Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sympathy from the devil

The other day I made the observation that pretty much all creationists think that the Earth is round, and are convinced that you have to be a little crazy to think that the Earth is flat--and, somehow, this observation seemed to take some people by surprise.

OK, context: Dawn and I were in a small group of grad students (from different parts of the arts and humanities), and for some reason or another it came out that there has been a debate in the letters section of some paper in Chattanooga, about whether the Earth is round or not. I expressed incredulity, but it was insisted that this debate really was happening, and that there was no indication that the flat-earther letter-writers were being ironic. So then we turned to the question of how there could be this vocal contingent of flat-earthers in Chattanooga, and someone suggested that it might have something to do with creationism getting in the news following the recent debate between Republican presidential candidates (in which a few expressed varying degrees of endorsement for creationism).

Well, I thought that was a weird connection to make: how could a debate about the shape of the Earth be sparked by creationism getting into the news? And that's when I made that observation: most creationists aren't flat-earthers.

And this actually surprised some people. I guess some people thought that maybe all creationists were also flat-earthers. One guy even said he couldn't see how thinking the Earth is flat is any more of a stretch than creationism.

That would be a problem.

Based on the general tone of the conversation, I would guess that we were all well aware of the existence of creationists, and that we all had negative views of creationism, and that we were all at least somewhat concerned about the prevalence of creationism in the American populace. And if you're a person like that, then, it seems to me, you should be moved to spend a moment or two pondering what might be going on in the minds of creationists. And if you spend even a little bit of time on this, then it surely ought to be pretty obvious how it's quite a bit less crazy to be a creationist than to be a flat-earther--that, in fact, the flat-earther would have to think some genuinely crazy things (e.g. that rather a lot of people around the world are lying about their travel experiences for no apparent reason), while a creationist could be merely wrong, and not crazy at all.

And if you can't see how that's so, then there is no way you could ever have any sort of constructive conversation with a creationist--you have made it quite impossible for yourself to imagine what it would be like to convince a creationist that he's wrong, because you imagine that the creationist is utterly crazy, and you can't even begin to reason with someone who's utterly crazy.

At another point in the conversation, someone tried to explain the existence of flat-earthers by pointing out that the Bible says that the Sun goes around the Earth. (Actually, I've seen self-described literalists assert that you need to interpret such passages metaphorically--but that's a different topic.) The problem here is that geocentrism, like creationism, is also quite a bit different from flat-earthism. I get the impression that, for quite a few liberals, including quite a few grad students in the arts and humanities, all these ideas (and more) get summarily thrown together in an undifferentiated mental box labeled "crazy fundamentalist Christian shit".

This is a complete failure of empathy that thoroughly undermines the possibility of civil discourse. Now, in some segments of society, this isn't so surprising to see. (Say, from a certain sort of Christian fundamentalist, who suspects that liberals are possessed by the spirit of the antichrist, and who lumps all liberal ideas into an undifferentiated mental box labeled "demonic liberal / secular humanist / feminist / homosexual poop".) But grad students in the arts and humanities? Come on. What the hell is the point of the humanities supposed to be, anyways?


Ben said...

Yes, Toby, creationists are all crazy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who believes in a religion to the extent of ignoring the simple things that we know about our surroundings is. This, you will note, is the definition of the technical term psychosis and, arguably the source of the idea that they are crazy.

On the other hand, my problem with creationists isn't that they are out of touch with reality (which they undoubtedly are), but that they are inconsistent in their views on creation. Specifically, they ignore much of what the bible says about creation.

The much more sexy first version of creation (Genesis 1:1 to 2:3) is the version used, and is the seven-day version we all know.

The second version (Genesis 2:4 - 2:24), on the other hand, is completely ignored. In this version, the world is created in this order instead: Earth, Rain, Man, plants, animals (which Man then names) and woman (out of Adam's rib). Man, incidentally, was created so that plants could grow.

Obviously enough, these two creations are completely incompatible. It is impossible to believe both literally. Let's just say that this doesn't reflect well on the credibility of other one.

So, creationists declare that the bible is more reliable than modern science, but only certain parts of the bible have this distinction. The position is not only consistent with physical evidence, but with itself. And, surely, unwavering belief in such a position can be nothing but crazy.

