Our Man In Ottawa: How to deal with Creationists


MSS-member and recent émigré to Canada Chris Hassall gives us a rundown of how to cope with the Creationist crazy.

When dealing with woo the most profitable tactic is usually simply to expose their quackery by taking apart their arguments. Very few woo-ers have anything more than thin reasoning behind their beliefs; often just enough pseudoscientific babble to provide a veneer of respectability for what is clearly nonsense. However, Creationism is one area in which a substantial publishing industry has grown up around the defence of the topic such that the average Creationist can bury you in books in response to questions. Also, a relatively large number of people are interested in finding a way to harmonise theories of biological origins with theological concepts (principally the creation myths of the Abrahamic religions). Thus we have two potential strategies that have emerged from the fray: confrontationalism and accommodationism. It will soon become clear to which camp I belong…

Accommodationism

This school of thought has a long and distinguished history in the sciences. The earliest scientific researchers, including Newton and Gallileo, were not known as scientists but “natural philosophers” and they worked not to better understand the world but to better understand the glory of the divine creation. Even as the state of our knowledge has explained more and more phenomena without the need to refer to a deity, pushing Him/Her into the farthest reaches of cosmology/metaphysics, some scientists and philosophers maintain their desire to see this trend cease.

Arguments for accommodationism tend to fall into three categories:

NOMA – The first, most notable because it has a famous proponent in Stephen Jay Gould, is that science in general is incapable of making any kind of statement concerning a God. Gould, in his book Rocks of Ages, coined the phrase “non-overlapping magesteria” (since abbreviated to NOMA) for the concept of science and religion being two discrete fields with no interaction. The NOMA principle is defined thus:

“The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap…”

Some have taken Gould’s concept of NOMA and applied it to Creationism, as a theological concept, asserting that science cannot comment on the religious nature of the belief. Clearly this is nonsense, since all of Creationism is geared around explaining scientific phenomena.

Epistemology – The second argument for accommodationism is that science cannot know everything and that this incomplete knowledge leaves room for God to survive. While inherently true in epistemological terms, this argument is a fairly extreme rearguard action. Once more we find God hiding in cosmological theories or vaguely postulated to be holding the universe together in some invisible way. Again, however, this argument does not hold a lot of water as the theory of Creationism lies within the relatively well-understood field of biology.

Diplomacy – The final argument for accommodationism should not really be an argument at all and is one of the primary reasons for extensive criticism of the position. Accommodationists see themselves as diplomats, attempting to build bridges between the atheist scientists and the theists. Every time a scientific theory attempts to chip away at the concept of a God, claim the accommodationists, we alienate the vast majority of people who believe in that God. We don’t want to go upsetting people do we? And what happens when we want to ensure that theists are on our side when we apply for greater science funding or the exclusion of explicit discussion of theological concepts in science classes? If we all place nice and don’t make a fuss then everything will be alright…

This is a lovely ideal. However, it involves what too many scientists perceive as intellectual dishonesty. That we should be prevented from sharing our ideas, knowledge and data with a populace that doesn’t want to hear it for fear that they should throw their toys out of the pram is not a good reason to accommodate them. Even worse the insinuation is that scientists and science education are at the mercy, via the democratic system, of a theologically-minded public that would rather see less science (which is providing cures for disease and heating for their homes) than be provided with evidence against their religious beliefs. No scientist should be gagged in this way.

Confrontationlism

As well as the library of books is the vast number of pithy little questions or statements that creationists are taught to ask those who question them in order to throw their opponents off balance. While some are ridiculous:

  • If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?
  • My grandpa wasn’t a monkey was yours?
  • Were you there?
  • Evolution is the theoretical basis for Communism

Indeed, some Creationist arguments are so ridiculous that Creationists have actually had to begin policing their own numbers and have released a list of arguments that should not be used. Clearly these arguments should be answered bluntly and with little regard for NOMA. But why stop there…? More sophisticated arguments also abound and these may appear to be reasonable at first glance:

  • Mitchondrial Eve lived 6,000 years ago, thereby proving a Young Earth
  • The bacterial flagellum could not have evolved gradually
  • Snails that were caught a few days prior to examination were found to be thousands of years old using carbon dating

A favourite strategy of the Creationist Duane Gish is to cite a long list of these sorts of semi-technical statements in debates. They are all very easy to state but extremely complex to rebut, leaving his opponent labouring through science while he appears to win using nothing but rhetoric. The technique has been named the “Gish Gallop” in his honour. However, such arguments have no more basis in science than those ridiculous statements and questions listed earlier.

There are also three main arguments for the confrontationist view:

Honesty – If we are to hold back our theories, data and ideas from the general public then what is the point in our being scientists? The idea of not telling people something because it might upset them is simply patronising. If a major religion rejected the germ theory of disease (which most of them have every right to, since it is not mentioned in any holy books) then it would not be a reasonable course of action to withhold antibiotics from the adherents of that religion. Why is evolution any different?

Epistemology – It is generally held in the evolution/Creationism debate that the science is in favour of evolution. This is the view of the scientific community (as evidence by the tongue-in-cheek Project Steve, ironically named after accommodationist Stephen Jay Gould) based on the available evidence. To say that that there are multiple, varying interpretations of the same data that are all equally valid (as some would argue) is to descend into relativism. The job of science is to select the model which best fits the data and in this case it is evolution by a country mile. The current favourite piece of rhetoric from Answers in Genesis (a leading young earth creationism group based in the USA) runs like this:

“Creationists and evolutionists, Christians and non-Christians all have the same evidence—the same facts… The difference is in the way we all interpret the facts. And why do we interpret facts differently? Because we start with different presuppositions” – Ken Ham

Suddenly we are deep into relativism and philosophy of science. But hold on… Surely the only people who have actually stated their presuppositions are the Creationists?

“By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record” – Source: Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith

Those scientists who originally formulated the theory of evolution were actually theists (including Darwin himself, who at one stage began training to become an Anglican parson) and therefore had exactly the same preconceptions as those who now deny evolution.

Education – The media furore concerning the teaching of evolution, creationism and intelligent design in classrooms highlights the need for the scientific community (i.e. the ones who are best placed to comment on the current state of knowledge) to become more deeply involved in communicating to the public. Entirely aside from the fact that we should aim to give children the best education we can, presenting the current state of our knowledge. Teaching anything else is irresponsible. Where once the “men-in-white-coats” were esteemed for their erudition and listened to for their opinions, now they are regarded as being figures of suspicion. Their views are listened to when they say things the public wants to hear or doesn’t care about, but no more than the average celebrity.

Conclusion

In a lot of cases, woo should be counteracted with logic, science and common sense. However, some would hold that Creationism is different because of its religious connotations and, therefore, should be afforded a modicum of respect. Bollocks. Where Creationism strays into testable hypotheses and starts attempting to provide more than simply “Goddidit”, where religious ideas attempt to clothe themselves in the garb of science, they leave themselves open to the brutality that is scientific criticism. Confrontation is the route to minimising the damage caused by woo and Creationism should be treated no differently.

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