Tilting at Creationists

 I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for[…]

— Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, written by Sidney Buchman

Being an atheist doesn’t mean I completely disregard the Bible or other such works.  I enjoy a good story as much as anyone else, and as long as you remember the moral is a metaphor or allegory you might find something useful.  With regards to the Bible my favorite passage has always been the one that starts at 1 Kings 18.  You can find the text yourself at any number of sites online (though I can’t seen to find a Bible site with the One True Version), but to summarize:  Elijah, the last prophet of the Lord in Israel, has been on the run from King Ahab ever since Ahab’s foreign bride Jezebel led Ahab and Israel to abandon the Lord in favor of Baal and Asherah.  At the Lord’s behest Elijah contacts Ahab and arranges for a showdown at the foot of Mount Carmel: himself against Jezebel’s 450 prophets of Baal and 400 of Asherah.  When the king and the foreign prophets arrive, Elijah tells them to cut up a bull as a sacrifice and place it upon wood but not set fire to it, and he will do the same.  They will each then call upon their respective deities to claim their sacrifice, and whichever one sends fire to do so is the true god.  The foreigners go first, praying from sunrise to noon but get no reply.  Elijah beings to mock them at this point: are they not praying loud enough, maybe Baal went out for a sandwich, etc.  They cut themselves and add their own blood to the sacrifice, praying until sunset but still get no reply.  Elijah then steps up to take his turn.  He sets up his sacrifice and orders some of the king’s slaves to douse it with water until it’s sopping wet and a moat has formed around it.  He then prays to the Lord…who promptly sends a bolt of fire from the sky that burns up the bull and the altar and boils away all the water.  This is quickly followed by a good old down-home massacre as the spectators fall upon the fleeing false prophets.

There are two reasons why this is my favorite passage.  The first is, or ought to be, fairly obvious: this is the kind of thing I would expect to see in a world that actually had a functioning god in it.  And of course, we don’t see it.  The metaphorical reason is more important though: when you know you have the truth on your side you stand your ground, no matter how many oppose you or how hopeless it may seem, because sooner or later the truth is going to assert itself.  Or, as a figure of more modern mythology put it:

Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.”

— Steve “Captain America” Rogers, Amazing Spider-Man #537, written by J. Michael Straczynski

Perhaps it’s something of a touch of irony to view the situation this way, but this is where popular science educator Bill Nye will find himself.  On Feb. 4, tomorrow as I write this, he is to face off in debate against creationist Ken Ham.  The odds will certainly be against him.  Public debate of this nature favors rhetoric, not cogent opinion; those he seeks to convince base their opinions on mythology, not truth.  There’s been a great deal of commentary on the web taking the position that debates of this nature are a bad idea.  Sharon Hill of Doubtful News (which I heartily recommend) writes:

I am not a fan of debates either because they are hardly about facts, they are about showmanship. And the absurd idea of Biblical literalism does not deserve a place on stage with a rock solid explanation of nature. At least Nye has the ability to be charming and say the right things. I can’t say I feel the same for Ham for whom I have no respect. I don’t think he’s an idiot as Dangerous Minds called him; he knows what he’s doing. He’s just a denialist. Nye may very well know what he’s up against and will prepare for it. But debates like this aren’t for winning, they are for grandstanding.

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid (another good site) writes:

The primary reason I oppose debates is that a debate, by definition, allows two competing views to be explored and compared, and arguments presented for each. The audience is expected to weigh these arguments and hopefully decide which one they found more compelling. The very nature of a debate presents science as if it is merely a competing opinion. When we agree to a debate, we are agreeing to drag science down to the level of a view that competes with pseudoscience. Simply by agreeing to the debate, we present the scientific method as being vulnerable to disassembly by fallacious pseudoscientific arguments. That’s the message we send: Science is not fact, science is merely opinion; and it’s as weak as any other.

He goes on to write:

It has also been argued that scientists should debate pseudoscience because if we don’t, we allow them to have an unchallenged platform, and the only voice being heard is theirs. I don’t buy this argument at all. Not holding a debate doesn’t silence us any more than it silences them. Both retain the same “unchallenged platforms” that both have always enjoyed. We have free speech in our society, and anyone who wants to will always have a voice whether we choose to hold a debate or not. What’s important is the quality and reach of our voice. I say that science communication should be its own one-way platform.

While normally I find myself in violent agreement with Mr. Dunning I have to take exception to his positions here, which come dangerously close to drinking our own Kool-Aid.  Science, in and of itself, is not fact; it is a system of thought.  The statements it provides us about the world only rarely rise to the level of fact, something I think a good scientist would be quick to admit.  Most scientific statements are opinion, in the proper sense of the word, i.e. the conclusion of a cogent argument.  Only the oldest and most rigorously examined scientific statements can be said to rise to the level of fact; the results of most studies are far too provisional.  As my professor in Philosophy of Science once observed when a scientist says something is a scientific fact (dramatic fist pound on table optional) he’s usually trying to silence dissent, which is bad behavior.  Nor should we even think of making science communication a “one-way platform”.  Science and scientists must always be open to dissent from other fields and other specialists, otherwise the practice of science becomes some kind of warped Ouroboric monolith.

Another argument I’ve seen in comments around the web is to the effect of “Jews and historians don’t debate Holocaust deniers”.  That’s true, but that’s because Holocaust denial has practically no currency in the US.  I’ve had a hard time finding a cite but allegedly less than 2% of the US population accepts the claims of Holocaust deniers.  Legitimate historians have pretty much won the battle here; what’s left are the nutters who are never going to back down.  Evolutionary scientists are nowhere near this point.  Somewhere around half the US population doesn’t believe in evolution.  Sorry, but we are nowhere near the point where we can lay down arms.  We’re not even at the mopping-up stage.

The odds are against us.  The battle is likely hopeless.  We certainly won’t get any bolts of fire from the sky on our behalf (though, it would be totally worth it to be proven wrong on atheism if the Big Guy showed up and smacked the fundies screaming “I GAVE YOU SCIENCE FOR A REASON YOU NITWITS!”)  But it’s the lost causes that are the ones worth fighting for.  The stakes are too high to quit the field.  I know it’s easy for me to say that when I’m not the one who has to do the work.  All I ever do is cross swords with these fools on the internet from time to time.  Believe me if I thought people would listen I’d stand on the front lines, but I’m just this guy.  I don’t have a Ph.D in anything (I’ve got a bachelor’s in CompSci with a minor in Philosophy) and I’m not a celebrity.  I wish Mr. Nye all the luck in the world — he’ll need it — and I thank him for taking up the standard.

(while walking off the set of Man of La Mancha)

Al: Are you gonna be all right?
Sam: What matter wounds to the body of a knight-errant, for each time he falls, he shall rise again and woe to the wicked! Al?
Al: Here, your grace.
Sam: My armor, my sword!
Al: More misadventures?
Sam: Adventures, old friend.
— Quantum Leap, “Catch a Falling Star”, written by Paul Brown

Dennis Heffernan

No one of consequence.

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