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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Is creationism making a comeback?

The God of the Gaps has returned. If not stopped, he could smite conservatism once and for all

S cientists may be forgiven for thinking that intelligent design, or ID, disappeared decades ago, but religious people are a tenacious bunch, and the pseudo-theory that just will not die is making a comeback.

A while back I discussed how a former computer scientist, writing on a prominent conservative website, claimed to have debunked the theory of evolution (which, following creationist tradition, he refers to as Darwinism) using bogus statistics. Other conservatives are repeating those arguments. See here for a point-by-point refutation. In this article, I'll discuss creationism itself and show why it is not only not a good theory, it is not a theory at all.

Why should we care about creationists? Because the widespread despair about our declining universities threatens to blossom into a rejection by conservatives of science as a whole, with creationism leading the way. If that happens, it will discredit conservatism as an intellectual force, driving away its remaining adherents among scientists and intellectuals, and leave it defenseless against charges that it represents the beliefs of an anti-Western, reactionary, and scientifically illiterate population.

It will even harm religion, which could be a valuable source of spiritual guidance and a powerful force for social cohesion, but which in the West is hanging by a thread due to its past adherence to discredited beliefs about biology, geology, and cosmology.

Intelligent design is creationism

Proponents of intelligent design often deny that they are creationists. They claim they're only disputing the idea of evolution, and they're not suggesting any particular alternative. They do this for strategic reasons. If we assume intelligent design is true, there are only two possibilities: aliens from outer space or a supernatural deity. Claiming aliens from outer space is clearly not a good option: aside from bringing an unwanted association with flying saucer nuts, it merely pushes the argument back one step: where did the aliens come from? Thus ID is really a claim that life was created by a supernatural deity, and the IDers are being dishonest when they claim otherwise.

ID is not a theory

Science has always had its share of cranks. But even the most enthusiastic crank knows you can't just claim that an established theory is wrong. You have to propose an alternative explanation. Saying “God did it” is not an explanation. Neither is “We don't know.”

Not only must you provide a testable theory, you must provide evidence. Just yesterday I read a manuscript that made wild, extravagant claims about one particular disease. Their claims were based on a statistical association that they said existed between two pathological conditions, and it would have been interesting, but they failed to provide any evidence that the association existed. (Yes, I have to be vague about things in peer-review). I wanted to encourage them, but since they had no evidence I had to recommend flat rejection.

The intelligent designers have no evidence either. Criticizing a competing theory doesn't count as evidence. Creationists say physicists don't know how to reconcile QM and relativity, so they never will—and if they did, that would just prove that the theories are arbitrary and socially constructed. The multiverse hypothesis and string theory are unsubstantiated and make implausible claims, so they always will. And “Darwinism” doesn't explain this or that feature of life—consciousness, says one; proteins or the first cell, says another—to our satisfaction, so it never will. And so, say the creationists, science is hanging by a thread.

That creationists all cite each other and give each other pep talks like this hints at a certain desperation; but what is worse, from a scientific view, is the dishonesty in the overall idea. It is the conviction that because something is not fully understood, it is unexplainable, and therefore God did it. Worst of all, they pretend that their motivation is not biblical literalism.

It's the argument made by a bureaucrat with tunnel vision who thinks nothing ever changes: if something hasn't been done, it can never be done.

To hear over and over again the same erroneous statistics about protein evolution, based on willful ignorance of biochemistry, will not convince protein scientists to believe in God and ditch evolution. It convinces them that they must avoid any association with religious people, or risk being thought unable to evaluate evidence dispassionately.

The most fundamental traits of conservatism are its honesty and its courage to stand up to uncomfortable and unpopular truths. As such, it is an ally to science as well as religion. Creationism is a turning away from the truth and a return to mysticism and biblical literalism. Conservatives are better and smarter than this.

sep 14 2019, 7:42 am. last edited sep 15 2019, 5:58 am

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