Feb 01

Doubting Science: The other tactic of creationists

Every year, Republicans in the Missouri House of Representatives bring forth a bill intelligently designed to undermine evolution. Usually, they attempt to mask this attack as an attempt to promote critical thinking in schools. This was the case in 2011 when HB 195 was introduced.[i] It was preceded by HB 1651 in 2010, and similar bills in 2009, 2008, and 2006. Currently, however, we have a bill that is not so subtle in HB 1227.

HB 1227 has the dubious distinction of blatantly calling for “equal time” given to the teaching of intelligent design. I encourage you to read through this short bill and recognize just what is happening. As Bruno Latour realized, our methods are being turned against us in deceitful ways. I call this the “Yes, but…” problem. Modern critics of science use critiques that are at their heart essentially correct, but they then extrapolate humble premises into gross mischaracterizations in their conclusions. Consider the bills mentioned above that promote critical thinking. You can imagine the following conversation:

“But don’t you want to encourage our students to think critically and question things for themselves?”

“Yes, but…”

“And isn’t the nature of science one of caution and uncertainty?”

“Yes, but…”

“And haven’t there been paradigm shifts in the past where theories turned out to be incorrect?”

“Yes, but…”

You see the problem, I hope. The academics—especially historians of science and philosophers of science—have given out the keys to the kingdom in recent decades. In trying to figure out how science is so successful (and recognizing areas of uncertainty is one of the reasons), they have established the tools by which modern critiques against science are accomplished. However, even from a valid starting point, a premise can be unsound. Let’s see two excellent examples from the bill.

1. “Scientific theory [definition], an inferred explanation of incompletely understood phenomena about the physical universe based on limited knowledge, whose components are data, logic, and faith-based philosophy.”

The faith-based philosophy claim toward the end is drawing on the two key notions of incompletely understood phenomena and limited knowledge. The problem here is that both of these things are true, albeit trivially. As soon as we grant that, though, and move onto the “but…” we’ve already lost them. Anyone who is familiar with the creation/evolution debate knows that they will run with this until they can run no more. They will always focus on the areas of uncertainty, rather than the large body of evidence in favor of evolution.

2. “Knowledge growth as a result of human endeavor serves as the foundation for the continuous reevaluation of theory, hypothesis, conjecture, and extrapolation to determine their correctness based on supporting or conflicting verified empirical data.”

Once again, this is a true claim, but the problem is not just that creationists challenge the theory of evolution. Rather, the problem is that they continually make bad challenges to the theory. Furthermore, their methods are often either deceptive or poorly informed, as they keep presenting arguments that have been long disproven. Most popular-level creationists are simply poorly informed, like the proponents of the Missouri bill. I have looked into the backgrounds of the sponsors and co-sponsors, and none of them have a formal background in science of any kind, let alone biology. My guess is that they were handed this bill from a creationist “think tank” and submitted it with minor modifications, if any, since it sounded awfully “science-y” to them.

So, here is our problem. We have a number of true claims (often trivially true) being used as a foundation for misinformation. Information is always incomplete. The science of the future may not look like the science of today. We can’t replicate every theoretical process. We want to be able to question current understanding. All of these things are true, yet they all make the job of debunking creationist arguments—and global warming deniers, etc.—much harder. We cannot in good conscience deny the validity of these basic claims. When you can’t close your door all the way, some undesirable pests are going to get inside the house.

I write this so you will recognize that we actually have two distinct problems. First, there is the familiar problem of misinformation. These claims were included in the bill, but I did not discuss them here. Many of us have no doubt already heard that the fossil record does not support evolution, that the eye is irreducibly complex, that radioactive dating is unreliable, or that the Cambrian “explosion” cannot be explained by evolution. I think there has been a lot of success in confronting these falsehoods. But that is where most of the effort goes and we can’t just focus on these and forget about the second problem. Creationists are using trivial truths, like the ones I’ve discussed, to prop up their cases. If you’ve had training in sales, you know that it’s always a good idea to get a person started saying “yes.” They are softening the audience in the public square and turning them against science. They are creating a public illusion of what science is and how it operates—and it’s working. They don’t take to peer-reviewed journals. They reach millions through Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and other friendly outlets.[ii]

This is a big problem, and there is no easy solution. The tactics being used require us to be well-versed in the discussion of why and how science is an authority. Unfortunately for us, that question has never been fully answered. Until it is, our answers may never satisfy a public that is skeptical of science because of the concerted efforts of a small group of doubt mongers.


