Determining when to Stop a Dialogue: An Example

When engaging in dialogue on matters of faith, it is often difficult to tell when to end the conversation. As people who are called to give a defense for our faith, it is sometimes hard to know the point at which we should stop throwing our pearls before swine. Naturally, each dialogue is different and must be viewed with respect to its individual facts. But as a general rule, I use generally stop when I believe the person with whom I am engaged in dialogue is being disingenuous and there is no other compelling reason to continue the conversation. As an illustration of when I think this point arrives, I want to relate a recent dialogue I had with a skeptic. While the topic of the dialogue was Intelligent Design and its relation to Creationism, the manner in which the other person responds illustrates some of the things I look for when determining the bona fides of the other person when talking about Christianity.

The conversation concerned an article by Dr. Henry Morris on the Institute for Creation Research page. In the article, Dr. Morris makes the claim that the advocates of ID use many of the same arguments that had previously been used by Creationists (as these scientists who agree with the ICR and advocate a young earth are called) while the former distance themselves from the latter. He also says that Creationists had used a similar strategy to the wedge to try to get their Creationist teachings into schools. A couple of things should be noted. First, Dr. Morris is a Creationist and not an advocate for ID. His observations are necessarily the viewpoint of a person who is on the outside looking in. He has some agreements with the ID advocates, but he criticizes them in his article. In order to say that his viewpoint represents the teaching of the ID proponents requires an unwarranted assumption that he can speak for ID simply because he is a Creationist. But that is like saying the because members of the Communist party share some of the same goals of the Democratic party, it means that Democrats are Communists and what Communists say about the goals and purposes of the Democratic party speaks for the Democratic Party. Such conclusions are unwarranted.

Second, whether they like it or not, Creation scientists are a pariah in the world of lay science. They are seen as people who look to the Bible as their guide and try to bend the evidence to prove their worldview rather than allow the evidence to speak for itself. As such, they are seen by many laymen who take an interest in science as phonies. They are seen as a “disfavored” (and that’s a kind word) group in science. While I think that they are wrong, I am not making a judgment on them in what I say. I simply adopt the idea that Creationists are a disfavored group.

I should add that what I reproduce here is only one line of the conversation I was having with this other person. I am trying to be careful to reproduce all parts of the conversation that reflects on what was said so that you can see why I believe he is being disingenuous. (I have corrected some of the spelling errors I made.)

The conversation began with the other person (who I will refer to as “the Skeptic”) pointing out the Morris article and saying:

Note particularly that the ICR recognizes the purpose of the Wedge strategy, and points out that much of IDeology is nothing more than a re-hash, without proper attribution*, of material that the (so-called) scientific creationists had presented decades earlier.

Even the creationists don't like the cheap tuxedo ID puts them in.

I responded:

First, with respect to the article, the biggest argument that this creationist has is that he thinks the Wedge strategy is wrong. He believes that a person can believe in ID without becoming saved. You know what? He's right. That's because ID, as a scientific discipline, is uninterested in the identity of the intelligent designer. If you interpret the designer to be "God" then that is your philosophical imprint on what you learn. ID does not advocate for God and it is not creationism.

Second, to the extent you are trying to say that Creationists have used similar arguments, you are using a logical fallacy known as "guilt by association." The claims of ID stand or fall on their own without reference to others who may have made similar claims.

From this point, the Skeptic seeks to divide and conquer by splitting up what I said into sub-arguments. As such, much of the conversation from this point is not included as irrelevant to what comes later. Here is the important part of what he says in response that ultimately led me to believing that he was being disingenuous.

Following George MacReady Price, in the 1920's, Henry Morris is THE guy on "scientific creationism." He founded it. He knows darn well what he has done, and he knows what the IDeologists are doing.

He points out, correctly, that Johnson, Dembski, et aliae are merely wedging the door open for biblical literalism, but are not honest enough to say so, out loud.

I would strongly suggest you re-visit "guilt by association." The IDeologists do everything in their power to avoid the appearance of associating with SciCre. (Morris explicitly points this out, as well.)

Note that he first believes that because Morris is a Creationist, he “knows what the IDeologists are doing.” He is committing the error of already assuming that ID and Creationism are one and the same without proof. Second, he makes a claim that he will never support about the wedge strategy being used by Johnson, Dembski, et al. (the major pro-ID advocates). Finally, he suggests that I am wrong about “guilt by association” because the ID advocates are trying to avoid the appearance of associating with Creationism. This last point is the line that I now follow. I respond:

Right, they do so because they are not creationists, and so that they are not guilty by association. I suggest you revisit the fallacy yourself.

