Tag Archives: evolution

William Saletan’s understanding of creationism is deeply deficient

I’ve written a lot about creationism and its genesis, which I see as a desire, deep in this country, to avoid complexity and ambiguity. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because the scientists who espouse it “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He’s dead wrong. Creationism is merely part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism,” an absurd and dangerous idea, Christian doctrine. Saletan believes that a magical distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

I think this is a well-placed dissemblance forwarded to obfuscate the deeply political motives of the creation movement:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

Can one be a good creation scientist? Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

I’ve been told by more than a few science people that this isn’t true, and I think I can prove it. For instance, in order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating, which seems to me very important for other areas of science. I’m sure this isn’t the only instance where creationism bleeds into other parts of science (I doubt you can do biology, paleontology or astronomy properly, to name three).

I’ll end this blog post with this story from Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). I humbly request Saletan consider it when next writing on creationism: 

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but … well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not—at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth—or at least at the same time—and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought—that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

That, Mr. Saletan, is not someone who has compartmentalized their creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which they see the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect) do you really believe this is a small deal for these scientists? I suspect very much the opposite.



Ken Ham is a crazy-pants

In a much-hyped event live-streamed last night, “Science Guy” Bill Nye set out to defend evolution in a debate with Ken Ham, the CEO of Kentucky’s Creation Museum. But there was a fundamental problem: Ham’s young-earth creationism is not a religious belief, and it certainly is not scientific. To put it bluntly, it is quackery.

To understand Ham’s view, we need a brief history of how the Bible is interpreted, and where his radically new heuristic comes from. As Paul Fry notes, literary theory or the study of texts (hermeneutics) was originally developed to interpret the Bible. Interpretations have always been based on contemporary events and politics; for instance, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism were based on an attempt to placate the Roman empire. Biblical literalism as an interpretative method can be traced back to Martin Luther’s denunciation of the Catholic Church and his use of Scripture to undermine their authority. Martin Luther’s democratic mission later combined with the tenets of the scientific revolution and fundamentalist politics to produce biblical literalism, the idea that the Bible is a series of testable assertions that can be proven or disproven and that a layman can read and understand the meaning of Scripture.

Biblical literalism is absurd, but it is simple. The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

Because Ham’s claims are clearly unscientific (he denies radiometric dating, claims that the Earth is 6,000 years old based on incomplete genealogies and argues that the flood explains tectonic shifts) we must call them what they are: quackery. H.L. Mencken noted that human progress “tends to go too fast — that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable and incurious men.” Because of this, he worried that, “the average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly concludes that what lies beyond is simple nonsense.” This attitude was on display throughout the debate, when Bill Nye would accept ambiguity and Ken Ham simply substituted ambiguity for absolute and uncompromising and entirely unfounded certainty.

Creationism is a fraud. It is like witchcraft, the 9/11 conspiracy theory or homeopathy; it is a closed system, one that reason cannot penetrate. Nye’s decision to debate Ham and the decision to even air the debate was absurd. Bill Nye accepted the debate assuming he was debating about evolution; he was not. Rather he was debating a political issue. As Ken Ham has said elsewhere,  ”As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.” The Discovery Institute, which touts creationism with a different name (intelligent design), has espoused much the same opinions. Like all fundamentalist movements, they seek to explain all the world’s ills from one source. Barbara Forrest writes, “The ID movement developed out of the rejection of evolution by people who believe that the moral ills of the modern world have been caused by Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea.”

Both organizations (Ham’s Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute) are intimatelyintertwined with right-wing political causes. In the debate, Ham mentioned these ideas, noting that the biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman. The goal is not to defend the absurd idea of young-earth creationism, but rather biblical literalism, the ideology from which fundamentalists draw their strength. If evolution is true, if the Bible cannot be interpreted literally, then women can preach and seek abortion and gays can wed. Throughout its history, religious fundamentalism has been a force to mobilize and defend far-right causes — creationism is merely a “wedge” to expose children to fundamentalist beliefs.

Throughout the debate, Nye made the observation that Ham was essentially a cultish leader; he asked frequently why Ham’s followers would “believe him instead of what they could clearly see before his eyes.” Ham admitted that, “No one will ever convince me that the word of God is not true.” Unlike evolution, which would be easily falsifiable (As J.B.S. Haldane noted, all it would take to disprove evolution is “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era.”) Creationism is not falsifiable. Debating a creationist is like debating a 9/11 conspiracy theorist; one enters an alternate realm, one that is entirely self-reinforcing and impenetrable.

As Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922,

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

I have deep and profound disagreements with those who call themselves New Atheists. I worry with Rabindranath Tagore that, “material advantage … has tempted the modern man away from his inner realm of spiritual values,” and that these New Atheists, are the type of “precocious schoolboys of modern times, smart and superficially critical … driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbours’ houses on fire and are themselves enveloped by the flame.” But to degrade and exploit religion, as Ken Ham does, is appalling. It brings us no closer to an understanding of the deep questions that we struggle with. He and his ilk have no place in our intellectual life. I propose, with Stephen Jay Gould and the Catholic Church, that we recognize that religion and science are two entirely different realms.

As Martin Luther King Jr. argued, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”

Originally published on Salon.

Drew Miller misunderstands my argument

Drew Miller has a piece on Policymic about my piece on Salon (you can see my newer piece on Salon, essentially restating my position here). I think he misunderstands my argument and I want to correct it, and offer some points, but I also want to note that I looked at some of his work and found it enjoyable. So, yeah, this won’t be a rant (I know, I’m sorry).

He writes,

One common opinion is that meeting fundamentalists in debate only serves to strengthen their position; by giving them the platform of equal footing, the fundamentalist position is given the same weight as the litany of scientific fact proving otherwise. Richard DawkinsMark Joseph Stern, and Sean McElwee all make this argument.

Whenever I’m being lumped in with Dawkins, you know there might be a slight problem. My argument is in the same vein as Dawkins, but from a different angle. Dawkins said that Bill Nye does not represent him, nor the scientific community and should not debate Ham and give Ham scientific legitimacy. My argument is that Ham is not qualified to debate theology, does not represent the religious community and that the debate should not happen because Ham’s position should not be given religious legitimacy. As I’ve stated more recently, it is neither religion nor science, but rather it is bullshit.

I didn’t address this argument, but an even more powerful point is that Ham’s venture is hemorrhaging cash, and that by creating a new revenue stream for it, Nye is actively supporting the continued existence of the Creation Museum. That’s important because when children (children!) visit the museum which can now keep its doors open for another month or year, Nye won’t be there to disagree with them. Nye has brought up Ham’s public profile which may bolster efforts to get Creationism or ID back into schools, which would be a very, very destructive development.

Miller thinks engagement is the solution. I would encourage him to read the literature on cognitive dissonance (esp. Leon Festinger). This is part cult, part radical political movement and evolution is just a part of the iceberg. Reason simply isn’t going to win. And nor should it have to. We don’t engage the few people who still think interracial marriage is bad or that the earth is flat or that women are inferior. We don’t debate them because at a certain point we just move along. They can keep up or be marginalized. They’ll write angry Youtube comments, but for the most part, they are harmless. When they are on the national stage, they are very, very harmful.

Here’s a nasty fact. There are people out there who think women shouldn’t be allowed in the workforce. There are people who think Jewish people control the world. There are people who think the world will cease at the end of this year. There are people who think the government caused 9/11. We don’t debate them on the national stage, because at some point, you move on. Miller writes that,

As Staks Rorsh put it, ignoring ridiculous beliefs won’t make them go away. So while it may be a pain to actually take the time to explain why Noah’s Ark is utterly implausible, it’s a worthwhile task.

But at some point, that’s what we do. We don’t debate whether the Earth is flat, even though people believe it. We just let them marginalize themselves, because this simply isn’t a debatable issue. My dad always told me, “If you wrestle with a pig, all you get is muddy.”

A final note. Miller argues that,

Repressive systems do incredibly well when their adherents, whether willing or not, are prevented from conceiving of alternatives. How do the tyrants of Cuba and North Korea remain in power? By controlling the discussion.

This is a very bad argument for his case. Creationists do not live in a closed system. Had Bill Nye not come and discussed the issue, they would most certainly have been exposed, quite frequently to the alternative. Their children would hear the alternative in schools or see it on television. So this point is entirely irrelevant. If anything, Nye has allowed them more power to “control the discussion” by strengthening their organization.

Augustine literally predicted Ken Ham

I had this Augustine quote in my first draft, it got cut for being to verbose,

Reckless and presumptuous expounders of Scripture bring about much harm when they are caught in their mischievous false opinions by those not bound by our sacred texts. And even more so when they then try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case ‘without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance.’ (1 Timothy 1:7)

He might as well have added, “I’m looking at you Ken.”