Home > Science > How to argue with creationists

How to argue with creationists

September 30th, 2013

Don’t.

A little while ago, I had a piece in Inside Story about how to respond to anti-vaccination beliefs. My argument was that there were three groups of people who needed to be considered
* those who had no fixed opinion, who could be nudged in the right direction by policies that made vaccination the default, such as requiring them to claim an exemption in order to get family benefits
* parents who are genuinely convinced that vaccination represents a serious health risk, the medical exemption should be available. For this group, simply dismissing concerns about vaccination is probably not the most effective approach. More effective would be to use the evidence to dispel the idea that the “diseases of childhood” (measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, whooping cough) are no big deal. All of these diseases can have devastating effects, with a frequency far greater than any adverse reactions to vaccination. This fact needs to be publicised as widely as possible, particularly when there are breakouts of disease.
* hardcore antivaxers like Andrew Wakefield and his supporters. There is no point in trying to reach this group. The only option is to marginalize and discredit them as much as possible

When it comes to creationism, there’s no analogy to the first two groups. There may be some people who are just misinformed about science, but the great majority of active creationists (those who try to change the way schools teach science, for example) are religious fundamentalists who start from the position that the Bible (or some other holy book) is literally true. Since the Bible clearly describes the creation of animals and people in their current forms, and within a few thousand years,that settles the matter.

There’s no point in talking about communication strategies here. If Biblical fundamentalism is right, evolution must be wrong. So the only way in which fundamentalists can be persuaded to embrace evolution is to persuade them to abandon fundamentalism. In this context, it’s probably more effective to try to persuade them of the case for equal marriage, than to argue about fossils.

Of course, there are versions of Christianity that have no problem with evolution, even some that stick fairly closely to the literal text of the Bible (for example, the seven days of creation can be interpreted as seven ages, which gives time for God to guide evolution). But there’s no point in framing science in such a way as to promote such interpretations – this is entirely a debate within fundamentalist Christianity, in which others can’t usefully intervene.

In these circumnstances, the only useful response is a political demand to keep religion and science separate, particularly in schools. Religious groups can teach their children whatever they like, but science classes should teach only science. That political line can be sustained either through constitutional provisions (critical in the US0 or by fighting at a national level where (we hope) supporters of mainstream science are a majority.

I haven’t fully worked out the implications for other fronts in the science wars as yet. Climate delusionism is somewhere in between the cases of anti-vaxerism and creationism, with a large core of unreachable fundamentalists, but also a significant group who can be persuaded. More on this soon, I hope.

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  1. Donald Oats
    September 30th, 2013 at 21:17 | #1

    Once politics—ideologies—enter a debate, reasoning is out the window. A rather sad example of this is of Einstein, being drawn into a pointless debate about general relativity, which his enemies marked as fraud, based on plagiarised material, etc. Echoing our current pseudo-science faux-debates in our current society.

  2. SJ
    September 30th, 2013 at 21:52 | #2

    So where do you stand on Chicago school economics – is that science or religion? 🙂

  3. SJ
    September 30th, 2013 at 22:03 | #3

    Donald: Einstein is probably a bad example here. He was rapidly proven to be correct, and nobody remembers his “enemies”.

  4. Felix Alexander
    September 30th, 2013 at 22:48 | #4

    Actually, if you literally read Genesis, you’ll find that there’s two contradictory creation stories in there, one right after the other. In chapter one, the birds are created before any human beings; in chapter two, one human is created before any birds. The two most popular evangelical translations, though—the New International Version and the English Standard Version—both make a change to the aspect of one verb to resolve the contradiction, so most evangelicals will quite innocently believe the Bible says something it doesn’t.

    Logically therefore it ought to be possible to convince biblical literalists that there’s no biblical reason to believe in seven-day creationism. And it is, and you get can get pretty far reasonably easily, as long as you respect them and their position. Except—

    Thing is, in my experience creationists don’t actually care that much about the literal text of Genesis—they care about a particular doctrine (original sin) which comes out of an interpretation of some of the New Testament letters, but which is embedded in a (modern) tradition of reading Genesis in one particular way.

    And so they reject the plain evidence for fear of upsetting another, unrelated doctrine. “But if Adam and Eve didn’t happen, what did Jesus die for?”

  5. Felix Alexander
    September 30th, 2013 at 23:05 | #5

    Concerning your comment “That political line can be sustained … by fighting at a national level where (we hope) supporters of mainstream science are a majority”, I don’t see that that’s really a solution.

    In Australia are there such big differences between states that collectively as a nation we would oppose reading creationism into science, but in this or that state we would support it? Even if it were so, couldn’t we find some other grouping we’re a part of—say, the Anglosphere, or the world, and discover that this opposition isn’t nearly so universal. Does that mean that the Anglosphere or the world could decide that we should teach creationism in our science classes?

