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Why Creationism Matters

Katha Pollitt has an article in The Nation about the recent poll that shows remarkable consistency in the percentage of Americans who reject evolution. She notes that the numbers don’t even change for those who are college graduates, which is pretty depressing. So is this:

Why does it matter that almost half the country rejects the overwhelming evidence of evolution, with or without the hand of God? After all, Americans are famously ignorant of many things—like where Iran is or when World War II took place—and we are still here. One reason is that rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it.

I had a conversation with a guy recently on a Google+ hangout who was repeating creationist talking points on the subject. One of his arguments was that we’ve never observed the creation of a new species. He’s wrong, of course, we observe it pretty regularly. And I asked him if he had ever done a search of the scientific literature to find instances of observed speciation. He didn’t know what speciation is, nor had he ever bothered to look for anything about the subject other than creationist websites and pamphlets.

I’ve always been baffled by people like that. They really must think that virtually every biologist, geneticist, geologist, etc, in the world have been fooled by something that seems to obviously false to him — without ever bothering to educate himself on the subject at all. He has transcended mundane ignorance for virulent ignorance, substituting a bunch of platitudes for actual knowledge and giving himself the illusion that he knows what he’s talking about. But he doesn’t. And this tendency is not limited to evolution and creationism; it’s how most people reach conclusions on most subjects.

So why does it matter? Pollitt quotes a couple old friends and colleagues in the creationism battles:

Patricia Princehouse, director of the evolutionary biology program at Case Western Reserve University, laughed when I suggested to her that the Gallup survey shows that education doesn’t work. “There isn’t much evolution education in the schools,” she told me. “Most have no more than a lesson or two, and it isn’t presented as connected with the rest of biology.” In fact, students may not even get that much exposure. Nationally, Princehouse said, at least 13 percent of biology teachers teach “young earth” creationism (not just humans but the earth itself is only 10,000 years old or thereabouts), despite laws forbidding it, and some 60 percent teach a watered-down version of evolution. They have to get along with their neighbors, after all. In Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, a new law actually makes teaching creationism legal. “No one takes them to court,” Princehouse told me, “because creationism is so popular. Those who object are isolated and afraid of reprisals.” People tend to forget that Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes trial; until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 1968, it was illegal to teach evolution in public schools in about half a dozen states.

Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and practicing Catholic who is a leading voice against creationism, agrees with Princehouse. “Science education has been remarkably ineffective,” he told me. “Those of us in the scientific community who are religious have a tremendous amount of work to do in the faith community.” Why bother? “There’s a potential for great harm when nearly half the population rejects the central organizing principle of the biological sciences. It’s useful for us as a species to understand that we are a recent appearance on this planet and that 99.9 percent of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct.” Evangelical parents may care less that their children learn science than that they avoid going to hell, but Miller points out that many of the major challenges facing the nation—and the world—are scientific in nature: climate change and energy policy, for instance. “To have a near majority essentially rejecting the scientific method is very troubling,” he says. And to have solidly grounded science waved away as political and theological propaganda could not come at a worse time. “Sea-level rise” is a “left-wing term,” said Virginia state legislator Chris Stolle, a Republican, successfully urging its replacement in a state-commissioned study by the expression “recurrent flooding.”

Belief in creationism is a symptom of a larger problem, which is, as Pollitt says, the dismissal of evidence that conflicts with one’s religious beliefs. And that causes serious damage to both our public discourse and our public policy.

Comments

  1. colinkingsley says

    I’ve always been baffled by people like that. They really must think that virtually every biologist, geneticist, geologist, etc, in the world have been fooled by something that seems to obviously false to him — without ever bothering to educate himself on the subject at all.

    This particular description also fits almost all other forms of science denialism. I’ve met people who insist that climate change is caused by sunspots — as if every climate scientist in the world never thought to consider solar activity!

    Some can even point to a study or two, occasionally even one by reputable scientists, that seem, at a glance to support their claims; but they completely neglect the fact that it takes an expert with comprehensive knowledge of the field to put that paper in context. This is almost worse, as it implies that every climate scientist in the world not only forgot to consider solar activity, but that they all neglected to read the literature on their field!

  2. garnetstar says

    I’ve always been baffled by people like that. They really must think that virtually every biologist, geneticist, geologist, etc, in the world have been fooled by something that seems to obviously false to him — without ever bothering to educate himself on the subject at all.

