Oh, What a Lovely World!

Late in his life, in answer to a question, Freud compared the human condition approximately to the contents of a baby’s nappy. When I first heard this story, it seemed to mark a bitter old man. That was when I was in high school in the late 1950s. Higher education was spreading in the world’s democracies. Ignorance and superstition, the plague of the human species since the caves, were on the way out. Reason, knowledge and tolerance would rule the future of the world. Or so it seemed. Does it look like that today, even to high school students? A few news items:

  • A British insurance salesman is convicted of double murder on the testimony from one of his victims, who was contacted during deliberations by three jurors using a Ouija board. Because British law normally does not allow even appeal courts to question jury deliberations, the conviction may stand.
  • Australian medical schools are being filled by significant intakes of Darwin-doubting fundamentalists, possibly 20%-25% of students. These wholesome young people will in the course of time advance, attaining places on the policy boards of hospitals, using their authority to determine health policies.
  • In South Africa a woman was forced by a mob to douse her mother in petrol and set her alight, before she and the rest of her family were killed. Her crime: being a witch. There is a steep increase in killing of witches in South Africa.
  • The Oz Skeptics have awarded their annual Bent Spoon to the Australian Attorney General, who has made it possible for workers in his department to take sick leave with a note from an iridologist, naturopath, homeopath or other alternative practitioner.
  • Freud’s doctrine of repression is itself responsible for the smell of nappy-contents that surrounds “recovered memory” therapy, probably the most vicious pseudoscientific fad ever to be adopted by the counselling industry. The fashion to blame all of life’s disappointments on “repressed” episodes of incest has caused more human suffering than any single issue to confront the New Zealand Skeptics.
  • Not that the therapists want to stop beating the drum of victimhood. When the BBC went across the Channel to give its extensive coverage to the D-Day commemorations, it made free counselling available to all its employees who might be upset by the experience. I’m not making this up. It’s more than the survivors of Omaha Beach got, but we’re so much more sensitive these days!

The meliorism of the 1950s has evaporated. Why? Some talk of abandonment of moral standards, others the rise of the nuclear threat — or the decline of the nuclear family, while others will blame it on the fall of religion — or of communism. My candidate is the degradation of education in its broadest sense — the failure of the modern democracies to give sufficient knowledge and critical, analytical abilities to young people at all levels. The dumbing down of public education, with its mantras in praise of self-esteem rather than hard-won knowledge is bad enough. But even school is being replaced by television, with all its shallowness and sentimentality, as the major enculturating force. Ignorance, prejudice, and superstitions thrive in ways that would have amazed me thirty years ago.

The next time someone tells you how much better the world is becoming with instant global communications, innovative educational methodologies, and your therapy needs covered by ACC — think skeptically!

Why Creationists Do So Well

Creationists are winning hands-down in the publicity stakes, despite, one presumes, no real assistance in the form of Divine Guidance.

Volumes of perceptive articles by competent scientists and philosophers have been written about the indefensibility of creationism. Still, the beast not only manages to stay alive, but also to deliver a nasty shock now and again by conducting successful forays into the science education arena. Why?

It is my opinion that the answers are found in the way science and creationism tend to conduct their campaigns: it is the latter camp which has consistently outsmarted its opponent in the public relations field. This adds a lot of points to the scoreboard in a democracy.

In the course of some twenty years of studying creationist literature and tactics, and people’s responses thereto, I have noticed a number of things about public perceptions of the issue.

Newton’s Law of Public Relations

There is a widely-held (mis)interpretation of the democratic ideal to the effect that for every view there is an opposite and equally valid view. (I call this Newton’s Third Law of Public Relations.) A corollary of this misconstruction being the simplistic sequitur that there are “two sides to every story,” creationism’s appeal to heed what is presented as “the other side of the story” finds many willing ears.

Also arising from this gem of common philosophy is the perception that science and religion represent the above “two sides.” The creationist case is highly dependent on the continuing popular belief that science and religion are mutually exclusive antagonists in the area of origins, and people must “believe one or the other.”