    And what basis have you got to hope that? Can’t it change? Imagine if in a few years time a right-wing government is in power federally (ahem) that decides to have a more “comprehensive” scientific curriculum.

    I just don’t like trying to change the venue to get a more universal and, presumably, thorough outcome. If marriage were still a state matter (as it was till the 1960s), I think it’s clear that at least two or three states would already recognise gay marriage. Isn’t that better than none? With science in education, the arguments stand by themself, and don’t need a one-size-fits-all solution.

    (Also, I’m just exhausted, by interminable years of Labor government and then this, and I’d prefer to solve problems by ignoring the government as much as possible)

  6. JOG
    September 30th, 2013 at 23:37 | #6

    But there’s no point in framing science in such a way as to promote such interpretations – this is entirely a debate within fundamentalist Christianity, in which others can’t usefully intervene.

    Just wanted to agree with that and demonstrate how the christian versus the fundamentalist argument works. Literal fundamentalist tend to invest the certainty and godhood of Jesus in the bible and deify his words. This is basically a form of idolatry, raising the written word to a divine level. Fundamentalists usually argue that this is not what they are doing. They are merely living by gods words.

    However, their are several examples in the Acts of the Apostles on how the written word is not to be treated as especially important. More important are the senses and their experience of God.

    So since these guys are raising the written word to such an importance, they are breaking even the bibles own rules in interpreting the bible. For that reason, I certainly don’t believe that logic from outside will reach their position. So John has it right when he says outsiders can’t usefully intervene.

    As a former evolutionary biologist, and under the cover of anonymity, I would also like to point out that Darwin was wrong (still one of the greatest scientist that ever lived though) and Kimura was much closer to the truth. But I will never admit that to a creationist 😀

  7. TerjeP
    September 30th, 2013 at 23:46 | #7

    Do we even have any notable creationists in Australia?

  8. Will
    September 30th, 2013 at 23:59 | #8

    TerjeP :
    Do we even have any notable creationists in Australia?

    Up until a few years ago there was this odious fellow who is in the front pew of the congregation of kooky Young Earth Biblical Literalists:
    Ken Ham

    He unsurprisingly moved to the US.

    Please do not attempt to Youtube his arguments to save yourself dangerously high blood pressure and tearing hair out by the roots.

  9. October 1st, 2013 at 00:32 | #9

    There are a few weird things about the bible.

    Why is it in English?

    How come, if it is the authoritative last word on everything to do with the natural world, it never mentions kangaroos or wombats or platypus or koalas?

    And you’ve got to love the way god set the parameters by first creating the ‘light’ and declaring that between the ‘light’ and the pre-existing ‘dark’ that would be something called a ‘day’. After that it’s all a doddle – set your own hours.

    On another note, isn’t there a blurring between the 3 classes of antivaccers? The first (just don’t know – therefore must be coerced by incentives/penalties), the second (have some considered opinion which makes them pause – just shout at them), the third (hopeless nutters best ignored – beyond reaching).

    Wouldn’t it be far better to simply have trustworthy professionals doing bridging as much as possible between all 3 groups? Otherwise you could drive people from group one through group two and into group three simply by treating them like idiot simpletons rather than addressing them as intelligent grown-ups who may have concerns.

  10. Windchaser
    October 1st, 2013 at 03:38 | #10

    When it comes to creationism, there’s no analogy to the first two groups. There may be some people who are just misinformed about science,

    I think you’d be surprised how big these numbers are. There is a lot of people who are just misinformed about the science, particularly teenagers and young adults raised in evangelical churches. Yes, for some people, it’s all about “God said it; I believe it; that’s good enough for me”, but there are also many who are just ignorant, and not fundamentally anti-science.

    If you can manage to knock down the creationist talking points hard, and repeatedly, you’ll crack open a door to rationality and science here. But I agree that the schools are the best place to start.

  11. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2013 at 07:34 | #11

    A new dark age of barbarism is very possible. Fundamentalism and the ignorance and violence that go with it are on the rise. Right-wing denialism and anti-science ideology are also still on the rise. Education standards are declining in the West, particularly in the Anglophone West. Add societal and civilizational stress caused by resource depletion and these processes will reinforce in a feedback cycle.

    The West is certainly in decline, relatively, and very soon it will be in decline absolutely. MENA (Middle East and North Africa) is already in decline. Much of Asia (except China) and Sth America will soon be in decline. China alone will escape the decline for a time. But eventually resource depletion and climate change will bring China to its knees as well.

    Collapse is coming.

