It’s helpful to understand where Plait is coming from. He’s an astronomer and the veteran of an epic battle with moon-landing deniers. Those are the folks who claim that human beings have never walked on the moon — that the Apollo missions were a giant hoax and that Armstong, Aldrin and the rest were really filmed at a top-secret government sound stage somewhere.
Moon-landing deniers don’t call themselves that. They call themselves moon-landing skeptics — thus laying claim to the mantle of science-y critical thinking.
Plait — who is himself a scientist and therefore, professionally, a skeptic — won’t let them get away with that:
Skepticism is a method that includes the demanding of evidence and critical analysis of it. That’s not what Moon hoax believers do; they make stuff up, they don’t look at all the evidence, they ignore evidence that goes against their claims. So they are not Moon landing skeptics, they are Moon landing deniers. They may start off as skeptics, but real skeptics understand the overwhelming evidence supporting the reality of the Moon landings. If, after examining that evidence, you still think Apollo was faked, then congratulations. You’re a denier.
A skeptic, as Plait says, engages the evidence carefully without imposing or requiring any foregone conclusions about what it may or may not indicate. An especially skeptical skeptic may insist on a very high standard of proof, but is still open to the possibility of such proof. A skeptic, in other words, follows the evidence as far as it leads. Skeptics may refuse to go beyond that evidence, but they will never refuse to accept such evidence if it is credible and honest.
And because of that, skeptics themselves are credible and honest.
Deniers are neither.
Deniers are not open to following credible evidence unless it leads to where they want it to lead. They will accept any evidence — no matter how flimsy — if it seems to support their foregone conclusions, thus displaying a credulity incompatible with skepticism. And more importantly, they reject any evidence — no matter how incontrovertible — that goes against their foregone conclusion. Because deniers adamantly refuse to accept such credible and honest evidence, the deniers themselves cannot be regarded as credible or honest.
Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The evidence for that is overwhelming and beyond any reasonable doubt. That some people cling to un-reasonable doubts does not earn them the right to be called skeptics, it simply makes them deniers.
Deniers don’t care what the evidence says. They believe what they want to believe, and if that belief is proven false they simply deny that such proof exists. Hence the name.
Most deniers don’t want to acknowledge that this is what they’re doing, so, like the moon-landing deniers, they prefer to call themselves skeptics. That adds another layer of dishonesty and it’s an insult to actual skeptics — an insult to the people who are principled in their care and respect for evidence so that they can be as honest and accurate as possible in their relationship to reality.
All of which is why I’m grateful to Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary. Mohler is the one denier I know of who owns up to his denialism. Heck, he brags about it.
Mohler makes no claims to being a “skeptic” about evolution or the rest of science. He simply, forthrightly rejects it. He denies it as contrary to his preferred interpretation of the Bible. And he doesn’t deny that he’s a denier.
That doesn’t make Mohler’s denialism any more credible or honest than any other form of denialism, but it’s refreshing to encounter one denier who is at least honest about his dishonesty.
“Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve” NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, citing several devout evangelical scientists who say that the biblical story of the Garden of Eden should not be regarded as a historical account.
Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: “That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.”
Venema says there is no way we can be traced back to a single couple. He says with the mapping of the human genome, it’s clear that modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population — long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago. And given the genetic variation of people today, he says scientists can’t get that population size below 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.
To get down to just two ancestors, Venema says, “You would have to postulate that there’s been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence.”
Al Mohler is having none of that. It’s not that he’s skeptical of “all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years,” it’s just that he doesn’t care that it exists and thus prefers to pretend it doesn’t.
“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”
“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world.”
Mohler likes to focus on “the respect of the world” because that’s easier than talking about his towering disrespect for the world. God so loved the world. Al Mohler doesn’t even like to look at it, let alone study it, learn from it or learn about it.
If I hadn’t been reading Mohler’s writing for years, I might suspect that Bradley Hagerty was unfairly cherry-picking a quote that would make him seem ridiculously self-congratulatory and egomaniacal. But that’s actually a restrained and relatively humble statement there from Mohler, whose central theme whenever discussing his rejection of science is that his denialism is a noble act of great courage — that he is bravely making himself a martyr by boldly preferring unreality to evidence, fact and truth. If a brave defense of his peculiar notion of “biblical orthodoxy” demands that he turn his back on the facts as we know them to be, then very well, Al Mohler, Bold Champion of “Biblical Orthodoxy,” will deny whatever truth needs to be denied. Al Mohler, Brave Protector of Mohlerian Mohlerianity, will happily deny that which is undeniable.
That might make him a self-aggrandizing delusional blowhard, but at least he doesn’t try to pretend that he’s just a “skeptic.”
I want to return to this NPR story on Adam and Eve in another post, but for now let me just highlight Amy Julie Becker’s excellent response, which begins:
I read the Bible literally. Which is why I don’t believe in an historical Adam and Eve. …
We need to get some English majors involved in this debate. Reading Genesis literally does not necessitate an historical Adam and Eve. It does necessitate respect for the text itself. It requires us to let the text tell us how to read it.
Yes. Mohler and the others demanding a historical Adam and Eve aren’t just denying and abusing science, they’re also denying and abusing the Bible. They are rejecting what the text says about itself, imposing on it a reading that it does not readily allow.