A Different Kind of Creationist

Virginia Heffernan is a journalist who used to write a tech and pop culture column for the New York Times. She’s now a correspondent for Yahoo! News. She has a Ph.D. in English Lit from Harvard. And she’s a creationist.

Sort of. She explains herself in a piece titled Why I’m a Creationist that’s been picked up on by Gawker, Slate and a couple of other sources.

Most creationist are creationists because they insist on the authority of the Bible. Most likely they don’t care all that much about the formation of the universe, but they want to get to heaven. They hold on to Genesis 1 so they don’t lose their grip on John 3:16.

Heffernan is a different sort. She comes across as a more progressive believer, but one who casually rejects the big bang. Her arguments basically boil down to 1) mistrust of science – from evolution to global warming, and 2) desire for meaning and poetry in her worldview. Here’s her take on Darwin:

The Darwin, with good reason, stuck with me. Though it’s sometimes poetic, “The Origin of Species” has an enchantingly arid English tone to it; this somber tone was part of a deliberate effort to mark it as science and not science fiction—the “Star Trek” of its time. The book also alights on a tautology that, like all tautologies, is gloriously unimpeachable: Whatever survives survives.

Knocking Darwin for his dry prose isn’t really an argument. The tautology argument is a creationist standard, dating back to the 19th century. “Survival of the fittest” could be a tautology except for the fact that “fittest” has an independent meaning; “individuals with specific heritable characteristics.”

Heffernan is a post-modern creationist. She really does believe that evolution and physics are just alternative creation myths. The myth in Genesis is more moving and thus more “true,” at least to her.

There isn’t much beyond that. Heffernan doesn’t impress, either in her understanding of science or her knowledge of the Bible. But in the process of knocking science, she complains about evolutionary psychology, and here she’s got a point, though not perhaps the one she’s intending.

Most of the pop evo-psych that comes down is pretty bad, and the science journalism makes it worse. A number of skeptics and scientists have pointed out that bad science journalism is doing the movement no favors. It seems like Heffernan is guilty of assuming that whatever story the NYT runs is the state of the discipline, and I don’t think she’s alone.

The Great Commoner
Editing Memories
All Cycles Come to an End
Being Agent Scully
  • Jim Charlotte

    “Whatever survives survives” really? Really? Would she also argue, “I saw a really fit guy at the local Crossfit gym but then he died of cancer at 29 so I guess ‘survival of the fittest’ is WRONG.” Because that sounds better than talking about individuals with specific heritable characteristics who are able to pass their genetic information to offspring and their offspring’s offspring?

  • Gregory Marshall

    Delusion is delusion whether or not if you think you are poetic in it.

    • nash984954

      Word salad from schizophrenic minds can be rather poetic, just as their art is quite beautiful though they are really quite insane. I am not picking on schizophrenics,cuz really…well, I won’t say more about that, I’ll just plead the 5th.


    An idea is false because of inadequate poetry? Essentially, this woman seems to be saying, in order for a thing to be true, that thing must first conform to the way she thinks the world should be. She’s even more pathetic than biblical literalists.

  • evodevo

    “she’s not alone” Unfortunately, you are right on the mark. Evolutionary theory is ignored pretty much totally in public schools, and not really explained very well at the freshman bio college level, which is all most people are exposed to. I taught biology at the college level for 40 years, and I can’t count the number of SCIENCE majors who don’t get even the basic precepts, much less lib arts people. I am not surprised at all that Ms.Heffernan is totally ignorant of the facts.

    • nash984954

      Thank you for your service to citizens. I still think teachers are the best resource humanity has, and sadly only a few countries show they also feel as I do, and so give teachers the respect and wages they deserve.
      I took science courses in a public high school of 1400 kids, in the classes, Chemistry, Physics, Biology and there was some talk of Evolution, and the Prof was a good teacher who knew Biology,yet there was just so much to take in, with so little time to do anything but touch on any one thing for too long,but never once, to his credit, did he mention ID, or Creationism), it seemed there was so much to cover in the subjects of science that only a few hours was given to Darwin and Evolution.
      And it irks me that these religious zealots want to make laws to put their sectarian Sunday school superstitions into science classes that will take needed precious time away from real science for that crap. And it’s made to seem as if they are doing a good thing by writing the laws that ‘sound’ as if it’s about helping students to think more clearly, when it’s to push a political and religious agenda, by sneaking creationism via the backdoor into public schools. It’s the validation of ignorance pure and simple.

