The Cosmos update has creationists clamoring for equal time. Do they deserve it? (spoiler: no)


Creationist are in a huff about the presentation of accurate science on television. This should come as no surprise to absolutely anyone – religious fundamentalists seem to find little of greater offense than the presentation of factual information to the general public. Currently, creationisms most vocal blatherskites are complaining that Neil deGrasse Tyson is giving their perspective about the origins and nature of the universe short-shrift. To be absolutely fair, short-shrift is exactly what their beliefs deserve in any forum outside of a community college mythology class, but they’re making a fair amount of racket over the affair anyway. That point aside, over at Think Progress, Betsy Phillips has written a nice editorial arguing that the Cosmos series has given creationist claims plenty of attention. The problem is that creationist beliefs tend to crumble when subjected to the scrutiny of  a scientific lens.

All ways of knowing have foundational assumptions – for science, those assumptions are that the universe is an ultimately intelligible product of material (and therefore observable) phenomena, that the only way to derive knowledge about the universe is through the rational analysis of empirical evidence, and that all knowledge about how the universe works is provisional.

Perhaps the best point about why creationism isn’t science and why creationists can’t (usually) do science (well) is the nature of their a priori assumptions. Their starting point is one of unshakable certainty – that the universe is the way it is because god made it that way. This is not a hypothesis set for testing. It is an irrefutable truth. No new fact will change the creationist’s mind. Unfortunately, the very notion of god does not exist independently of religious beliefs. The particular form it takes is the product of historical contingency. There is no set of observations about the world that, absent extant religious doctrine, would lead one to justifiably infer the existence of divine action. Claims to the contrary typically take the form of “phenomena A is complex or as yet unexplained by science, therefore god must have done it.” It is a way of saying, “I can’t fathom how the world could differ from the way I believe it to be – the way I believe the world to be must be accurate.”

The seriousness of creationist claims to scientific merit is further undermined by their stubborn refusal to modify their position in light of empirical evidence. It’s not just a matter of their argument being logically fallacious (though it certainly is that) – it’s a matter of their argument being scientifically untenable. The Bible is littered with very specific claims about the nature of god and his workings. Where empirically tractable, these purportedly factual claims have been routinely falsified. A 6,000 year old earth? Wrong. A great, world-swamping flood? False. A species founded by two individuals and subsequent generations of hardcore incest? Both wrong and gross. Phenotypic differences in skin pigmentation are the arbitrary dispensation of a petty cosmic prick, rather than an adaptation to differential exposure to UV light? False and racist. All languages appeared suddenly and are necessarily unrelated? Untrue and ridiculous. Creationists willingly ignore all of this and stubbornly persist in their beliefs anyway. That’s hardly a scientific outlook.

Brass tacks, it’s not worth taking creationists to task on the abject absurdity of their beliefs. The point here is not to disprove their ideas. They wouldn’t even worth seriously entertaining if it weren’t for the fact that their (rather pronounced) persistence is so deleterious to the successful function of a free and just society. This year alone, tax payers will fork out nearly $1 billion dollars paying to teach creationist hokum to impressionable youths. This is not only illegal, it is ethically abominable.


The ultimate point here is to highlight the fact that creationist beliefs are not, in any conceivable sense, scientific. Rather, they are the objectively non-scientific byproducts of the crude exigencies of Western history. A batch of bizarre superstitions that, god willing (wink, wink), will one day be relegated to some humanities dustbin with Enki, Zeus, Odin, and the pantheon of dead deities. They may be deserving of equal time in a mythology class, but in a science class they aren’t even worthy of mention. The fact that some people think otherwise is one of the greatest embarrassments of the modern world.



White Conservative Christian Derangement Syndrome

Over at a site known as “World News Direct” a fellow named Joseph Farah has issued a rather mundane bout of anti-science rhetoric1. Now, as near as I can tell, WND appears to be a kind of support group for people caught in the grips of paranoid delusions associated with WCCDS (more on that shortly). It offers a safe place where they can share their delusions with other delusional people without fear of facts or information intruding and casting the shroud of scrutiny, critical thinking, and shrewd judgement they so often entail.

For the most part, Farah’s column is what happens when, lacking the professional expertise – or even a basic understanding – of a subject upon which to base an opinion, a person stubbornly forges on ahead anyway and conjures one out of thin air. It evinces a pitiable lack of critical thinking skills and sorrowful abundance of “White Conservative Christian Derangement Syndrome” (WCCDS). Though the ultimate causes of WCCDS are uncertain, it is believed to result from situations where an individual’s beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be differ significantly from available evidence about the way the world actually is. It is frequently accompanied by inexplicable feelings of persecution and a pronounced tendency toward tribalism. WCCDS is named for its prevalence among conservative members of the White-Christian community, the majority demographic in the United States.

Given Farah’s apparent affliction, addressing the particulars of his rant is more or less pointless. Characteristic of WCCDS, he thinks climate change, cosmology, and Darwinian evolution are hoaxes, sculpted in the absence of the scientific method. Clearly this is the product of a mind that either lacks access to factual information or an ability to interpret empirical results in light of the nuanced process of provisional discovery known as the scientific method. Alternately, Farah may have misapplied the term scientific method, thinking it relates to the process whereby one compares reality to the Bible and, where the two differ, chooses to reject reality in favor of the often opaque and internally inconsistent teachings of a book selectively compiled from the ramblings of the ancient inhabitants of the Iron Age Levant.


I think only one of his points is worth addressing:

“When will everyone see through the fact that we now have a scientific establishment that is politically driven and government funded – a combination more dangerous than when the church was in charge?”

First, whether or not the “scientific establishment” is politically driven is a matter of perspective. To those on the Right, this might seem to be the case because liberally-minded folk seem to have empirical evidence on their side in both larger quantities and with greater frequency. That said, it should be noted that science can’t be politically driven. This is because scientific discoveries are emergent products of a continuous process, driven by patterns of both cooperative and adversarial interaction, where the veracity of results is ultimately arbitrated by the reliability with which they explain real-world phenomena. Individual scientists can certainly be politically driven, but the mutually constructive processes of peer-review, competition, and repeatability ensure that science as a whole can’t be.

Second, the notion that government funded science is somehow a bad thing is blatantly dangerous. People tend to forget that in a participatory democracy, the government is the people. That this ideal is not manifest is a product of government corruption, typically perpetrated by powerful market interests. Which, as it happens, are just the sort of interests conservatives so passionately defend as paragons of industrious self-interest and moral righteousness. In reality, their influence tends to inhibit the successful function of representative democracy. Why, if they were the primary source of scientific funding, should we expect that they wouldn’t corrupt science as well?

Indeed, insofar as it can be said that science is biased, it is biased by the urge to address hot-button issues and ignore informative negative results in order to secure a chunk of that government funding pie. If the funding of science were handed over to the private sector, things would be much worse. There would be no such thing as objective science – only science that serves the limited interests of for-profit entities like Exxon and Pfizer. The only results of interest would be those that help shareholders capture more and more profits. Explanatory science – science about how the universe was formed, how life evolved – would be forgotten. Science that exposes the deleterious consequences of corporate behavior – that deforestation and pollution are linked to devastating losses in biodiversity, that smoking causes cancer – would be forbidden.

So let’s all raise a glass to publicly funded science and, wherever and whenever possible, do what we can to keep it that way.