Jan 02 2013

Wrong advice on how to talk to creationists

There is no shortage of people telling us atheists, especially atheist scientists, how we should talk to religious people and very often that recommendation takes the form that we need to avoid offending them. The problem with all this advice is that religious people will always be offended simply by telling them that you think they are wrong. There is no getting around that. The only way to not offend them is by pretending as if their ideas make sense. And that would be wrong.

I recently discussed a suggestion along these lines by a physicist and now along comes another plea by historian Adam Laats writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Laats takes as his starting point the ridicule that accompanied congressperson Paul Broun (R-Georgia) when a video emerged that showed him describing evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell” and saying that he was convinced that the world was created in six days.

What made it even more noteworthy is that Broun is on the House committee on Science and Technology. One would have thought that someone who has responsibilities for setting government priorities and budgets of US science and has such an astonishingly retrograde view of accepted scientific theories was surely worth roundly criticizing.

But Laats thinks we are making a mistake.

As it stands, scientists’ blundering hostility toward creationism actually encourages creationist belief. By offering a stark division between religious faith and scientific belief, evolutionary scientists have pushed creationists away from embracing evolutionary ideas. And, by assuming that only ignorance could explain creationist beliefs, scientists have unwittingly fostered bitter resentment among the creationists, the very people with whom they should be hoping to connect.

Creationism is flatly incompatible with not only evolutionary ideas but science itself. There is no way for a scientist to treat creationism as a credible system without distorting our understanding of science to an unrecognizable extent.

As I have said before, when I argue with creationists I am not hoping to convert them. I think that is a largely futile task. The people I am targeting are the onlookers, bystanders, observers, especially in the younger generation. I suspect that those who are not already totally captive to views like Broun’s are less likely to sign on to a belief system that is widely viewed as idiotic than one that is seen as representing mainstream science.

Laats goes on to make the claim that Broun is not an ignoramus and that he holds a degree in chemistry and is an MD. He also adds that many educated people are creationists.

And a snarky insistence that Broun does not have the qualifications to serve on the House science committee blunders into an uncomfortable truth: Broun’s views may fairly represent those of his constituents. Do we really want to demand that an elected official not fight for the ideas in which his constituents believe?

No, Broun is entitled to fight for whatever crackpot ideas he believes (there I go again with my ‘blundering hostility toward creationism’). What he is not entitled to, but what Laats seems to want, is that he be shielded from ridicule for holding them.

Broun may be wrong about evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang. But his scientific errors do not instantly disqualify him as a representative of the American people. Nor can they be explained away as a product of ignorance.

Laats’s argument is quite incredible. Given the notoriously large crazification factor in the US, do we really want to make the case that people who believe in all manner of crazy things should not only be represented but that their views be respected? I am not saying that we should give a scientific test to members before appointing them to government committees that deal with science. But their views should be scrutinized and if they are crazy, ridiculed.

This reminds me of the famous comment about one of Nixon’s nominees to the US Supreme Court in 1970 G. Harrold Carswell who was widely thought to be a mediocre candidate. One of his defenders in the US Senate Roman Hruska (R-Nebraska) argued thusly in his favor, “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?” This was not seen as helpful to Nixon’s nominee and the Carswell nomination went down in flames.

Laats then adds:

Rather, those of us who care about promoting evolution education must admit the hard truth. It is not simply that creationists such as Broun have not heard the facts about evolution. Broun—along with other informed, educated creationists—simply rejects those facts. Evolution educators do not simply need to spread the word about evolution. We need to convince and convert Americans who sincerely hold differing understandings about the nature and meaning of science.

But that is the key issue that Laats avoids. What do you actually say to ‘convince and convert’ creationists if your own understanding of the ‘nature and meaning of science’ flatly contradicts creationism? I am curious as to what Laats would say to Broun to persuade him of the merits of the scientific theories that Broun dismisses if he had the chance to talk to him face to face. Would he tell him that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theories are mainstream science? Would he tell him that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old?

And this brings out the whole problem with such advice. It invariably boils down to implicitly asking scientists to change their understanding of science to make it compatible with creationism in order to avoid offending creationists. But if you do that, then why would they feel any need to accept evolutionary or any other scientific theory?


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  1. 1

    Another moron who basically uses the phrase “sincerely held beliefs”. I can’t take anyone seriously who says shit like that. They are dumber than a box of rocks. It doesn’t matter how sincerely you belief in some BS. It’s still BS.

  2. 2

    Prof. Singham is correct. If the object of arguing with creationists is to change their minds, one is wasting time and energy that could more profitably be used in more productive endeavors. As Richard Dawkins said about YEC Kurt Wise, PhD in palaeontology from Harvard and student of Stephen Jay Gould, “Depending upon how many Kurt Wises are out there, it could mean that we are completely wasting our time arguing the case and presenting the evidence for evolution. We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.


  3. 3


  4. 4

    I am not saying that we should give a scientific test to members before appointing them to government committees that deal with science.

    Hm.. I wonder if maybe we should be?

