Monday, May 05, 2008

Contrapositing Berlinski

Derbyshire gets it right

The columnists who hang out at National Review Online are a peculiar assemblage of right-wing flacks who can be relied upon to distinguish themselves from the reality-based community. John Derbyshire, however, occasionally breaks ranks. In addition to being a conservative columnist, The Derb is also a mathematician. I have read and enjoyed Prime Obsession, a history of the Riemann hypothesis, and Unknown Quantity, a history of algebra and the iconic “x the unknown.” Mathematicians tend to respect the formal aspects of argument and proof. This may be why Derbyshire recoiled in horror from Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

He must pay for this apostasy.

And today here comes David Berlinski to take Derbyshire to the woodshed. While Berlinski is also a popularizer of mathematics (of the snob-appealing obscurantist school of overwriting), he has also aligned himself with the Discovery Institute and serves as one of Ben Stein's shills in Expelled. What better nemesis could intelligent design creationists hope to sic on Derbyshire than Berlinski? It is a grudge match made in heaven (although both combatants decline to affirm belief in heaven's existence).

Topping off the bile reservoir on his word processor, Berlinski gets right to work in his rebuke of Derbyshire:
John Derbyshire has declared that the documentary Expelled contains a blood libel against Western Civilization. His is an exercise of striking vulgarity, the more so since, as he insouciantly admits, he has not “seen the dang thing.” A blood libel, one might recall, refers to the charge that the Jewish people are irredeemably stained by their occasional, if modest, need for Christian blood. Some terms have acquired through their historical associations a degree of repugnance that persuades sensitive men and women not to use them. If Derbyshire has been repelled by the smell of blood, it is a revulsion that he has successfully overcome.
For the uninitiated, permit me to point out that Berlinski has unleashed here the powerful reflexive-rebuttal rhetorical device, also known in less sophisticated circles as the “I know you are, but what am I?” argument.

Expelled's audience has been less than its producers might have hoped for, box office receipts indicating an outside chance of earning back the costs of production and promotion. Nevertheless, no interested party can be unaware of the specific points being made by Ben Stein's propaganda piece. In a nutshell, Expelled asserts that (a) intelligent design is a worthwhile scientific hypothesis that the research establishment is successfully suppressing, (b) evolutionists are epitomized by atheism and hostility to religion, and (c) evolutionary thinking set the stage for the Nazi atrocities of the 20th century. The movie trailers, reviews, and interviews with Expelled's principals make all of that clear, whether or not one has endured the entire movie itself.

Berlinski does not accept this, and mocks Derbyshire for not going to see Expelled:
Having not seen the documentary that he proposes to criticize, Derbyshire is nonetheless quite certain that he knows what it conveys. “It is pretty plain,” he asserts, “that it is a piece of creationist porn.” Perhaps I will be forgiven for suggesting that John Derbyshire’s late-night scrutiny of the Internet may have corrupted his habitual search for le mot juste. Expelled has nothing to do with creationism, and if it is pornographic, the details have not become widely known.
See how Berlinski pokes gentle fun at Derbyshire for the latter's choice of words and amusingly implies that The Derb has looked at too many naughty pictures on the Internet? Naughty, naughty Derb! Funny, funny Berlinski!
Expelled makes a point far plainer than pornography and points to a phenomenon just as widespread.
Hey! Wait a minute! How does Berlinski know so much about the pervasiveness of porn? By his own reasoning in twitting Derbyshire, Berlinski is admitting to a certain expertise, n'est-ce pas? Let's be charitable and put that down to an inadvertent slip.
After first considering the possibility that Ben Stein was financed by secret Saudi funds—Je m’imagine cela—Derbyshire at once reprises two errors. The first is that the animations in Expelled were copied.

They were not.

And the second is that the brief segment of a John Lennon song used in the film required Yoko Ono’s permission before it could be aired.

It did not.

The facts are easily available from the Expelled website.
It's good of Berlinski to cite such an unimpeachable source as documentation for his statements. It's a good choice, too, because Berlinski would not have found support for his categorical statements had he gone elsewhere. For example, David Bolinsky is the medical illustrator who led the team that created The Inner Life of the Cell for Harvard University and he argues strongly that Expelled's version of his team's original creation is a point-by-point rip-off. (Perhaps, unlike Berlinski, Derbyshire did not limit his reading to the special pleadings on the Expelled website.) And, of course, the United States has a draconian copyright law that severely inhibits “fair-use” claims, so it's not at all clear that Yoko Ono's lawsuit is an inherently frivolous nuisance action.
Derbyshire’s generous conviction that Expelled is an exercise in dishonesty owes much to the charge that those participating in the film were duped. It is an accusation made by both P. Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. I appear in the film, and I read and signed the same release that Myers and Dawkins did. I knew precisely what the film proposed to do. So did they.
In reality, in case Berlinski still cares about such things, neither Myers nor Dawkins knew the intent of the proposed documentary. Both Myers and Dawkins have provided accounts of the dishonest way they were approached.
Myers and Dawkins now regret their appearance. This is because they seriously overestimated their own ability to think nimbly before a camera. They are as result appalled either by how they look or by what they said. A veritable Internet scourge, Myers sits before the camera in solemn stupefaction. He has nothing to say and says nothing. Dawkins goes much further. Without ever once realizing that he is about to topple into the badlands of absurdity, he allows Ben Stein to force him into the acknowledgment that life as it appears on earth may well have been designed by space aliens.
Being mild-mannered is the same as “solemn stupefaction” to Berlinski. (Perhaps P.Z. disappointed by breathing no fire.) I wonder how Berlinski would characterize his own appearance in Expelled, sitting on the back of his neck with his knees up in the air, nonchalantly declaring that Darwin was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the rise of the Nazis and the implementation of their program of mass-murder. Not stupefaction, surely, but stupefying, certainly.

