If you want to see what happens when an intelligent, polite man meets an ideologically-driven unread boor, look no further than the continued correspondence between Andy Schlafly, pundit and bigot extraordinaire, and Dr. Richard Lenski, biologist. This little battle has become somewhat of a cause celebre, so I’m happy to revisit the debate. For those of you just joining us, here’s the story as it stands now (fuller recap on earlier developments here):
- Richard Lenski published a scientific study proving, again, that evolution can generate new information and beneficial mutations, thus disposing of a common creationist canard.
- Andy Schlafly, creationist pundit and proprietor of Conservapedia (the “trusworthy” encyclopedia) couldn’t stand science beating his beloved ideology (creationism), so he wrote Lenski and complained: “show us your data!”
- Lenski replied, “please read the paper, it’s all there.” My last post left off at this point.
- Although Schlafly could have read the paper to get the important data, Schlafly instead replied in true lawyer fashion (I can mock my profession!), dodging the issue on the merits and instead demanding that Lenski produce all twenty years of his research leading to his conclusions – i.e., an impractical amount of data – for Schlafly’s review.
There’s a trick to that last request: it’s a particularly evil modern lawyer move called “burying the opponent in discovery.” You demand that the other guy show you an impossibly large amount of vaguely important or tenuously related documents, thereby abusing notions of procedural fairness to waste everybody’s time, rack up your bills, and hopefully run the little guy out of the process if he can’t afford the cost of sending you the documents. Ideally, this trick forces settlement, thus avoiding a substantive debate that you might *gasp!* justly lose. Although Schlafly’s not billing, he presumably thought that he could claim the high ground by demanding that Lenski show him twenty years worth of data, and mocking him when he didn’t or couldn’t do so.
To be clear, real lawyers frown on this tactic: it’s immoral and against professional ethics. But that won’t stop a man like Schlafly from trying it, so demand he did. Lenski, Schlafly assumed, wouldn’t waste his time, and Andy could claim victory not because he’d won on the battlefield of ideas, but because he’d tuckered his opponent out by focusing the debate on posturing & style, instead of substance.
If that was Schlafly’s idea, it didn’t work. Lenski saw the trap and avoided it. He again replied by challenging the political paradigm into which Schlafly was trying to shoehorn the debate, demanding instead that Schlafly debate him on the scientific merits, or not at all. Lenski also played within the Schlafly paradigm insofar as necessary to defuse it: “If any such request [for production of scientific data] requires substantial time or resources… then of course I would expect the recipient to bear those costs.” There goes the lawyering trick.
In short, Andy Schlafly just lost on his own turf, and will lose in a debate on the actual science of the issue, if he chooses to engage in one. Don’t expect him to do so, though. Expect a few more tricks that will just make us good lawyers look bad.