Combating Creationism: A useful resource

It’s a bit scary and/or creepy.  If you teach in the US, you probably have students in your classes who have a very different  understanding of causation of our world than most philosophy professors do.  It isn’t exactly that they think the walls of your classroom are actually supported by the leprechauns – though quite possibly a few do – but they certainly think that what science purports to tell them about the originals of the universe and the evolution of the species is just all wrong.  And this means that their capacity to react critically to all sorts of things is impaired.

TalkOrigins has what  looks to be a useful site, with a depressingly long list of false claims creationists make.  Some are very familiar, others perhaps less so – such as sea shells on mountain tops – and still others I think very esoteric.   I had no idea, for example, there was anything special about woodpeckers’ tongues.  Actually, there isn’t, but that’s not what creationists claim.

You can click on a claim and you are taken to an explanation and rebuttal.  The rebuttals are sometimes too short, I think, and require more thought than may be available in the actual dialectic, but it’s something teachers can figure out, and sources are cited.  So don’t despair the next time a student tells you that NASA scientists  have discovered a day is missing.

24 thoughts on “Combating Creationism: A useful resource

  1. Excellent! I’ve been looking for good examples for my critical thinking classes, and trying to wean myself of the steady diet of Sarah Palin I used last year.

  2. “but they certainly think that what science purports to tell them about the originals of the universe and the evolution of the species is just all wrong. And this means that their capacity to react critically to all sorts of things is impaired.”

    I’m not defending creationism, but I do wonder how endorsing it, or simply not endorsing science, automatically makes someone’s capacity for critical reaction impaired. Critical thinking is a skill, the learning of which need not be hindered by one’s beliefs about how the universe began. Perhaps it is less likely that a student who is a creationist will have been trained well to think critically, but isn’t that our job? In my experience, almost no students have been trained to think critically, and it makes no difference what theory of the origins of the universe/life they endorse, and in fact, Darwinists seem just as vehemently attached to their views as creationists or ID endorsers. Thinking critically means thinking critically about ALL these views, not just the ones that we think are wrong. But maybe I am misunderstanding this posting.

  3. Michaela McSweeney, nice question. Here’s the thought: critical thinking involves being able to weight evidential sources with some accuracy. But someone who is taught that scientific evidence is not really very reliable has a huge handicap in evaluating sources for evidence.

    In fact, evolution really involves a huge amount of science, because general investigative technique also get called into question. Much of medicine, etc. Adding in the origins of the universe, and we’re talking about lots of physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

    There appear to be creationists who think that we can allow bugs evolve (and so make sense of our practices in using antibios and the problems that we have because of them) but not tongues or eyes. But it’s a misconception to think one can slice and dice the evidence that way.

  4. “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs.” -Stephen Jay Gould

    Gould was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He spoke four languages. He was extremely active in the civil rights movement and had combated racism and sexism his whole life. He did his graduate work at Columbia and also taught at Harvard University until his death in 2002.

    Smart guy. Any way, why can’t creationism and evolution work together?

  5. My first anthro prof was a devout(?) Roman Catholic with an MA in Biological Anthropology and another in Religion (& Culture?). She taught the most amazing course on Magic and Witchcraft, with an emphasis on cross cultural comparisons of ritual consciousness. She managed to reconcile her religion with her science.

    I was sorely disappointed when I tried to bring some of her perspectives into the standardized dichotomizing that they’re teaching in the first year philosophy courses at the university I’m attending now. I think the prof had an issue with my being able to quote so many different perspectives without referring to any one as “absolutely right” OR referring to myself as a relativist or a materialist or any of the other pigeon holes peculiar to the discipline. It almost seemed as if he was attacking me for HAVING a capacity for critical thinking, or maybe I was just using tools that were unfamiliar to him.

    I suspect my college anthro prof expanded her mind during her field research to a point where she was able to take a page from the Muslims and use her science to get closer to the divine.

    I’ve met fundies that have managed to reconcile religion with science as well, but I’d never tell them that they have anything in common with Muslims, though the more grit my teeth and swallow my Aquinas, the more I see how much is common to both religions.