[i] For that previous bill, I published my full letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch here. The paper ran a shorter version.

[ii] To better understand the tactics used, it would be very worthwhile to read Merchants of Doubt. This book is mainly about environmental concerns, but the tactics used to create doubt in the public square are incredibly similar.

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  1. Lee

    It seems like the most effective strategy, rather than split hairs over uncertainty (though I obviously agree with you), is to just concede their entire case. Leave the ‘but…’ out altogether, and request an equally common-sensical amendment:

    – Any competing scientific theory with a body of evidential support that either meets or exceeds the body of evidential support for the theory of evolution, in the context of the origin of species, is absolutely to be granted equal time in the biology classroom.

    We will get absolutely nowhere quibbling over the philosophy of knowledge, least of all with the general public. These points, which you quote above, are cogent. Undeniably so. I think we need to focus on contrasting ID, again and again, in the same light as evolution. Let the light shine down, as the lyric goes, and dispel the shadowy form of whatever shade it is that ID thinks is a theory. This is somewhat like what Ken Miller advocates, and I agree with his reasoning.

    Perhaps we should just invite them in the door, as it were, everywhere they knock, and ask them the great religion killer:

    “Yes, I understand your claim. Now, what is your evidence in favor of your claim?”

    They don’t have an answer, because they can’t. They will attempt to redefine evidence, as Behe did; they will attempt to attack the gaps in evolution, which isn’t evidence in favor of a competing hypothesis; they will attack the philosophical underpinnings of naturalism, which again doesn’t go to show that ID/creationism is true. None of that will get them a room and a key in the house of science.

    “You have to pick your battles wisely. Not every conflict is worth turning
    into a major battle.” ~ Sun Tzu


  2. leebowman

    Would you agree that categorically, there are two modalities to produce a novel biologic function, organelle, or new protein; a directed action by an intelligence [entity or mechanism with forethought], or a natural process, undirected by an intervening agency.

    IOW naturally occurring or guided/ directed.

    It is often stated that lack of a testable natural mechanism to produce a novel function or form is not evidence of guided or directed mechanism. If so, what would be a third category?

    The existent embryogenetic systems are self-creative of progenies. And the concept of ‘self-generation’ at the molecular level is an area of growing interest. But are there limits to what can ‘self-generate’?

    Wave your hand, shrug and say “No, there are no limits.”

  3. Mike


    I think we’ll get the best picture if we phrase things in terms of Bayes’ Theorem. Have you read any of my posts on this subject? It is a logically valid representation of hypothesis testing to tell us how an experimental result (or any number of things) should affect our previous reasoning.

    Now, if I understand you correctly, you are making a case that, based on an absence of some experimental result x, we should question evolution. Is that correct?

    If so, it will depend on a few things. 1 – the prior probability that evolution is true, which is currently quite high given our background knowledge. 2 – the likelihood of the experimental results given the hypothesis. If the result x is actually expected under the hypothesis/theory, then it won’t be damaged much, especially if the prior probability is high.

    I think you want to make an argument like the one I made here: http://foxholeatheism.com/absence-of-evidence-is-evidence-of-absence/

    Absence of evidence does lower prior probabilities. The question would be just how much. My guess is that whatever you have in mind is probably not going to have a significant effect.

  4. Herman Cummings

    The evolution theory is an irrational falsehood, zealously embraced by atheists, that is a phony conclusion of the 600+ million year fossil record. There is no “valid supporting data” for evolution. In a court of law, or in a public forum, the same evidence that evolutionists would use to try to “prove” the validity of that theory, I would utilize to reveal the truth of Genesis. In order to believe in evolution, you have to purposely ignore certain facts of reality. For example, when you see illustrations of primates being pictured as evolving into humans, it can be shown in a court of law that such a premise is impossible, because certain human and primate traits are different, and could not have ever been shared. The only “common ancestor” that humans and primates share is God Himself.