  12. John Quiggin
    October 1st, 2013 at 08:14 | #12

    @TerjeP

    Quadrant ran some creationist (or at least anti-Darwinist) stuff from Jenny Teichmann a while back.

    It’s also worth observing that rightwing opponents of creationism are very often dogmatic advocates of pop versions of evolutionary psychology and politicised hereditarianism.

    Note: Jack Strocchi is specifically blocked from commenting on this point.

  13. rog
    October 1st, 2013 at 08:37 | #13

    I would put creationism with the many other isms eg religion, UFOs, extra terrestrials, parallel universes, ESP etc that proliferate.

    They invariably provide a psychological ‘out’ for those overwhelmed with the reality of the now. If humanity accepted that this is it, the life they have now is the only chance that they will get, that there is no ‘other life’ to plan for, then perhaps a more cooperative and enduring society would evolve.

  14. sunshine
    October 1st, 2013 at 10:08 | #14

    It will be interesting to see if Abbott gets much more God into schools or society in general .George Pell would like to think so ,but David Marr thinks Tony would put retaining power ahead of his Catholic faith if it comes down to it .I expect sneaky little changes ,trying to avoid big headline ones .Bring on the history/culture wars !

  15. Cameron
    October 1st, 2013 at 12:41 | #15

    9Hi all,

    I agree with Winchaser. I remember debating with a group of philosophy students who most regarded as a ‘just a theory’ driven by what they though of as scientific dogma. Not a typical group of young people, but their passive rejection of knowledge held by scientists is common. “Ownership” of knowledge and how we accept knowledge that comes from outside our sphere of experience has become mixed up with our modern notions of individualism. Phrases like “No one can tell me what to think” or “that’s what so -called experts say but I know better” seem to affect the way people now take in new information. It is as though we have gone too far down the road of critical thinking and too often question everything without questioning WHY we need to question.

    Most anti evolutionary thinking I have come across in our society isn’t creationism, but is more like a ‘pox on both your houses’ kind of thinking that has become a common attitude towards politics, especially among young people. People are more and more against religion but may see scientists in the same light especially if they come across as too aggressive when defending evolution, AWG, vaccination or whatever if arguments aren’t presented as arguments with evidence, but as facts that must not be challenged.

    More can be said about this and what it means for the framing of how evolution is taught and creationism rejected but I am out of time for now.

    Cheers,

    Cam

  16. may
    October 1st, 2013 at 12:57 | #16

    @TerjeP

    don’t know about notable but a member of my rather large and unwieldly family/kinship group became subsumed into one of the American style evangelists.

    and beleeeves:
    the world is 6000 yrs old
    demons and devils exist and are a real and present danger to human life.
    every body in the world who does not aknowlege and live by the tenets of the evangelical belief are doomed to rot/fry/suffer in hell.
    offspring need to be sent to a school(in reciept of public puse monies) that indoctrinates children with these beliefs.
    and (this one ,when in a low and fervid voice,literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a thing i’d read about but didn’t pay much attention to until it happened) that “thou should not suffer a witch to live”.

    like ticks sitting in the long grass just “waiting for their moment to arrive”?

  17. may
    October 1st, 2013 at 13:01 | #17

    public purse.

  18. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2013 at 14:46 | #18

    “How To Argue With Economists” would be an interesting topic. It’s all very well and very easy to poke fun at creationists who are purblind I agree. But mainstream economists (meaning neoclassicals and monetarists) are equally dogmatic and ideological and equally as dismissive of empirical evidence. Those in the other minor schools and the heterodox schools also all disagree with each other so where is the proof of any objective truth in economics?

    Economics (meaning bourgeois economics) can offer little hard proof of anything. It’s a speculative enterprise, a legitimating ideology and a mish-mash of obscurantist dogma and abstruse academic mathematical puzzles with little empirical application. Talk about people in glass houses.

  19. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2013 at 14:55 | #19

    Postcript.

    After seeing neocon economics fail big time with the GFC and seeing all minor and heterodox schools disagree about what’s to be done, I am fully justified in forming the opinion;

    “None of you (economists) have the slightest clue. Your discipline is a failed and degenerate research program. Economics as a displine deserves zero intellectual respect.”

  20. John Quiggin
    October 1st, 2013 at 15:17 | #20

    @Ikonoclast
    Lindy Edwards already used this title

  21. Newtownian
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:10 | #21

    @TerjeP

    Regarding your question about famous Oz creationists and JQs linking of climate change denialism there is one well known curious case study:

    Ian Plimer

    Some years back he was lionized by genuine philosophical skeptics for his attacks on the the proposed fossil Noah’s ark in Syria – which I understand broke him via legal costs.

