It has been fashionable for years for people to write books about the conflict between faith and science. Some hope to resolve the conflict, some wish to solidify it.
I’m not going there, not because I don’t have an opinion, but because any discussions involve people willfully misunderstanding each other. So much time is spent explaining “I said this, but not that,” “No you didn’t, you are just avoiding my point,” and folks giving out the same tired formulas as if they are some great new revelation that it’s not worth the annoyance level for me. Dueling soapboxes, rather like Hyde Park, but less colorful.
There are some interesting practical considerations, however, and that might be fun. (For me, that’s who.) Volokh Conspiracy recently had a thread about a 7D creationist running for political office, and whether that should be an automatic disqualifier. As an evangelical and an evolutionist, the question interests me.
Much depends on how the question came to be raised. If the candidate is bringing it up as an issue, it’s a red flag for me on two counts:
1. He’s majoring in minors in terms of governance.
2. He’s majoring in minors in terms of culture war.
The fact that he is also wrong on the issue is nearly irrelevant. A candidate focused on keeping creationists out would be almost as bad. Someone needs to enroll in a local Get A Life chapter. The issue is more symbolic than real.
OTOH, if the issue is only coming up because some journalist is trying to make him look bad, I am less concerned. It’s a pink flag, but not a red one. The usual argument that this person will have to make decisions about Science! as an elected official doesn’t hold up well. The amount of science mythology running around about vaccinations, organic and GM foods, or - God-help-us - energy sources is much more pertinent. Creationism is not an infallible proxy for scientific understanding and belief in genral. It is a good proxy for attitudes toward taking academics’ word for things. That has overlap with scientific understanding and belief, but it is not the same thing.
I believe the evidence for the general outline of the theory of evolution is considerable, but I did not produce any of that evidence. Even armed with a manual, I could not easily replicate any of the thousands of observations and experiments that have gone into that body of evidence. Time and money constraints, let alone training, would prevent nearly all of from going to the Galapagos Islands and redoing even Darwin’s observations of a century ago. Even among the few who have contributed to the scientific underpinnings of the belief, they have done so in only one narrow field. They are dependent on the knowledge of others for 99% of the rest. The belief in evolution is built from thousands of bits of information across a dozen disciplines. That is its strength.
I read a bit in linguistics, prehistory, and evolutionary psychology. I used to read a bit in astronomy and anthropology. I do not approach an expert’s knowledge in any of those fields, but I have some idea of what is generally known and plausible. The evidence from all those fields points in the direction of an ancient universe and changes in species over time. I don’t believe in evolution because of any one of those skeins of knowledge but because everywhere I turn, that theory – or something close to it – seems necessary for the knowledge to fit together coherently. A vast conspiracy across all those disciplines to hide true knowledge is surpassingly unlikely.
Do I need to mention that those who are most irritated by creationists aren’t able to do the foundational research either? They take other people’s word for stuff – as do I, remember, so there’s no sneer in that – often without any particular understanding of why. It is not simply a matter of whether you trust the smart good people or the stupid evil ones. An entire complicated epistemology of how we know things, who we trust, what doubts and exceptions we have, and how we act on it goes into this. Always believing the scientific consensus doesn’t have such a great political history, even through the 20th C.
But one would think that a belief in 7D creationism would be highly problematic for evaluation of any scientific knowledge. Yet that is a superficial interpretation, itself driven more by culture war than science. I disapprove of creationism or even Intelligent Design being taught in public schools, but the idea that we completely undermine children’s belief and understanding of science by doing so is simply absurd. Belief in the received authority of the dominant intellectual culture is what is really undermined, and why they are so upset by it. The energy behind the issue, both on the creationist-encouraging and creationist-stomping sides, comes from the war of cultural dominance, not science education. I am always torn whether such ironies amuse or irritate me. (I have a soon-upcoming post about the impressions that evolutionists try and create, versus the facts.)
There are a half-dozen types of creationism, for openers, with varying degrees of friendliness to evolution.
There are engineers who are 7D creationists – people who design wings, or circuits, or chemical processes. Doctors, chemists, mathematicians, and a dozen other –ists are found even among the Young Earth Creationists. Whether they encounter intellectual conflicts with the information in their narrow fields and how they deal with that I don’t know. But they seem to be able to do their jobs, don’t they? Some scientists also have specific carve-outs in their beliefs for creationism, having concluded that belief in a literal Genesis 1 is necessary for their faith, and putting aside scientific information they understand quite well, undealt-with. That may be a problem, but it isn’t a scientific understanding problem.
At a more popular level, people believe contradictory things all the time. Parents who tell pollsters they are biblical creationists (so that they don’t appear to be saying anything bad about God or the Bible) and even make impassioned statements at school board meetings still get thrilled at how much their fourth-grader is interested in dinosaurs or astronomy or geology. Those of you who make condescending noises at that – D’you shop at Whole Foods…Go to casinos… diets…supplements…unproven medical interventions…
I could offend all of you if I kept going, couldn’t I?