What’s the harm?

Demon-Haunted World cover

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” –Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

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.


  1. rjdownard says

    Your mental stew was most appropriate, and I can say there is a definite connection between creationism and the real world. Mr. Trump got elected largely by the voters who also happen to be antievolutionists and in which climate science denialism is accepted doctrine as true science.

    The Sagan quote was all too appropriate, because science is a way of thinking, and creationism doesn’t do it. It is at that methodological level that antivaxers may be seen as yet another manifestation of the bad method, even if their demographic falls across the political spectrum in a way the hyper-conservative creationists don’t.

    They all share an over-reliance on unchecked secondary sources, a limited number of them (only 60 people in antievolutionism are core fact claimants, for example), who collectively skirt around most of the relevant data field, which they don’t actually even try to explain, as their models are vague and essentially contrarian (not “Darwinism” in the case of creationists). And at core, there is a cognitive inability to even conceptualize evidence to change their minds (the classic case concerns how creationists dismiss transitional forms, while never being able to say what the fossils would need to look like for that, because they’ve literally never thought about it, and can’t/won’t no matter how much pressed to do so).

    The notion that creationists have no impact on the larger culture is indeed a cringeworthy conceit. Trumplandia is near heaven from the conservative Kulturkampf creationist subculture’s vantage.

    The ACLJ’s Jay Sekulow is emblematic here, with Sekulow a counselor to and public defender of Donald Trump, reflective of a slow and steady buildup of a network of political power far out of proportion to their actual numbers (roughly 40% of Americans are antievolutionists), and now which has believers at all levels of government. They’ve been around for quite some time, but now virtually control the GOP and now that they have so many reins of power, intend to keep it, in symbiotic fusion with their Enabler-in-Chief, Mr. Trump, someone who could care less about evolution but who caters to and draws on that voting block to funnel congenial court appointments from a Federalist Society-approved list, as easily as Trump might select from the menu at McDonalds.

    Do not for a moment think that, because the issue of evolution per se is not on their front burner in the political realm, that the mindset and methodology of creationism is not having a significant and baneful influence on policy decisions at all levels, including education, the environment, foreign policy, etc. Or that if they can only stay in power, a purging of what they deem to be “bad science” (evolution, and even standard geology and cosmology) would not be on their long term agenda to create a culture publicly reinforcing their dogmatic beliefs.

  2. kremer says

    My take is that popular creationism doesn’t exist in a vacuum – and it is tied to all kinds of definitely harmful ideas about how people ought to treat one another. To that end then, opposing creationism I imagine might be a good first step towards changing minds in regards to the more harmful outcomes of religions.

Leave a Reply