Historians taking on "intelligent design"

It's good to see history blogs like the History News Network jumping into the fray against "intelligent design", especially given the way that one historian swallowed whole the distortions of ID a few months ago and disgraced himself and his profession by writing a vacuous and ill-informed article. This week, Richard Cravatts contributes an article pointing out how the advocates of the pseudoscience of creationism use the same sorts of logical fallacies and distorted arguments that advocates of the pseudohistory of Holocaust denial:
Ironically, deniers conduct their research and have come to their findings about the Holocaust in a manner similar to the way intelligent design theorists come to theirs. In his essay “Why Revisionism Isn't,” Gordon McFee seems to echo, in the context of revisionist history, the court’s appraisal of how intelligent design was researched and promoted. Just as creationists start with the premise that the theory of evolution is flawed and subject to doubt, wrote McFee, “‘Revisionists’ depart from the conclusion that the Holocaust did not occur and work backwards through the facts to adapt them to that preordained conclusion.” “Put another way, they reverse the proper methodology . . , thus turning the proper historical method of investigation and analysis on its head . . . To put it tritely, ‘revisionists’ revise the facts based on their conclusion.”

Deniers may have concluded and may passionately want to believe that there was no “Final Solution,” that gas chambers were used merely to delouse prisoners, that only hundreds of thousands of Jews, not millions, were exterminated, and that the Holocaust is overall a hoax perpetrated by Jewish victims to extract sympathy and reparations from the world; but all of their invidious scholarship cannot prove the unprovable, and nor obviously would their theories deserve to be taught as an alternative ‘history’ in public schools merely because they question history and employ perverse scholarship to deny and distort the magnitude of one of the most documented and pernicious events of contemporary times.

Now, once again, as I always do when this comparison comes up, I have to caution Dr. Cravatts, not because it isn't a valid comparison in terms of methodology, but rather because the comparison with Holocaust deniers is so toxic. Because Holocaust denial stems from anti-Semitism and/or neo-Nazi beliefs, one has to be careful not to leave the impression of accusing creationists of being anti-Semites or Nazis when invoking this comparison. (I know, I know, I'm repeating myself, but it's hard not to repeat oneself at least occasionally when you've been blogging almost a year.) The way around this is simply to be very careful about how you make the comparison and emphasize that you are comparing methods of argument and rhetoric, not political beliefs.

In any case, the most pertinent principle that applies to both Holocaust deniers and "intelligent design" creationists is Falsus in Uno, Falsus in Omnibus (one thing mistaken, all things mistaken). As Gord McFee puts it:
Since, as this list shows, the amount of empirical evidence for the Holocaust is so overwhelming, the "revisionists" must throw in another dismissal trick. This has been called the "falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus" condition (one thing mistaken equals all things mistaken). It means, for example, that if any single piece of survivor evidence can be shown to be wrong, all survivor evidence is wrong and is to be dismissed. If any Nazi official lied about an aspect of the Holocaust (on-topic or not), all Nazi officials lied, and anything Nazis said after the war is dismissed. If any Nazi can be shown to have been tortured or mistreated, they all were and anything they said is invalid.
Sound familiar? This is exactly what Holocaust deniers do all the time. I've seen it again and again on alt.revisionism and surfing Holocaust denial websites. Clearly it's ridiculous in historical analysis (evidence is never absolutely 100% consistent), and it's almost as ridiculous to apply to science.

But it's also what "intelligent design" creationists do, in part. How often do we hear creationists attacking one shortcoming of evolutionary theory (whether real, or, more commonly, exaggerated, or even made up out of whole cloth) and then implying that this must mean the whole theory must be called into question, conveniently ignoring all the other overwhelming evidence supporting evolution and that their alleged flaw is not of the variety of evidence that could falsify evolutionary theory. (Of course, this technique is somewhat easier for Holocaust denial, because deniers can always find a few eyewitness accounts that are flawed, incorrect, or made by people with dubious motives to tart up as "proof" that the Holocaust never happened.) Also, it's worth pointing out that there are single pieces of evidence that, if found and verified, could put evolutionary theory in serious doubt or even falsify it. However, such evidence has to this date never been found, which is why ID creationists never cite any evidence that truly calls evolution into question. Instead, they are reduced to distorting the evidence for evolution (or even outright lying about it), distorting what the theory of evolution actually says, and misrepresenting real scientific controversies in evolution (for example, punctuated equilibrium) as casting grave doubt upon the validity of the underpinnings of current day evolutionary theory. The also like to call evolutionary biologists "Darwinists," even though biology has moved on in the 150 years since Darwin's work, correcting areas where Darwin got it wrong and building upon areas where Darwin got it right.

Read the rest of Gord's essay and this additional essay and decide for yourself how similar creationists' methods of "argumentation" and "debate" are to those used by Holocaust deniers. And, of course, if you want to know more about Holocaust denial, The Holocaust History Project is a great place to start.


  1. You can add Global Warming Skepticism to that as well, although it's interesting that somehow it's seen as less 'out-there' than holocaust denial or creationism.

  2. You know I'm too into all of this when I see the headline "ID Dustup Threatens Kid's Christmas" on today's Boston Herald and wonder what the creationists are up to now. (It turns out that a local Toys for Tots center is asking families for ID to make sure people aren't showing up for toys multiple times.)

    I did attend a seminar given by a detective for mystery writers. One of the things he said that really struck me was that there is always something that turns up in any but the simplest murder investigation that just doesn't fit, that can't be fully explained. The murder was never the only thing going on in that person's (victim and/or perpetrator) life at the time. There will be things at the scene that have nothing to do with the crime.

  3. Everyone...don't forget to check out an equally valid theory called

    Flying Spaghetti Monsterism over at:


    And, don't forget, as a newly converted Pastafarian, yours truly, sean, a.k.a. Fresh Parmesan, has received the first of many divine revelations regarding FSM'ism in the form of "Book One: The Pastafarian Revelations," to be found at:


    We are doing the open minds of the world a great disservice if we fail to consider the implications of the above!!!!

    peace n whatnot,

    aka Al Fraydoe's First Prophet,
    Fresh Parmesan

  4. This is indeed encouraging. The History News Network had another good essay back in September entitled "Why Historians Have a Stake in the Debate over Evolution" (http://hnn.us/articles/14997.html).

    Btw Orac- nice blog.
    Cheers, zilch

  5. What would the equivalent of Godwin's law be?


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