Toby said...


What do you mean by "simple things that we know about our surroundings"? Basic everyday knowledge about the world does not yield anything like grounds for believing that evolution occurs. At the very least, you need to know a fair bit of not-so-obvious things about organisms, fossils, geology, etc. -- and even then, there are creationist arguments sophisticated enough to accommodate most of that.

But talking about sophisticated creationist arguments is a bit off-topic here, because we're really talking about creationists in general, on average. And the average creationist doesn't know much of anything--not about biology or geology, nor, for that matter, about the bible. The most obvious problem here is mere ignorance, not craziness.

As evidence, consider that people do sometimes stop being creationists. This usually happens through education, and not through any sort of psychiatric treatment.

Ben said...

Hmmm... Sure, let's stay away from biblical arguments for the moment.

Evolution still remains one of the most basic building blocks of modern science. I classify it as simple since it was a scientific discovery based on simple observation rather than logical inference, calculation, or sophisticated measuring devices. Finches, I believe it was. And before that, peas.

For those who honestly don't know about evolution (let's say they've had extraordinarily selective educations - it does happen), we could perhaps call it ignorance. But if we are talking about the average creationist, I think we're dealing with willful ignorance - a conscious decision to ignore evolution.

As evidence, please allow me to turn your example around, and observe that people occasionally become creationists - often after being "saved" or "born again". I'm not yet sure whether we can call this process education.

Toby said...

Nitpick: Darwinian biology and Mendelian genetics are not the same. In fact, they were seen as competing theories in biology until they were synthesized into "neo-Darwinian" biology in the early 1900s.

Now, I would indeed classify Mendel's observations as relatively simple -- that was quite an elegant and straightforward piece of science. But the case with Darwin was rather different. Darwin was working off of a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of biology and geology. There was nothing simple about the argument -- keep in mind that On the Origin of Species is 500 pages long, with an even longer work devoted to sexual selection and human evolution. (Incidentally, the Galapagos finches play something of a mythological role in common lore about Darwin -- as I recall, he didn't tag his finch specimens properly, and so ultimately he wasn't able to base anything on them at all.)

And in my earlier comment I didn't mean to suggest that creationists don't know about evolution at all. What I meant was this: you can go through high school biology, maybe even get an A in high school biology (in some schools, it doesn't take much), without really knowing much about the reasons why biologists think evolution is true, without being able to formulate anything resembling a half-decent argument for evolution (note that giving such an argument would involve more than reciting stories about finches or peppered moths).

And converts who become creationists are indeed being educated, insofar as they're probably being presented with evidence and arguments they've never thought about before (and possibly they're also being lied to, but then they're victims of deception, not crazy).

Ben said...

I'm not entirely sure where this argument is going.

We're both sliding into the trap of simply demonizing creationists. To read either of our arguments leads us down this path. What I wrote suggests that they are crazy (well, OK, it explicitly states that). On the other hand, while you defend them as not crazy, you seem to have a very low opinion of their intelligence; either they are uneducated or being decieved, with little desire to reverse either of these situations.

Each of us taking down the same straw man in two different ways won't accomplish a thing.

The point I was trying to make is this: that creationism as it is preached is an untenable position. This is true both factually through scientific discoveries, and biblically due to the neglected complexities of the creation myth.

Those who adopt this position do fit the strict definition of psychosis (at least the DSM-IV version): they are disconnected in this way from accepted reality. They are therefore "crazy". Do they need to be clinically treated? No. Does this prevent them from being sociable or intelligent and from being valued and productive members of society at large? Of course not.

To add yet another caveat, we also have to keep in mind that the determination of craziness is a social construct. It has nothing to do with reality itself, but with socially accepted reality. So, are creationists crazy in some kind of absolute or quantifiable way? Of course not; absolutely nobody is.

So we can keep debating the merits of the creationist position if you would like, but for G-d's sake, let's leave that poor fiction of the "average creationist" alone.

micah said...

