Saturday, March 6, 2010

Creationism and the spreading of misinformation

A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ at the local Baptist church. I knew what the premise of the movie was and had heard/read various criticisms of it, but I had held off viewing the movie/forming an opinion as I wished to take my own notes and come to my own conclusions. In hindsight, I think I wasted 97 minutes of my life. It was possibly the most horrid movie I have ever seen. And no, I don’t mean just the message itself; I have seen other intelligent design/creation/anti-evolution movies that were ‘worth’ watching (The Voyage That Shook The World was bearable). It was the tactics the movie employed in delivering the message. I found this to be quite amusingly contrasted with the statement the pastor made before the movie: “This is an academic topic and to ridicule Intelligent Design advocates is dishonest to academic truth” or something of that effect. For those of you who have seen the movie, you will know what I am talking about. For those of you that haven’t, many actual scientific ideas such as the ‘Clay Theory of Abiogenesis’ were mocked by Stein as being science fiction, when, in reality, many tests have been done that demonstrate that it is at least a possible avenue by which life could have arose.

After the movie, leaflets and books were handed out with more information about the issue. One was just a summary of the points made in the movie (didn’t really need it, as I wrote around four pages of notes while watching it), the other was a book entitled ‘Answers to the 4 Big Questions’, made by Answers in Genesis. The four ‘big questions’ they ask, and supposedly answer, are ‘Does God exist?’, “What about Evolution?’, ‘Where did the ‘races’ come from?’ and ‘Who was Cain’s wife?’. While I happen to disagree that these are the most important questions we could have answers to, that is a topic for discussion at another time. I decided to put my complaints about the questions aside and see what they had to say. I made it through three lines before putting the book down, in fear I might have a stroke. I will replicate here those three lines:

"Once great nations are in social decline. Family breakdown and crime are increasing. An epidemic of youth suicide afflicts nations where there would seem to be everything to live for. What accounts for this?"
Literally the first sentence of the whole thing made me cringe. I mean, people could and have written entire theses, taking them up to a year to write, on the topic, debating all the factors. And yet, Answers in Genesis feels they can make a single statement on the issue and that is that. Not to mention that a lot of people feel the exact opposite. After a few minutes of not reading the book, my blood pressure had returned to normal and I decided to continue reading. I wanted to know what they thought was responsible for this (I already had an idea of what they might say, but I wanted to confirm it). And low and behold, I was right: evolution is to blame. More accurately, that we are teaching evolution to our children; that they came from ‘monkeys’. As I read on, I began to notice a common trend: just as with the introduction, wide sweeping statements were made on complex issues/ideas, usually glaringly wrong to anyone with even a mild understand of the topic in discussion. A single sentence that they made could require reading an entire book to demonstrate why it is wrong.

As I have a moderate level of knowledge of arguments and tactics used by both sides in the evolution/creation debate, I recognized this ploy immediately. It is colloquially known as the ‘Gish gallop’, made famous by the creationist Duane Gish. It is where, during a debate, you make so many simple statements that are wrong and require lengthy responses that your opponent is either unable to respond to most of them or gets bogged down trying to and doesn’t get to address your actual argument as they are too busy trying to show why your points are wrong. It is even more effective when the topics being discuss are issues your target audience is more than likely not familiar with (that way, they have no means of determining the validity of what you have said, it will more than likely accept it as truth, especially if it supports their currently held worldview). While this isn’t so much of a problem in book form, as you have all the time in the world to write a counter-argument, I do think it presents a problem.

As humans, we tend to accept information given to us by authority figures; our parents, teachers, preachers, politicians. Sometimes it is good to accept what an authority has to say with minimal self-investigation (i.e. asking a lawyer for legal advice), other times it is a bit murky (i.e. listening to a politician say a certain policy is ‘for the best’). As the writers of this book have science degrees, they do give off an air of authority. But when they say things like ‘mutations only lead to lose of information, not increase’, a stark contrast to what most biologists say, it does becomes questionable. It is even worse when you realize that there are many examples of mutations that have benefited the organism and increased the information in its genome, so it seems like they are outright lying.

So on one side of the coin, we have experts saying that evolution is correct. On the other side, we have ‘experts’ saying that evolution is incorrect. How is your average individual, with very little understand of how science actually works, going to be able to tell the difference between the two? From the laymen perspective, it could seem like scientists are ‘divided’ on the issue of whether evolution is right or wrong (more accurately, indicated by the evidence or not). This is possible the main reason I choose to speak out against creationism/other pseudoscientific claims whenever I get the chance; it spreads misinformation among the general population. And being most people have very little time/interest in going to check if a claim is true (assuming they would even know where to start), a fair number of individuals will accept what these groups say as truth.

Being ignorant of a subject is bad enough, but lying to disprove it is infinitely worse.

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