Rhetorical masterpiece

2005/06/06 at 13:15

The Theory of Evolution: Just a Theory?, by William D. Rubinstein, has been making the blog rounds the last few days. PZ Myers has already posted a thorough critcism of how Dr. Rubenstein misrepresents the scientific method and the science behind evolution.
At the beginning of the essay, Dr. Rubinstein claims that his questions are not motivated by religious belief, but then he goes on to employ several common creationist attacks on evolution. After I read his essay, I immediately concluded that his claim about motivations must surely be disingenuous.
While I totally disagree with Dr. Rubinstein’s arguments and conclusions, I have a certain appreciation for his rhetorical methodology. He has been effective at getting people to take his essay sersiously.
Let’s take a look at his rhetorical framing, starting from the beginning of the essay:

Historian Prof. William D. Rubinstein shares his doubts about the theory of evolution. He raises questions about evolution to which he seeks answers.
Like most people with enquiring minds, I have at least a desultory interest in many fields beyond my own narrow specialty, including the mysteries of science. I am not a scientist, needles to say, although I think I have as much common sense as the next man and probably more in the way of an independent viewpoint than most.

Dr. Rubinstein starts off by establishing his intellectual credibility and by distancing himself from ‘scientists.’ By mentioning his ‘independent viewpoint,’ he plants the idea that scientists who support evolution may not be motivated purely by academic objectivity.
Furthermore, he appeals to common sense, implying that anyone who sees the scientific data without an agenda should find the same questions as he himself.

I have thus long been fascinated by the great dogma of the Theory of Evolution, which of course was formulated by Charles Darwin in his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, probably the most important book published during the nineteenth century. The Theory of Evolution in its commonly-voiced form has long struck me as having so many dubious features that it is genuinely surprising that it has not attracted many more challenges than it actually has – although (I gather) a growing number of scientifically-trained commentators are also having their doubts.

In the next paragraph, Dr. Rubinstein continues his themes from the introduction. His ‘genuinely surprising’ statement again appeals to common sense and implies that anyone who does not question the ‘dubious features’ is working on some other, presumably prejudiced, basis. Furthermore, his use of the word ‘dogma’ in relation to evolutionary theory supports his implication that evolution’s supporters are prejudiced.

One reason for the failure of scientists to challenge Evolution is that the whole subject is tainted and pervaded by the religion vs. science question, such that anyone who questions Evolution is automatically dismissed as a “Creationist” who believes in the literal truth of the Bible and who is seen as having an agenda of religious fundamentalism behind his doubts. Let me make clear, then, that I am not a religious fundamentalist…

The next statement is Dr. Rubinstein’s pièce de résistance. The most common criticism of creationists is that they are motivated by religious dogma. Dr. Rubinstein draws together threads of the previous paragraphs and turns this argument against the scientists themselves, claiming that they are the ones who stick to dogma in the face of (presumably valid) criticism. Having established that, he claims that his questions are indeed not subject to any prejudice.
After having masterfully framed his argument, Dr. Rubinstein devotes most of the rest of the essay to the time-worn arguments of most creationists. The fact that so many people seem to be taking him seriously attests to the success of his rhetorical framing.