The 1960s are not that distant in time, and creationism skilfully manipulates the latent anti-establishmentism present in general society. People love an underdog (creationism) taking on an orthodoxy perceived as aloof and patronising (science), especially when that underdog is seen to challenge the ivory tower on its own terms and the establishment appears to be worried.

Creationism makes sense to many, if not most, people. Everything has a purpose, doesn’t it? Pure chance can’t possibly lead to something like the human eye, can it? You can’t really reconstruct an ape-man from a single tooth, can you? (Creationists love the 1934 Nebraska Man débacle.) That Aussie Doctor-guy found Noah’s Ark, didn’t he?

The list goes on, and the common theme is clear. The creationist PR machine identifies and manipulates public ignorance and misconceptions to its immense advantage.

Tentative Science

The one thing most people do know about science is that it is tentative — thereby opening the way for another gem of popular wisdom, the “but you don’t know everything” argument which when applied to any area of controversy involving science is regarded as creating an instant niche for an opposing view, no matter how absurd. (This principle also applies very much to the orthodox/fringe medicine debate.)

Furthermore, any perceived weakness in the orthodox case becomes a plus-point for the challenger. The creationist case relies heavily on using science’s tentativeness (portrayed as uncertainty) and occasional blunders (Nebraska Man) to bolster its public image.

People prefer certainty. A naked ape arising fortuitously on an inconsequential planet in a far corner of the universe is just too much for most people to handle — especially when placed in opposition to the creationist Linus’s Blanket of “you are so special.”

Science’s response to creationism has frequently been counterproductive in that it has reinforced the public misconceptions which creationists have turned into assets.

The ridicule levelled at creationism by some exasperated scientists and science educators reinforces the image of science as a patronising, superior Olympus inhabited by an esoteric elite who harbour undemocratic views.

And there is more than a vestige of 19thcentury anti-religiosity (especially anti-Christianity) left in the scientific community.

When scientists turn their literary skills into a diatribe against Christian scriptures and belief, the result is definitely good PR for creationists.

Catch-22 Situation

Of course, we are in a three-way Catch 22 situation when it comes to replying to creationism:

  • If we ignore the creationists, we “haven’t got an answer” and seek to shield ourselves from valid criticism.
  • If we respond to creationism at all, they’ve “got us worried.”
  • If we respond by writing articles most people don’t understand we’re “snobs” and/or trying to “put up a smokescreen.”

Finally, if we try to argue at the intellectual level creationism operates at, we lose the match because we have tried to play it by the opposition’s rules, which are stacked so heavily in its favour from the kick-off.

The upshot is that we cannot defeat creationism on scientific grounds, and should stop trying to do so. Writing articles in academic journals may make us feel better, but we are preaching to the converted and only reinforcing our negative image by alienating the general public even more.

More importantly, a scientific response to a pseudoscientific argument publicly perceived as a scientific argument merely reinforces the opinion that there is a case to answer.

Creationism is not a scientific argument, but a religious one. However, we must appreciate that we are dealing with a vocal fringe minority who are not representative of Christianity as a whole, and we must therefore correctly identify the enemy — fundamentalism — and also identify our allies, the mainstream Christian churches.

Scientists should not venture into the area of biblical scholarship unless they are qualified in that area, for the public appreciates only too well that an expert in one field may be a layman in others. This is where we need an alliance with mainstream religion.

Such an alliance would put paid to the popular misconception that science and religion are incompatible. (Anselm, Teilhard de Chardin and new Zealand’s own John Morton appear to have had little impact on public thinking) and that creationism represents the battle of good, Bible-believing Christians against the tyrannical reign of atheistic scientists.

I believe that this aspect of the creationist case in the public eye is at the same time its Achilles’ Heel, and can be used against it.

For if we live in a secular democracy and creationism is a religious view, then while the right to profess that religious view is safeguarded, the right to foist it on others through state educational apparatus is an infringement of democratic principles.

Once this is understood by the general public, I suspect creationism will rapidly lose the positive public image it appears to have built up so painstakingly.