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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Creationism And False Dichotomies

Lim Say Liang at The Online Citizen has written an interesting article entitled "God sneaks into our classrooms" about how creationism has turned up in Singaporean schools.

I understand that creationism is formally not acceptable by the MOE, so I have nothing to add to that discussion from an education policy point of view.

From the scientific perspective, as Dr. John van Wyhe from Cambridge has emphasized in his recent talk, there has been no debate between evolution and creation since the 1870s.

Evolution - more specifically the part about common descent - has been accepted by the scientific community for over a hundred years.

However, debate about the details of evolution, such as its primary mechanism (eg. natural selection vs neutral drift) continues on today.

This sort of dispute is usually only interesting among specialists (may sound very boring to the general public) but will be gradually resolved in time with theory development and more experimental evidence.

On the other hand, the "Evolution vs Creation" culture war (and predominantly US culture at that) is a very tiresome and possibly neverending squabble that will persist as long as people, politics and money exist.

I won't go into the details of this - interested readers can just click the "evolution" tag to see my numerous articles (and even more numerous comments) regarding this topic.

Instead I would like to focus on a pair of comments posted in response to the TOC article -

1. New Renaissance on August 3rd, 2009 2.33 pm:

"In fact, what critical thinking can there be if only one side is presented?"

2. Jer Bear on August 3rd, 2009 3.09 pm @ New Renaissance:

"The other side of science is not fiction. The other side of science is science itself. One cannot disprove logic with fairy tales – therefore if you truly believe in teaching our children critical thinking, show them the thousands of articles written to refute certain scientific and mathematical explanations. Creationism or ‘intelligent design’ doesn’t count."

I think Jer Bear has addressed the New Renaissance's criticism quite well, but I would like to add my views on this matter.

I have observed that creationists like to think of science as if it was some kind of legal process and like to think of scientists as if they were lawyers.

In fact, creationist lawyers tend to think that their legal training makes up for their lack of scientific training.

Why is this so?


Dichotomies, even false dichotomies, have a lot of SOCIAL POWER.

Remember ex-US president George W. Bush's infamous line: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."?

A legal system is an adversarial system. Either a suspect is innocent or guilty. There is no middle ground and thus no need to consider alternative explanations.

By proving your opponent wrong, a lawyer can confidently "prove" that she is right.

When deliberately forced upon science, this legalistic perspective crushes the whole scientific process into an oversimplified single dimension with two absolute outcomes: right or wrong.

That is why creationists spend practically all of their time attacking science rather than do actual research to support their views.

To their credit, they do understand the human psyche very well; the general public is easily impressed by outward appearance of authority, conviction and eloquence. As long as they can "prove" that the scientists are unsure, or hesitant, or not very good at public speaking, or too easily annoyed, creationists can then claim success.

This can be done without actually addressing the scientific content of the argument; indeed, it can be done without adequate understanding of the subject matter at all!

That is because creationists are not as interested in knowing what is factually correct as they are obsessed about being "proven" right. If they are "proved" to be right they can consolidate the social cohesion among fellow believers and also feel that they have the justification to impose their worldview on everyone else.

To directly address New Renaissance's comment that there can't be any critical thinking if only one side is presented, I would say:

"Are there only two sides in every debate? What critical thinking can there be if only two sides are presented?"

If the subject matter is creation stories, why not present a multicultural primer about creation stories throughout the world? If the focus is on anti-evolutionary views, why not include a section on animal spiritualism and Hare Krishna's "devolution" idea?

Creationists will never advocate multifactorial thinking, because it weakens their case that they can be "proved" right as long as their opponent is "proved" wrong. If there are ideas that don't support their case, they will cleverly package all of them together into a single opponent, even if those ideas don't have much in common with each other.

Eventually they will try to force an adversarial approach in order to maximize their social power.

Only the debates between "us" and "them" matters; disagreements between them "evolutionists" or disagreements between them "pagans" don't matter.

They are all wrong anyway... because my belief "proves" it.


S.A. said...

Well done. You have succinctly exposed the creationists' deceptive mode of operation.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To S.A.,

The show-stopper is the testable prediction; in the past, some creationists have in fact tried to make specific claims (eg. the "Water canopy theory") but these ideas were not only rejected by scientists but also by other creationists.

The problem here is that whenever somebody formulates a scientific hypothesis, there is always a possibility that it could be refuted by new evidence, ie. you could be wrong.

To an individual scientist, this is a disconcerting but unavoidable aspect of the scientific process. Studying the literature carefully can reduce but never eliminate this possibility.

To the entire scientific endeavour, this is not a problem at all because inaccurate or even incorrect ideas can still be very important to the overall body of knowledge eg. to steer researchers along a different direction.

For creationists, however, this is unacceptable because they must start from their conclusions. They wish to borrow the authority of science without participating in the process of science, because they must never be seen to be "proved" wrong.

As such, creationists today spend more of their effort simply mocking scientific discoveries and attacking the credibility of scientists.

By having no specific claim and depending on sweeping generalizations such as the argument from design, they can avoid disagreements between creationist groups (eg. young earth vs old earth vs theistic evolution) thus presenting a united front better suited for forcing an adversarial approach.

It is a more prudent strategy.

S.A. said...

If I may rephrase what you said. It's like the Creationists are playing soccer against the real scientists without any goal posts on their side for their opponent to score, so they can never lose.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Yes, that's a nice illustration.

Creationists are not here to play fair, or play by any sort of rules at all. They are not interested in the process, only the outcome.