Creationism and Evolution in the U.S., On Anti-Intellectualism and Scientism

Massimo Pigliucci (University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA)

[now at Lehman College in The Bronx, New York, USA]

Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA

21 April 2000


Aspects of anti-intellectualism:

1) Anti-rationalism - says that intellectualism is bad because it leads to moral relativism and leads to skepticism for authority.  Also, it says that reason is cold and dull.


2) Anti-elitism - it is not good to have people who know better than you (intellectualism is anti-democratic).  This is an American attitude.  It is not something you see in Europe.  Europeans don’t have a problem with accepting the reality of an intellectual hierarchy in society.  As a culture, Americans tend to be skeptical of experts.  But, this thinking doesn’t apply to sports experts or health care experts (doctors).


3) Unreflective instrumentalism - thought has no value if it is not practical (the basis for capitalism).  This idea leads to disdain for theoretical inquiry.


4) Unreflective hedonism - points out that the media and mass entertainment provide pre-interpreted information to the public, which willingly accepts it without objection, because thinking is hard work, and therefore thinking is not desirable.


5) Post-modernism - the only non-American idea of this list, it originates from France.  This idea says that all knowledge is relative (all opinions are equal, and equally good), and therefore you must have equivalency of different cultural traditions.  Also, this idea concludes that science has not and should not have special pre-eminence.  Advocates of post-modernism are considered the academic and cultural left, but they agree with Creationist thinking.  This is ironic, since Creationists represent the academic and cultural far-right.


Anti-intellectualism converges upon public education by suggesting that book learning is elitist, vocational schooling is preferrable, and social development of students is more important than critical thinking or teaching of information.


A problem on the other side is excess of scientism.  Scientism says that the scientific method is the most powerful tool for investigating reality.  This is an OK statement and is fairly defensible, though some disagree with it.  What isn’t OK to say is that science can solve any problem given enough time and money and resources (though this is what you say to NSF!).  The problem with this idea is that is gives people a too-high expectation for science.  It is important to realize and admit that science does have limits, though.  This is difficult to explain to the general public or the media or politicians.


Science is based on philosophical assumptions, but they are well-founded assumptions:

1) realism - says there is a real world to be investigated, and that it is not a figment of one’s imagination.


2) naturalism - says that all things can be explained using only natural laws.  Intelligent design advocates reject this, of course.


3) Occam’s Razor - an idea from a 13th century monk that says the simplest explanation is likely the correct one.  This is an assumption that works very well, but not always.


4) Hume’s Dictum - extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  This was a view held and emphasized by Carl Sagan.


Intellectual snobbism is dangerous and unjustified.  No society could exist with only intellectuals.  Intellectual achievement is admittedly an arbitrary human value - lots of human societies in history and now lived and live without intellectual advancement, but they were more than happy and content with their lot in life.  It is also important to recognize that the products of science are not always good.


Logical fallacies of creationism (this listing is just a subsample):

1) science must be ethical - tree of evil metaphor, with the root of unbelief and the tree of evolution and the fruits of the tree include racism, abortion, alcohol, humanism, drugs, dirty books, hard rock, inflation, etc.  Why the metaphor?  Well, some consequences of science can lead to things that are not good.  Therefore, science is bad.  Is genetics bad because Hitler wanted to use eugenics to improve the Aryan race?  Is physics bad because we dropped atomic bombs?  There is no excuse for scientists to not care or to be unethical, though.  Science per se is not bad - it’s what people (scientists, the public, politicians, anybody) do with that science that can be bad (or not).


2) discussions among scientists are a sign of crisis - Gould’s punctuated equilibrium is the classic example.  He pushed the idea to sound like it was very different from Darwinism, but it isn’t very different.  This argument misses the point of science - changing your mind and progress are what science is all about.


3) evolution is “just” a theory - the old and tired mixing up of 2 definitions of the word “theory”.


4) natural processes occur at random - how can complex human beings be the result of randomness?  Well, evolution is not the same as a jumbo jet being assembled from a junkyard by a tornado.  Two forces shape evolution - mutations (which are random) and natural selection (which is anything but random).


5) no intermediate fossils - by now, it is quite puzzling why creationists continue to raise this point.  Actually, it is not a puzzle.  They will always see and point out a gap in the fossil record no matter how many fossils are found to fill pre-existing gaps.


6) the world is easy and simple to understand - this is just plain wrong.  The world is not easy to explain.  For example, the Flood could not possibly covered the entire world, and could not possibly have created the Grand Canyon.  The entire biosphere could not fit onto Noah’s Ark.