Berlinski also mischaracterizes the response of Dawkins to Stein's badgering him over how intelligent design could be true. Despite having his remarks edited to his maximum disadvantage, Dawkins still manifests his underlying exasperation in conceding to Stein that it is, of course, conceivable that a highly advanced alien race could foster life on a barren planet. (Nothing Dawkins says justifies Berlinski's phrasing: “life as it appears on earth may well have been designed by space aliens.” He spun that version out of whole cloth.) For some unaccountable reason, the editors of Expelled let stand Dawkins's statement that such a science-fiction scenario was scarcely a triumph for ID. It would merely push off the question of origins to a different world—the world where the aliens evolved by natural means. Since there is ample fossil evidence to document humanity's development on this planet, the scenario prompted by Stein is not even a live proposition. Like intelligent design itself, it's a crank hypothesis without substance. Dawkins looked embarrassed while he outlined it in response to Stein's insistence.

Berlinski cranks up the engines of his rhetoric for the home stretch of his essay, confident that he will leave Derbyshire in shreds:
Having found in Expelled an occasion to exercise his organs of indignation, Derbyshire proceeds in his essay to squeeze them until they squeal. The Discovery Institute is a special target. He regards its very existence as an affliction. His indignation has prompted him to impertinence. Knowing nothing of my life, he has nonetheless concluded that I am one of a number of “eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories.”

Non-Christian? There is no need for euphemism. I am a secular Jew, reason enough apparently for Derbyshire carelessly to suggest that I am in it for the money.

Ah, that old familiar smell—blood, I mean.
Observe Berlinski in full martyr mode. It is a deeply affecting spectacle.
As for my eagerness to affirm that the world is flat, I believe it round, and have said so many times.
Berlinski seems to believe that Derbyshire was being literal in his criticisms, or—could it be?—he is cleverly pretending to take them literally.

Berlinski moves deftly from his pose of martyrdom to his pose of agnosticism on the question of ID itself:
Beyond this settled conviction, I have no theories to offer—not even theories of intelligent design, which I have rejected in the pages of Commentary.
Berlinski, you see, is the bad boy of intelligent design creationism. He merely—almost reluctantly—points out over and over again that “Darwinism” is fatally flawed and doomed to reside on the ash-heap of history. What will replace it? Oh, dear, he really couldn't say. And then the Discovery Institute, having discovered an opportunity to demonstrate its own universal tolerance of divergent points of view, snatches Berlinski up and makes him a Senior Fellow (as in “he's a jolly good”).
All this would be trivial, if tawdry, were it not for the single serious charge that Derbyshire makes: That Intelligent Design is a disguised form of creationism.

In the United States, at least, creationism is a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Intelligent Design is otherwise. It is the thesis that living creatures appear designed because they are designed. It is said to be Darwin’s great merit that he successfully dissolved the appearance of design in life. Those who believe that the design of living systems is real believe correspondingly that Darwin’s theory is false, or, at best, incomplete.
Here Berlinski conveniently forgets that Expelled vigorously seeks to link evolution with atheism. That's exactly why the producers insisted on nonbelieving scientists to represent the scientific side of the evolution mini-controversy. While many ID exponents are careful to declare with some frequency that the identity of the intelligent designer is not addressed in ID, others (like Dembski) are quick to acknowledge it's the G-o-d of Genesis. That's creationism, folks, and it pervades the ID movement.
Like so many men who have reached late middle age, John Derbyshire suffers the impression that the “the barbarians are at the gate.” Women no longer topple blood-ripe into his lap. A “gaggle of fools and fraudsters” is everywhere disturbing his tranquility. Things that he treasures are under ceaseless attack.
Berlinski unkindly forgets to mention he is three years older than Derbyshire.
And where awe is merited, none is forthcoming. “And now here is Ben Stein,” Derbyshire objects, “sneering and scoffing at Darwin.”