    Yet more recently he has been a darling of the denialists including I think the Lavoisier Society who claim to ascribe to rational science (chemistry) but have trouble when well documented physical chemistry of the atmosphere challenges their positions – maybe its the green/left associations who have traditionally had trouble with uncontrolled applied geology aka mining.

  22. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:10 | #22

    The way I see it most economists don’t understand the difference between the notional and the real. I will leave that hanging.

    Have I lost interest in economics? Yes.

    Have I lost interest in political economy? No.

    Do I expect any good to come of economics or political economy? No.

  23. Newtownian
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:15 | #23

    @TerjeP

    Just remembered – there were also the delightfully loonie theosophists.

    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Webster_Leadbeater

    and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Amphitheatre

    The idea of JC walking through Sydney Heads is just too funny to contemplate.

  24. Michael S.
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:25 | #24

    @Terje etc discussin Aussie creationism

    I don’t think Creationsm has ever got traction in the way other threads of crap thinking (eg. AGW denialism) in mainstream Australia though there’s definitely an undercurrent.

    At High School in the late 90’s there were a decent few kids from religious families who’d argue ‘we’re not Monkeys’ happily with our beleaguered Science teachers or privately after class in some cases. The three I can think of immediately were Pentecostal, Baptist and Mormon respectively IIRC. I’ve encountered people espousing creationism at me.

    I don’t think the religious crazies have as much incentive to push this line beyond their own cocoon in Australia. I suppose with Australia’s favourable conditions for private religious schools there’s less at stake in getting Creationism into State schools than in the US -as well as the fact they are far less numerous here.

  25. Michael S.
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:27 | #25

    Sorry should have proofread-

    @Terje etc discussing Aussie creationism

    I don’t think Creationsm has ever got traction in the way other threads of crap thinking have (eg. AGW denialism) in mainstream Australia though there’s definitely an undercurrent.

    At High School in the late 90?s there were a decent few kids from religious families who’d argue ‘we’re not Monkeys’ happily with our beleaguered Science teachers or privately after class in some cases. The three I can think of immediately were Pentecostal, Baptist and Mormon respectively IIRC. I’ve encountered people espousing creationism at me since more than once.

    I don’t think the religious crazies have as much incentive to push this line beyond their own cocoon in Australia. I suppose with Australia’s favourable conditions for private religious schools there’s less at stake in getting Creationism into State schools than in the US -as well as the fact they are far less numerous here.

  26. Ellen
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:43 | #26

    Not all creationists are Christian. Islam is big on creationism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_creationism
    I’ve looked through a Muslim creationist books. Teaching evolution is banned in Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In Saudi Arabia leaving Islam is a capital offense.

    I think you are right. I recently engaged a man on GMOs and vaccination. He then moved on to 9-11, and grilled me about why I didn’t give credence to theories that the the WTC buildings were deliberately destroyed by the US government. He challenged me on how I could claim I was objective if I had never changed my mind on that subject, and then backed up into saying that it was obvious that my mind was welded shut.

  27. John Quiggin
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:52 | #27

    @Newtownian

    Plimer is an interesting case. He was a real embarrassment to the pro-science side in the evolution controversy. I recall reading his book and cringing.

    In fact, Googling produces a link to a post whose title “How *not* to argue with creationists” with specific reference to Plimer

    http://www.discord.org/~lippard/hnta.html

    The delusionists are welcome to him.

  28. John Quiggin
    October 1st, 2013 at 16:54 | #28

    It’s worth observing that you almost never see climate delusionists criticisng each other for bad arguments, as Lippard does here in relation to Plimer. That’s one reason they fall for silliness like the Graeme Lloyd article the other week.

  29. Newtownian
    October 1st, 2013 at 17:26 | #29

    Ikonoclast :
    Collapse is coming.

    Possibly. But was there ever a time there wasn’t a big existential threat? I spent a lot of my younger years worrying about global nuclear war – and it turned out to be fully justified – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_Archer_83.

    But in hindsight millennialism is still pretty pointless and boring as a philosophy – if its true we are probably dead meat, if not it’ll be the next stage in a very confronting cultural evolution – rather than some ecosocialist utopia.

    But raising doom and gloom does raise the question of what should the philosophical position of eco/left/science leaning person be? Ecoprimitivism? (no too hard) Deep Ecology? (a little to anti people).

    What Richard Dawkins is proposing specifically still seems a bit unclear- science and reason are great but they are tools rather than guiding principles.

    Perhaps Noam Chomsky’s delightful proposal – Mysterianism is the best? – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0

  30. Newtownian
    October 1st, 2013 at 17:29 | #30

    @John Quiggin
    Tks – I didn’t read the evolution book probably because its too close work – but only picked up he had taken on the creationists single handedly which seemed admirable at the time.

