Andrew Brown has really put his foot in it this time

This is some unbelievably obtuse commentary on creationism from Andrew Brown. After noting that the proportion of creationists in the population is very large, and that many people will assent to the proposition that the earth is around 10,000 years old, he proceeds to place the blame.

This is quite clearly not a problem caused by religious belief. Even if we assume that all Muslims are creationists, and all Baptists, they would only be one in 10 of the self-reported creationists or young Earthers. What we have here is essentially a failure, on a quite staggering scale, of science and maths education. The people who think the Earth is 10,000 years old are essentially counting like the trolls in Terry Pratchett: “one, lots, many”. Ten thousand is to them a figure incalculably huge.

We’re to excuse religion when people dumbly parrot religious dogma? That number of 10,000 years isn’t just a random choice; it’s not arbitrary; it’s not a familiar, convenient, nice round number (why don’t they say it’s a million, or a billion, if it’s simply an ignorant guess?). Somehow, large numbers of people echo the specific claims of a narrow religious belief — a young earth, a worldwide flood, a six-day creation, and all that other foolishness — and somehow they just spontaneously, out of some peculiarly synchronistic ignorance, tend to give just these answers…and it’s not religion’s fault? This is an amazing example of plagiarized errors — if two students turned in exams with wrong answers that were identical to this degree, I’d nab ’em for cheating.

It also ignores the reality of the responses. It’s not just ignorance, I’ve seen that plenty of times, and usually when you teach a student something they didn’t know before, they react with please surprise — the lightbulb goes on above their heads. When I teach genetics or physiology, for instance, there’s hard stuff to master, but the students aren’t closed off to it: they’re signed up to learn it. Evolution is different. There are always some students who hear you tell them the earth is 4½ billion years old, we’re descended from other apes, we have fossils of intermediate forms — all wonderfully cool stuff that they should be thrilled to learn about — who resist and deny.

That’s the unique thing about evolution and a few other subjects. It’s not just that they’ve been in the dark about these controversies, it’s that they come into the classroom preloaded with dogma in opposition. Where does that problematic opposition come from?


I really don’t mind and I certainly don’t belittle students who come in to the classroom unaware of the science they’re being taught — that’s the whole raison d’etre of having the classroom in the first place! What Brown is missing is the qualitatively different nature of the creationism argument: it’s an active and malicious anti-science promulgated in defense of religious myths. It clearly is a problem caused by religious belief.

(Also on FtB, and also Why Evolution is True and Butterflies & Wheels)