Think about it: if you are concerned that some of your beliefs could be attributable to your being associated with a disfavored group, but you think your ideas have merit and deserve an independent, objective review, wouldn’t you distance yourself from that group? Of course you would. The ID advocates are doing the same thing with Creationists. I do not know whether the ID advocates see merit or no merit in the work of the Creationists, but they certainly can recognize that being associated with them would lead to bad things since a Supreme Court case has already said that an Arkansas law requiring the teaching of creation science had its intent to promote religion. (Again, there is reason to doubt that this case should be binding beyond the facts of the case, but people have the arrived at the perception that the court said all teaching of creation science is religion. It is understandable that ID, which is presenting itself as a science—because it is a science—wants to distance itself from being associated with Creationism.)

How does the Skeptic respond? He (at least, I think he is a “he” and not a “she”) says:

Since they refuse to associate, then it isn't "guilt by association," now is it?

The Skeptic apparently believes that one has to actually associate for “guilt by association” to apply. But this is not true. In the 1996 American presidential election, Pat Buchanan ran for President in the primaries of the Republican party. At that time a rumor circulated that he “hung around” with neo-Nazis. There was no evidence that he did hang out with such people, but the charge alone was enough to make Mr. Buchanan guilty of being a neo-Nazi by association. In essence, the damage from the “guilt by association” arises not because there is an actual association, but because there is a charge of association.

In fact, there is not even a requirement of actual association in order to engage in the fallacy. Consider the following from the Nizkor project:

Guilt by Association is a fallacy in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim. This sort of "reasoning" has the following form:

  • It is pointed out that people person A does not like accept claim P.
  • Therefore P is false

  • It is clear that sort of "reasoning" is fallacious. For example the following is obviously a case of poor "reasoning": "You think that 1+1=2. But, Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Joseph Stalin, and Ted Bundy all believed that 1+1=2. So, you shouldn't believe it."

    The fallacy draws its power from the fact that people do not like to be associated with people they dislike. Hence, if it is shown that a person shares a belief with people he dislikes he might be influenced into rejecting that belief. In such cases the person will be rejecting the claim based on how he thinks or feels about the people who hold it and because he does not want to be associated with such people.

    Of course, the fact that someone does not want to be associated with people she dislikes does not justify the rejection of any claim. For example, most wicked and terrible people accept that the earth revolves around the sun and that lead is heavier than helium. No sane person would reject these claims simply because this would put them in the company of people they dislike (or even hate).

    So, to get back to the dialogue, I initially responded:

    I never said that ID advocates had engaged in guilt by association. You are the one making the guilt by association. They are the ones seeking to prevent it.

    The Skeptic responds:

    Nice try, too bad you fail. One can only make the assertion of "guilt by association" if they associate. OTOH, since they use exactly the same techniques, it isn't "guilt by association" but "guilt by being guilty."

    In case you are not familiar with Internet shorthand, “OTOH” means “on the other hand.” Notice that he is continuing to claim that one has to actually associate before the logical fallacy of “guilt by association” applies. But then, he goes back to his initial charge that because Morris—who is not an ID advocate and is on the outside looking in—charges that the ID advocates are using some of the Creationist arguments or approach, they are Creationists.

    I choose to ignore the second part of his rebuttal and return to the main point: he is trying to hang ID advocates through the logical fallacy of guilt by association because the Skeptic is trying to associate the two groups together even though the ID advocates assert that they are not Creationists. I say:

    You just don't get it do you? The reason that you have guilt by association is because others improperly associate the two! This is done when people say such things as "ID is creationism in a white lab coat." (thus, sayeth Dave Thomas, President of New Mexicans for Science and Reason) A person or group does not actually have to associate with the "evil" person or group to be tied together and have the dirt of the one spread on the other.

    Here is where he changes his story:

    However, I said it isn't guilt by association, it's guilt by being guilty. Note where Morris points out that IDeologists are using the exact same examples and arguments that SciCre's used decades earlier.

    Think about it. I began by saying he was engaging in guilt by association, he wrongly claimed he wasn’t because there was no actual association. Now he is saying that the ID advocates are associated because they are using the same tactics. Do you see how this is simply “guilt by association” again? At first, he was trying to claim that Morris was on the inside and had special insight into ID strategies which is a claim to guilt by association. Having realized he cannot win that argument, he tries to shift the argument to a claim that the ID advocates are using the same strategies which means, again, that they are guilty by association with the Creationist strategies. It is the same thing all over again!!

    He is trying to change the story and trying to put me on the defensive by claiming that I am somehow not responding to his argument. At this point, I ended the conversation. There is no point in continuing conversations where the other person makes inconsistent claims and treats them as though it is your fault that you are not responding to them.


    biblemike said…
    Well handled BK. It is unfortunately a primary characteristic found in conversations on any subject even among those who share common basic beliefs. If one person says something that has been previously said in a different context by someone else whose opinion is not respected, then the person speaking is no longer listened to and their statements are rejected without examination on the basis of guilt by association.

    More than once I have been dismissed as a crackpot, creationist, Republican, self-interpretationist and right wing radical merely because I have described myself as an individual who believes in the infallibility of scripture. None of those other names reflect what I believe, but they are a handy excuse for writing off anything I say. I am sure there are those who will do the same to you because of this piece.


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