    Maybe some of the blame for the split between religion and science rests with “reputable” universities as well as Creationists.

  6. “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without adopting it.” -Aristotle

    Well said.

  7. John, you look to be intentionally obtuse. That is trollish behavior.
    Gould is saying that the theory of evolution is compatible with religious belief. That is very different from saying it is compatible with creationism.

  8. Xena, there are profoundly important intellectual problems with creationism. For a start, look at what the site shows about their arguments. Many great Catholic philosophers would have had no patience with its sophistry, and I can hardly imagine Aquinas tolerating it.

    Your comment in general worries me. There are lots of things not to like about much standard philosophy. But the discipline is thousands of years old, and one thing that is typical of it is its attention to slow and careful reasoning. For example, most philosophy professors today are not fond of what we call self-contradictions. A self contradiction both asserts and denies something, to put it roughly. To use logic-like notation, it says P and not-P. If the terms are not impossibly vague, then a self-contradiction cannot be true, most philosophers will agree. In general, most Aglophone philosophers think it is simply impossible both to be a materialist and not to be a materialist. Part of the reason is that decades have gone into defining the term and making it not vague. What the professor is doing is not dichotomizing; rather, he’s insisting that the terms are well defined, not impossibly vague, and so the claim is self-contradictory and cannot be true. If you want the professor to take seriously what you are saying, then it is important that you try hard to take seriously his perspective and what he is saying. Or just drop the course. Philosophy is in many ways like a science; it is not a fun exchange of world views; philosophy classes are not simply open houses for ideas that are floating about.

    On the other hand, a lot of us here are this site would, I think, say that standard Anglophone philosophy is too restrictive and should be more open. But it is an utter and complete waste of your time to try to change your professor on this issue.

  9. I was NOT defending Creationism in its official form, I was merely stating that individuals within the–ahem–community do find ways to heal the rifts within their own belief systems to come to a better understanding of the difference between what is quantifiable and what is “uplifting”.

    To state that numerous meta-narratives exist globally, and that each has varying degrees of validity within the context of its own bio-cultural niche is not a logical fallacy. It is a statement concerning the appropriate use of a Coherence as opposed to a Correspondence model where issues in cultural diversity are concerned.

    Yeah, I know there’s probably a more recent “school of thought” with a better title out there, but my experiences here have pushed me into a memorize and mimic, then regurgitate, then purge and forget, then do the same for the next prof’s vanity approach to “learning”. I’m more concerned with finding the “hinges” that place the various perspectives within the social sciences and humanities along a continuum than I am with learning an approach to arguing that will only be useful within certain communities. At least for now.

    Dropping the course would NOT have been an action that cohered with any of my usual approaches to problem-solving, as I’m sure you may have guessed after reading my–ahem– sentiments toward D’s abuse of formal reasoning to “prove” a hateful premise.
    I engaged in a few acts of mildly inappropriate “civil disobedience”
    showing up for discussions, but refusing to hand in assignments, that sort of thing. There were other problems with the way the prof addressed me, which would be too much of a distraction to discuss here. Long story short–the Chair of the department has gone out of his way to arrange a meeting with me.

    I’ll wait until I’m finished studying with my current, more neutral philosophy prof to get on about Aquinas again, but that statement about “‘fun’ exchanges of worldviews” is exactly the attitude that annoyed me when my other prof attacked the perspectives that I’d spent so much time studying.

    The discipline of Sociocultural Anthropology is not a chat room. It is a dynamic, active approach to understanding and attempting to heal the schisms in humanity through living within communities, and collaborating within their mythologies rather than attacking them from without.

    As a social science student I’m more than a little fascinated with which sociopolitical/economic/ historical factors contribute to long held mythological systems like Creationism than I am with trying to mock them. I DO however, find certain beliefs offensive when people are injured because of them.

    Also: I didn’t say that I told anybody that I was a materialist and then not a materialist. I simply said that I refused to refer to myself in connection with any beginner level set of opposing views presented in that particular class. At least I wasn’t in complete enough agreement with any of them to label myself a proponent. This is especially true of my opinion of Creationism.

