I've been dealing with creationists for a long time now, and I thought that I'd gotten over being surprised by dishonest behavior in their ranks. In fact, I thought I'd gotten over it even when I'm on the receiving end of the false witness, and when the person dishing it out is someone who really should know better. As it turns out, I might not have quite as far over it as I thought.
As regular readers know, Dr. Michael Egnor is one of the more impressively credentialed denizens of the Discovery Institute's media complaints blog. He has decades of experience as a neurosurgeon. He's on the faculty at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, where he serves as a professor of neurosurgery. And, based on the level of intellectual integrity that he just demonstrated, he's not someone I would trust to train a dog, much less a doctor.
That's a harsh statement, I know, but I just got through reading his response to my recent critique of some of his Discovery Institute ramblings. Or, rather, his response to what he says was my recent critique. It was actually an interesting experience. He managed to take what I wrote so far out of context, and distort it so thoroughly, that I actually had problems recognizing some of the quotes as being my own work.
I may (or may not) deal with the nonexistent scientific merit of Dr. Egnor's reply later on. I'm not even going to try and catalogue all of the cases where Egnor was less than honest in his characterization of my writing. Instead, I'm simply going to highlight the most egregious case of flat-out, nose-growing, pants-on-fire lying.
Here's how Egnor decided to quote me at one point in his reply. This one might well be used as an example of how to quote mine in the slimiest, most dishonest fashion possible. Egnor not only uses multiple ellipses to change my meaning, he actually also changed some of my words without indicating that he had done so. Here's the Egnor version of what I said:
...we ...need to know that spina bifida patients are typically unsuitable for military service, that there are hereditary factors involved in causing spina bifida in the first place, and that differential survival among individuals carrying an allele will affect the proportion of that allele in the next generation...this is the central principle of evolutionary biology
Here's what I actually said. The bits Egnor quoted are in italics, and I've marked one phrase in boldface:
In fact, our understanding of military history can only inform us of the cause of the (hypothetical) increase if we already understand some basic principles of evolution, and some basic facts about the disease. At a minimum, we would need to know that spina bifida patients are typically unsuitable for military service, that there are hereditary factors involved in causing spina bifida in the first place, and that differential survival among individuals carrying an allele will affect the proportion of that allele in the next generation.
The first two factors relate to our understanding of the condition. The third is nothing more nor less than the central principle of evolutionary biology. Only one of those three factors is connected with the military in any way. Military history provides us with an explanation for the differential survival, but that's all. If we didn't know the other stuff, the war alone would provide absolutely no explanation for the change.
The boldfaced words are the ones that he changed. He removed the phrase "the third" and substituted the word "this". He provided no indication that he had substituted his word for mine. Quibbling about a change of one word might look petty, but if we look at the misquote in context, it's clear that he was deliberately trying to change my meaning so that he would have an easier target to argue against. I've cleaned up the formatting of this next quote slightly - it looks like he missed closing a blockquote tag - but I have not made any other changes:
So it looks like we can't really understand spina bifida without the "central principle of evolutionary biology." Alright then, let's take a look, claim by claim, at Mike's assertion that my example demonstrates the importance of evolutionary biology to the medical understanding of spina bifida.
...we would need to know that spina bifida patients are typically unsuitable for military service...
No evolutionary biology here. Our knowledge of the suitability of people with spina bifida for military service is gained from two things:
1) our knowledge of the disabilities caused by spina bifida
2) our knowledge of the requirements for military service
...that there are hereditary factors involved in causing spina bifida in the first place...
No evolutionary biology here. Our knowledge of the heredity...
In context, it's clear that he is claiming that I said that those first two factors are directly connected to evolutionary biology. He's also claiming that I was talking about the relationship between evolutionary biology and the medical condition itself, rather than the hypothetical epidemiological example he proposed. Neither is the case.
Honestly representing your opponents is the cornerstone of any productive academic discussion. I don't know if Dr. Egnor's dishonesty is substantial enough that I would have gotten him expelled from school, but I do know that any student I caught pulling a stunt like that would flunk.
I doubt that it will accomplish anything productive, but I'm actually annoyed enough at the misrepresentation that I've sent the following email to the Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin and Rob Crowther:
I will freely admit that there have been times over the years that I've been paying attention to Intelligent Design when I have been less than charitable - and less than polite - toward design proponents. I have, however, tried to always be honest, particularly when it comes to characterizing your arguments. When I disagree with something you say, I do my best to correctly and honestly describe your actual position. I see no reason why I should have to expect less than that in return.
In a recent post on your Evolution News and Views website, Dr. Michael Egnor fell well short of honesty. He mischaracterized and misrepresented my arguments throughout his entire article. At one point in his post, he went so far as to change words in a quote he attributed to me, without providing any indication that he had done so. Looking at the misquote in the context of Dr. Egnor's argument, I find it impossible to believe that this was an accident. It is also not the first time that Dr. Egnor has misrepresented things I've written.
A more detailed explanation of my objections to Dr. Egnor's misrepresentation will appear shortly on my blog (http://scienceblogs.com/authority), as will a copy of this email.
I would not dream of taking a position on whether or not you should continue to provide a platform for someone who is apparently incapable of meeting the basic standards of academic discourse, but I would like to see a public retraction and apology appear on your site.
I'll let you know what, if any, response I get from the Discovery folks. Based on the auto-reply I just got, Casey is out of the office until tomorrow, so there might not be anything before then.