Stereotyping has been a persistent issue in the ID debate. Prominent critics almost invariably try to link ID and its proponents to certain stereotypes: creationism, religious fundamentalism, theocracy, religion, anti-science, irrationalism, etc. But the "problem" of stereotyping has not only been addressed just by ID proponents. Sam Harris seeks to dispel stereotypes of atheists in 10 myths"”and 10 Truths"”About Atheism.
Now commonly, stereotypes are thought to be bad. These social psychologists, however, claim this is not necessarily so. Stereotyping can do some necessary work for making sense of the world and ordering society. They use an example of a police officer directing traffic. Since the officer is part of a well known group there is also a stereotype associated with it. The common stereotype includes the idea of authority, law enforcement, protection, helpfulness, etc. This stereotype is important for directing traffic because it provides for an instant response in appropriate ways from individuals and groups.
So what do stereotypes offer? From the excerpt:
To understand what stereotypes are it is useful to consider three principles which guide work on the social psychology of stereotyping. No perspective shares all principles to the same degree, rather different perspectives sample from each of the principles to a greater or less degrees. Nevertheless the three guiding principles we can identify are as follows: (a) stereotypes are aids to explanation, (b) stereotypes are engergy-saving devices, and (c) stereotypes are shared group beliefs. The first of these implies that stereotypes should form so as to help the perceiver make sense of a situation, the second implies that stereotypes should reduce effort on the part of the perceiver, and the third implies that stereotypes should be formed in line with the accepted views or norms of social groups that the perceiver belongs to.
Let's take a look at these principals.
Stereotypes are aids to explanation. Stereotypes are complex things but they can characterize motives, behaviors, skills, personalities, etc. As such they offer a quick rough-and-ready explanation and perhaps prediction of those stereotyped. Stereotype someone and you have a quick explanation for what they do or say. "Oh, such and such does or thinks that because they are a [fill in the stereotype]".
Stereotypes are energy-saving devices. If a person already has a well established stereotype they can apply, they don't have to do any additional work to know what to think or how to behave towards that person or group. Great time saver. Many people live in a complex world. There is cognitive overload everywhere. Stereotypes short cut having to do a lot of work in making sense of things.
Stereotypes are shared group beliefs. It wouldn't do the police officer any good to try to direct traffic if everyone doesn't know it is her job to do so and that they better follow her directions.
So stereotypes can be of great help in navigating and dealing with the world. However, as many have noted there can also be problems with them. They can be both good, bad, and ugly. Since a stereotype is quick and doesn't require any reflection, if it wrongly represents the person or group it can mislead. What follows can be unfounded biases and prejudices. The bad of stereotypes is that since they tend to thwart doing the hard evaluative work they can be wrong with bad consequences. Now this mis-stereotyping can be bad, but there can also be an ugly aspect to stereotyping. The promotion of certain stereotypes can be dishonest. In this case certain people or groups try to pin a stereotype on other people that is not warranted. Since stereotypes are shared beliefs, when one is misapplied on purpose this dishonestly creates a false perception about a group in the public eye. Sam Harris doesn't like what he thinks are misleading stereotypes for atheists and neither do ID proponents. What is striking about the ID controversy is the persistent, ubiquitous use of the stereotype "creationist" that is applied to ID proponents or the many others stereotypes like "ID=religion", "ID=anti-science", "ID=theocracy", etc. There is even often an equivocation in trying to justify using a term like creationism by redefining it overagainst the common public usage. But stereotypes are shared public beliefs that are not open to quick redefinition.
Now it may be that stereotypes have an good and important use in general society. But in indepth debates and essays/books produced by academics they wouldn't seem to have a place. Stereotypes are blunt instruments. The purpose of debate should be to get beyond the superficial and into a thoroughgoing, rigorous exploration. If history is any indication, the misuse of stereotypes always comes back to bite those who promote them.