  • kessy_athena

    I think there’s a lot more going on here then someone dissing Darwin. I’d go so far as to say that Heffernan’s article is one of the best illustrations I’ve seen of the cultural disconnect and lack of communication between those who think of themselves as being science people and those who don’t.

    Heffernan **is not** delusional. She is ignorant. And I mean that in a literal and non-judgmental way. We’re all ignorant of all sorts of things, Heffernan just happens to be ignorant of the basics of evolution, cosmology, and science in general. (At least that’s the impression I get from her article.) Given her experiences and her level of knowledge, her beliefs are entirely reasonable. She said at one point that, “In the hazy Instagram picture I have in my mind of the mechanisms that animate my ingenious smartphone—a picture that slips in and out of focus, and one I constantly revise—it might as well be angels.” This is literally true. From her perspective, angels are every bit as good an explanation as quantum mechanics.

    Science people and the rest of society quite literally speak different languages. What we have are two distinct cultures that generally don’t bother to even try to talk to each other. Humans naturally think in terms of narratives. And as I’ve said before, without an outside reference there simply is no way to tell how factual or fictional any given narrative is. Since Heffernan has apparently never come across an accessible explanation of how and why the scientific narrative comes about, who can blame her for seeing the scientific and religious narratives as being basically equivalent?

    Science education and journalism is in an absolutely abysmal state. I can’t think of a better illustration of that then when Heffernan says that, “The periodic table, Louis Pasteur and the double-blind studies… now seem to stand for science.” And let’s be honest, part of the blame for that belongs with us, with those who think of themselves as science people, and with real scientists. STEM subjects are generally taught in a way that makes them seem far more intimidating then they really are. Consciously or not, there is a tendency to try to make science an exclusive club, where members can look down on those who haven’t made it past the initiation. All too often, when folks like Heffernan approach science, they are met with condescension and a demand that they complete a grinding, tedious initiation before being allowed entry. Is it any wonder that many of them simply walk away?

    • JohnMWhite

      I agree with a good portion of what you’re saying here, but you seem to be missing that Heffernan never approached science in the first place. She’s ignorant, yes, but she never made an effort to be anything else. Science education is in an atrocious state but that is in no small part due to people like Heffernan who think their Deeply Held Beliefs™ are the answer key that should be used to write the textbooks used in schools. It has become a battleground because ignorant yet aggressive people think they have the right to determine what facts are and those facts should always be comforting to them. She and people like her don’t want to hear what science has to say, whether it says it politely or with a condescending tone. I think it is arguably quite delusional to consider that the poetry or lack thereof lends weight to an explanation of how the universe works. You cannot reach the adult world thinking that way without there being a problem, regardless of how bad your science education is.

      Sloppy science journalism is problematic, but I don’t believe that she never came across a decent explanation of evolution. Some people just don’t want to hear it.

      • kessy_athena

        Heffernan’s article didn’t sound to me as if she were talking about her Deeply Held Beliefs. In fact, it sounded exactly the opposite to me. She’s not invoking biblical authority or claiming that God is the only thing that matters in life. All she seems to be saying is that she finds one creation story more appealing then another. And clearly that’s all it is to her: a story. The Big Bang and evolutionary theory really don’t have a direct impact on most people’s lives. And I think it’s entirely reasonable to judge stories based on their poetry.

        You say that Heffernan never approached science in the first place. Why should she? It’s not useful to her. And how hard would you try to get into the French castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you weren’t on a quest and the response you got from knocking on the door was, “Now go away or I shall taunt you some more!”? These topics are interesting and important to you and me, but that’s not true of everyone, nor should it be.

        I think you’re conflating two entirely distinct problems with science education. As nasty as it is, fundies trying to sneak creationism into science textbooks is completely different from the science being presented in a way that’s unappealing and inaccessible to many. It’s not because of fundies that she left school thinking that learning about science meant memorizing the period table.

        • Michael

          I think it’s entirely reasonable to judge stories based on their poetry.

          I cannot begin to imagine how this statement could make sense.

          I don’t know where you have lived where science has seemed like an ivory tower, but it is not. Basic science is a fundamental component of school curriculum at every level and part of the graduation requirement in every state. Nobody insults people for attempting to learn science. They insult people for not learning in the first place, or more often encourage them to learn it. I don’t buy that she was bullied out of learning the tightly-held secrets of science which can generally be found in less than five minutes.