    Current Creationism has refused to teach the truth of the Genesis text, and either teaches foolishness (young Earth), or false doctrines (non-literal reading of the text). Creationists thoughtlessly try to prove “Creationism”, rather than seeking and teaching the truth of Genesis. How can an untruth, ever prove another lie, to be in error? You can’t do it. That is why Creationism fails. It essentially is also a lie, and should be discarded, even by Bible believers.

    The correct opposing view to evolution is the “Observations of Moses”, which conveys the truth of Genesis chapter one.

    Those that imply that God used evolution are infidels at worse, or clowns at best, that refuse to learn the truth of Genesis. The truth has been available for more than 18 years. Such a discussion is currently silly, and shows stubbornness against learning the truth of God’s Word.

    There are no “creation stories” in Genesis. In fact, about all of theology and creationism have no idea what Moses was writing about. You can’t simply take an advanced book of math or science, and try to read from it on your own without personal instruction.

    For example, Genesis declares that mankind has been on this Earth, in his present likeness, for more than 60 million years. The “male and female” in Genesis chapter one was not “Adam & Eve”. Has modern science discovered that yet?

    Herman Cummings

  5. leebowman

    “I think we’ll get the best picture if we phrase things in terms of Bayes’ Theorem. Have you read any of my posts on this subject?”

    No, I haven’t been here before that I recall. And while the Bayesian formulation is somewhat familiar to me, I haven’t tinkered with it as yet. It appears to be kind of like stacking probabilities [similar to Sagan’s seven factors], although figured differently than just multiplying them sequentially as he did on the video. When I get a chance, I’ll read the rest of the post to see how you recalculated the numbers using Bayes’ Theorem.

    “Now, if I understand you correctly, you are making a case that, based on an absence of some experimental result x, we should question evolution. Is that correct?”

    Not evolution per se, but the probability bounds surrounding natural selection acting upon its source(s). To add to the probability of population fixation, I guess that population size and other factors would come into play like gestation times, and other conception issues. But RM + NS alone would be a place to start.

    My [present] case is more based on subjective gut feelings based on years of experience designing systems, mechanisms and devices by various means. Granted that biological reproduction is totally different, but I feel that there are parallels. I do realize that this is not proof in and of itself.

    That said, I do feel that using formulations like Bayes’ though, with an input of valid quantitative data, that valid results might be obtained. From what I’ve been reading, some of that is already being done experimentally, regarding enzyme and protein forming analyses.

    “I think you want to make an argument like the one I made here: http://foxholeatheism.com/absence-of-evidence-is-evidence-of-absence

    Perhaps, but I’m not at that point as yet. One of the big problems in assessing both Galactic populations and evolutionary scenarios is garnering valid probability numbers to input into equations. Notice that just flipping one factor at the end turned a 10 into a 1,000,000 plus likelihood of intelligent Galactic populations. One erroneous factor will skew the result!

    On a side note, do you agree that we perform Bayesian type calculations along with differential calculus of sorts when driving a car, and in particular a motorcycle if you drive fast in congested areas? Regarding probabilities, the most common one is seeing a car ready to pull out into our lane, and doing a quick analysis of that probability, how soon it might occur, their speed, my speed and my estimate of stopping or slowing distance to avoid contact. The probability is increased if its an elderly person, if they’re talking to another, and if they look your way only briefly.

    The diff calculus is used when driving in traffic (and in particular, jaywalking) where you vary your speed and direction [vectors] according to variables encountered. We get so good at it that we can do it pretty well while talking to someone in the car, tuning the radio, and checking out a cutie walking by. Amazing.

    Anyway, utilizing maths to determine probabilities is worth pursuing, but determining the correct factors is the difficult part, and possibly not doable given some of the variables encountered.

    Thanx for responding to a creationist, er ID’sts!


  6. Mike


    I’m not going to spend much time or effort responding to you because I don’t think it will be worthwhile. I do want to make a few points, though.

