A colleague of mine was asked to be the advocate for a grant proposal for an internal University-wide competition. There were five internal proposals, of which only one could be selected to go forward to the funding agency. The advocates for each of the proposals were part of a panel that decided which would go forward. His account of the process went something like this:

It was clear that each of the other four advocates knew that the INC proposal was the one to beat. Each of them knew that the only way their proposal could go forward would be if the INC proposal was defeated. Therefore, each of the presentations highlighted the deficits of the INC proposal and the strengths of the proposal they were advocating. The majority of the time was spent discussing the weaknesses of the strongest proposal.

The result of this process was that the strongest proposal was pushed down and another proposal selected to go forward to the funding agency. This second-best proposal didn't pass muster at the national level, and so was never awarded. My colleague was bemoaning this, and suggested an alternative procedure for future competitions:

What if each advocate were to independently review all five proposals and then put forward what they thought were the top two proposals?

His assertion was that in this case the top proposal (which would be the most likely to be funded, thus best for the University) would have been obvious and would have gone forward, with better overall chance of success. In his view, the advocates were implicitly selecting what they though was the best alternative to their proposal by choosing it as the one to beat.

The one to beat

An intelligent person who is paying attention to the current cultural and intellectual climate quickly gets the impression that there are many different groups who are, independently of each other, arguing against Christianity. The Da Vinci Code is an example from modern popular fiction; it argues that Christianity is intentionally anti-feminine and that modern Christianity is the result of a re-writing of Christ's life story that happened hundreds of years after the fact. The Blind Watchmaker and other books are attempts by athiests to disprove religion through appeals to scientific inquiry. "Separation of Church and State" is a popular rallying cry for those trying to reduce the influence of religious morals on everyday life.

As happens in politics, the cumulative effect of such negative campaigning can be to make the disinterested bystander think that with such a wide range of terrible things being said about it, Christianity must really be a poor candidate for a world-view. After all, many independent groups are producing negative assessments of it.

But we must remember that the "independent" groups all have one thing in common. Like the advocates in the grant-selection process, they all know who is the one to beat if their case is to go forward.

Related essays

Comments on The Da Vinci Code

Comments on The Blind Watchmaker

True like Gravity.

Myths about Science

Version 1. Copyright 2006, Russell M. Taylor II