In Praise of Ridicule: Our last weapon against the unintelligible.

It’s embarrassing how long it’s been since I contributed to my blog. The day-to-day life of actually being a scientist (plus being a museum curator, plus some teaching here and there) gets in the way of coming up with content to present science to the general public. But, sometimes a little inspiration comes along and coupled with yet another snow day there’s an opportunity to say something new on the blog. This time that inspiration came from watching last night’s debate between Bill Nye The Science Guy and Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham.

For me this was a little painful to watch. I have been thinking about the evolution/creation debate for almost 40 years. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household and was taught that the Bible was literal history. However, I also had an inexplicable interest in the natural world. Inexplicable in that no one in my family was a professional scientist or even carried much of a casual interest in science. My folks strongly encouraged my education as a means to an end but they didn’t exactly encourage me to dive too deep into learning about nature for its own sake. At least they didn’t have a curiosity so deep as to be unsatisfied with a Biblical answer. That’s not to say I didn’t have a loving supportive family, I did, and thankfully still do. But, even as a child Sunday school for me bought up a lot of questions that everyone around me seemed spectacularly uninterested in resolving in any way other than “God did it”. As someone who always wanted a house full of various critters, the Biblical story of Noah’s ark was by far my favorite in the Bible, however, for someone who also knew roughly just how many different varieties of critters are out there, not to mention plants, fungi, bacteria, it certainly came with a lot of unresolved baggage (Bill Nye’s arguments from biogeography and biodiversity were among the most effective of last night’s debate). Unpacking that baggage and learning more about the differences between the explanations for the diversity of nature provided by science and those provided by faith, folk tales and mythology put me on the course to be an evolutionary biologist.

My history as a Christian, a scientist, an educator and just someone obsessed with learning how things really work means I have a lot of opinions when I watch a debate between “evolutionists” and creationists. I suffer from an “armchair quarterback syndrome” watching these things, but with the quarterback in the armchair being Peyton Manning, Sunday’s Superbowl performance not withstanding, sorry Peyton. OK admittedly while I’m not the Peyton Manning of creationist debaters neither am I void of any experience in this arena which sometimes last night led me to respond aloud but in vain to the image of Ken Ham and his slides on the device on which I was watching the debate.

Creationists are quite good in this forum and really they have seen it all before so opponents need to bring something novel to the debate. They have honed a folksy style appealing to a time honored American aversion to authority, particularly academic authority, and a misplaced sense of fairness that says “my opinion is as good as yours.” Many creationists couple this approach with “fire-and-brimstone” consequences that say knowing that Homo sapiens shares a comparatively recent common ancestor with a chimpanzee will lead to all manner of social ills. Creationists also focus on a few scientific topics and have well crafted arguments designed to foster doubt among the lay public. Many scientists go into a debate with creationists with the idea of, “well I’m a scientist, I’ll just explain the science, and that’s that.” I think Bill Nye had a little bit of that attitude in his debate last night and it led him to be less effective that perhaps he could have been.

In an effort in reinvigorate the blog I’m going to start a series on some of the best arguments against the creationist position. Here is my approach. Our founding fathers were pretty smart cookies. They founded our country on reason and an Enlightenment era intellectual tradition that we seem to have forgotten. Being products of the Enlightenment they carried interests in topics that we couldn’t dream today’s politicians being concerned with. Over the past 40 years I’ve adopted many different thoughts on the best way to engage Creationists but lately I keep coming back to a quote from one of these Enlightenment inspired founders. Thomas Jefferson said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” As purely articles of some particular sectarian religious conviction creationist ideas deserve the respect afforded to any religious ideology and should be debated alongside other theological positions, however when presented as if they are scientific propositions creationist ideas have earned our ridicule.

Scientific creationism is a misplaced cultural absurdity whose history really does not go back all that far. It is a rather odd amalgam of science and religious faith that awkwardly attempts to impose scientific respectability on an area of the human experience that was never meant to be a scientific endeavor. Unfortunately in our modern technological age ultimate authority is very often given to scientific positions and this has lead some religious sects to veil their beliefs in science. Rather than acknowledging that there are some truths that are of a moral or spiritual nature and may be intangible in any material sense creationists have instead become the worst of all materialists claiming that only the literal and historical are worthy of being the basis for our ideals. It is as if upon learning the works of Shakespeare were historical fiction you no longer accept the stories of love from Romeo and Juliet or blind ambition from Macbeth as having any truth whatsoever. To a creationist these fictions are stories and stories have no truth. This inability to find meaning in anything save for the literal and historical ironically makes creationists the materialists in the debate and really should be the base which holds up creationists ideas, but not necessarily creationists themselves, as objects of ridicule.  

I think a productive line of argument for the creationists has also been ridicule. They take ideas from evolutionary biology and poke holes, foster doubt and heap derision, scorn and ridicule (usually in the form of well crafted and subsequently overused one liners, such as Ham’s “millions and millions of dead things” and a sarcastic “Were you there?”). Creationist ideas however are the positions that when presented as science truly have earned this sort of treatment. Stay tuned for my next post on the difference between “observational” and “historical” science and I’ll take this time honored creationist argument seriously and see to what absurdity it leads.