  10. Typo alert: the second last paragraph of my last blog should read “…more than a little fascinated with…and more concerned with trying to understand them than I am with trying to mock them.”

    Maybe I am a relativist. That’s only detrimental in certain situations, is it not? ;-) At any rate, we CAN finally chuckle about beliefs that only 2 centuries ago were an excuse to send people to the gallows. This alone is cause for relief. (At least in “W.E.I.R.D.” circles, but stop me before I suck all the relevance out of my own blog…)

  11. Xena, your criticism of the discipline as dichotomizing and pigeon-holing is extremely external. What you see as dichotomizing may well seem from your professor’s point of view as insisting on the correct use of precise terminology, at the risk of self-contradiction otherwise. That’s what I was trying to say.

    I am not sure what you meant to say in saying that the split between science and religion might be due to “reputable” universities as well as creationism. But it is important to realize that the reputable university’s scientists’ criticisms of creationism are probably right. The relation between that argument and the tension many people think is a split between science and religion is very, very complex.

    It’s not fun for a professor to have a student in a beginning class working to challenge the parameters of the field. That can happen quite frequently in feminist philosophy, when one gets a group who want to question whether gender can be a category, whether feminist philosophy isn’t just special pleading and so on. It’s very difficult to deal with, but too often it (a) establishes challenging refusal of respect as the tone of the relationship and (b) hinders or even prevents pursuing the goals the professor has for the course. Sometimes you can bring them around, but if you can’t, the semester acquires a tension that becomes as much a course topic as anything else.

    I often hear students tell me that they’ve learned in their classes that you need to figure out what the professor wants and give it back. It never seemed to me that that was right. Rather, I always thought – and still do think – that you need to see things from others’ perspectives before you can meaningfully disagree. I think that in some ways you might agree – you don’t want analytic philosophy to just attack all the other approaches from the outside – but in other ways it looks to me as though you are going in for the same sorts of attacks. Maybe not, and if you are, I’d be willing to believe he was a ready target. Nonetheless, you simply cannot win. You might get away unscathed, and I hope you do, but it sounds like a total waste of time.

    At the same time, you might really benefit from some training in really precise reasoning. You are clearly very bright and you have a lot of ideas. As long as you’ve gotten some involvement in a failry analytic department, you might take advantage of the opportunity to look at thoughts, as it were, sentence by sentence and see what is actually being said. It’s great training, at least for a while. You might also find you get more out of feminist courses, though maybe not exactly analytic feminist philosophy.

    I can actually see your email address, and the chair of the department of the university in the address is a woman???

  12. BTW, Xena, I don’t think this is the venue for continuing this discussion. I’ll look with interest at your reply, but I think don’t intend to continue. It is far more appropriate for you and the chair to discuss this sort of thing.

  13. Xena–What you say is intriguing to me because a student of mine just met with me about writing a paper in my ethics class, and wanted to draw on ideas from her anthropology class. The “correct” view in the anthropology class was cultural relativism. If you start trying to judge members of another culture, you must be guilty of anthropocentrism–the anthropology professor said. In an ethics course, cultural relativism is typically dispensed with pretty quickly, and much work is done to reason, reflect…and then decide how to judge. I advised her she just couldn’t write a philosophy paper as if it were an anthropology paper!

    I would just say this–it makes sense to try to put on the hats of different disciplines, and see how they feel. In the end, I couldn’t possibly have an anthropologist’s neutrality, but I kind of regret the fact that I actually dropped my college anthropology class because I found all the relativism unbearable! The first week was really interesting and I actually still have the books. I read them on my own (sans relativism).

  14. If my point wasn’t clear, it was (in a nutshell): when in philosophy class, be a philosopher (and when in anthropology class, be an anthropologist).

  15. We spent the first week of my Intro to Philosophy course this semester reading about a wide variety of different conceptions of the good human life — Plato, Buddha, Confucius, John Stuart Mill, Dorothy Day. We used these as background for our discussion of moral relativism and universalism.

