we should all think just a little more carefully about why we raise the "Christian unity" banner when we do. In my experience, it's all too often hoisted at inappropriate times. I don't suspect, even for a moment, that Jack meant to redirect the conversation as a diversion, and I don't intend any implication regarding his motives. But there's something unsettling about being asked to interrupt a very serious and important discussion to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

I'll be finished with my penance when I post my contrite response at QoD, but I've exhausted my patience with this line of questioning. Hugh Ross is a fellow Christian who is engaged in dangerously irresponsible behavior. I'll be interested to hear feedback regarding his behavior and its consequences, and I'm interested in discussions concerning the roots of folk science and other forms of dishonesty, especially if the discussion aims to propose a cure. I'm even interested in hearing a defense of folk science. But I'm done with semantic clarifications, and I'll ignore any further calls to salute the unity flag.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Okay, this is my final comment too. I don't disagree w/any of your substantive remarks. I've just been trying to get you to slow down and not run roughshod over various other issues that are important too, like "semantic" clarity (just like Barak Obama, I believe language is important) and accurately representing what people say.

So, for example, Jack's comment about Christian unity got glossed by you as a "suspiciously ill-timed appeal." That seems to me to go way beyond what Jack actually said. You are obviously impatient with these other issues, at least in the context of a discussion about HR and RtB. And I get that. (I think it’s also clear that you think these other issues are important, but in other contexts and discussions.)

And I understand your eagerness to discuss the issues central to what you're up to on your blog. But I think it’s good for you to slow down, and not be so eager to get to the point that the process, the means, the rhetoric employed in dialogue alienates or shuts out those who want to say “okay, I see your point, but the guy’s not a liar” or “okay, I agree, but help me, you’re not saying that what one believes about origins is essential to orthodoxy, are you?”

You may be impatient with those sorts of comments and questions b/c they’re beside the main point of the conversation and b/c you’ve addressed them elsewhere and elsewhen. But I think for someone who’s entered the conversation in midstream so to speak to be told “I'm done with semantic clarifications, and I'll ignore any further calls to salute the unity flag” is unnecessarily harsh, off-putting and might actually serve to erect distracting road blocks that make it more difficult for some people to appreciate the good and important work you’re doing on behalf of the gospel. And I think that would be a shame b/c what you’re doing is of immense importance. (And I know that you know I believe that.)

Okay, I’m done. The next conversation you and I have about this takes place over a beer at Founders. Deal?

SFMatheson said...

Deal. Jack's welcome too. And yes, I'm listening.

Jack said...

Im in. But I dont know where Founders is. Kevin can tell you about Brewer's Art.

Kyle said...

So it looks like you guys might have played this conversation out, but I do think one issue has been overlooked in how to label Ross's morally-culpable statements. Kevin said,

"One can be morally culpable even if one determinately believes what one asserts -- if, for example, one is irresponsible in holding the belief in question."

The question of what makes one irresponsible for holding a belief should be considered even more. HR's faux pas here, in my opinion, is much, much worse considering that he is a credentialed member of the academic community. Even though he is no longer based in a univeristy setting, he has an advanced degree, and as such he has by definition been initiated into the norms of ethical reporting on the state of scientific research. From this point of view, outright and intentional lying really isn't morally different from massive if unintentional ignoring of the facts; both of them would rightfully lead to rejection of tenure or denial of publication for being outside the bounds of responsible research.

It is true that I'm incorporating a institution-based criteria to judge HR for communication outside of the academy, but insofar as HR parades around his degrees as signs of his credentialed position (and by which he differentiates himself from YEC defenders), I think that the professional ethics context is a valid means to judge HR. A fellow poker player expects you to bluff/lie when playing poker, but the general public expects a scientist to know science (and the general public doesn't distinguish between fields of specialty nearly as distinctly as we in the academy do).

That HR's field is Astronomy and not genetics should also make HR's errors all the more, not less, galling. Anyone with an advanced degree should know much better than the person on the street that you have to be extra careful when traveling outside one's own discipline (I'm in English, and I know that I have to walk on eggshells when I talk to anyone, credentialed or not, about something scientific), that you have to go out of your way to make sure that you aren't promulgating a massively error-filled presentation of the state of that field. To sum up everything I've been saying, HR's position as a credentialed-member of the academic institution has to be taken into account when considering how to morally judge the things that he's said, and as someone so credentialed, his mis-statements are even more morally blameworthy and come closer to the moral stain of an outright lie than if he didn't have an advanced degree, primarily because he is in a position to know better. I'd argue that the closer someone is to being in the position of "you really should know better than that," the more morally blameworthy they are for spreading a falsehood.

Partially related note on lying: why are we as a culture so afraid of calling someone a liar? Because of this, we've lost much of the accountability structures that could call our public leaders to account for their lies, instead allowing them to have a constant stream of "foibles, miscues, etc." which they are then allowed to repeat ad infinitum b/c they bear little moral censure. On this front, there may be moral culpability in *not* calling something lying...

Kevin Corcoran said...



A couple of quick points. First, for clarity's sake it was Keith (not me) who is responsible for the quote.

Second, I myself am not afraid of calling anyone a liar if I think they are in fact a liar. My point, which I think keeps getting lost somehow in the discussion, is not that HR is not guilty and morally blameworthy. He is, and I said as much in the original post. My point was (and is) just that he be held responsible for that which he is responsible. And if he didn't lie, then let's not call him a liar.