    First, evolution and ID have squared off in a courtroom and you can read the very interesting opinion written by the conservative judge in the trial (I’m speaking of Dover, PA). Evolution was successful in that case and the Christian scientist in support of evolution did an excellent job rebutting the claims of Michael Behe and others.

    Second, I have no idea what traits you reference that could not have come from a common ancestor. If you break down the genes of humans and chimps, for example, you can tell quite clearly where the changes happened. There is a great presentation available online that covers the change in chromosomes, what we can learn from the telomeres, etc.

    Third, trying to teach the truth of the Bible is a hopeless task. It is a mess, especially the Hebrew Bible.

    Fourth and final, you are undoubtedly committed to a double standard where examining evidence is concerned.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. Mike


    I don’t mind talking to people who disagree. It makes for more interesting discussion and a blog post is usually going to create more questions than it answers so I think the ensuing discussion is often more helpful.

    Just a couple quick thoughts: I don’t know if people do actual Bayesian calculations, but I do think they do it informally. I’m of the opinion that most good reasoning can be modeled in Bayesian terms. I also agree that coming up with the correct numbers is a difficulty. I just think it’s not a special one. Using Bayes can at least tell us where our warrant lies based on present understanding. It will be subject to change based on new input, but that’s precisely how it should be.

  8. Herman Cummings

    Hi Mike. Here is my reply.

    1) I wrote to the foolish board members of Dover Area School District, about dropping the inept ID curriculum, and teaching the “Observations of Moses”. They ignored me. So, they lost the case, and their jobs.

    2) I’d save those “traits” for a date in court. I want to cripple the ACLU.

    3) You are not an expert on the book of Genesis. I am, and there doesn’t appear to be any “close second”. It is when I read the Hebrew version of Genesis that I became the “foremost terrestrial authority” on Genesis.

    4) I welcome a public forum, to allow the evolutionist to show their evidence, for one hour, and I show the truth of Genesis, for one hour (Observations of Moses). Then, let the audience vote on which is most plausible.


  9. Mike

    Herman, I think your plans face a significant roadblock. The argument in Dover was twofold. First, there was the issue of whether ID was scientifically viable. Second, there was the constitutional aspect. Even if you could show viability–which I would doubt–you would not be able to pass the Lemon Test. So, it looks like you would either have to amend the constitution or seriously change the court precedent. That’s no easy task on top of the Herculean one you’ve already given yourself.

  10. Paul So

    I’m starting to become more pessimistic about the circumstances in the U.S. since the anti-intellectual atmosphere and pseudo-intellectual atmosphere is poisoning people’s mind. Intellectual dishonesty is becoming the norm when people use sophomoric philosophical insights to exploit science for their own ideological interest, and it’s sickening me to the core. Creationist can focus all they want on the areas of uncertainty in Evolution rather than looking at the body of evidence, but by doing this they forget that the same can be done on General Theory of Relativity, Special relativity, Big Bang Theory, Laws of Conservation, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetic laws, and all the scientific laws; it clearly shows double standard on their part, hence intellectual dishonesty. No scientific theory is perfect, and anyone can coherently be a scientific realist and a fallibilist who believes that scientific theories are approximations that can be increased through more supporting evidence yet be open to the possibility that the current theories are in principle falsifiable. However this does not have to entail that we should doubt our current theories, we should only doubt them when new evidence shows to the contrary. This is such a simple and fair way of viewing how we use and change scientific theories, and I am not a scientists by any means. Yet people, as usual, talk trash about things from Global Warming to Evolution. Unfortunately, due to my pessimism with the stupidity and sophistry of the human mind in general (occasionally including my own) I don’t think the situation in the United States will improve; I think people will get more pseudo-intellectual and pretentiously arrogant about their intellect to the point that all we have left is trash and superstition. i may sound very cynical here, but so far while I see technological progress, I see no intellectual progress among people who are consumerist-centered ideologues.

  1. Modern science as a contemporary dogma? « World of Ianus Christius

    […] Doubting Science: The other tactic of creationists (foxholeatheism.com) […]

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