Friday, September 4, 2009

What Can You Say to a Creationist?

Numerous comments about Sean Carroll's decision to sever his association with, over their posting of a couple of diavlogs in which creationists and intelligent design proponents were invited to participate.

Here are some of Carroll's objections:

...It’s too easy to guess at what someone else is thinking, then argue against that, rather than work to understand where they are coming from. I tried to lay out my own thinking in the Grid of Disputation post. Namely: if has something unique and special going for it, it’s the idea that it’s not just a shouting match, or mindless entertainment. It’s a place we can go to hear people with very different perspectives talk about issues about which they may strongly disagree, but with a presumption that both people are worth listening to. If the issue at hand is one with which I’m sufficiently familiar, I can judge for myself whether I think the speakers are respectable; but if it’s not, I have to go by my experience with other dialogues on the site.

What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.

Some time back I was surprised to discover that I am a rabid anti-creationist. I had a discussion with my brother-in-law about the "teach the controversy" doctrine and wound up foaming at the mouth, more than a little bit. This seems to be one of those things where I would think that I'd be fairly tolerant of harmless error, but I really don't think that it is harmless. Creationism actively encourages kids to think unscientifically, which will turn them away from scientific or technical careers. It contributes to bad public policy (cf. stem cell research bans). And, by being so relentlessly political, it corrodes the foundations of secular government.

So I am somewhat sympathetic to Carroll's distaste at being associated with a site that has any tolerance for airing these kinds of ideas. Best not to give them any oxygen, right? By engaging them or debating them, you only legitimize their ideas, no?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that creationism is already legitimate. Take a look at this incredibly distressing poll from a few years ago. When you have roughly half of the country, in all demographics and age groups, believing that "God created man in his present form," the legitimacy cat is out of the bag and has been drinking from your toilet for some time.

Now, it is almost useless to debate creationism with creationists. You're not going to change their minds, and it's unlikely that pure reason will change the minds of the creationism-believing chunks of the viewing audience. Per Shaw, "never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

If you can't debate 'em, what's a scientific body to do? The answer, I think, has a lot more to do with talking points than it does with winning debates. To discredit creationism, you need to get the media to pay attention. The media only pay attention to things that are so artfully crafted that people enjoy watching them enough to watch commercials at the same time. That's a job for PR folks, not scientists, not even debaters. But the scientists have to show up, or all the pretty words that the PR folks provide them will come to naught.

And that's the problem with the Carroll approach: it fails to appreciate that creationism is not a scientific issue but rather a political one. And debate and reason have a fairly small place in the toolkit required to affect attitudinal change on political topics.

One of the larger chunks of that toolkit is consistent, long-term, willingness to engage on the issue. That means that you have to respect the consequences of your opponents' opinions, even if you don't respect the position itself. You have to show up, over and over and over.

So Carroll's decision to take his bat and go home is an incredibly bad one. He has telegraphed an unwillingness to engage, to say nothing of leaving the impression that the issue is so trivial as to be beneath his notice. That's a big-time win for the creationists, when they can drive a rational human being off of a site that is largely a boon to other rational human beings.

As for, here's what they can do to atone: Let's see a discussion, by two reputable evolutionary biologists, on the best way to combat creationism. Those talking points have to come from somewhere, don't they?


johnqeniac said...

You don't get a lot of comments here, despite your voluminous output. Is this what the vast majority of blogs on the internet tubes amount to? People like us talking to ourselves like alcoholic street people? I feel a certain sympathy, so I am going to break into your lonely world with a comment.

Anyway, browsing your blog entries, you are a repub atheist in a party that is completely controlled by creationists. And then there's this comment (way back in Nov '08):

"Palin: a good idea with extremely poor execution. Bush had a lot of good ideas, too..."

Palin a good idea? The phrase suggests an incredibly cynical attitude toward democracy. Not 'a good candidate', but 'a good idea'. You mean as a good marketing strategy? Or what made her 'a good idea'? I am very curious. And how would you have executed that 'good idea' properly? You do know she is a flaming creationist, right, and, more generally, a blithering idiot?

and... name a couple of bush's good ideas.

Anyway, keep talking to yourself.
(I do too).

- johhqeniac

TheRadicalModerate said...

Ooooo, a real comment.

Yeah, the difference between a blog and "dear diary" is a pretty fine line for us unwashed masses, isn't it?

" are a repub atheist in a party that is completely controlled by creationists"

Correct to a first-order approximation, but I'm more libertarian the most GOPers on a lot of things, and I'm not opposed to all forms of healthcare reform.

"Palin a good idea? The phrase suggests an incredibly cynical attitude toward democracy."

No, just a cynical attitude to the office of Vice President. The odds of a President dying in office are sufficiently low that Palin would have been no more risky than any of the other three jokers we had to worry about. (Plus, remember the Harry Truman example: total idiot on paper, halfway decent president. Face it: it's a crapshoot.)

Having said that, if I'd heard as much Palinese before the election as I did after, I'd have been somewhat less sympathetic (although I ultimately couldn't vote for McCain).

A couple of Bush's good ideas:

1) I think a foreign policy animated by the spread of democracy is an excellent idea. Democracy with democratic institutions is 100% in the US national interest. But you've got to have a pretty long, deep game to pull that one off. Bush's game was neither long nor deep.

2) The Iraq war was a good idea. We got to:

a) Build up a huge security infrastructure on top of the most strategically vital spot in the world.

b) Generate a genuine meeting engagement with all of the terrorist organizations that were determined to attack the US homeland, which completely destroyed their logistical capability and most of their credibility.

c) Take out a really bad regime that was going to be a continuing threat to the region.

However, it sure would have been nice if all of this had taken three years instead of six.

3) I was also a huge fan of allowing some private investment of social security witholding. The last year notwithstanding, outperforming T-bonds over actuarially significant time periods is a slam-dunk. However, again, legislative ineptitude trumped good intentions.