Saturday, October 4, 2008

Response to an open letter

GumbyTheCat recently wrote an open letter to creationists. Here it is.

While I enjoyed it and thought it was almost completely valid, I do have an argument to two of his points: first, that creationists know that the stuff they spout is lies (i.e., that they're deliberately lying); and second, that their blind faith will ultimately push more and more people toward reason.

I take argument with the first point because, as far as I've seen, most creationists/intelligent design proponents do actually believe what they are saying. They truly do--for them, it's not a matter of ignoring evidence, it's a matter of faith. They truly believe that fossils were put there by god to test our faith. They truly believe that the Bible is the literal word of god. They're not saying these things knowing that they are lying (which is Gumby's assertion); they really do believe that they know The Truth, and that they have to spread that truth or they (and those they don't spread the truth to) will go to hell. Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't some creationists who don't have doubts. But as odious as the tactics and belief system are to me, I don't agree with the "fundamentalist/evangelical-Christian-as-conspirator" theory: I really think that most of them think that they're doing this "for our own good." (I.e., I don't think they're deliberately spouting what they know to be lies in order to brainwash people so they can take over and rule the world and oppress everyone else. They really think things would be better if everyone had blind faith in the big G. As I said, I don't agree with that belief--but I don't think they're doing what they're doing with evil intentions.)

My second argument with Gumby's letter is the premise that continued spouting of creationist dogma will turn more people toward reason. As much as it pains me to admit it, I think the vast majority of people (okay, perhaps I should say Americans, since I don't know a lot about the cultures of other countries or parts of the world) actually don't want to learn more. Science (and a scientific understanding of the world) is hard work. It takes time and effort to really understand what we know, think we know, don't know, and don't know we don't know--and fundamentally, people are lazy. They're not curious about the world; they don't want to think about it or have to try to work things out in their own minds. That is the appeal of blind faith religions: they make all the decisions for you--and even better, they tell you that following those decisions will guarantee you happiness after you die. All you have to do is stop thinking. I can see how that would appeal to a lot of people. And certainly, the creationist explanation of where we came from is a lot easier to understand (and much more appealing to human vanity) than is the scientific explanation. I mean, really, all you have to do is read one book--instead of thousands upon thousands of research articles. Is it any wonder so many people choose that belief? And because a fundamental tenet of that faith is acceptance of what the authority figures tell you, if those authority figures (who don't have any more scientific understanding) tell you that there's no evidence for evolution, or that all the evidence is made up/incorrect/circular, then you believe it (because if you don't, you'll go to hell).

Maybe I'm just feeling pessimistic this morning. But I think that the sheep-like tendencies of people to follow the easy path are not going to just go away if we allow creationists to keep spewing anti-science. I think most of those people truly don't know how (or don't want) to think for themselves...and the only way to combat that is to teach them how to think for themselves, and give them an incentive to do so.

As for how to do that...Well, that's the real question, and I'm not sure I know the whole answer. Certainly part of it has to be better outreach and science education. But part of it also has to be a culture shift. Intellectualism, reason, and critical thinking have to be accepted as positive traits, instead of as "elitist" and overbearing. I have a few ideas about how to fix science education. But I have no clue how to change a culture. Any ideas?

(hat tip to John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts for the link)


GumbyTheCat said...

Hi Kate, thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful response to my post. Thanks to John Wilkins, my blog is enjoying its busiest day ever.

In response to your first objection (where you say that most creationists/IDers actually believe that nonsense, I actually agree with you. My letter was aimed at the people who manufacture this creo/ID garbage, not the people who fall for it. Hence my terminology "Dear Perpetuators of Creationist Pseudoscience" and "movers and shakers of the creationist movement". I erred in not making the title of the post more specific in regards to that point, although I think I directed my scorn properly in the body of the post itself. I am on good terms with many honest and sweet people who believe out of faith and the goodness of their hearts that the book of Genesis is literal fact. While I obviously disagree with them, I have no problem with people believing as they wish. However, I take exception to the people behind this artificial controversy. In my view, they know exactly how deceptive they are being, all in the name of Jesus. I consider them to be nothing but con men knowingly peddling snake oil, but do not blame the rank-and-file fundamentalists for showing their faith. As a Christian myself, I can understand that.

Your second point, where you disagree with my rather optimistic view that continued spouting of creo/ID nonsense will turn more people to reason. I have been called out on that before (even in the comment section of that post). I have no idea which viewpoint is correct - yours or mine. So your argument is as valid as anyone else's on that issue. However, I have been involved in this debate for quite a while now and see cause for optimism. Despite the perception that each side is 100% stubborn and set in their ways, I have seen many a creationist accept at least parts of evolution. That's a big deal, because it means they are actually thinking about the evidence presented to them. Time will tell if I am being too optimistic, but for now I will continue to stick with that optimism. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the key is to get people to think for themselves. We should not only do a better job teaching science, but we should do what is almost never done in public schools today - teach critical thinking skills. That is a lost art in this country.

Thanks again for your nice writeup.

Kate Porter said...

Okay, I see what your first point is now. I'm still not sure I complete agree with it, though; I do think that a lot of the folks who do creationism/intelligent design "research" really do believe what they're selling, too. But, I also agree with you that probably a much higher fraction of the folks coming up with the "evidence" (or "debunking" evidence for evolution) know full well that what they're spouting is garbage.

Stephanie Barr said...

I started to write a comment in response, but it grew to unreasonable proportions.

In short, I agree with both of your points, with some caveats.

I do believe that most of those arguing directly with evolutionists believe absolutely, but someone has to know the truth in order to build the lies. One cannot accidentally create a hoax, though one can unknowingly promote one.

I also think two other factors that encourage people to turn their backs on the science side are fear and an inability to acknowledge responsibility for changes we've made that makes the world worse or obligation for making the world better. If it's God's will, there's no hard work one needs to do.

You wrote a fine post.

I wrote these up in more detail on my blog ( Sorry, I hadn't intended to plug that in your blog.

Kate Porter said...

From rocketscientist:

"Reality cannot be fooled by propaganda, but people most certainly can."

Hear, hear. That's one of the best, most succinct summaries of the problem I've ever heard. Thanks!!

Kate Porter said...

(And don't worry about the plug.)