I think it's important that we be clear about what he's guilty of; that's all. And note too that I have made no claims that suggest that what he's guilty of is in any way less morally serious than lying. Again, I'm just not convinced he is lying.

I honestly think he's in the grip of a "cause" that makes things quite messy in his head. And I don't mean that in any pejorative sense. It's like a parent who is so devoted to her troubled teenager that s/he fails to notice the evidence right under her nose for her child's addiction.

But I agree with you; insofar as HR fashions himself a member of the academic community he must be held accountable to its standards and it is quite obvious he is failing miserably in that regard. As a result, I agree he needs to be censured.

Anyway, thanks for commenting, Kyle!

Jack said...

I dont know exactly why I am posting this here except that Kevin's last paragraph reminded me of this. I am reluctant to post this here because I do not want to sound like an RTB defender, and ID science proponent, or one of the folk science purveyors.

But lets not forget that academia can also be in the grip of a "cause" and academic standards may not be as neutral as we would all like them to be.

I am thinking here of the issue with the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, and the academic excoriation of one of Steve's baraminology buddies Richard Sternberg. There is, I believe, a bias in academia towards philosophical naturalism.

So Ross is not to be blamed for not being part of academia, although this is no excuse for falsehoods, or sloppy research.

SFMatheson said...

To Jack: The neutrality of academia with regard to naturalism is, as you say, nonexistent. This is, however, completely immaterial to the question of Ross' misconduct.

I hope you are not suggesting that Ross is not a member of academia because of its bias towards naturalism. If so, you should think more carefully about that; I find the assertion to be highly questionable, especially given Ross' profound departures from very basic standards of academic integrity.

Is academic biased? Totally. Is this relevant to consideration of Ross' integrity? Not at all.

Note, BTW: you have incorrectly identified Sternberg as a baraminologist.

To Kyle: Hear, hear!!

Jack said...

I am not at all suggesting that Ross is not a member of academia because of its non neutrality. I am not at all asserting that. Like I mentioned I was reluctant to post that comment in this thread because the gist of my comment really had nothing to do with Ross.

I am interested in what you think about the bias of academia, and specifically I am interested on your take on the Sternberg matter.

As far as whether or not he is a baraminologist. I really do not know enough to say. He was a member of the BSG study group. Is being a creationist a requirement for being a baraminologist? Do they call non creationist baraminologists, structuralists? I frankly do not know the difference. The site you referenced was written regarding the controversy so had a specific agenda. I am not sure that means he is not a baramainologist in the broad sense. If you have to be a creationst however, then I stand corrected.

SFMatheson said...


You wrote, "The site you referenced was written regarding the controversy so had a specific agenda." In fact, the site I referenced was written by and about the BSG. Their comments were written to specifically correct misunderstandings like yours. Sternberg is not a member of the BSG, is not a creationist, and does not hold to "baraminology." Sternberg makes this clear, and so does the BSG.

The biases of academia against religious belief are well documented, and some examples that I've encountered are so grotesque that they call the basic intelligence as well as the academic integrity of the speakers into question. On the other hand, breathless tales of vast conspiracies and of veritable lynch mobs of leftist atheists strain credulity for me, and closer examination often reveals the situation to be more complex than the words of a rabid partisan might indicate. My personal experience in academia has confirmed the existence of bias, but belies the typically hair-raising accounts of its effects.

With regard to the Sternberg case, I have seen what seem to be exaggerations and suspiciously incomplete accounts on both sides. Sternberg's defense of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the publication of Meyer's paper is, IMO, unconvincing. There is, to me, something very fishy about the whole thing. I do think it looks like he took advantage of his position as editor to get Meyer's work into the journal.

On the other hand, I think the ferocity of the response, and the apparently dishonest nature of at least some of the attacks on Sternberg, are clearly indicative of the kind of bias that you and Sternberg allege. If even a fraction of Sternberg's complaints are accurate, then he's been treated unfairly.

Ironically, the punishment of Sternberg has been a windfall for the pitiful Discovery Institute and its shameful propaganda machine. It would have been so much better to just note that the "peer-reviewed research" was in fact a silly, unimportant screed published by a sympathetic editor in the very last issue of his oversight, in a journal so obscure that most biologists had never heard of it before the brouhaha. According to Google Scholar, the paper hasn't been cited a single time by any other work of science (it's been cited in two religion articles). The journal in which it was published has a measure of significance so low that it is dwarfed by the impact measurement of the lamest journal I ever published in. Meyer's paper is evidence of the utter worthlessness of the ID intellectual project; regrettably, the Sternberg business has converted it into evidence of a Darwinist cabal of historic proportions. I note that ID proponents are devoting far more effort to the conspiracy theory than they are to the actual content of Meyer's paper, and I think there's a very simple explanation for this.

Anyway, Jack, while I think it's interesting to probe the Sternberg affair, I think it's unwise to raise it in the current context. Skeptics and real scientists are watching conversations like this one, and in my opinion they have every right to be suspicious of our motives. Even if there was absolutely no intention to suggest that Ross' exclusion from academia is due to bias, the risk is too great, because there are legions of less thoughtful folk than you who say such things all the time.

Kevin Corcoran said...

...The journal in which it was published has a measure of significance so low that it is dwarfed by the impact measurement of the lamest journal I ever published in...

LOVE IT! Worthy of posting on my office door, right next to: "do not leave self unattended" and "use caution when dating prisoner".

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