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.
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?