29 April 2007

Insane Whackos

Tim has a go at some creationist.

I've come to the conclusion that I don't like being so rude or dismissive of creationists. Not because there is any truth in their conclusions, but because their arguments, while incorrect, are not actually stupid or insane.

What are the arguments for evolution? The primary evidence is the widespread existence of signs of relationship between different species, existing and extinct. But that evidence is spread pretty widely. It takes considerable time and research to find enough of it, or considerable experience of the workings of science as an occupation to see it in the literature. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to be able to make certain of themselves that evolution happens, when most people couldn't explain how a fridge or CD player works.

So that leaves the secondary evidence, that just about everyone who has studied biology seriously for the last hundred years is in no doubt. To be sure, that's a strong argument. But it does mean, more or less, that most people are being asked to take evolution on trust. Given that, the more we pressure people to accept what we tell them about natural history, the more they will reasonably suspect an ulterior motive.

Labelling creationists and ID'ers as "insane whackos" is therefore not just counterproductive, but wrong. More precisely they are ignorant, but no more ignorant than the many who "take our word for it" about natural history because they don't have sufficient knowledge of the subject to make themselves sure. Creationists may be ill-educated, but they are not exceptionally ill-educated, just exceptionally disobedient to academic authority. I am not prepared to condemn their disobedience.

My sympathy with their disobedience has been enhanced by the global warming issue, where I have found myself in disagreement with the scientific mainstream, in a debate which appears to me more political than scientific. Possibly the two questions are similar, and if I knew more about climatology I would agree that global warming is almost certainly anthropogenic, and the dirty tricks, bad arguments and dogmatism of the other side would be beside the point. Conversely, if I am right about AGW, then when the whole IPCC steam train goes off the rails, any other politically significant scientific "fact" which is aggressively asserted on the basis of "we're the experts" is going to take a popular battering.

Of course the difficult question is how to handle education. Should we permit children to be taught things which we are sure are not true? I've gone on too long so I'll come back to this later.

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