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.

61 thoughts on “How to argue with creationists

  1. @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.

  2. 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.

  3. @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).

  4. @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.

  5. 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.

  6. @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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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?

  9. @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.

  10. @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!

  11. 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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