          Heffernan doesn’t misunderstand science because she hasn’t heard of it, she mistrusts science because she thinks she can judge truth by poetry and aesthetics or perhaps more importantly because she just doesn’t care much about the truth in the first place.

          This is a real problem when you write tech articles and articles criticizing (and “deconstructing“) science. When you accidentally promote a fringe climate change denialist in the same sentence as Scientific American, clearly your ignorance has become problematic for your reporting. She isn’t a victim of bad reporting, she is a part of it. THAT’S why people are angry.

          • kessy_athena

            (facepalm) She actually put Watts in with Scientific American? Oi vey….

            Let me make it clear that I’m not defending her views. I’m saying that I think the important thing here is not how “dumb” she is, but why she sees things the way she does. I mean, you can just make fun of her if you want, but I think that’s not at all helpful and in the end simply perpetuates the sort of divide she seems to be epitomizing.

            Can I assume that we all agree that it’s a very bad thing when we as a nation wind up having policy debates that are about on a level with arguing over whether the earth is flat? Then shouldn’t we be taking an objective look at how we got into this situation and how we can get out of it, instead of just getting mad at people we disagree with? No matter how crazy someone’s view may seem to you or me, they (almost) always make sense to them and are reasonable in their frame of reference. If you don’t understand and don’t try to understand why someone’s views make sense to them, how can you possibly hope to ever even communicate meaningfully with them, much less change anyone’s mind? It’s hard to step back from your own perspective and see things from someone else’s point of view. But then again, it’s also hard to design rigorous experiments that keep the experimenter’s unconscious perspectives from skewing the results. Both are essential if we actually want to get anywhere.

            You have to keep in mind that people do *not* operate in objective reality – we can only ever perceive and interact with our subjective realities. How objective reality shapes those subjective realities is another topic, a layer removed from dealing with people’s behavior. When approaching an experimental set-up, you need to use the theoretical model that’s best suited to the situation, right? The wave function of the launch vehicle doesn’t really matter if you’re trying to put a satellite into orbit. And the evidence and facts of a subject don’t really matter for someone to whom the subject is just a story. If someone neither knows nor cares about the American Civil War, you aren’t going to be able to convince them that Lincoln is a better film then the Hobbit by talking about the details of historical criticism.

            Yes, basic science is a part of the curriculum. And considering how many people finish that curriculum thinking that science means memorizing equations, that curriculum is clearly failing spectacularly. I’m not saying that people are trying to make science an impenetrable ivory tower; I’m saying that far too many people come away with the impression that’s what science actually is. I don’t think this is deliberate for the most part, although I have run across a few instances where it’s hard to interpret it as anything other then deliberate.

            You may be able to find the “secrets” of science in five minutes, but that’s because you’re already familiar with it and know where to look. That’s a bit like saying that it’s easy to get into a club if you’re already a member.

            As for bullying… just look at the reactions to her column in this thread. People are automatically calling Heffernan delusional and assuming she’s a close minded fundie. Yet I really don’t think that’s a warranted assumption. Wasn’t the title of the post, “A Different Kind of Creationist”?

        • JohnMWhite

          I didn’t say or mean to imply that Heffernan was invoking biblical authority. When I say she is talking about her beliefs, I mean beliefs. She just believes in creationism and admits as much. I assume she got the idea from the bible but she does not appear to have hung this on anything but what she feels inside. I’m going to assume when you say it is reasonable to judge stories based on their poetry, you mean in terms of quality and not veracity, but that just goes back to the same point: liking a story doesn’t mean you get to ignore reality without consequences. She’s wrong, and that means something.

          I’m not sure what your next paragraph is meant to be addressing. If this topic is not interesting and important to her, why is she writing about it? She is simply advertising the fact that she believes in Creationism and demonstrates that she doesn’t understand evolution and never appeared to come across a genuine explanation of it (or at least never paid attention to one). I’m not going to hold her down and force her to listen to Dawkins explain it, but I’m not going to pat her head and tell her it’s all right to believe in fairies if she feels like it.

          I think you’re conflating two entirely distinct problems with science education. As nasty as it is, fundies trying to sneak creationism into science textbooks is completely different from the science being presented in a way that’s unappealing and inaccessible to many. It’s not because of fundies that she left school thinking that learning about science meant memorizing the period table.