    Fairly early on in this discussion, we considered two views, where were defined as something like the following:

    * naive relativism: No conception of the good life is better than any other.
    * dogmatic universalism: There is one true conception of the good life, and it’s mine.

    Both of these are deeply problematic. On a naive relativist view, it’s impossible to say that societies like Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow south, and North Korea are based on profoundly false or misguided beliefs about the good life — that something has gone wrong when your conception of the good life endorses genocide, racism, and an utter antipathy to individual freedom. On the other hand, a dogmatic universalist view precludes the possibility that at least some of my views about the good life are wrong, or otherwise flawed, and in particular the possibility that I might have something to learn from people with very different lives. More sophisticated relativists — we read David Wong — have ways to distinguish between Hitler, on the one hand, and Confucius and John Stuart Mill, on the other. And more sophisticated universalists — we read Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre — are open to the possibility of learning from people in very different societies.

    Similar lessons can and should be learned from intellectual disciplines with very different methodologies. There are important differences between philosophy and anthropology, and we should understand and respect those differences. But this does not imply that philosophers cannot or should not critique anthropologists, nor that anthropologists cannot or should not critique philosophers.

  16. jj, your advice on bridging cross-disciplinary differences in approaching various belief systems is sound, and was stated more diplomatically than any I’ve heard yet. I’ll take it. I wouldn’t be spewing my opinions all over this site if I wasn’t looking for a solution.

    Let me try re-phrasing my thoughts on science, creationism and religion in general one last time, without all the conjunctive clauses and shades of gray: Science is absolutely correct in stating that creationism is not science. Science is a series of carefully reasoned, quantifiable hypotheses subjected to rigorous testing, with results that can be repeated and consistently confirmed. The hypothesis is then called a theory and periodically re examined, re-tested, and occasionally refuted and replaced with a new model. Science refers to the material, the quantifiable. I repeat: I agree that creationism IS NOT SCIENCE. (and nowhere on this site did I state otherwise)

    Contemporary archaeologists/biologists try to avoid making blanket statements on the MORAL WORTH of particular religious/cultural belief systems, past or present. If they did, they would not be scientists, they would be philosophers. (Or something destructive– Nazis, Chetniks, etc.–these are situations where cultural relativism ends, and there is widespread agreement about not using relativism to condone genocide or torture)

    Aquinas was not a scientist. He was a logic chopper and a Catholic. Catholicism is no more and no less a science than creationism is. They are equally untestable, unquantifiable and unprovable, and therefore fall under the category of “belief”.

    Social scientists’ methodologies fall somewhere between the hard sciences and the humanities. It is their nearly impossible task to somehow quantify human behaviour, recognize patterns in individuals and societies, and among other goals, help to find solutions when individuals/societies aren’t functioning well.

    Anthropologists recognize that many mythologies exist, and that they are all equally unquantifiable, in terms of proving or disproving any stated “truths” within their narratives. They are, however, very “real” to those that believe the unquantifiable “truths.” People die for them. Nations rise and fall for them, Love and families are built around them. Lives are saved because of them.

    For these reasons, ALL religions are equally VALIDATED, not INVALIDATED. No religion is any “better” than any other. Religion and science are DIFFERENT, and both can, by accident or design, harm or heal. They can and frequently do co-exist to the betterment, not the detriment of the self concept of an individual as this self concept is derived from a larger collection of “beliefs” and “facts” pertaining to the “outside world”, “right vs. wrong” etc.

    (Not to go on parroting my entire first year–most of you people probably teach this stuff–but some of you appear to think I didn’t learn s**t here)

    (formal lectures, pod casts, open meetings ALL OVER Canada and the continental U.S., lay-philosophizing with the kind individuals who pick me up hitchhiking and with neighbourhood women I chat with/work with, visits to churches of half a dozen protestant denominations, several Catholic churches, one Wiccan group, one Mosque, several Jewish friends and one Rosicrucian friend, not to mention my extensive personal reading list…)
    has demonstrated to me that a majority *but not all* of literally hundreds of religious people from ELEVEN different faith groups CAN and DO reconcile “faith” with science.