Ad Ben:
Most creationists are just scientifically ignorant, which is exactly the position that everyone was in before there was anything like modern science. They operated with "basic everyday knowledge about the world" just as everyone does. Evolution is constructed out of certain scientific hypotheses that are quite remote from "basic everyday knowledge about the world." To define modern-day creationists as "crazy" for not having accepted a scientific interpretive theory with no direct interface with anyone's day-to-day life (except evolutionary theorists, of course) is, well, crazy. Putting evolutionary theory in the category of "basic everyday knowledge about the world" is in what is psychotic and crazy, in my view.

Toby already pointed out the quite obvious differences between the flat-earther and the creationist views in regard to denying plain empirical facts. Do you really not understand them?

The two creation stories are not "obviously incompatible"--if you examine Creationist literature (for example, on, Genesis 2:2 - 2:24 is taken to be a complementary account without particular regard to order (or something to that effect). If one is the least bit charitable in trying to understand the Creationist position, one would assume that there might be such an explanation, and try to find out what it might be, rather than simply assume that Creationists actually wilfully suppress parts of the Bible for the sake of a "literalist" interpretation (which is obviously contradictory).

micah said...

Of course, many creationists also manifest a frustrating inability/unwillingness to distinguish the essential features of a thing from the accidental, but most of the general population suffers from such an ability to reason clearly. Surely lack of intelligence doesn't qualify one for "craziness," does it?

Ben said...


Good to meet you. I thought it might come to this, but figured Toby would be the one to call me on it.

To state the obvious: science, like many other fields of human endeavour, represents a progressive accumulation of knowledge based on the knowledge that was accumulated before. Now, in order to get to the point we are at today, science has passed through two relatively distinct stages.

From the 18th century through the end of the 19th century (with exceptions, of course), science was primarily involved in gathering and describing the objects in the natural world around them. These observations were made without the help of sophisticated equipment, indeed often without any equipment at all.

Darwin's main scientific purpose was precisely that of observing, describing and listing both animals and geological formations. That he was able to find links between specimens and form a coherent theory that is still considered adequate (though not perfect) is remarkable, but not surprising, as the catalog had reached a critical mass which permitted conclusions to be drawn. Indeed, others at the time were also beginning to draw their own conclusions.

Since that point, science has progressed into a more complex relationship with knowledge. More and more specific measurements are required, and many theories are integrally based not on observations, but on inferences from previous theories - relativity being the example that immediately comes to mind.

Evolution, on the other hand, can be derived from immediate observations that even a layman could accomplish. It would take considerable time if we were to ignore the existing catalogue of species, but it can be done. And as far as science goes, that makes this theory extraordinarily simple.

Now, evolution has been remarkably useful in the formulations of new theories, particularly when it comes to medical science. Our understanding of epidemiology (sp?) can not exist without an understanding of the mutation and evolution of organisms. Certainly, then, one could not be a creationist and trust modern medecine.

Our food supply is also dependent on our understanding of evolution, whether as the selective breeding of particular strains or genetic modifications. Even pesticides and herbicides are now based on the evolving resistances of the pest species.

Every day we eat evolution and are saved from its ravages - in the form of the latest strain of flu for instance - by our understanding of it. In short, evolution has become one of the fundamental underpinnings of our daily survival, whether we fully understand it or not.

I, for one, do not understand all of the subtleties of evolution. Most likely I harbour many misconceptions about its scope and even contents. However, because I see evidence of it any time I care to look, and know the theory to have been reconfirmed many times, I am willing to accept it. As are the vast majority of the people I know.

Perhaps the mechanisms of evolution are not common knowledge, but its existence and acceptance certainly is. And in being accepted, it has become a fundamental part of the way we know the world around us.

So is there a difference between creationists and flat-earthers? I suppose there could be. But that difference is only one of scale.

Ben said...

Now, about the religious angle, the easiest way to do this is to cite a specific contradiction, I think.

Let's start with Genesis 1:9 - 1:13, or Day 2, as it is more commonly known. In it, water and land are separated and vegetation grows. Man does not show up until day 6 (verse 1:27).

In the second story (verse 2:6), it is explained that plants could not be created because there was no rain and because man had not been created yet. Then man is created and the rest can go forward.

While you could read this passage as a whole as not being in a specific order, it's pretty specific about man predating plants.

Let's start with that one.

Dawn said...