          I disagree that these problems are entirely distinct. When science education has to compromise itself routinely and facts are determined by committee, you’re going to get poor science education. She left school not understanding evolution, in a country where a good number of school districts purposefully torpedo teaching about it, and they do so with the collaboration and support of people who write justifications for advocating truthiness just like hers. Yes, science education could do better in engaging with students, but it is not inaccessible. She essentially admits she doesn’t trust science and doesn’t care what it has to say. She very clearly has not tried to grasp evolution. What she feels inside is more likely to lead her to the truth, and people reading her and nodding along are going to put pressure on their own school boards to discount what evidence suggests and go with their guts. The cycle continues, and kids get a warped education that leads them to have no idea how to evaluate evidence in the real world. Then they do something stupid, like acquit a guy who stalks and shoots a black teenager.

          Heffernan is always entitled to her opinion, but everyone who doesn’t want the world to be run based on fantasies is just as entitled to push back, hard.

          • kessy_athena

            I just meant to point out that there’s a difference between garden variety beliefs and Deeply Held Beliefs™, and from what I’m reading, Heffernan sounds like she’s much closer to the former then the latter.

            In any case, if you want to be as effective as possible in pushing back against her ideas, don’t you think it would be a good idea to try to understand those ideas and how she came to them? Know your enemy and all that…. Thinking in terms of veracity and truth and objective reality isn’t really the best way to approach what’s going on in someone’s head. Yes, what Heffernan is saying is objectively wrong, but what exactly are the consequences? How does it change our lives whether the universe is unchanging and eternal or came out of a fireball 14 billion years ago or was the product of a science experiment by some putative creator? That’s not the point. The point is how she came to say those things and why she holds on to them, and why other people find them appealing. And I think the best place to start is by listening to her own account:

            “This is how I came to it. Like many people, I heard no end of Bible stories as a kid, but in the 1970s in New England they always came with the caveat that they were metaphors. So I read the metaphors of Genesis and Exodus and was amused and bugged and uplifted and moved by them. And then I guess I wanted to know the truth of how the world began, so I was handed the Big Bang. That wasn’t a metaphor, but it wasn’t fact either. It was something called a hypothesis. And it was only a sentence. I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.”

            Now, unless I’m very much mistaken, fundies were not getting creationism taught in science classes in New England in the 70′s, so you really can’t blame this on them. I understand what you’re saying about creationist beliefs being used to promote a political agenda and that agenda having some pretty unpleasant consequences. But remember there’s a difference between ideas and ideology: ideology uses ideas to promote itself while being indifferent to the ideas themselves. Agreeing with creationist ideas does not mean that you’re going to support the political agenda of christian fundamentalists any more then agreeing with the ideals of democracy means you’re going to embrace madame guillotine and enthusiastically support the Reign of Terror. We’re not dealing with a monolithic movement that manages every aspect of the stupid things people do. We’re dealing with a bunch of disparate threads that sometimes come together and sometimes don’t. Heffernan wasn’t saying that creationism should be taught in science class (at least not in this article). Aside from explaining her own views, the main thing she seemed to be commenting on was the amount of snark and condescension that comes from some corners of the skeptical community. And be honest, she does have a point about that.

            BTW, are you seriously saying you think the Zimmerman verdict was because of fundies trying to mess with the science curriculum?

        • nash984954

          A society based on science and technology immersed in science and it’s not useful to her to have some understanding of it? YOU are why science education sux. The same mindset that says ‘oh, I’ll never need to know that’, but the same process of learning whatever is the need, not the specifics,Where the decimal point goes does matter as its a magnitude ten times higher or lower. 10 grams is different from 10 milligrams. Fact is, critical thinking and learning science are hard subjects to nourish and creating a system in your brain that is not a given, one that’s innate, is important. If you find science boring, screw you, you have to put forth more effort. Basing learning on convenience and happy happy warm and fuzzies is bull, learning science is HARD and learning is itself a lifelong process, schooling is for teaching how to further learn for your entire life, not to just get through high school.
          I suggest you read an old book published in 1970s called “Less Than Words Can Say” by Richard Mitchell

          • kessy_athena

            (sigh) I don’t think I’m getting my point across here. A philosophical stance (that I happen to share, btw) that a more complete and thorough understanding of the world around us is a good thing in itself that improves the quality of one’s life is not the same thing as that understanding having a practical application or benefit. In what way is cosmology actually useful? It’s interesting, It’s a pretty deep mental exercise, it’s profound. But it’s not useful.

            My real point is that trying to apply a strict materialistic approach to something that is essentially psychological in nature just isn’t going to work very well. The human mind simply doesn’t behave much at all like billiard balls or orbiting space rocks.