  31. RussellW
    October 1st, 2013 at 17:41 | #31

    Probably, at least some of the climate change deniers are simply mercenary propagandists playing the old industrialists’ game of denying the costs of the externalities by fighting a rearguard action until the smart money moves into low CO2 industries. There are historical precedents, the long squalid campaign by cigarette manufactures to discredit data on the dangers of cigarettes and to resist regulation, is the most obvious example. Very few of the “denialists” have any relevant qualifications whatsoever.

  32. Jim Rose
    October 1st, 2013 at 17:44 | #32

    John, Biologists spent great effort over the many decades to rebut creation science in a polite methodical manner designed to change minds through facts and reasoned arguments.

    Biologists do not act smugly, insult their opponents or questioned their sincerity. Biologists simply said that they would benefit from better information.

    see http://www.ugr.es/~jmgreyes/Evolwhite.pdf for a statement ‘Evolution, Science, and Society’ prepared by eight leading scientific societies in the USA – 75 pages

  33. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2013 at 18:22 | #33

    @RussellW

    Yes, the rearguard action is deliberate and many telling the lies know they are lying. It’s about avoiding being left with stranded assets. If we truly begin taking action on climate change when it’s needed (or rather ten years ago when it was needed) then all fossil fuels and much industrial plant become stranded assets.

    “Stranded asset is a financial term that describes an asset that has become obsolete, or non-performant, but must be recorded on the balance sheet as a loss of profit. The term has particular relevance to pricing long-term economic and environmental sustainability.” – Wikipedia.

  34. Tim Macknay
    October 1st, 2013 at 18:29 | #34

    @Newtownian

    Plimer went broke because he tried to sue a Creationist for misleading and deceptive conduct under the old Trade Practices Act for handing out pamphlets on young earth creationism. He lost and had full costs awarded against him. I don’t know who his lawyer was, but I can’t help suspecting that Plimer proceeded with the suit against his lawyer’s advice.

    It’s possible that Plimer may have been lionised by the sort of “philosophical skeptics” who value being right more than they value the principle of freedom of thought, but he was also criticised by other evolutionists who saw his tactics in combating creationists as a hindrance rather than a help. The title of this post is a riff off a 1991 article by Jim Lippard entitled “How not to argue with Creationists”, which specifically fingers Plimer for using misleading, and ultimately counterproductive, methods.

    @Jim Rose

    Biologists do not act smugly, insult their opponents or questioned [sic] their sincerity.

    Unless they’re Richard Dawkins. 😉

  35. Tim Macknay
    October 1st, 2013 at 18:29 | #35

    test

  36. Tim Macknay
    October 1st, 2013 at 18:32 | #36

    Prof Q, my previous comment is in moderation, but I’m not sure what set it off. There’s no links. Is there a trigger word I’m missing?

  37. Tim Macknay
    October 1st, 2013 at 18:33 | #37

    Just realised you already made my point at #27. D’oh.

  38. Felix Alexander
    October 1st, 2013 at 18:38 | #38

    @TerjeP

    In a long tradition of confusing Australians and Kiwis, I present to you Dr Jonathan Sarfati, born in Ararat but he grew up across the ditch. He’s written two books called “Refuting Evolution”. You can find out as much as you like about him on Wikipedia or Duck Duck Go.

    I don’t know much about him (and never seen anything by him), but I’ve heard his name a few times in creationist defences, so he seems to be a prominent creationist who is also loosely Australian.

  39. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2013 at 19:32 | #39

    @Tim Macknay

    Yes, i think the trigger words are “a”, “and” and “the” but it’s on a random basis. 😉

  40. Shaun
    October 1st, 2013 at 19:58 | #40

    Sending Ken Ham to the US was retaliation for McDonalds coming to Australia. Still hard to work out who got the better deal.

  41. TerjeP
    October 2nd, 2013 at 06:35 | #41

    Quadrant ran some creationist (or at least anti-Darwinist) stuff from Jenny Teichmann a while back.

    I googled her name alone, with the word “creationist”, and also with the word “quadrant” but I could find nothing by her or quadrant advocating creationism. I’ve never heard of her before.

    It’s also worth observing that rightwing opponents of creationism are very often dogmatic advocates of pop versions of evolutionary psychology and politicised hereditarianism.

    Some names would be helpful.

  42. rog
    October 2nd, 2013 at 06:53 | #42

    @TerjeP It’s spelt Teichman and you could try “Darwin, Malthus and Professor Jones”

  43. TerjeP
    October 2nd, 2013 at 07:00 | #43

    At High School in the late 90?s there were a decent few kids from religious families who’d argue ‘we’re not Monkeys’ happily with our beleaguered Science teachers or privately after class in some cases.