Presumably most creationists would admit that things like viruses and bacteria mutate and evolve, and that we can breed plants and animals. People knew you could breed new animals, and that freak characteristics sometimes appeared in a member of a species, long before they had any notion of the theory of evolution. Knowledge of the one in no way implies belief in the other.

The creationist response is going to be that you can get new kinds of bacteria and new kinds of dogs, but it's never going to go far enough that you get worms out of bacteria or monkeys out of dogs, or whatever. There's variation within *kinds* of animals, but not changes that result in new kinds of animals. What evolution posits is this latter kind of change and indeed, we have never witnessed that.

Ben said...

Hey Dawn,

I would think that even new kinds of dogs and bacteria would be contrary to the creationist position, since everything was perfectly created at the beginning. Of course, with enough effort and creativity, anything can be religiously justified.

But what evolution allows us is a verifiable way to understand those changes, rather than exclaiming on a regular basis - "A new strain of flu! It's a miracle!"

Dawn said...

No, no, creationist textbooks and whatnot discuss mutations and variations within "kinds" of animals. There's nothing mysterious about this to them. Everything was perfectly created in the beginning, but part of how the animals were created was with the capacity for a certain degree of natural variation within kinds. But surely that's quite different from getting from a fish to a frog.

I think it helps to remember that what most creationists are denying is not that *some* form of "evolution" goes on (even if they wouldn't call it that, or would call it "micro-evolution"), but just that evolution is sufficient to explain the existence of all life forms on earth, is sufficient to explain how you get from nothing at all to a human being. This is the idea they're concerned about and the one their arguments are directed against. And this latter idea does not at all require someone to be crazy in order to doubt it.

There's some beetle that emits a toxic substance out of its rear to scare away predators. This is a complex system. It needs to produce two separate chemicals in separate parts of the body and then store them, and then have a way of combining them to form this toxic and explosive substance such that it explodes out of the bug's body, and not inside it, plus of course, since the bug doesn't have a brain to work out when to do this from experience, it needs to be the case that the bug is wired to use this in the right circumstances (when threatened) and not just any old time. Many different mutations are required to bring about this system. Lots. And it seems like any subset of these mutations will have either no adaptive value, or more likely, a negative adaptive value (most notably, if the chemicals were to combine in such a way that they just blew the bug up). So since the mutations can't happen all at once, and it doesn't seem like natural selection will aid them in happening piecemeal, it's hard to see how it could happen at all.

Now there are responses to this. But I sure as heck don't know or understand them, and I'm guessing the vast, vast majority of people who believe in evolution are in the same boat. If there's anyone denying what's most obvious right in front of them, it's us, when we look at that beetle and say it evolved.

micah said...

Thanks, Dawn. (And ditto, as that's exactly what my response was going to be--but thanks for saving me the time.) Sounds like Ben needs to do his homework.

micah said...

Oh, but on the first few verses of Genesis 2 and such, all I really know is that it's certainly not ignored. There's some way it's understood that I don't recall off the beat. All I know is I can't make head or tail of the second creation story, with the mist watering the earth even though there were no plants and all the rest, even by itself, let alone in conjunction with Genesis 1! So you'll have to take that one up with the young-earthers.

Voter said...

"Yes, Toby, creationists are all crazy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who believes in a religion to the extent of ignoring the simple things that we know about our surroundings is."

One simple thing we know is that people who die on Friday aren't up and about on Sunday, so you're saying that pretty much all Christians are crazy.

Ben said...

Oh boy. I leave for a little while and this is what I come back to?

First, as Toby synthesized (I think accurately) in his later post, ultimately, this comes down to whose authority you're going to believe. We simply don't live long enough to make all of the necessary observations in person (whether by design or evolution). My position being relatively clear, and my ultimate naïveté on the subject being evident, I will leave it at that.

Second, religious explanations for events tend to squeeze themselves into the gaps in scientific knowledge. As such, even were I to possess a deep knowledge of all scientific advancement, there is no conceivable end to the argument, as our accumulated knowledge (on any subject) is nowhere near comprehensive enough.

Finally (just for you, voter), it may seem that I'm calling all Christians crazy, but I'm not. I am calling anyone who takes the bible (or any other religious text) literally crazy. Including those of my fellow Jews who believe this drek.