I spent half a week in May at the outstanding Evolution of Complex Life conference here at Georgia Tech. The organizers, all grad students and postdocs, put together a fantastic lineup of speakers from a wide range of disciplines, including biochemists, evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and philosophers.
Friday was devoted to two panel discussions, one (roughly) on interdisciplinarity in science and one (roughly) on science education and outreach. Given the diverse backgrounds of the panelists, there was a surprising amount of agreement on, for example, the costs and benefits of getting involved in research outside one’s own field and the value to society of scientists stepping outside the ivory tower.
I agreed with most everything that was said in these discussions, so of course I’m going to focus on one of the few things I (mostly) disagreed with. In truth, this isn’t so much a reaction to the panelist’s comment as it is an excuse to finally write about something that’s been slow cooking in the Crock Pot that is my brain for quite a while now.
When the topic of creationism came up, one of the panelists, someone I know and respect, said (roughly) that she appreciates it, because many of her best students were raised as creationists and were motivated to study evolutionary biology in large part because of that background. Well and good. It reminds me of the saying that the best way to make an atheist is to get a believer to read the Bible.
But she went on to suggest that creationism is of little harm to society, saying (again, roughly, since I’m doing this from memory) that it is surely less harmful than, say, the anti-vaccination movement or climate change denialism. That’s not exactly wrong; both of those have tremendous (and partly realized) potential for harm. But I can’t get on board with the underlying sentiment that creationism does limited harm to society.
What, really, is the problem if a (large) portion of society wants to reject the massive pile of evidence that life on Earth descended from a common ancestor through a process of change over time driven in part by natural selection? It is certainly true that creationism is less dangerous than the anti-vaccination movement and climate change denialism, both of which are literally killing people today and have immense potential to kill many more. Creationism doesn’t leave children vulnerable to deadly diseases, and it doesn’t prevent society from taking steps to burn less coal. What, then, is the harm?
From my perspective, the main reason to oppose creationism is the same reason we should oppose astrology, belief in bigfoot, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and other irrational but seemingly benign beliefs: it is because all of these beliefs are related.
What’s the harm of creationism? It’s true that it’s less damaging than antivax, climate change denial, blanket opposition to GMOs, etc., but these things are related, because they stem from the same basic cause. The cause is the idea that it’s fine to believe what you want to be true rather than what the evidence shows, to fail, in other words, “to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.” It is part and parcel of a more general retreat from rationality, a contributor to our slide “back into superstition and darkness.”
That’s what I see as the harm.