To get creationism into textbooks and classrooms, the scientific method itself must, inevitably, be devalued or distorted if this fallacy is to be maintained. Thus, the need for engaging the public is more acute than ever. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of some of the more counterproductive approaches we sometimes take in parrying the attacks of creationist culture warriors. (Titled "The Perils of Counter-dogmatism" in print version.)
|Long before the Scopes’ Monkey Trial signaled the escalation of the ongoing debate over evolution, Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus and others had felt the scorn of state or church.
How Go the Culture Wars?
The tension between science and authority, political or religious, is as old as science itself. It is inevitable in the course of scientific discovery that some popular ideas and legends will be proven erroneous or even fabricated. Long before the Scopes’ Monkey Trial signaled the escalation of the ongoing debate over evolution, Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus and others had felt the scorn of state or church.
It is gratifying to know that science has persisted and even thrived despite periodic surges of public skepticism. However, one cannot help but wonder if the Internet age has so magnified the reach and influence of today’s creationists as to render it possible that the scientific community may experience real pushback. The political power of religious fundamentalists can be seen in the attempts by elected school boards to mandate placing stickers on textbooks proclaiming that evolution is “just a theory,” to teach creation (aka “creation science” or “intelligent design”) in K-12 science classes, or— more recently— to dictate the content of science texts purchased by the state of Texas. Although the courts have thus far recognized and upheld the line between science and religious belief, the steady accumulation of culturally conservative judges may, sooner or later, allow the semantic legerdemain of the Intelligent Design Network and the Discovery Institute to win a place for intelligent design in science classrooms and textbooks.
To get creationism, however artfully labeled, into textbooks and classrooms, the scientific method itself must, inevitably, be devalued or distorted if this fallacy is to be maintained. Thus, the need for engaging the public is more acute than ever. Is the purpose of this article to reveal the secret for proving that evolution is right and intelligent design lacks scientific credibility? Unfortunately, no. Instead, my purpose is to raise awareness of some of the more counterproductive approaches we sometimes take in parrying the attacks of creationist culture warriors and to suggest some alternatives for your consideration.
Beware the Metaphor
If the scientific community is to rebuild and enlarge the bridges connecting it with the general public, those bridges cannot be one-way. This means rejecting the seductive metaphor of soldiers in a culture war, for the ways of war are not the ways of reason or respect but those of absolutism and polarization. Yet, many of our choices with regard to both goals and tactics betray the adversarial “us-or-them” mindset of a combat general.
Instead of working toward enhancing mutual understanding, all too often, our op-ed pieces and letters to the editor seek to somehow “win” the debate by exposing the fallacies of creationism and/or discrediting its adherents. All too often, we cast the debate in absolutist terms, seemingly designed to alienate rather than persuade. And, all too often, we portray the adherents of creationism and its derivatives as ignorant, intolerant and irrational.
Perhaps our most frequent error comes when we ascribe differences in viewpoint to differences in education and training: “If only you had the benefit of our advanced degrees and extensive scientific training, you, too, would realize the strength of the evidence on behalf of evolution.” By suggesting that evolution and other scientific concepts lie beyond the understanding of “ordinary” people, we strip away everything about science that makes it stimulating, dynamic and rigorous— in other words, everything that might induce someone to examine it more closely or give it a second look. Instead of an exciting and challenging process of exploration, frequently we portray science as a static, dogmatic collection of facts, laws and theories generated and interpreted by qualified experts. Instead of highlighting the many ways in which ordinary people apply scientific tools and principles in their daily lives— quantitative measurement, logical deduction and experimental testing— we portray it as something distant and alien to persons lacking a doctoral degree.