Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The best defence is not offence

Jerry Coyne recent(ish)ly posted on WEIT "A note on courtesy and posting behavior". It's a great post and I won't repeat it here, except to say that I think we all need to be reminded from time to time to just calm down, especially when discussing topics that have a tendency to make people either angry or defensive, such as Creationism and religion. There seems to be a little cluster of posts on this general topic at the moment (in my blogosphere at least), so I thought it a good time to try and spit out a post that has been actually been brewing for a while, giving my own twopenneth on the matter.

I've commented before that I sometimes feel the WEIT website sometimes bashes religion a bit too much for my tastes - one of Jerry's oft-repeated tag lines is "religion poisons everything". On the whole, though, I think he does a very good job at targeting his clear passion and, sometimes, warranted anger at the specific people responsible for certain public comments or ideas. I also tend to agree with his position. My only discomfort comes from the fact that I know a lot of religious people will be put off visiting the site due to the clear stance against religion, and I really want them to go there and read the evolution posts! (If they are even slightly on the fence regarding Creationism.)

Some of the other blogs out there sail a bit too close to the wind, perhaps. Another one of my regular reads and favourites is Larry Moran's Sandwalk, although the tagline to the blog - "strolling with skeptical biochemist" implies a relaxed air that often seems to be lacking. In a recent post, Ophelia, Daniel, I Respectfully Disagree, Larry outlines why he thinks the use of "insulting words to describe stupid people" is OK in some circumstances:
"When I use the word "IDiot" I fully intend to bash the IDiots for their stupid ideas. Why? Because their ideas are stupid and they really are idiots.

I don't expect to convince the IDiots of the error of their ways any more than they intend to convince scientists by using insulting terms like "Darwinist," "materialist," and "stupid." There's no such thing as "constructive discourse" with creationists.

My audience is not the creationists I'm debating, it's the readers who might not have made up their minds about Intelligent Design Creationism. They will read the viscous attacks of these creationists on scientists (Darwinists) and wonder whether there's some truth behind them."
(There is a more than this but I suggest you read the post and comments to get the full argument.)

I definitely see where people are coming from when they use the term "IDiot". It is very appealing. As Larry says, the Intelligent Design arguments are stupid and often disingenuous. I have a big problems with widespread use of the term, though. This is because, while I think "Intelligent Design" is an intellectually bankrupt position devoid of any scientific merit (and Young Earth Creationism is so far from having scientific merit that it genuinely scares me that people promote it), not all believers in Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism are stupid. Note that Larry is not actually saying they are in the quote above - he says that their ideas are stupid and they are idiots - but I think calling someone an IDiot gives a strong impression that you think that they are just as stupid as their ideas. Another famous evolution blogger, who shall remain nameless, is so aggressive and rude to his critics that I had to stop following him on Twitter. It was just unpleasant. (As a result, I also never visit his blog unless it is flagged up elsewhere, which is probably my loss.)

I feel this is counter-productive for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it seems to rule out the very real possibility - indeed, likelihood - that far from repeating these ideas due to stupidity, there are certain intelligent people out there being knowingly disenginuous and telling lies in an attempt to indoctrinate people or sell stuff. A good example of this is the film Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed. The signs of this are the blatant repetition and promotion of ideas that have long since been thoroughly debunked. A similar thing happened recently with YEC supporter during Giant's Causewaygate - I recommend reading Dr Stephen Moreton's short piece in Issue 6 of the Earth Science Ireland magazine (P37-P39), "Facts meet fantasies at the Giant's Causeway" for some more examples. (Or just look at essentially any Creationist propaganda.) The fact that these people are usually selling a book or DVD gives a financial motivation for dishonesty above the usual motive for lying in the name of religion, namely power.

