How Ronald Numbers reports an incident

I’ve learned a bit about Ronald Numbers now, and what I’ve learned does not make me inclined to respect him.

I’m reading a little book from Yale University Press, The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue? (2009). Essays by Kenneth Miller and Alvin Plantinga among others – and by Ronald Numbers. His essay is called “Aggressors, Victims, and Peacemakers.” One of the peacemakers is, of all people, Michael Ruse. Michael Ruse! Ruse is notoriously belligerent and rude; he prides himself on it, he boasts of it, he preens himself on it. Numbers illustrates Ruse’s peacemaker qualities by telling us about an email exchange he had with Daniel Dennett – but he does so in a totally misleading way.

The exhange was initiated by Ruse, but Numbers doesn’t say that. What he does say implies the opposite.

Ruse fretted that Dawkins and Dennett were “making it very difficult for those of us who care about evolution to put forward a reasonable face to the reasonable portion [of the public] in the middle.” In an e-mail exchange subsequently made public, Dennett offered his fellow philosopher some pseudo-friendly advice…[pp 48-9]

That’s worse than misleading. There is no footnote for the Ruse quote, so one can’t tell when he said it or to whom. The email exchange was “subsequently made public” by Ruse, without Dennett’s permission, and his way of making it public was to send it to William Dembski. Most damning of all, Numbers makes it sound as if Dennett initiated the email exchange, but it was Ruse who did, and it was Ruse who was pseudo-friendly, not Dennett. Ruse wrote a pseudo-innocent little message to Dennett on a Sunday afternoon, a Sunday when the New York Times Book Review had just published a startlingly savage review of Breaking the Spell by Leon Wieseltier. Ruse’s “innocent” message was transparently a taunt. Dennett’s reply was not at all a bit of pseudo-friendly advice, it was a mild rebuke in reply to a typical Rusean provocation. But nobody reading Numbers’s account would have any idea of that. Numbers is a historian – and this is how careful he is.

In case there’s any doubt about Ruse’s sending the exchange to Dembski without permission: I asked both Ruse and Dennett, and both confirmed. Ruse wasn’t at all contrite; on the contrary, he was pleased with himself.

That’s a peacmaker?

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