  • autolukos

    I am struck by her apparent lack of curiosity. This is evident at several points:
    ‘ “I liked the phrase “double-blind” when it was on my side because it meant “true” and “take that.” ‘

    “I still wasn’t sure why a book that never directly touches on human evolution, much less the idea of God, was seen as having unseated the story of creation.”

    “I guess I don’t “believe” that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know?”

    She repeatedly explains that, when faced with something she doesn’t understand, she simply throws up her hands and chooses the option that she finds more emotionally satisfying. I really don’t understand the thinking.

    • JohnMWhite

      What thinking?

  • Cake

    Purposeful Ignorance.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    Seriously? Evolution can’t possibly be true, because Darwin’s work “has an enchantingly arid English tone to it”? Was this article on the Onion, by any chance?

  • Michael

    To say that evolution is a “tautology” is to say that it is necessarily true. I have never understood this “argument.”

    In fact, evolution states much more than merely “survival of the fittest,” which is indeed a nearly tautological phrase, as “fitness” is biologically defined as the relative ability to (survive and) reproduce, or equivalently, as the contribution of a phenotype to the population’s gene pool. But the theory of evolution requires not only that fitness exists as a concept, but that it is the result of heritable traits and that these traits naturally vary in a population. Furthermore, it states that populations can diverge (speciate) via reproductive isolation, and much else besides.

    Creationists know this of course, but they continue to ignore it as is their wont. “Ignorance is bliss” should be the motto of Creationism.

  • gimpi1

    The idea that what you prefer to be true, weather for religious or aesthetic reasons, is true just because of your preference is pretty bent.

    I have seen a similar argument from religious creationists, arguing against evolution, because of imagined “damage to society” because of people not seeing themselves as “made in the image of God.” I have pointed out that their argument has no merit, because even if their statement was correct, it has no bearing on the reality of the process of evolution. The physical universe is under no obligation to conform to our psychological or aesthetic needs.

    Again, the idea that you would rather something be true has no bearing on weather or not it is true. Why do so many people not understand this? Facts matter. Evidence matters. How did she miss that?

    In fact, I, personally, find great beauty in the dance of evolving life, the slow movement of deep geologic time, and the background music of stellar evolution. That doesn’t make them true. The facts, at least for now, appear to do that.

  • nash984954

    When talking of science by those who won’t even try to think of it as its practitioners(you need not be a scientist to ask scientific questions, as kids often do, without couching it, since they’re looking for answers, but may have no idea how to form a good question, yet their mind is immersed in science because they want to know) and who make no attempts to think critically as scientists do usually, this synopsis comes to mind, I can’t recall who it’s from to give then credit for it.


    If you don’t make a mistake, you’re doing it wrong.

    If you don’t correct those mistakes, you’re doing it really wrong.

    If you don’t accept that you’re mistaken, you’re not doing it at all.”-

  • Spuddie

    Does anyone else this as a subtle critique of Creationist thinking or am I giving her too much credit?

    Creationists claim their belief is based on what they want to be true rather than what is. They support such belief with spurious, critique of the scientific aspects of it, but ultimately don’t really care about such things. It all boils down to the prose which gives the person the warm fuzzy feelings.

    It also points to the lack of concern for the state of science by Creationists. Since they don’t actually care about the credibility and purpose of science, they judge such things by the aspects they know best: philosophical, literary, artistic or political ones.

    Ultimately under every Creationist is someone who is indifferent to science and will only keep up pretensions on the subject until they can change it to something more their speed. When a Creationist is left to ramble long enough they all revert to:

    “Science is not really the ultimate diviner of truth so we can’t take it seriously anyway” and

    “we really can’t prove our ideas in an objective observable method, its really just faith.”

    “You must accept our faith!”

  • http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/ Ed Darrell

    And yet that last paragraph in Origin of Species is both more poetic than most poetry in the English language, and conciliatory to those who wish to hold on to faith and a God who is the moving force behind creation (which I find is often at odds with the Magic Hairy Thunderer creationists think Michaelangelo revealed).

    I love poetry, too; but poetry about fairies in the garden doesn’t require that I reject the science of what really makes my flowers grow.

    (I think this is an accurate version of the last paragraph):

    It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants
    of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting
    about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that
    these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator
    into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling
    on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless
    forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

    ” . . . From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

    Great things from small, humble beginnings — like a baby born in a manger.

    Those who close their eyes by faith miss out on more poetry than they think.