October 10, 2010

Steve Fuller in Uppsala pt. 1 - A few impressions

This past September 27th I attended a lecture given by Steve Fuller here at Uppsala University entitled "The Problems Posed by Intelligent Design Theory? Philosophy, Politics, Science, and Theology". Steve Fuller is a sociologist, quite prominent in his field, known to scientists and skeptics for his support of intelligent design and criticism of "Darwinism"; in particular for his participation as a witness for the defense in the famous Dover school district "ID" trial, his cooperation with ID think-tank the Discovery Institute and his books "Science vs. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution" and "Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism".

Fuller was invited by something called SALT, a forum for Studies of the Arts, Languages and Theology within the university. The fact that he was invited to speak, at least partially, under the umbrella of theology I believe could be significant, but I will get to that later. Fuller was also scheduled to give two further lectures later that day and the following day on the subject of the "science wars" and policies regarding science education. Unfortunately I had had quite enough of him by the end of the first lecture, so I didn't attend any of the two that followed.

I will start by sharing my overall impressions of the lecture and of Fuller himself before moving on to what I consider to be Fuller's misses regarding evolution* and then finally attempting to discuss the bigger picture briefly. (* Whether they are just misunderstandings, misconceptions or deliberate misrepresentations, I couldn't tell.)

Fuller chose to speak only for about 45 minutes, opening up the remaining hour or so for discussion with the audience. As a lecturer he has a very loose and outgoing style that at its best I imagine is very entertaining and agreeable, but that mostly made him very difficult to listen to in this instance. His command of the room was undoubtable, however as he chose to cover up many of his weaker points and contradictions with pandering little jokes and condescending laughs, a sort of tense nervous energy spread among those of us who were there to observe in a more critical way. This was true also during the discussion with the audience during which he often brushed off quite significant questions with arrogant sighs and jokes, leaving many of us exasperated at not being able to discuss with him in any proper sense of the word. As a result the mood got pretty confrontational, which was a failure both from his side and from those of us in the audience questioning him. A more involved moderator would have been good, but instead the senior lecturer who introduced Fuller, and presumably also invited him to speak, joined in with the laughter directed at some of the questioners - at one point offering a loud contemptuous "Ha!" in response to the observation that in scientific questions "truth matters". This observation was also met by general laughter from some sections of the auditorium. "Truth" is indeed a complicated issue, especially for a philosopher, but I would have expected a bit more courtesy for a valid view offered in all sincerity.

One could argue that the confrontational atmosphere resulted from some sort of cultural clash or disconnect between those of us from the natural sciences and those from the humanities. It's possible that we failed to see the point of Fuller's discussion and deviated from his main point into a more "evolution vs. ID" kind of discussion. I did consider this quite seriously and I would agree that the intended audience of the lecture probably wasn't biologists. But it's also perfectly clear to me that to completely disconnect the implications of Fuller's discussion for biological science would be incredibly naïve, as I will discuss in a later post. After all, he was there to talk about intelligent design, which makes direct claims about the biological world! It's not something we can just let pass in order to treat evolution merely as a philosophical exercise.

In the end this is more a question of what culture and style one is accustomed to rather than science, but for at least a few of us in attendance Fuller's style was not conducive to a fruitful discussion. As far as academic seminars go, I have never seen such a spectacle as the one Fuller offered. I suspect it's a deliberate strategy in that it very efficiently masks the holes in his knowledge of evolution and doesn't exactly invite questioning and criticism. It was frustrating to see that his pandering humor seemed to be very successful, judging by the amount of approving laughs he got. This is lamentable as those in the audience more sympathetically inclined to his ideas might have left them with an incorrect view of evolution, especially since there seemed to be several undergraduate students from the humanities in attendance.

Now, I realize this might make me come off like a bad sport who can't deal with any criticism against evolution without getting surly, but I just wanted to really get the frustration many of us felt across before getting to the content of the lecture. I'm not being irrationally hostile - I'm actually willing to concede several perfectly valid, if somewhat obvious, points to him. In my next post I'll talk a bit about this, but mainly I will focus on the many misconceptions about evolution that Fuller exhibited, as I see them.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Daniel, I've just read your piece and couldn't agree more. I've sat in Fuller's lectures and find his mode of delivery to be inept and frustrating. Even if he does have substantively interesting things to say, he fails to communicate them in a way that is conducive to real discussion about his propositions. Most of the time, the discussion focuses on the supposed evidence for such propositions instead. This is even more troubling given that he portrays himself as a 'public intellectual', who by definition should be able to communicate with the everyman.


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