Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Mockery

This is a response to a post on the blog Reasonably Aaron regarding tactics when dealing with creationists, titled oddly enough Fallacies against Creationists. It's a pretty decent assessment of the problem that creationism poses and the degree of difficulty it will take to overcome the threat. It also made some good suggestions of practical ways of going about things. Though I disagree that I'm not seeing the bigger picture (of course I would disagree that), and of the role that mockery plays.

A comical absurdity
Hypothetically, think of a scenario involving a discussion on the holocaust. On one side, there is a world war 2 historian with decades of research into the field. On the other, there is a holocaust denier who has never even picked up a history book. Now the debate starts and the historian lays out all the evidence for the holocaust, dispels the myths that are around, and generally gives a convincing historical analysis of what happened. Now the denier stands up and says "If the holocaust happened, why don't we see the ghosts of dead Jews haunting children of Nazis?"

This sounds absolutely absurd and the holocaust denier would be laughed out of the debate hall. But this is exactly the kind of arguments we see from professional creationists. The difference is that why the Crockduck is an absurdity on the order of Jewish ghosts haunting Nazi captors requires at least some scientific understanding of what a transitional form is. To the scientifically illiterate, it can seem like a legitimate problem for evolutionary theory.

Kirk Cameron has been talking for years against evolution, and still the Crocoduck example comes up. Either he's still oblivious to the fact that Crocoduck is an absurdity of the highest order, or he continues to use it despite knowing it's an evolutionary absurdity. Yet these are the kinds of arguments that are all too common in creationists circles, and they are being legitimised by a 'moderate' perception that this is merely a difference of opinion.

As far as ridicule goes, it may simply put those being ridiculed further into their shells and feed their persecution complex. When a person can't separate themselves from the beliefs they hold, then attacking those beliefs is going to seem to them a personal attack. This is unavoidable. But on a whole, ridiculing these beliefs may play a part in stemming the spread of the memes. Without such ridicule, those beliefs are legitimised under a guise of tolerance. Anyone holding the opinion of a flat earth now is ridiculed because it's known to be a ridiculous belief to hold, the same with geocentrism. The evidence for evolution is on a par with heliocentric orbit, yet doesn't enjoy the same level of support in the community.

Science has that unfortunate quality that it takes effort to understand, ridicule without explanation would leave most people bemused. Pointing out the ridiculous nature of creationism with the evidence that's available makes for a far more convincing case. It could simply be as Aaron points out that most people don't understand the type and magnitude of the evidence, even those who believe evolution to be true. It's so vital that the evidence is known and that's been the focus of my posts. Ridiculing their position is not a logical fallacy if done right. It's important to distinguish between a reductio ad absurdum and an appeal to ridicule. Showing an argument to be ridiculous and calling an argument ridiculous are two very different things, and while there might be the same adverse reaction to both, it's not a logical fallacy.

The problem of faith
One point that Aaron excellently pointed out is the eventual appeal to the holy books. That even if all the evidence in the world points away from the biblical stories, those stories were handed down by God so they must be true and the scientists mistaken. For those kinds of arguments, while it brings up tough theological questions about the nature of God, the people who base their beliefs on that book will not be swayed no matter what. If they truly have faith they are right, we can't touch them no matter what. But the arguments against evolution are almost never argued by faith, the arguments are pseudo-scientific.

It's the same kind of arguments over and over: evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics, evolution can't account for the complexity of the eye, evolution cannot account for morality, evolution cannot account for love, there are irreducibly complex structures in nature, it looks designed so it must have a designer, DNA is a language, evolution is not predictive so it doesn't count as science, there are no transitional fossils, etc. So while faith may be the justification of their position, the arguments are on a scientific front and need to be addressed as such.

Arguing against creationism is like fighting the Hydra, every time you cut off one head, two more grow back in it's place. Aaron is right that simply lopping the heads off won't achieve anything, in order to defeat the beast you must figure out the way to stop those heads growing back. In Greek mythology, Heracles did this by burning the flesh so nothing could grow back. To parallel this with creationism, refuting the arguments is cutting the heads off and bringing up the positive evidence for evolution is searing the flesh so it won't grow back. That final head that's impervious to any weapon is faith, the ultimate defence that will keep the beast alive, albeit in a crippled form.

Over time, the scientific establishment has made great inroads into gaining popular opinion about reality. It was less than 500 years ago when Copernicus wrote of heliocentrism and less than 400 since Galileo was imprisoned for heresy for daring to publish scientific findings that supported heliocentric orbit. Few will argue for a flat earth of geocentric universe any more, the ideas still exist but in severely crippled forms and only held by a few. Over time, provided we can maintain society, the same will hopefully be able to be said of evolution which so far has only had 150 years of awareness. Figures over the last century are encouraging, and through awareness of evidence it's possible to imagine a world where a non-contentious scientific issue is non-contentious in the general population as well.

1 comment:

Reasonably Aaron said...

Thanks for the discussion. I was going to reply here - but it quickly became a blog post in itself.

I hope you don't see it as a personal attack on yourself - I really enjoyed your creationism series.