7) living organisms are perfect and therefore were designed - this is a very important argument behind why lots of people believe creationism.  Watchmaker argument.  Well, have you ever wondered why people have hemorrhoids, back pain, and vericose veins?  Ever wonder why it takes a year for babies to learn how to walk?  It’s because humans aren’t well-designed for bipedal locomotion.  This isn’t a perfect design.  The design is easy to understand using evolutionary theory - humans relatively recently became bipedal from arboreal & ground-dwelling, knuckle-walking apes.  Design?  Yes.  Perfect design?  Well...


8) science is an arbitrary assemblage of disconnected facts - this denies biology, astronomy, geology, and physics.  You have to come up with better substitutes for explaining the universe before you can toss these out.


9) education must be democratic - this idea is obvious for many.  After all, taxpayers fund public schools, therefore taxpayers must have a say in what is taught and how it is taught.  Europeans don’t make this argument, though.  To counter this, we can point out examples of other possible equal-time curricula (there are people who are living today that believe these): flat-earthers, geocentrists.


10) science is a religion - well, let’s compare the two:


Religion                              Science

- immutable doctrine        - self-correcting

- based on faith                  - based on evidence

- taught by authority         - discovery by critical thinking

- dogma                               - peer-review process & hypothesis-testing


Common mistakes of scientists:

1) We don’t really understand macroevolution [sic] - scientists need to recognize and admit this.  For example, the phylogeny of cetaceans (whales) shows that what we know now is incomplete and is a work in progress.  Admitting this is not a defeat, but should be an encouraging thing.  If everything is already solved, why should new people become scientists?  What more would there be to do?  While irreducible complexity is a non-concept (Behe), understanding of molecular evolution is at a beginning.  Just because we don’t know doesn’t imply or demand a designer.  There is plenty we know and there is plenty we don’t know.


2) We don’t have much of a clue as to the origin of life - we really don’t know.  We may never solve the problem, but we’ll certainly learn more in the future.  This is not an evolutionist’s problem, though.  Evolution is concerned with what happens after life appears, not how life appears.


3) Anthropic Principle is flawed, but we don’t know the origin of physical constants [sic] - the old fine-tuning argument.  There are several versions of the Anthropic Principle.  We know something about these things (from quantum mechanics and general relativity and superstring theory).


4) Scientists make mistakes - not admitting this is bad.  The classic example is Piltdown Man.  Yes, it was a fraud, but the fraud was discovered by scientists (evolutionary biologists, in this case), not creationsists.  And it was discovered by finding and learning about numerous other fossil finds.  This led to the realization that Piltdown Man didn’t fit in at all, prompting a re-examination.  This is a good example of how science works, not how it fails.  Science is self-correcting.


What to do?

1) Adapt the style (but not the content) to the audience - there are 3 types of audiences, and your approach has to be different in front of the 3 different types.  One type is the teachers and educators (teach them how to teach).  Second is the general public (emphasize science is relevant to them - not all the little details, but the big ideas are relevant).  The third type is the religious fundamentalists - talking to them is almost a waste of time, but the "almost" makes it worth it.  The key with the 3rd type of audience is to teach them to think critically.  Remember that it isn’t essential for the entire world’s population to understand evolution, but it is essential for as many people as possible to know how to think critically.


2) Good teaching of science - science is an open-ended inquiry.  Science is a process, not just a body of knowledge.  Hands-on learning is OK, but not to the exclusion of minds-on learning.


3) Learn from neurobiology - much is known about the psychology of education, but we don’t apply neurobiological knowledge to it.  We know nowadays a lot about how the brain works - this should be applied to teaching methodologies.  For example, the left brain is the rationalizing hemisphere, and the right brain is the challenging hemisphere.  The left side controls what is considered to be acceptable paradigm.  The right side supplies seeds of doubt (i.e., critical thinking!!).  It turns out that lecture is one of the worse ways for communicating information. [sic] If you want to change a creationist’s mind, ask questions and put seeds of doubt in their right hemispheres.  If they change their minds, it won’t be instantaneous.  Just be content to put seeds of doubt and questions in an audience’s mind & in debate opponents’ minds.  This sort of thing does work.  The threshold for how much seed of doubt is required to result in a change of mind is low in some, and high in others.


4) If all else fails, remind that teaching creationism is illegal - use this argument as a last resort only.


Lots of Pigliucci’s colleagues say that he’s wasting his time with this interest in creationists.  But, there is a need for people to do this work.



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