Indeed, those claiming to be "Creation Scientists" are sometimes very forthright about their lack of scientific integrity. A line in a piece entitled Tree ring dating (dendrochronology) lays out the true Creationist position quite explicitly:
"However, when the interpretation of scientific data contradicts the true history of the world as revealed in the Bible, then it’s the interpretation of the data that is at fault."
This is often (as in this case) then accompanied by some very creative pseudo-scientific justification as to why all of the world's experts studying, for example, dendrochronology are actually wrong and why an interpretation of the data that fits nicely with all the other (literal) mountains of evidence for an old Earth must also be wrong because these trees cannot actually be older than the Biblical Flood. To come up with these explanations shows a severe lack of scientific integrity and, often, desperation but it frequently does not reveal an underlying stupidity. (In some ways, it would be much less sad if it did.)

Larry is right that there is no such thing as "constructive discourse" with this set of Creationists because they are explicitly charged (and indeed may even believe themselves to be called by the Almighty) to twist, ignore and invent data as needed to bolster their pre-existing worldview. They are beyond hope until they start basing truth on reality rather than vice versa.

The problem is, however, there is a second set of non-stupid Creationists who are not beyond hope. I know because I used to be one and I have old friends who might still be in such a position. And herein lies my second big problem with referring to people that have bought into Intelligent Design as IDiots - it instantly makes anyone currently holding that view feel defensive. If you give them a choice of you being wrong or them being stupid, obviously you are going to be wrong! If you give them a choice of you being wrong or them being misinformed, they are more likely to give the idea some attention - and for many people misinformation rather than stupidity really is the problem.

To understand this, you have to put yourself in the position of someone who has been brought up their whole life to believe that a particular book - and sometimes a particular interpretation of said book - is the ultimate window to truth. Anything disagreeing with that is wrong or possibly evil. Indeed, the Devil is out there trying to confuse us all with his sneaky lies. They are then confronted by two sides, who BOTH claim that the other is lying and BOTH present claims of scientific explanations.

Now, for anyone (like me) who cares enough to actually learn the science well enough to make an informed decision, the evidence screams for itself. There is only one "side" that shows scientific integrity and has a consistent, well supported position. The mistake is thinking that everyone has enough knowledge to make an informed decision and is therefore "stupid" if they make the wrong decision. For many people, they are presented with the choice of believing someone they have been brought up to trust versus someone they have been brought up not to trust. If you alienate them by calling them stupid - or calling those they have been taught to admire stupid - there is a real risk that they are not going to start looking into the facts. You have validated the lie that evolution is just promoted by people who hate religious people and think that they are stupid. To them, and to the neutral (or even the squeamish supporter), it looks like you are attacking their ideas because you think they are stupid and not that you think they are stupid because of their ideas. People might assume that you haven't really bothered to look at or consider what the "IDiot" has actually said because you already know they're an IDiot and therefore must be wrong.

Happily, I got a proper education before ID came along but I was brainwashed into being a Creationist (and even seriously contemplating YEC) as a teenager despite being academically far from stupid. I was simply too poorly equipped to recognise which side was right and which side was lying until I learnt more. It was clearly laid out facts and solid debunking of Creationist myths that saved me, not aggressively attacking those who had brainwashed me - most of those people themselves had been duped (and were not scientists) and were repeating that nonsense with good intentions because people they trusted had, in turn, mislead them.

When the actual facts come out, Creationism (& ID) is such a weak position that it really does not need to be attacked so aggressively. I have never met anyone who had "not made up their mind" about Creationism versus evolution and ever opted for Creationism after looking into it. (I've met lots of people that simply don't care but that's a different matter.) I have, on the other hand, met a lot of people who have made up their mind to believe in Creationism because of what they have been taught/indoctrinated with (or been sucked in following religious conversion) but, at the same time, have the intellectual integrity (and capacity) to question whether that position is right and look into it further.

The thing that needs to be attacked with vigour is the apparent right of religious institutions to brainwash the next generation with all sorts of gibberish. Again, though, the people involved are not necessarily stupid - they are often themselves the victims of a giant multi-generational scam that has left them too invested in an untenable position to easily let go.

The final thing that I would say is that (in my experience) fundamentalist Christianity comes with a built-in persecution complex. If you attack them directly (i.e. attack them and not their ideas), they see this as a sign that they are doing something right and that they are being "persecuted" for being holy. Rather than damaging them, you are validating them and giving them material with which to brainwash the next generation.

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