The Creationists are coming! The Creationists are coming!
A gang of actual Young Earth Creationists has managed to organize a day of seminars today (November 1) at Michigan State University. These wingnuts, who believe our planet is less than 10,000 years old, have been given crap tons of press by outlets as prominent as Science magazine, one of the big 3 prestige journals (thanks, guys). It’s no coincidence that MSU was picked — it’s a nexus for evolutionary biology in the US, home both to the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action and the famous Lenski Long-Term E. coli Evolution Experiment.
One might suspect that the Christers are attempting a classic troll of MSU biologists. You would think that Internet-savvy millenial graduate students would be able to spot it a mile away, shake their heads, and move along. I mean, these guys know not to read Internet comments, right?
But no… some of them are apparently organizing some kind of response. HOW DARE someone not accept the SACRED DATA! To the barricades!
Our academic holy crusaders always have to fight something, whether it’s implicit biases, IQ tests, criminally insensitive health insurance, or now the Young Earthers. Here’s a list of reasons why they should stay out of this one:
1) YOU DON’T HAVE TO FIGHT EVERY BAD GUY.
There are lots of annoying, self-righteous, cruel, wrong, etc. people in the world. Many of them would love to change the system in generally problematic ways. Some of those people actually have the power to do the horrible shit they want, and yes, we should fight people like that. Other people, though, are paper tigers — they talk a big game, but ultimately don’t have the capacity to change much of anything.
The Creationists — particularly these Young-Earthers — are of the latter variety. They bluster, posture, and circumlocute. But their bizarre beliefs don’t have much impact in the real world! When they manage to organize a publicity stunt like the one at MSU, it’s a major success for them. Probably the worst thing these types have managed, in decades of effort, is putting some stupid sticker in the front of high school biology textbooks. Guys, these small successes represent the extent of the Creationists’ power, the result of massive expenditures and years of cajoling.
We are strong; they are weak. By fighting them, we suggest to the world that we are afraid of them, which elevates them — at least in the public view — to parity with us. It makes them look stronger, viable, and certainly must help them attract recruits. Fighting an enemy like that — one that is orders of magnitude weaker — is literally counter-productive, since it strengthens the enemy! Sending the weight of academic evolutionary biology to crush the Creationist bug would be as ridiculous as sending the entire US military to destroy a small cadre of religious gangsters on the other side of the world.
Let’s not forget that al-Qaeda and affiliated groups were able to spend the last ten years growing from a platoon of cavemen into an army with the capability of actually threatening conquest, and this growth was entirely facilitated by the hatred inspired by the army we sent to fight them. When I look at right-wing resistance to climate change, for instance, I see the same thing — people reject the science because they hate the people who talk about it all the time. Don’t make it worse by wrestling the Christers in public!
And don’t try to convince me that I’m underestimating the Creationists’ current abilities. That’s like Matt Drudge trying to convince me I should be skeert of Ebola. It takes a lot to scare me. And anyway, science invented atom bombs and VX gas, whereas superstition has bupkus for weaponry. So if it they ever do become a problem, we can just take ‘em on the old-fashioned way. Problem solved.
2) THEY DON’T DISAGREE WITH YOU OUT OF IGNORANCE.
Many of my colleagues seem to believe that the Creationists disbelieve in evolution due to ignorance about evolutionary theory. Under this hypothesis, careful and patient explanation will result in everyone agreeing! After all, truth is truth, and we all want the truth! Right?
Wrong. I’ve argued extensively in the past that Christian rejection of evolution has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory. It is important to remember here that you, the scientist, want to make a scientific argument to the Creationist, backed by data and logic; but the Creationist is more interested in political and social arguments — also supported by logic. The Creationist has a worldview, driven by his faith, that is mostly consistent with reality and highly useful to him for structuring his social world. Unfortunately, these social truths are inconsistent with certain scientific truths — but the Creationist perceives those scientific truths to be less important than the social ones. Therefore, he optimizes his social fitness by rejecting science in favor of religion.
The take-home message here is that the rejection of science provides a fitness advantage for these Christians. No amount of argument, data, or re-education will change their minds. If you want to convince them that evolution is real, you first have to convince them that it’s important enough to outweigh the benefits gained by rejecting it. This is how every other controversial scientific notion spread from an esoteric conjecture to a household fact: by doing something useful. So use your energy to make evolution do useful work for people, and quit wasting your efforts tilting at Christian windmills.
An aside: many of the same scientists who get their panties in a bunch about things like the genetics of IQ appear to also be the kind that want to fight the Christers. A bit ironic, no? These guys are willing to shitcan or even falsify data to back up their left-wing fantasies, but when the right tries to support its faerie tales with Rube Goldberg gobbledygook, we’ve got to go to war. Guilty consciences, anyone?
3) YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY RIGHT AND THEY ARE OBVIOUSLY WRONG.
Ideas exist in a marketplace; right (or useful) ones prosper and wrong (or harmful) ones fail. That’s the whole point behind a free society: by allowing wildly divergent viewpoints to exist and compete, our consciousnesses evolve to adapt to an ever-changing physical and social environment.
To make that marketplace work, we have to jealously defend the rights of expression for the most (apparently) wrong ideas — the ones we don’t want to hear, either because they sound evil, absurd, or silly to us. Time and again, ideas once considered evil, absurd, or silly have turned out to be true. Other times, elements of very wrong notions have inspired and supported different ideas that would ultimately be seen as true.
If you ask me, science has nothing to fear from these Creationist loons. Their ideas are obviously wrong. Presumably we have faith in this — why then are so many of us afraid that unsupported rambling by a Creationist poses a threat to the massive edifice of modernity?
Presumably the notion is that, left unchecked, the Christers will accumulate enough power to shut us up using the coercive, violent power of the State. (Note to good academic leftists: if it weren’t for that giant central government y’all love so much, that kind of coercion would be impossible…)
Let’s think about another obviously wrong idea that actually did manage to become the law of the land, due to state force: communism. Communists had been pushing their innumerate bullshit for decades before they finally managed to grab control of a country. Like Christians, they preyed on the weak and vulnerable, people whose poor lot in life (and deteriorated mental state caused by malnutrition) made them receptive to utopian visions. But the ideas never caught hold in the mainstream of society because anybody with any sense could tell things literally just didn’t add up. When communism finally did catch on, it was only in countries that had been totally wrecked by war. One gets the impression that communism never actually won hearts and minds; it just happened to be the only surviving organization capable of providing law and governmental services.
The analogy here: if the creationists ever gain control it will be because we allowed our civilization to crumble, not because of the strength of their arguments or beliefs. Western pluralistic attitudes toward thought and speech and innovation underlie the success of Western science, and the extreme versions of those freedoms represented in 20th century US society represented the height of scientific achievement anywhere, ever. The best way to let superstition get a foothold is to disassemble those freedoms, and a great way to start would be by having government-sponsored researchers shout down Christers in public.
SO THERE, scientists. Don’t feed the trolls. Please.
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