    This INCLUDES people who were originally trained by creationists. But, I guess, by its strictest definition that makes them former creationists with an expanding worldview.

    Specific enough?

  17. Jean, your helpful advice “magically” appeared while I was still agonizing over that monster essay. It wasn’t there until I hit submit.
    That was a “what the heck did you think it was made of” moment if I’ve ever had one.

    The answer is probably no and no, but I’ll ask anyway: Did my monster essay come any closer to bridging any rifts?

  18. Noumena, I just found your comment in the spam box. Please do let us know if comments of yours appear to disappear. I have no idea what happened, and I hope it won’t happen again, but wordpress has its own gremlin…

  19. Xena–I’m afraid the answer is no and no, as you feared. I think you’re mixing together separate issues. There are issues about what people in fact think and feel–best handled by disciplines like anthropology, psychology, and comparative religion. Then there are issues about which beliefs are genuinely compatible with one anther. That’s a matter of logic, reason, what truly makes sense–the stuff that philosophers deal with. The reconciliation you are defending is not philosophical, as much as it might be worth addressing within those other disciplines.

  20. Dingit, If that stupid spam box hadn’t eaten Noumena’s response, I could have saved myself nearly 2 hours of griping. Apparently nobody caught on to where I was going with the REAL question being addressed in this debate.

    If all religious views are valid in the abstract, the only fair solution in terms of who gets the blessings of the almighty dollar(read–school board funding) would be none of them. Governments don’t have enough money to pay for everybody’s ideas about how their children should be taught. But to completely secularize the curriculum (in Canada &the U.S., anyway) puts Catholic schools in an awkward position in terms of defending their funding requests over everybody else’s.

    The answer to this conundrum in my corner of the world is fairly straightforward (I didn’t say simple). The Catholics get the funding because our government is still nervous about French separatists turning Ottawa&surrounding area into another Belfast/ Sarajevo/Gaza. All other religious schools are privately funded, with tax breaks granted to students’ families.

    The issue in the U.S. is much more complex, and has resulted in numerous studies (Singer&Benassi among others) where research psychologists decry the deplorable lack of critical thinking among people who are able to hold to metaphor and logic simultaneously. If I had a dollar for every study I’ve read where the author made these claims and then concluded with statements in defense of his own religious views…

    Then these studies are taken totally out of context and used to decry the lack of critical thinking in first year students that fall into a completely different demographic model, and each discipline has its own way of condescending to “dumb frosh”…

    Whatever… You’ve all been very helpful. I’ll keep reading, but I may save my commentary for other department blogs.

  21. Xena, let me clarify something. I actually agree with noumena’s last paragraph and might go further, since I’m in a very interdisciplinary field. So I think my view is less discipline-separate than JK’s seems. (I don’t want to speak for her here.)

    But there are two qualifications I’d make (a) it’s important to consider at which stage you get involved in criticising one discipline from the perspective of another; my best guess is that you do not right now have a very good public venue for doing that, and trying it in an Intro class can cause you a lot of grief. (b) Critiques from the other field have got to be really well informed about the criticized field. If you haven’t been able to share their perspective, then your cricisms of field B from the perspective of A may seem really good to people in A, but B people will very likely think you’ve misunderstood most of it. And one may have. I’ve been working on a critique of a field for a really long time, and I’m now embarrassed by some of the earlier things I said.

    For the record, at the Hypatia conference many speakers would say that main-(male-)stream analytic philosophy has missed out on what most important about most of its topics. I myself think that there are really important mistakes in the heart of the field as it is currently practiced.

    So I think you’ve got a good goal, but I’m concerned you are pursuing it in a non-productive way. But pay a lot of attention to your discussion with the chair of the department.

  22. Fair enough, JJ. Let’s say we open this up for people who may still want to comment on Creationism’s–ahem–critique of Evolutionary Biology.

  23. Actually, I agree with Noumena’s final paragraph too. Philosophers ought to critique anthropologists, and vice versa. But there’s something to be said for an initial apprenticeship, where one simply “tries on” the values, methods, and concerns of different disciplines.

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