    Couldn’t agree more.

    A caller to The Atheist Experience once explained that evolution couldn’t have happened because, since water contains oxygen atoms, and biomolecules are instantly destroyed by oxygen in the atmosphere, abiogensis was impossible.

    I wasn’t just baffled–who the hell was he to conclude that the fundamental laws of chemistry and biology were false, simply because scientists had never noticed that both water and the atmosphere contain oxygen atoms? Scientists are that goddamn stupid, while he had easily discovered this fact?

    Didn’t know middle-school chemistry, yet was making proclamations on the laws of science. And they call atheists arrogant.

  3. matty1 says

    “Sea-level rise” is a “left-wing term,” said Virginia state legislator Chris Stolle, a Republican

    Hahahahahahahaha, wait this is serious?

  4. Chris A says

    Didn’t know middle-school chemistry, yet was making proclamations on the laws of science. And they call atheists arrogant.

    Seriously, what is more arrogant than believing that you have the answer before you know the question?

  5. AsqJames says

    Belief in creationism is a symptom of a larger problem, which is, as Pollitt says, the dismissal of evidence that conflicts with one’s religious beliefs.

    I know this is nitpicking, but the problem is not restricted to religious beliefs.

  6. slc1 says

    Re AsqJames @ #6

    Perfect example, a commenter here calling himself Lancefer who rejects the theory of global warming for non-religious reasons.

  7. thalwen says

    The problem is that scientists and creationists have completely different agendas. Scientists want to find out things and aren’t afraid to question their conclusions or findings. I’ve heard creationists say repeatedly that anything that conflicts with their reading of the Bible is false therefore they will do anything, no matter how ridiculous, in order to maintain their conclusion. So scientists invest in research, while creationists invest in propaganda.

  8. says

    I’m not aware of a large class of people who reject evolution for non-religious beliefs.
    The rejection of global warming is borne of economic laziness, but is directed by the kind of denialism that one sees in creationism.

    Personally, I equate religious thinking with anti-empirical thinking. After all, that’s what I was taught faith consisted of. Faith, as I was taught, was the adherence to a set of beliefs no matter what new evidence or thinking comes your way. Indeed, the core of Western faith is the belief in afterlife and resurrection, phenomena which are utterly without evidence.

    And yes, it requires profound arrogance to assert one’s religious beliefs to be superior to beliefs borne of observation and the scientific process.

  9. interrobang says

    The comments on that article are especially sad. The most frustrating ones to me are the ones from the cretinists who maintain that scientists just have “a different interpretation” of the data than creationists do. There’s no use in even talking to people like that, because you can’t reason with them, persuade them, or do anything other than wind up covered in shit after a futile bout of pig-wrestling.

  10. had3 says

    How does archeology confirm evolution in the same manner geology or paleontology does? I’m not dating it doesnt, I’m just unaware of how it does. Thanks.

  11. D. C. Sessions says

    Never overlook the power of tribal identity. How many of these views are driven by the need to conform to tribal norms?

    I know someone who is a marvellous example: had the same education I did for most of his life, has a Masters in EE (which requires a fair bit of physics) and since then has become a huge global-warming denialist spouting arguments that I know run directly counter to some of his own graduate work in optics.

    More to the point, he’s now become an evolution denialist later in life (not as a child) — to the point of spouting the “evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics” talking point. This, from someone who can write the formal definition of the Second Law from memory.

    Tribalism.

  12. oranje says

    In my first year of undergrad (mid-90′s), we had a class that all freshmen had to take that was meant to be an introduction to research, inquiry, scholarship, etc., and all sections of the class had common texts and would assemble to see speakers. Otherwise, we were broken into classes of about 24 each.

    One day a student had the idea to have students stand across the classroom as though it were a spectrum; you stood based on your confidence of evolution v. creationism. I was the only one against the wall on the evolution side. Two other students were on that half, and the professor was 3/4 on the evolution side. The other 21 students were against the creationism wall.

    What followed was a discussion with utterances like “evolution is satanic,” and the like. So no, this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. And it is sad.

  13. otrame says

    @had3

    Depends. If we are talking Young Earth Creationism then, yeah, archaeology refutes it by talking about sites that date earlier than 6-10k years ago.

