Saturday, February 08, 2014

More Bill Nye/Ken Ham evolution presentation fallout

Bill Nye's decision to debate creationist advocate Ken Ham over the science of creationism may or may not have been a good move. But certainly much of the reaction suggests that he gave unnecessary credibility to a crackpot pseudoscience theory by doing so.

Lord Saletan was prompted to Deep Thoughts by the debate, which he shares in The Impotence of Creationism Slate 02/06/2014:

Nye dismissed [Ham's creationist] belief, correctly, as "magical."

But that magical premise is what keeps Ham sane. It lets him cling to a mythical past while accepting today's realities. The core of Ham's worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between "origins or historical science" (the fictional stuff) and "experimental or observational science" (the real stuff). "Bill and I all have the same observational science," said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

Ham presented videos from several scientists who espoused young-Earth creationism. One said he had invented the MRI scanner. Another said he had designed major components of spacecraft launched by NASA and the European Space Agency. If the spacecraft guy had botched his work, said Ham, you’d have heard about it. That’s true. In fact, it’s a perfectly scientific way of testing the perils of creationism. Can creationists function in science and technology? Manifestly, some can.

Saletan doesn't seem to have much of a clue about the creationist/fundamentalist territory.

On the political side, science educators are consistently worried about the endless push of the creationists to dumb down science taught in public schools to accommodate creationism being taught as science in science classes. Good basic science education in the public schools is vital to the economic future of the country, which certainly includes the ability of individuals to be able to master the tasks increasingly technologically complex jobs will demand of them.

Lord S, as we see above, doesn't worry much about that. I mean, as long as we have people who can read the instruction manual about which knobs to turn on those satellite machines, who needs to have more people who can actually do the math and the metallurgy and that thar rocket science required to build the machines and write the manuals?

Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995):

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
But, hey, Lord S replies, it makes the rubes happy, so why worry?

Those of us who occasionally wade through the swamps of pseudoscience and esoteric woo are likely to notice something in Saletan's statement, "Can creationists function in science and technology? Manifestly, some can." Saletan took the video testimonies from the creationist scamster on their face according to his own account. I'm still nostalgic for the old days when you could expect professional journalists to, you know, actually check that stuff for truthfulness. If Lord S doesn't think creationists would make stuff like that up, then he really doesn't know enough about the field to write about it for public consumption.

Yes, there are creationists who work as doctors and engineers, neither of which are scientists as such, though they do require some scientific training. They may be highly qualified for their professional fields and well compensated for their work, but the practice of medicine and engineering involve skilled techniques, not scientific research as such. Now, there are doctors and engineers who do actual scientific research. Paleontologists, biologists, physicists, geologists are more likely to be the real experts in the field. A technician doing a job on a satellite launch does not necessarily need to understand the physics of the Big Bang to do so. If he wants to go into theoretical physics, though, he probably won't do too well if he is checking every line of his textbooks for possible challenges to creationist theory.

Lord S assures us that creationism is harmless as long as it is restricted to being "a compartmentalized fetish." In the real world, creationism is also embedded in the political world of today's Republican Party, which promotes anti-science policies in many ways, including trying to dumb down science teaching with creationism. Creationism, for which Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan found supportive words for in his 1980 Presidential campaign, has been and is a major way of promoting pseudoscience in the world of politics and governmental policy. Along with the Tobacco Institute industry-friendly pseudoscience to protect the tobacco industry from lawsuits by casting doubt on the health dangers of smoking, creationism paved the way for the climate denial that is now established wisdom and policy in today's Republican Party.

The antiabortion movement and anti-women's-rights movement to which the Republican Party is linked at the hip promote deliberate falsehoods about women's health, pregnancy, sexuality and biology. (See Akin, Todd and "legitimate rape.") Even the firearms lobby gets into the act, pushing to prohibit research on the effects of gun violence. They also seem to be generally vague on the physical nature of their favorite fetish, insisting as they do that guns don't kill people.

Maybe Lord S can write a follow-up column explaining to us how climate deniers are charmingly eccentric rubes who believe silly but harmless ideas. I mean, he can probably find YouTube videos of people who deny global warming who can still tell when it's raining outside. So there! You see? Climate denial doesn't prevent people from functioning normally at all!

Saletan's breezy comment on how harmless creationism is also misses how creationism affects people over their whole life-cycle, being as it is very much a part of Christian fundamentalist culture. I don't know of a particular study that tried to isolate the effect of creationism on kids' career choices and lifetime earnings prospects. It would be difficult to single out that factor in a sociological study because it is so interwoven with other aspects of fundamentalist culture. So if a girl growing up in a family devoutly committed to creationism as part of Christian fundamentalist faith chooses a non-scientific education and career path, is it because creationism made her anti-science? Because her family and circle of friends thought science wasn't a proper fit for her future role as an obedient wife devoted to domestic pursuits? Because her family idolized preachers, sports figures, businessmen and the military to the exclusion of more intellectual or scholarly pursuits? Because she was educated to be leery of intellectual curiosity in general? All those aspects are found in fundamentalist culture.

But I'm confident that any study that was properly constructed and done with good methodology would find that kids coming from families with a strong emotional commitment to creationism would have a notably less-than-average percentage going into science and heavily science-related fields.

