Monday, December 30, 2019

#2289: Rodney Stark

Yes, he’s got credentials. Rodney Stark is a sociologist of religion, long-time professor of sociology and of comparative religion at the University of Washington, currently Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and co-director of the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and author of numerous scholarly books and articles. Confidence in his own expertise would be justified. Unfortunately, when he ventures beyond those fields, the results are embarrassingly feeble, and Stark has made several attempts to make contributions beyond his own field of expertise.

Stark, though perhaps not particularly religious himself, is for instance an apologist for intelligent design creationism. In his 2004 article “Facts, Fable and Darwin,” he took issue with what he described as the stifling of debate on evolution, criticizing the “Darwinian Crusade” and their “tactic of claiming that the only choice is between Darwin and Bible literalism” (which sounds suspiciously rather like the tactic of young-earth creationists) and complaining that “the theory of evolution is regarded as the invincible challenge to all religious claims,” even though “it is taken for granted among the leading biological scientists that the origin of species has yet to be explained.” Of course, there is little controversy about evolution or the (general theory of the) origin of species within biology, and Stark’s point is rather that religious dogma should be given serious weight as an alternative to empirical evidence also within the sciences – not only does he not really understand evolution or biology; he doesn’t understand how science works either. For instance, to back up his claim that “there is no plausible scientific theory of the origin of species” you would have expected Stark to launch into a debate of, say, chromosomal speciation or something, wouldn’t you? Yeah, right. What he actually does is launch into a mess of murky nonsense, misunderstandings (he really doesn’t have the faintest clue how biologists understand species and borrows instead some misunderstandings from creationists; there is a good criticism here), ad hominems (plenty) and – of course – quote-mining: Stark even reproduces the old creationist quote mining that makes it sound like Gould claimed that there were no transitional fossils. Indeed, Stark even suggests conspiracy, that biologists are covering up a dark secret and all know that evolution has failed but don’t dare to say so because of the orthodoxy, and that their only motivation is atheism. In short, he displays a level of intellectual dishonesty that ought to make his colleagues go back and review his own scientific production in his own field. And in conclusion, Stark suggested that governments “lift the requirement that high school texts enshrine Darwin’s failed attempt as an eternal truth.” If you wondered what a strawman looks like, this is a strawman.

There is a thorough takedown of Stark’s nonsense and dishonesty here. (Stark’s misunderstanding of and lack of knowledge of basic biology is actually striking even for a hack.) As a consequence of his ranting, Stark has – despite his utter lack of knowledge about biology – become something of an authority among certain creationists, such as John Adolfi.

Diagnosis: Hackjob standing proudly at the pinnacle of Mount Stupid. But seriously: given his willingness not only to blather nonsensically about a field he knows nothing about, but to actively lie about it, someone really should subject his scholarly production to some serious critical scrutiny as well.

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