How to argue with creationists
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.