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?”
“And isn’t the nature of science one of caution and uncertainty?”
“And haven’t there been paradigm shifts in the past where theories turned out to be incorrect?”
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.