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What is a Level Playing Field?

According to the New York Times, Dr. Richard Dawkins “withered” when confronted with questions in the screening of expelled:

Mr. Mathis said in an interview that he had confronted Dr. Dawkins in the question and answer period after the screening and that Dr. Dawkins withered. “These people who own the academic establishment and who have great friends in the media — they are not accustomed to having a level, open playing field,” Mr. Mathis said. “I watched a man who has been a large figure, an imposing figure, I watched this man shrink in front of my eyes.”

Check this post on The Panda’s Thumb for some more comments on the development of this story. It appears that “spin” in this case has involved some very creative retelling. Did security miss Dr. Dawkins? Did they let him in intentionally? Inquiring minds may find themselves challenged by the large number of alternate stories. Personally I suspect that they missed Dawkins (while recognizing PZ Myers) as was initially reported, then thought it would look better to have intentionally allowed him in. That is just an opinion, however.

What is most revealing about this quote, however, is what Mathis must regard as a “level, open playing field.” As I commented in in an earlier post there is a child’s view of fairness that involves each person winning the same number of times, irrespective of skill. Normally, as people mature, they replace this with the idea that the playing field should be the same for all, but that the “best” person (most skilled, prepared, determined, etc.) should win.

But Mr. Mathis apparently thinks the field isn’t open until he has a room from which he has “Expelled!” those who disagree, except for his particular target. Now I personally doubt that Dr. Richard Dawkins “withered” in the face of questions. While I don’t find his writing outside of science (The God Delusion for example) all that compelling, his scientific writing is excellent and clear, and his speaking style, the few times I have heard him, is also clear. I doubt that the makers of “Expelled!” have the ability to make him wither. But you can see what these folks are advocating as freedom. They want the freedom to give their view special privileges. The playing field is even, in their view, when the room is almost filled with their supporters. (Note that even where I don’t like his writing, I sincerely doubt he would wither in a debate! They should have tried that claim on someone else.)

This is especially important in science, where ideas have to be examined. It is not a matter of giving each idea a fair chance in the classroom. Rather, each idea gets the same chance to be tested. It may be rejected on first read because there is no experiment that will test it. It may only be rejected after much testing. It may be ridiculed at first and accepted later. But in none of these cases does it get to bypass the testing.

I have said before that I’d be happy to have ID examined in the science classroom, provided that it was examined rationally and scientifically, and thus severely critiqued. Even this should not happen in the High School science classroom, which is a place to learn basics, and where there is insufficient time even to teach all of the consensus science. Again, a “level, open playing field” is not a classroom full of High School students, unequipped to criticize.

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