    I was at high school in the 80’s and it was the same then. In fact I was probably a creationist myself at age 12. I’d never given the issue a lot of thought until then but I started thinking about it because I was exposed to religious literature that was vocally anti evolution. I thought I should check out this evolution thing. School was only slightly better. Some of the evolution we were taught at school was positively lamarckian. However there were plenty of books in the library that explained evolution well enough for me to have switched sides by about age 14.

    Up until a short while ago I had a neighbour who insisted the world was 10,000 years old and homosexuals were a pox on humanity. When I had a broken shoulder he stopped by one day, knelt on my porch and called on Jesus to heal it. I thanked him for his efforts. He has moved around the block so I don’t see him as often these days.

    But these were not prominent people. Creationism is definitely out and about in Australia but it’s not a feature of public discourse and if there are any prominent creationists in Australia it seems that they are prominent for other reason and that they then choose not to talk about creationism very much.

  44. John Quiggin
    October 2nd, 2013 at 08:52 | #44

    @TerjeP “Some names would be helpful”

    Try Googling: John Derbyshire, Charles Murray, Steve Sailor, Linda Gottfredson, Jason Richwine

  45. John Quiggin
    October 2nd, 2013 at 08:58 | #45

    The Teichman article seems to have disappeared from Quadrant but you can read it here on a free trial

    http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-99375086.html

  46. John Quiggin
    October 2nd, 2013 at 08:59 | #46

    But I agree, both creationism and genetic determinism are more prominent features of the US right than here.

  47. Donald Oats
    October 2nd, 2013 at 10:16 | #47

    In the mid-2000s several prominent members of the Howard government, who are ministers (even a PM) now, were involved to some extent in pushing an argument for equal time for Intelligent Design in biology classes at school. An ID CD was being passed around, mailed out for free to people, and that was being run by someone in Qld, where ID and its predecessor and parallel meme, Creationism, have quite some traction.

    My experience with creationists/IDers wanting to argue their case is that any evidence you offer to counter their case is dismissed by them, no matter how flimsy the reason. They also equivocate, shifting the goal posts if you manage to defeat them on some point. Once you stop arguing and someone else gets an earful, their arguments revert back to their original position. You may as well try catching the wind in your hands.

    When the mid-2000s had the CD being spruiked, I once said that I didn’t mind ID/Creationism being discussed in school, so long as it was as a lesson in philosophy and how to make an argument; I figured it would be good material for dissection, and especially for contrast with the scientific approach to comprehending the natural world. The problem, as I soon realised, is that the IDers/Creationists who were behind this CD were pushing for actual curriculum changes in biology as taught at schools, with a view to giving their “theory” (of reality) equal merit to the theory of evolution, but without the test of evidence as the determining factor for its entrance to the biology syllabus. When we teach science subjects, the basic test for whether a particular idea is of value in a course has to be that there is sufficient evidence that the idea is correct in some specific manner, namely that it withstands scrutiny against the evidence. That doesn’t make an idea correct in all its detail, but it does give it a scientific legitimacy that ID/Creationism can never achieve, short of God popping up from somewhere and telling us all, how it really is. Waving a CD or a book—the bible—and saying that’s all the evidence you need, that’s not how science works at all. But you can’t tell them that, because they don’t want to know, they just want it taught in the schools as a counter to evolution and natural biology. May as well admit the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory of creation into the classes, if you are going to allow ID in. The Pastafarians could be right, after all.

  48. Ernestine Gross
    October 2nd, 2013 at 11:33 | #48

    How do you argue in say German with a person who speaks only French about an English poet?

    You don’t (if you already know it is not possible).

    But if the German speaker and the French speaker recognise there are some Latin based words in the English poet’s writing, which are also in their own languages then an argument of sort can develop (eg an unavoidable problem faced by economists because ‘everbody’ is part of ‘the economy’ and therefore ‘everybody’ has an interest in ‘the economy’. Its a small step to confuse an interest in ‘the economy’ with an interest in Economics).

    It seems to me arguing with a creationist is possible only if the non-creationists are educated in creationism and the creationists are educated in science. Looks like a lot of work – a lot more than learning one or more foreign languages. “Don’t” seems to be the pragmatic solution to the problem.

  49. Neil
    October 2nd, 2013 at 12:06 | #49

    @JOG
    “I would also like to point out that Darwin was wrong (still one of the greatest scientist that ever lived though) and Kimura was much closer to the truth. But I will never admit that to a creationist”

    Why? Why buy into creationist dogma? Creationists often seem to think that supporters of evolutionism are “Darwinists”, and they think that Origin of Species is our bible. But science doesn’t have bibles, and scientists expect that earlier thinkers were way off base. Darwin didn’t have a mechanism for natural selection; no one did until the new synthesis more than half a century later. Today no one seriously maintains that natural selection is the only force explaining alterations in phenotypes: genetic drift, random walk, sexual selection and – perhaps – others are all important. No one should be embarrassed by this.

