Doing the rounds on the web at the moment are various blog postings relating to a response sent by University of Vermont ecologist Nick Gotelli to an invitation from the Discovery Institute to debate Intelligent Design on campus. This has elicted a fair amount of flag-waving commentary on behalf of some of my friends and colleagues, which consists of variations on a theme of "now that's the way to respond to these assholes." Meanwhile, I was holding my head in my hands. Now don't get me wrong. Gotelli was absolutely right not to accept the invitation from the Discovery Institute's David Klinghoffer. But my guess is that Klinghoffer was not at all interested in having a debate with Gotelli. He laid out a very well-baited trap and Gotelli walked right into it.
Take a look at the two letters. Kinghoffer's seems eminently reasonable - "appreciated your support of free speech at UVM.... whatever side one comes down on... healthy for students to be exposed to different views.." blah-blah-blah. By contrast, Gotelli's sounds like a snarl - "your sneering coverage.... two-faced dishonesty.... isn't it sort of pathetic...." If you are a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist this stuff is all very enjoyable. But suppose you're someone with no particular feelings on the issue. Worse still, suppose you're on a school board discussing how to teach evolution in your district. How does this exchange come across? Who looks reasonable and who looks like they're one step away from frothing at the mouth?
Here's a hard lesson for us science PhD's to take on board. Many people out there, possibly a majority of people in the USA, are more than a little suspicious of us. Like it or not, this is a country that elected a president on the basis that he seemed like the sort of guy you could have a beer with. Responses like Gotelli's may play well when he's preaching to the choir, but what do they look like to these people? Intellectual arrogance, perhaps? There's an excellent documentary called Flock of Dodos that explores this issue. Watching it, I was horrified at the extent to which creationists could come across as down-to-earth, reasonable, funny, and even self-deprecating, while the academics they interviewed, by and large, did not.
So what do you do when faced with an invitation like this? The same thing you do when a drunk guy in a bar tries to pick a fight with you - don't rise to the bait (or in my case, run away as quickly as you can). Either ignore it, or send them a one-liner saying you don't have time. Which is true - you don't have time to debate ID with hacks from the Discovery Institute and neither should you waste your energy writing emails like this and providing them with a bunch of free PR demonstrating the arrogance of evolutionary biologists. Save your energy for forums where it can make a difference; the school board, the courthouse, the classroom, museum displays, or the mainstream media. As Gotelli says at the conclusion of his email "this has been entertaining..." It sure has and we've all had fun writing emails of this sort. However, the smart thing is to think twice before you hit the "send" button.