  14. says

    This sort of anti-scientific irrationality isn’t just confined to the religious or to the right, as has been mentioned. It’s the same for anyone who clings too closely to their ideology.

    Many Progressive Lefties will agree that the right’s denialism of evolution or global-warmning is looney, but start talking about GMO food or organics, and you’re liable to get back some equally irrational diatribe.

    Case in point:
    http://goo.gl/t3WDY

    It’s mostly all good until you get to her fifth point, then it goes off the deep-end.

  15. Brain Hertz says

    EricJ,
    I’m not really seeing where the “anti science” part comes in with that article. It’s an opinionated rant, for sure, but I don’t see any major factual innacuracies. Sure, you can argue about the merits of GMO crops, but that’s buried in the middle of a long list of gripes about intensive farming methods, and the basic conclusion seems to be correct, if a little exaggerated: there really are organic markets springing up everywhere, and the major complaint seems to be about agricultural subsidies and the fact that they are distorting the market.

  16. says

    Brain Hertz,
    Yes the article makes many good points of course, including the distorting effects of agri-subsidies. My major complaint with it was the “you red-staters can keep your polluted GMO foods while us blue-staters will stick to our organics” attitude. It’s an attitude quite common among the more “new-agey” and anti BigPharma conspiracy-type lefties.

    In my mailbox today I got a promo-package from Mother Jones magazine pushing a subscription, in which they use the anti-GMO fear angle “60% of processed foods in your supermarket may be made with [GM] ingredients that have never been proven safe”

    See also GreenPeace’s anti-GMO stance, which doesn’t even seemed concerned with nuance.

    http://goo.gl/bhXH8

    Anyway, much of it is anti-scientific (or at least irrational) in my opinion, b/c they fail to realize that there is no such thing as genetically pure food.

    And see also Penn&Tellers excellent Bullshit episodes on GMO and organics

  17. dogmeat says

    @had3:

    I studied anthropology and archaeology as a minor in college. Physical anthropology and the archaeology of digging up those remains, reconstructing them, etc., bridges into paleontology quite nicely. While most people think about archaeologists digging up mummies in Egypt or Peru, in Africa you’ll have just as many searching for Australopichecines or other Hominids or pre-Hominids.

  18. Brain Hertz says

    Anyway, much of it is anti-scientific (or at least irrational) in my opinion, b/c they fail to realize that there is no such thing as genetically pure food.

    I have no idea what you mean by “genetically pure” food I would have to say there are some pretty good reasons to think that GMOs might not be such a great idea (and of course, reasonable people can disagree).

    Of course just about everything grown is the result of artificial selection over hundreds or thousands of years, but I don’t put GMOs in that same continuum. You can’t put fish genes in a plant by selective breeding, and I could understand why some people might be concerned about eating a tomato spliced with a flounder to cause it to artificially produce antifreeze.

    But other than that, I don’t get it. Most people don’t use science when selecting food. Because what food you like mostly has nothing to do with science. If people don’t want to buy GMOs, they should be free to do that, and it seems ridiculous that we are handing out large sums of money to prop up a product that people aren’t buying. This doesn’t strike me as an “anti-scientific” argument.

  19. says

    The silver lining in all this is that the latest generation to reach adulthood in the USA (the so-called Millennials) is also the least religious, by an increasing margin. The latest Pew Research poll shows an 8 point drop in just the last five years to a low of 68% who have doubts about God’s existence (that’s the terms in which the question was asked).

    It’s likely to continue falling until the beginning of the next generation takes over (who defines when that is, anyway?), so we could see as much as a 20% drop over the last two generations. This will become more significant as time passes, clearly, and is likely to pave the way to a continued falling away in next generation as the Millennials’ kids grow up.

    My assumption is that the US will follow roughly in the footsteps of the rest of the western world in its decline in Christian faith to historical lows, and I see little reason to doubt that it will happen, though the process is likely to take longer and may not fall as deep.

    If so, then creationism will naturally begin to lose its power to influence public policy because of the decline in adherents. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will start accepting evolution though, since surveys in the UK show that evolution is still neck and neck with various forms of creationism in the public’s mind. The key difference with the US is that there is no political constituency for British creationists — they just don’t like the idea of ruling God out of the process.

  20. says

    Just noticed a mistake in my comment above. It should be a low of 68% who have *no* doubts about the existence of God.

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