Stein is, in fact, doing no such thing, and I have seen the documentary in which he appears. He is asking that certain possibilities in thought not be struck from the table prematurely. In so doing, he is offering Darwin the homage that a serious thinker deserves. It is the only homage to which he is entitled.

As for the rest of John Derbyshire’s agitated geschrei, what can one say? A talented writer is entitled to make a fool of himself at least once.

Why not Derbyshire?
And that is why you have to love David Berlinski! Who else could so casually write that a “talented writer is entitled to make a fool of himself at least once”? I suspect he thinks this does not apply to him. Could it be because of the adjective in front of “writer”?


Anonymous said...

A stopped clock is right twice a day. I myself have a t-shirt bearing a quote from Justice Thomas' dissent in Kelo v. New London: "Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’'s interpretation of the Constitution."

Anonymous said...

Wow. This guy seems pretty bright, so I don't understand why a bit of cognitive dissonance hasn't set in. I suppose he's just taken his skepticism to an unhealthy extreme? Does he flip out on Stephen Hawking's writings, too, since we haven't PROVEN Hawking radiation?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: That's just the appearance of smarts, something you see all over in the snootier parts of academia. Berlinski masks his general idiocy by keeping a thesaurus handy and liberally sprinkling his language with tired French references (by the way, I like how the author of this critique used similar references to point out how unnecessary Berlinski's were; that's good writing). He thinks that this is what other people think to be style, while in reality its just the pathetic ape-ing of 17th and 18th century scholarship.

trog69 said...

Good evening, angry. You; Head; Nail; ya know the drill. I admit that I haven't read all of Berlinski's work, but I remain unimpressed with his ruminations on anything not having to do with mathmatics. I can only imagine that he hangs out at Disco for easy access to the Megaphone of Willful Ignorance.

Emanuel Goldstein said...

I hate to say it, since I did see the movie and was not impressed, but a critic who has NOT seen it is no more capable of giving an intellectually honest review than is a critic who reviews a book without reading it.

Face it, Derbyshire IS being intellectually dishonest. No point trying to cover it up.

Anonymous said...


You forget that the so called "facts" on which expelled is based have been out there in the public for a long time even before the movie's release.
Claims like Biology professors persecuting creationists, Darwin being responsible for the holocaust and the failure of the theory of evolution have been refuted many times over on the blogosphere.

Expelled provides no new "data"
only some new unfounded interpretations of the data.

Zeno said...

Andrew: What made you think Derbyshire was writing a review of the movie? He didn't talk about the cinematography, the editing, or the performances. He simply addressed the movie's main thesis, which is well-known and widely promoted in the movie trailers, the Expelled website, and in interviews with Ben Stein and producer Mathis. You're missing the point, and rather badly.

Doppelganger said...

Berlinski... Berlinski... Say - wasn't he the erudite fellow that claimed to have come up with a list of 50,000 differences between a cow and a whale that he claims evolution cannot account for and thus evolution is false?

Pity that evolutionists do not claim that whales evolved from cows, but how would a creationist hack like Berlinski - whom, I believe, will not divulge his amazing list of 50,000 features in the first place - know?

Big words cannot provide sufficient cover for his sheer ignroance of the topics he pretends to be knowledgible of.

Bad said...

Indeed, that was Berlinski: I ran a brief thought experiment on his incredible claim of counting (what a math whiz to be able to employ such a technique!). Using the heretical magic of division, I determine just how long his claimed feat might actually take.

Needless to say, the null hypothesis (pretentious layabout) was retained.

I'll be covering his maddeningly silly "Devil's Delusion" later in the week.

jre said...

I had heard of Berlinski, even read excerpts from his stuff, but I learned more than I wanted to know about him when Daniel Engber chose him as an example of "The Paranoid Style in American Science" for his excellent series in Slate. Frankly, I was surprised to see him described as "erudite." For me, "self-inflated" seemed more apt, or perhaps "thinks the sun shines out his butthole." As to his magisterial grasp of mathematics' mighty sweep, I can only note that Jordan Ellenberg (who, like our gentle host, really does know some math, and can actually write) read Berlinski's Infinite Ascent, and thought it sucked.

Interrobang said...

Are there any right-wingers who can actually write who don't wind up sounding like the "what not to dos" from George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"? The Derb may have been on in terms of facts, but his prose is so purple you could bottle it and sell it under the Welch's brand name, and Berlinsky sounds as though he took composition lessons from Paul Cella at RedState, who apparently learned from "a 45th-tier wingnut" (to quote Thers of Whiskey Fire) who wrote as "Maximos." Fools rush in where sane writers fear to tread...


Are there any ...?

You can take a look at :

Dana Hunter said...

Zeno, you deserve a Golden Paddle Award for the spanking you gave Berlinski. Truly great!

I'd love to see this IDiot on a jury: "Of course he didn't murder anybody. I mean, the police have endless evidence, but if you'd just taken the time to look at the guy's blog, it clearly states he never killed nobody! What better proof of innocense is there?"

What a schmuck.