  50. O6
    October 2nd, 2013 at 12:24 | #50

    What Darwin didn’t have was an accurate model and theory of inheritance; his ‘pangene’ hypothesis was disproved by his cousin Francis Galton. Gregor Mendel provided the thoery of genetics that is still the basis of modern genetics. Darwin had a theory and mechanisms for evolution: natural and sexual selection. He also thought that some traits might be neutral. Kimura’s great contribution was to develop the theory of neutral and nearly neutral genetic (evolutionary) change, initiated by Sewall Wright and others.

  51. Donald Oats
    October 2nd, 2013 at 15:17 | #51

    @Neil
    Kimura’s ideas are of the nature of a potential advance in understanding evolution, but Kimura does not constitute an existential threat to the entire edifice of evolution in the manner that Creationism, or Intelligent Design, are such threats. Furthermore, Kimura’s views are testable, at some level, although figuring out exactly how to do it is no doubt problematic; that is often the case in scientific research, and it is where are great deal of the creativity of the scientist(s) can come into play. It can sometimes take years or even decades, before such tests are determined, and followed through.

    Creationism and ID are quite different conceptually and practically: both require the existence of an external intelligent agent to either set up the entire edifice of nature (on this world at the minimum) to look as if we have had billions of years of evolution, or to have set up the initial conditions in the universe so that on Earth, once it was formed, evolution of life would be not only be possible but be a certainty, and then let ‘er rip.

    The argument game with Creationism is impossible to win through scientific means. As an example, with the “Young Earth Creationist,” if you point to the reality of using radioactivity as a dating tool, they just counter that God made it look that way, or, scientists have radioactivity-based dating incorrect, getting an incorrect impression of the age of fossils, etc. Same goes for sediment layers, glacial activity upon rocks and mountains—you name it, they deny it is correct, or say God made it look that way, or say scientists are colluding just to attack religion (i.e. their religion).

    When the debate, such as it is, remains an intellectual curiosity, arguing the toss with Creationists/IDers is of no consequence, beyond wasting your time. If people choose, in their own free time, to completely ignore scientific evidence and to rejoice in the C/ID fancies, then okay, I’m not going to stop someone from doing that, although it never ceases to surprise me when individuals do so. On the other hand, when the C/IDers are determined to dictate their intrusion into scientific discourse and school education, I see no way of avoiding some level of confrontation with them—and that does involve disagreeing (i.e. arguing) with them at some level. Whether that is a constructive step or not, is another matter I suppose.

  52. Ken Fabian
    October 2nd, 2013 at 16:55 | #52

    I tried pointing out to some fundamentalist climate science deniers that last I heard bearing false witness – which they were doing openly and quite fervently – was a sin. A serious enough sin to make it into the top ten. Their faith and certainty appears to make them incapable of recognising how bad their own behaviour is. People they don’t know are, without a shred of evidence, presumed guilty of engaging in a demonically inspired conspiracy. Those same people hold political views that hold the works of greed and selfishness as the pinnacle of political perfection – Free Market Economic Darwinism.

  53. Tim Macknay
    October 2nd, 2013 at 17:25 | #53

    @Donald Oats

    The argument game with Creationism is impossible to win through scientific means. As an example, with the “Young Earth Creationist,” if you point to the reality of using radioactivity as a dating tool, they just counter that God made it look that way, or, scientists have radioactivity-based dating incorrect, getting an incorrect impression of the age of fossils, etc. Same goes for sediment layers, glacial activity upon rocks and mountains—you name it, they deny it is correct, or say God made it look that way, or say scientists are colluding just to attack religion (i.e. their religion).

    The beauty of the “God made it look that way” approach, sometimes known as the “Omphalos” argument, is that it is perfectly compatible with evolutionary science. In my experience creationists rarely use it, since it requires a tacit admission that modern geology, paleontology and evolutionary science is actually consistent with observation (although I admit that it’s been around a decade since I last argued with a creationist, so it’s possible that the Omphalos argument has come back into vogue).

  54. Donald Oats
    October 2nd, 2013 at 18:00 | #54

    @Tim Macknay Omphalos: thanks for that word, Tim.
    As you point out, one of the many flaws in this argument is that of the “compatibility” premise, which if taken as true by the creationist advocate, means that they must explain why they have the insight that God made the world/universe like this, rather than not going to all the trouble to manufacture a world with “fake” evidence consistent with geology and biology as we currently think of those fields. In other words, how to they know that they are the “distinguished observer” who can see the reality as it is, rather than as God constructed it to be seen. Given that other Christians, for example, hold distinctly different views on the matter to that of YECs, the “distinguished observer” question needs addressing by the YEC advocate.