  5. 5
    The Phytophactor

    Absolutely correct. I’ve been at this for over 35 years and nothing whatever will change the mind of a creationist. However you can have a huge impact on others who don’t know or aren’t sure what to believe. Guys like Laats ought to stick to their own area and tell us how to deal with people who are convinced David Barton’s “history” tells it like it is. Showing them the facts won’t help at all. Something tells me that Laats doesn’t really like it when scientists tell people they know the truth.

  6. 6
    Matt Penfold

    Broun may be wrong about evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang. But his scientific errors do not instantly disqualify him as a representative of the American people. Nor can they be explained away as a product of ignorance.

    I would argue it should not legally disqualify him, but it most certainly should mean no one treats him a serious candidate. And those most certainly are the result of ignorance, unless Broun is to be considered dishonest (he knows what he says is untrue, but says it anyway) or stupid (he really cannot understand the science).

  7. 7

    Well, if people were calling him ignorant, then Laats is correct, they shouldn’t assume he is ignorant, but I think most people who have been involved in the area for many years know that people aren’t necessarily ignorant or not intelligent enough to understand the arguments, they can be dishonest or crazy as well,

    Broun—along with other informed, educated creationists—simply rejects those facts.

    Which is an even better reason than simple ignorance for saying he doesn’t belong on a science committee

  8. 8

    Laats said:

    “Broun may be wrong about evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang. But his scientific errors do not instantly disqualify him as a representative of the American people. “

    That’s as nonsensical as saying a KKK member shouldn’t be disqualified from jury duty when the defendant is black. When someone comes in with a predisposed bias based on fictions, stereotypes and bigotry, that person should always be disqualified.

  9. 9

    “If half the [Texas] Legislature weren’t idiots, it wouldn’t be a representative body”

    – attributed to the late, great Molly Ivins

  10. 10
    Reginald Selkirk

    And, by assuming that only ignorance could explain creationist beliefs…

    Who assumes that? It should be very clear that creationism is not the result of simply not knowing the facts, it is actively cultivated by certain literalist religions in order to bolster their religious faith. No wonder his solution is wrong, he fails to even understand the problem.

  11. 11

    I am not saying that we should give a scientific test to members before appointing them to government committees that deal with science. But their views should be scrutinized and if they are crazy, ridiculed.

    Whoa — what? This really surprises me. I’d like the people serving on the “Science Committee” to be *at least* as well informed as a college grad. I’d like the representatives serving on the “Banking Committee” to have at least an MBA in Economics.

    What am I missing here?

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    But Broun does have a degree in chemistry from the University of Georgia and is an MD to boot. Even people with a lot of formal education can hold wacky beliefs.

  13. 13
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Broun swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. That Constitution prohibits the intrusion of religion in government (including but not limited to public education). That means that even if all of his constituents want him to promote religious, unconstitutional science policy, he would be violating his oath of office in representing that view.


    The more I think and write about this, the more I realize that the hostility to evolution is deeply rooted in speciesism, especially notions of human specialness and dignity. Education alone can’t address the problem. We have to confront speciesism, and this means opposing the practices that require that ideological support.

    Creationists are right to fear the knowledge gained through evolutionary science as long as they hold to beliefs about “dominion,” teleology, human dignity and such. They’re of course wrong about where knowledge and acceptance of evolution lead.

  14. 14
    Hamilton Jacobi

    I don’t understand Laats’s objection to the word “ignorance.” If someone is aware of the facts about evolution, but willfully chooses to ignore them, what is that if not willful ignorance?

  15. 15
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    A few took the opportunity to grouse to me about their liberal children, who seemed to bring them genuine disappointment and confusion.

    How awful.

    My father, a Republican involved in local politics, supported me and was interested in what I had to say as a union activist and as an anarchist.

    I want to follow his (and Kropotkin’s) example and be open to perspectives from younger generations.

    For the intrepid there was the outing to a waterfall ($79.95), or lunch on an old Colonial plantation (“A Taste of Jamaica,” $99.95). A lot of people went for the plantation, which cruisers later described as rundown and serving bad food. “Jamaica is a dump!” complained Veronique Rodman, a spokeswoman for the American Enterprise Institute.

    Ah. Well. Plantations just aren’t plantations anymore. (Well, they are, but the tours aren’t as fun.)


    As Thomas downed the rest of his drink, Duane said the only way out of the current quagmire is a “revolution,” citing the famous Thomas Jefferson line about watering the tree of liberty with blood from “time to time.”

    What kind of revolution did he have in mind?

    Duane’s eyes crinkled into a big smile. “You ever heard of guns?”

    His wife sat up: “How do you like the veal?”

    “It’s awful,” Duane growled, poking at it. “I can’t hardly chew it.”

    No words.

  16. 16
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Sorry, wrong thread.

  17. 17

    Yes, you are totally right Mano! The only way to deal with creationists or other idiotic religious numbskulls is to insult the bejesus out of them (LOL) and publicly display them as the festering, idiotic and brainless jokes they really are. There is no way to change their dumb, idiotic views and delusional ideas. The best we can do is shame them so to educate the thinking public into ignoring them completely and thus reduce their influence and numbers. Aye M8!

  18. 18
    Mano Singham

    I am not sure when ‘ignorance’ became seen as an insult in every context. There are many topics I am ignorant about and I know it and accept it.

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