Our friend Bro. Wade Sword-of-Vengeance Burleson weighs in on the subject with his characteristic mealy-mouthed defense of hardline fundamentalism in Bill Nye and the Devolution of Man Istoria Ministries 02/05/2014. His considered scholarly opinion of the Nye-Ham debate: "I would enjoy a debate between two Christians who disagree over six-day Creationism more than I enjoyed last night's debate because at least those debaters would be sparring in the same stadium."

Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance makes an argument that I don't plan on spending any time trying to understand where it comes from: "... man is devolving, not evolving. Sure, technological advances occur at a greater rate than ever, but the nature of man is such that mankind is devolving intellectually and spiritually. Had the ancient Egyptians had our base of scientific knowledge, their stunningly engineered pyramids would have orbited the earth." (emphasis his) I'm pretty sure this has to do with one of the creationists' crank science arguments they claimed to be based on Isaac Newton's Laws of Thermodynamics that tries to argue that natural systems become less complex over time. Who knows what other Birchite notions may be wrapped up in Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance's formulation?

It's also safe to assume he wasn't trying to make some feminist point by saying man is devolving.

He makes some linguistic-like argument about languages getting less complex over time: "The languages of mankind have devolved over the centuries. Where are the Hebrew Solomon's [sic] of today? Where are the Greek Homer's  [sic] of today? Where are the English Chaucers and Shakespeares of today?"

Two words, dude: William Faulkner.

Such is the strange world one winds up stumbling through when we try to conjure up the harmless world of nice rubes that Lord Saletan fantasizes for us. Which brings us back to this paragraph of his quoted above, which bears closer inspection:

But that magical premise is what keeps Ham sane.
Does Saletan have any actual reason to think this? Let's leave aside whether he has personally interviewed Ham, much less psychoanalyzed him professionally. Is there any reason to believe creationism is in any meaningful sense useful in keeping people "sane"? I would suggest it is more likely to create problems with reality-testing in the physical world we actually live in.

It lets him cling to a mythical past while accepting today's realities.
Really? Does Ham accept man-made climate change as a reality? Does he have a view of female human biology more reality-based than Todd Akin's? Is he a debunker of the conspiracy theories that are otherwise common as dirt among other fundamentalists strongly emotionally committed to creationism?

The core of Ham's worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between "origins or historical science" (the fictional stuff) and "experimental or observational science" (the real stuff). "Bill and I all have the same observational science," said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.
No. Lord Saletan has missed the basis of the creationist worldview, which is reading the Bible as though it were a science text. Or, more precisely, substituting a modern "literalist" view of the Bible for both actual science and any kind of sensible Scriptural exegesis. The creationists miss the best stuff in Genesis with their crackpot pseudoscience reading of it.

It's worth noting here some observations of two writers who actually do know something about Christian fundamentalism and look at the doctrines and the culture from a critical but engaged and compassionate perspective, Fisher Humphreys and Philip Wise in Fundamentalism (2004). They note that a feelings of suspicion is often marked among fundamentalists, particularly suspicion toward "liberals," a term which in fundamentalist culture makes little distinction between theological liberals and political ones:

This suspicion can and often does escalate to a kind of paranoia. Fundamentalists tend to subscribe to the domino theory: if you surrender one idea, eventually you will surrender all the others as well. If people hold a liberal position on one issue, then they are suspected of holding other liberal views. This causes Fundamentalists to feel that they must be constantly diligent in assessing the beliefs of others.
People processing creationism as a matter of religious faith - as essentially all who hold to that belief do in US Christianity - are essentially inaccessible to scientific arguments like the kind Bill Nye makes. To address the creationist belief on its own terms, its theology has to be challenged.

Not that creationists are much more open to that than to scientific arguments. But Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance has a point: "The starting point for both men (and their supporters) was too far apart. It's like two runners who enter a race that is to be run in two separate stadiums. The start line, the race itself, and the finish line are so far from the other runner, that the spectators aren't exactly sure where to look."

Humphreys and Wise also note the role that fear so often plays in the real communities of Christian fundamentalists:

Fundamentalism was born from the fear that aspects of the modern world were threatening the faith of the Christian community, and many Fundamentalists continue to live their lives in an elevated state of fear. That fear is predicated on the idea that the world is evil and that true believers must be constantly vigilant in order to avoid secularism.

This fear is heightened by exposure to higher education. One of the reasons many Fundamentalists became anti-intellectuals was their fear of the influence of intellectuals. It is not uncommon for Fundamentalist students to be urged not to allow themselves to be changed by their education in secular, or even in religious, colleges and universities. [my emphasis]
In other words, to those committed emotionally to creationism, the arguments of some intellectual-sounding guy with a bow tie like Bill Nye that Science the Handmaid of the Devil opposes creationism not only won't sound convincing. They can just as well feed the fear. On the other hand, an argument that you won't go to Hell if you pay serious attention to science may at least alleviate a bit of the fear. But no one debate is likely to be a turning point for any of them.

The basis of Ham's professed worldview is modern Christian fundamentalism. But he managed to baffle Lord S about that. And Bill Nye seems to have helped Ham sell his patent medicine by lending that debate the pretense of being over different scientific views of the early history of the Earth and the human race.

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