Monday, August 18, 2008

What Should We Do About Creationism?

PZ Myers was interviewed about Ray Comfort a few weeks ago on WDAY radio. PZ brought up the fact that many people are unknowledgable enough to believe what folks like Ray say, and therefore people who know something about evolution need to take time to have a "point and laugh" session in which we expose how crazy people like Ray Ray and Quirky Kirk Cameron really are.

Contrast this with Richard Dawkins' and Stephen Jay Gould's view that creationists should not be given attention because it merely gives their views credence. It allows them to say that there is a "controversey" going on and makes outsiders think that there must be something to the creationists' views.

We need to strike a balance between these two views. Creationists like Dembski and Behe should be ignored for the most part because their arguments (Excluding CSI and Irreducible Complexity) are sometimes so technical that regular creationists will not use, much less understand, their arguments. For example, the central thesis of Michael Behe's last book was that two protein protein binding sites were required in the evolution of certain molecular "machines" and therefore we must invoke design. In hindsight, there was no point in anyone rebutting this argument because no creationist besides Behe is using it! If anything, all the reviews of Behe's book probably drove his sales up.

But what about the young earthers? Their claims are widely believed perhaps because most people don't know how to counter their claims. Combine this with the fact that many evolutionists like myself are easily frustrated with them, and can even sound condescending at times.

I think three steps need to be taken to combat this problem:

1. Discuss the arguments creationists have without being condescending, and rebutt them in a friendly and easy-to-understand manner.

2. Explain the very simple yet profound predictions that evolutionary theory makes, and how they are confirmed. For example, if scientists predicted that a "missing link" between fish and amphibians would be found somewhere between the rocks fish first appear in and the rocks that amphibians first appear in. Sure enough, a beautiful transitional fossil was found: Tiktaalik. Point out that the first amphibians looked very much like fish, just what we would expect if they had evolved!! And that is not the only fossil bridging the fish-to-amphibian gap either. Acanthostega, for instance, had lungs and gills. The Devonian Times lists many other such transitional fossils.

3. Realize that creationists hold onto their beliefs for emotional reasons, not scientific ones. A good way to combat this is for atheists to speak up: Talk about the cruelty and absurdity of hell. Mention the fact that even if the wonderful "design" of the world is improbable, God would have to be even more complex and therefore more improbable. You can have religion without creationism, but you can't have creationism without religion.


alcari said...

You wrote:
But what about the young earthers? There claims are widely believed perhaps because most people don't know how to counter their claims.

I believe that should read: their claims are...

For the rest, I totally agree. Educate wherever possible, mock and laugh where it obviously won't help.

AIGBusted said...

Thanks alcari,

I try to avoid that spelling error but sometimes if I am listening to music while I write I end up making it anyway.

Oh well.


Lui said...

As Dawkins says: "Never apologise. Always explain."

We should make it clear that if creationists don't like evolution, that's their problem. We should even stress how not only is creationism unscientific, it is - in this world of rapid environmental change, global warming, and pathogens - immoral. Many of the world's problems require solutions that are informed by evolutionary theory.

Psiloiordinary said...

There is a clear difference between debating with a creationist, and pointing out the errors of their ways.

I agree with Dawkins that debating with them can give the impression their are two sides of the debate to be heard, a false impression. But then I agree with you that we need to tackle things.

Your site os a cracking example of a great way to win this struggle - simply pointing out just how wrong they are.

Keep up the good work.



Andrew L said...

Strictly "Point and Laugh" campaigns wouldn't do very much; Creationists could just turn that around with their Persecution Complex and say to their sympathizers "They ridicule us because they can't refute us!"

But then ignoring them sends a similar message.

Refuting their claims every time and everywhere they make them, should be the priority. While we may never be able to change any of their minds (not Cameron, Comfort, or AiG's minds anyway) we can at least provide some much needed opposition for those who are undecided or are knowingly uneducated about evolution & science.

For your Step 3, I think it's good to point out to Creationists that there's nobody out there as subjective as themselves. They love to point out how scientists are supposed to be objective, but that they really aren't (because we're all human after all) and therefore it's okay for them to be subjective too.

A good reply to that would be to highlight how if a secular Scientist is wrong, they have only their pride, reputation and career to worry about. For a Creation Scientist, if they're wrong about the Earth being 6000 years old, then they have their very soul to worry about!

It's from their own teaching that if Genesis isn't literally true, that the rest of the Bible can't be trusted either. Therefore they have no psychological incentive to be honest with themselves (and by extension, everybody else) because to do so would subject them to emotional pain comparable to that of confronting evidence that their beloved spouse of X years is cheating on them.

Ask them then, how anyone with such an emotional attachment to their presuppositions, could possibly conduct science in anything resembling an objective manner?

The old arguments about the cruelty of Hell would be wasted on them; they're already huge supporters of eternal punishment for temporal crimes and don't think any punishment is too harsh for sinning against God. But I do like your last statement there, "you can't have creationism without religion."

AIGBusted said...

Some very intelligent comments I'm hearing!!

To Andrew: What I mean by "point and laugh" is to refute their claims, but at the same time not in a dry manner: To show how ridiculous what creationists say is. For instance, when creationists claim that T. Rex ate coconuts in the garden of Eden, you can show how their teeth were "designed" (by Natural Selection) for ripping through flesh, and then make a sarcastic comment like, "All this time scientists thought these were deadly razor sharp teeth used for slicing through meat, when actually they were just eating coconuts!"

And Yes, the hardcore creationists will never change their minds. But their are many people in the middle who can be swayed.

Jonathan Watson said...

