Steve Fuller

On Wednesday night I chaired a talk by Steve Fuller at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Fuller may be known to many of you as the guy who gives credence to Intelligent Design theory through the obfuscations and scepticism of Science and Technology Studies. He is famous for speaking as a witness in the Kitzmiller trial, over the teaching of intelligent design in schools, on the wrong (i.e ID) side of the debate.
Well, talking to Fuller it was clear that whatever you think of him, it’s just not at all obvious that in the battle of reason against nonsense, he’s on the other side. Here are a few reasons why.
First, in the trial he was what is known as a rebuttal witness. Although called by the ID team, his job was not in any way to support ID but to rebut claims made by the other team. The reason he agreed to do this was that he thought those claims were weak, poorly argued and certainly wouldn’t pass muster in say, a peer reviewed journal. Now it seems to me that if you are committed to sound reasoning, this is perfectly respectable thing to do. Indeed, not to speak out against bad arguments because they come from the right team is deeply antithetical to the pro-reason cause. (Regular readers will be reminded of something here.)
Fuller was advised not even to read the textbooks the ID side were promoting before the trial, and he didn’t. When he eventually did, he could see they were bad as clearly as anyone else.
You might say that Fuller was being naïve as this debate is deeply political. Fuller would certainly agree with the latter part: part of his programme as a professor in STS is to uncover the various different, often political agenda, that underly what are on the surface, officially purely intellectual debates. Should he not then have realised that by giving evidence at the trial he was giving succour to the creationists and fundamentalists who were using ID as a trojan horse? If you think this should have stopped him exposing bad reasoning, then already you’re committed to an at best sophisticated and at worst contradictory pro-truth attitude. It seems that a committment to truth can be tactically suspended in the name of the greater campaign for truth to prevail in the end.
As it happens, Fuller is sanguine about the people behind ID, reminding us that Darwinism had some pretty unsavoury advocates in its early days. The fact that dodgy people are behind an idea is not reason enough to dismiss it, and indeed to do so is a recognised fallacy (guilt by association).
Fuller wasn’t always convincing. He argued that even evolutionists use a design-infused language. I thought this was a red herring: the key issue is whether people talk of design with the implication that an external, supernatural intelligent agent is required to intervene to bring about evolutionary change. For all his examples of evolutionists using design-laden language, I just didn’t think he showed that, or could. Since this point looks like its central to his forthcoming book, Dissent over Descent, that looks pretty serious.
But overall, Fuller is clearly a guy committed to arguing things through in an intelligent way. Like many people who are of the “wrong school” – social constructionists, deconstructionists, post-modernists or whatever – I think that he turns out to be just as fundamentally committed to the values of open rational debate as anyone else. For that reason, even if he is wrong, I don’t like him or people like him being branded as enemies of rationality.

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