    The God made it look that way line of argument is probably one of the most frustrating to encounter for the first time, simply because of the breath-taking audacity of it; in one fell swoop, all evidence to contradict a creationist’s argument suddenly becomes evidence in support of their viewpoint. A neat trick, but that is all that it is.

    Sadly, if they follow that line of argument, they are tacitly admitting two things: i) God has arranged nature so as to fool lots of people into believing one thing (eg evolution of life over a multi-billion year time span, or that dinosaurs really existed millions and millions of years ago, etc) when in fact the reality is another thing entirely—i.e. God created everything a few thousand years ago; ii) There is no particular reason to believe that God didn’t also fool people into believing the universe was created a few thousand years ago (as per Genesis, presumably), where in fact the biblical account is all manufactured by God to fool people into believing that particular account.

    Once that particular thread unravels, the argument loses its appeal pretty quickly. Usually, the counter is that the bible is the true account of God, so it is the one thing that God wouldn’t fake (unlike dinosaurs and evolution, I suppose). May as well argue with a block of wood.

  55. Tim Macknay
    October 2nd, 2013 at 18:41 | #55

    May as well argue with a block of wood.

    Amen to that.

    Interestingly enough, the Omphalos argument was invented by the naturalist Philip Gosse (who was a contemporary of Darwin) in a sincere effort to reconcile biblical faith with the evidence of geology. However, as an attempt at reconciliation, it failed miserably, being treated with scorn by intellectuals at the time, largely because of your points i) and ii). Personally, I rather like it (despite thinking it’s nonsense), if only because it was a rare, sincere attempt to reconcile the two sides of the argument. It also has a sort of audacity.

  56. JOG
    October 2nd, 2013 at 22:49 | #56

    @Neil
    Hi Neil,

    It was mainly meant as a joke. I agree with what you said. The neo-synthesis was a great next step. I think Kimura’s jump was the most important of the 20th Century though. I still remember the power it had on me when I first learnt it. The specific moment when I figured out that what he was taking about basically tied together chemistry, physics and biology all through the replication forks mechaniations. Felt like my brain had lurched.

    I do argue with Creationalist. I usually argue with them on their territory. And I find I get better milage out of it. On a couple of occasions I have encountered people who claim to know about evolution and its faults. After listening to them I ask when was natural selection demonstrated to no longer be the driving force of evolution and who did it? Usually no answer is forth coming. Then I move on to idolatry and a literal interpretation of the bible.

    Where I live creationist’s are not taken seriously. So usually its a bit of fun. I can sympathise with scientist’s who live in a place were it is not.

  57. October 4th, 2013 at 01:08 | #57

    Firstly, there is something a little scary about vaccination. You deliberately do something to your child, knowing there is a very small chance it will be harmful. One kid in Perth died from a bad batch of flu shots. Having said that, you should vaccinate anyway.

    But the Einstein example is a good one. In his day Einstein had opponents who travelled around giving talks explaining why he was wrong. To this day, there are Einstein nutters who know for certain that he was wrong. They are all delusional, and there is no “Einstein skeptics” movement.

    Will we every got to the point that climate change and vaccination “skeptics” become so marginalised that everyone thinks they are nutters?

  58. may
    October 4th, 2013 at 12:32 | #58

    re the “deal” reported on todays ABC.

    were those on the police end rcs?

    we seem to be looking at a situation where no matter what party we are invited to vote for we are voting vatican 1 and what institution we are dealing with we are on the receiving end of vatican policy.
    lest the thought(god forbid) that there is a rc bias going on here,please consider what the response would be if the “players”were islamic or mormon or?
    also the treasury bench has made noises about correcting “left wing” history taught in schools.
    can we also look forward to a history of religion ?
    with footnotes?

  59. Tim Macknay
    October 4th, 2013 at 23:35 | #59

    @may
    The report said the “deal” was done with both the Catholic and Anglican churches. Extremely disturbing. I guess it shows how much influence those institutions still have in our notionally secular society.

  60. October 5th, 2013 at 00:07 | #60

    @may

    Funny how the Establishment Media failed to report the pope’s plea to be kind to refugees delivered at Lampedusa about 3 months ago, but suddenly care about drowned refugees.

    They also failed to notice that he told Vatican bank to open its books to scrutiny.

    As an atheist, I’m liking this pope!

  61. Margaret
    October 7th, 2013 at 14:18 | #61

    I wonder how many anti-vax people would remain anti-vax if their only baby died as a result of vax, confirmed by the medical establishment! Would they say, “well, you win some, you lose some. I still think everybody should vax.”

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