Hey guys,

I hope I'm not being too forward, here, but I wanted to offer my experience as a religious guy who grew up a special creationist and who has since accepted the scientific truth of evolution while remaining a devout Christian.

I totally agree with steps 1 and 2. Truth will out, as they say. Your best chance for convincing Special Creationists is to continue making the good scientific arguments as best you can and continue demolishing the goofy "science" of the SCs and the IDs. The ones you're going to convince are the ones who are trying to find out the truth about this particular issue and who are willing to do the intellectual research to find out what kind of real evidence each side has backing it up.

But there are a lot of people out there (on both sides, I believe) whose interest is not in the truth of this particular issue, but who rather see evolution as a token in a separate philosophical and religious fight.

You are absolutely right that creationists hold their views for (mostly) emotional reasons. They often feel like their faith is under attack, and when evolution is presented to them as "proof" that they're wrong or that God doesn't exist, they react with knee-jerk dismissals of evolution and bolster them with the hemidemisemilegitimate sounding quack science that everyone in our culture uses to back up an emotional conclusion, however dubious.

That's why I would caution you against trying to convince religious people of the truth of evolution by attacking doctrines such as hell or the likelihood of the existence of God. While the average Christian-on-the-street will have very little technical knowledge of these doctrines, that doesn't mean that there are no brilliant people who have not done a lot of hard thinking on these questions, and it would make the most sense to discuss these apart from evolution.

There's a real possibility of coming off like the SCs or IDs, who use misunderstood, simplistic, or warped scientific theories to throw doubt on evolution. I have no doubt that there is a philosophical case to be made for atheism (otherwise it would be hard to explain so many obviously intelligent atheists who are not ax-murderers ;-) ), but, on this question at least, I would argue that it will be far more effective in the long run to stick strictly to the scientific evidence for evolution, which is overwhelming and very convincing to one who realizes he doesn't have an axe to grind.

In any case, I applaud your work in scientifically answering the AiGers, especially on behalf of people like me who suspect their "scientific" arguments are so much bull**** but whose liberal arts degree does not allow them to easily pull together the necessary evidence. Thank you very much.

In my experience as an educated, devout, American Christian I really think you're winning the evolution fight. Keep it up.

AIGBusted said...

Hi Jonathan,

Some very intelligent comments you've made.

I wouldn't say that evolution and Christianity absolutely must contradict, but there certainly are some incongruities (which I listed in a post I made a few days ago). Because of this, I feel uncomfortable trying to brandish the idea that the two can be easily intertwined.

In addition, I think a worldview which places a premium on science and skepticism is extremely hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with faith. This goes whether evolution is true or not.

Finally, from an atheistic point of view, antievolutionism is only one of the nasty side effects of religion, so doing away with religion would be more economical. I don't see evolution as an extra poker chip that atheists have or anything like that, I simply think that if atheists spoke up and spread their views, antievolutionism would almost certainly dissolve completely.


Jonathan Watson said...

I wouldn't say that evolution and Christianity absolutely must contradict, but there certainly are some incongruities (which I listed in a post I made a few days ago). Because of this, I feel uncomfortable trying to brandish the idea that the two can be easily intertwined.

I'm not sure you have to. To use an analogy: if there were two physicists, one who was a general relativity expert and one who was a quantum mechanics expert, and the QM guy thought they could ultimately be reconciled while the GR guy thought they couldn't, wouldn't it make more sense to let the QM guy do the heavy lifting of trying to reconcile them? The skeptic could sit back and point out where the integrationist's attempts didn't fit with his own field of expertise (relativity) and send him back to the drawing board, but I think we would consider the skeptic hubristic for taking the integrationist's missteps as signs that QM theory was bogus or who then thought that it qualified him to start criticizing aspects of QM theory itself.

In addition, I think a worldview which places a premium on science and skepticism is extremely hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with faith. This goes whether evolution is true or not.

But why? For instance, evolution is nothing more than a material scientific theory about the manner in which life multiplied and diversified on the earth. As such it can and ought to be tested using basic tools of science that are just as available to a person of faith as to a skeptic. They both think that the cosmos operates according to rational mathematical patterns of cause and effect.

Now, it's true that the person of faith will sometimes claim knowledge of a historical event that did not occur according to those patterns, and will argue that there was some overriding higher law that caused it. (For instance, the Father's love for Jesus Christ was the "higher" law that overrode the law of death.)

In such a case, it's perfectly legitimate for the skeptic to (a) offer evidence that such a thing didn't happen or (b) show that the philosophical presuppositions that allow for such an event are incoherent. But merely to reiterate a philosophical presupposition that such a thing can't happen isn't evidence, and so far as I can tell (b) has never been done (though not for lack of trying and it's a much more technical and difficult undertaking than most of us philosophical peons would be comfortable doing or judging).

So, for instance, if someone clearly established that a set of bones were Jesus' then I would rethink and perhaps reject my faith, but (grandstanding movie directors notwithstanding) this has never been done.

I have, however, seen compelling physical evidence that the special creationist's account of the beginning of the world didn't happen, and therefore I realize that Christianity needs to come up with a better way to understand Genesis, since, taken merely as a physical recording of events, it doesn't hold water.

Fascinatingly enough, I think that just that is being done. Interpretation of Genesis according to ANE covenantal paradigms turns out to be a lot more useful and enlightening to Christians than a mere physical description. It actually makes the evidence from Genesis more meaningful, which is what a good theory is supposed to do, and makes more sense coming out of a prescientific ANE culture.

In any case, thank you for the good discussion. Coming together and politely arguing our positions and offering evidence is how we're going to come to the truth.