Stephen Meyer isn’t a biologist, but he plays one at the Discovery Institute. He wants to help GOP candidates through the minefield of science denial by answering the tough question, “What Should Politicians Say When Asked About Evolution?”
My vote would be to keep it simple. Say that laypeople have no alternative but to accept the scientific consensus, like evolution, as the best explanation that we have at the moment. But conservative politicians need to make things much more complicated. Meyer’s article provides an opportunity to illustrate a number of popular tricks Creationists play.
Trick #1: Politicians need special rules.
What prompted Meyer’s 2015 article was the response of GOP presidential candidate-to-be Scott Walker to the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” Walker’s response: “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another. So I’m going to leave that up to you.”
According to Meyer, this showed Walker to be “unprepared, evasive, and scientifically uninformed.” Meyer next critiques another candidate’s response:
Mike Huckabee, for his part, tried to laugh it off, saying: “If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it,” which only made him look evasive and flippant.
No, it mostly made him look ignorant. He is the descendant of a primate because humans are, in fact, primates. Jeez—get an education.
As someone who isn’t a biologist (like Meyer) but who respects science (unlike Meyer), let me offer some advice to conservative candidates. I like that Walker didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t. He’s a politician, not a biologist.
Consider his constituency. The fraction of Republicans who accept the science, that humans have evolved over time, is only 43%. Incredibly, that’s 11% less than four years earlier (Pew Forum). Evolution denial is an identifying trait of Republicans, and publicly accepting evolution has become difficult for Republican candidates.
Walker could’ve been smarter, as I noted above. He could’ve said that, given that he’s not a scientist, he has no option but to accept the scientific consensus on biology, which is evolution. He could’ve insisted that Republican citizens get their science from scientists rather than non-scientists (like religious or political leaders). This could’ve been an opportunity to show how a leader handles a tough situation. But given his reality-averse audience, I suppose his sidestep was about as good as it gets.
Trick #2: “The term ‘evolution’ can mean several different things.”
The concept of evolution that is clear in biology class or on the cover of a biology journal suddenly becomes quite slippery and confusing in the hands of Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. For example, the Creationist ministry of Kent Hovind’s son lectures us that there are six kinds of evolution, including the Big Bang, abiogenesis (the origin of life), and the creation of elements through fusion. (No, I don’t see why the word “evolution” is mandatory for those ideas, either.)
Meyer proposes three definitions that are, in order of increasing controversy, change over time, common descent (which Creationist icon Michael Behe accepts), and what most people would call plain old evolution—the theory that life that we see evolved from earlier lifeforms through random mutation and natural selection without anything supernatural. He does nothing to show that his imagined controversy exists.
Perhaps they prefer many “evolutions” to show their reasonableness in accepting at least some science-y ideas.
Trick #3: Evolution is controversial—in fact, increasingly so.
To make this claim, Creationists may quote a scientist. Maybe they’ll even quote a biologist. Oddly, they never quote any statistics to show that evolution is losing its respectability.
This idea has been around for decades. The Creationist book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis was published in 1985. The second edition was published thirty years later with the hopeful title Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. (I can picture the author as a child, stamping his feet with his face getting red, demanding that it is too in crisis! And it’ll collapse any day now, and you’ll be sorry then that you didn’t believe him!)
Maybe Creationists think that if they keep repeating this claim, no one will notice that evolution is still here, still explaining things, with biologists as confident in it as ever.
If anyone doubts that evolution is indeed the consensus, I’ve compiled a long list of quotes from reputable organizations in the appendix at this post.
Trick #4: Declare that a debate about some aspect of evolution is actually a challenge to evolution as a whole.
Increasingly, even leading evolutionary theorists question the creative power of its central mechanism of natural selection/random mutation.
A Creationist is the last person I’ll listen to for the scientific consensus within biology. When evolution is overturned, have the biologists tell me. Creationists will say that the truth isn’t decided by a vote. They’re right, but it’s not like we can just compare our scientific theories against the truth and resolve each issue once and for all. What’s decided by vote is society’s best guess at the truth through scientific consensus. It’s not necessarily right, but that consensus is the best we have.
What Meyer could be saying (it’s unclear to me because he gives no backup for this statement) is that biologists argue about various mechanisms within evolution. I’ll accept that. What this doesn’t translate to is a rejection of evolution.
Trick #5: Look at the polls! The majority of Americans reject evolution.
Meyer points to polls that show Americans rejecting evolution.
A huge majority of Americans (and many scientists) reject the third and distinctly controversial meaning of evolution—the idea that the cause of the change over time is an unguided and undirected mechanism.
You say that Americans reject evolution? So what? Unless the subject is the scientific illiteracy of the American public, who cares about the opinions of people who don’t understand the issue?
The vague “many scientists” who reject evolution presumably is a reference to the Disco Institute’s “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” a list of close to a thousand scientists and engineers who are “skeptical” of evolution. Yet again, who cares? We don’t consult scientists and engineers, we consult biologists. But if you want to play that game, the National Center for Science Education has an even longer list of scientists who accept evolution, limited just to those named Steve (in honor of the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould).
Trick #6: But much of a conservative politician’s constituency reject evolution!
Many conservative candidates are themselves either genuinely skeptical about some aspects of Darwinian evolution . . . or they are aware that much of their base rejects it.
When non-scientist politicians won’t accept the scientific consensus, they can’t claim to have a competent opinion. They might also have a hard time accepting quantum physics (which is far more counterintuitive than evolution), but they shouldn’t make any policy decisions built on that ignorance.
If this is difficult politically, then the choice is to mirror the flawed thinking of the constituents or take the tough stand for the truth. That conservative politicians often cave doesn’t speak well of how they’d handle the tough issues of public office.
Trick #7: Position the teaching of Creationism/ID as openness and academic freedom.
Meyer poisons the well by labeling the teaching of just evolution in the science classroom as “dogmatic.” He claims that this is an insult to “scientific literacy, academic freedom, and critical thinking.”
This reminds me of Rick Perry on the campaign trail in 2001: “In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools, because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” That’s a clever spin, but that’s not the way schools work. You dump out the possibilities on a table and say “Figure it out” in the lab, not the classroom. The history of science is often taught, but students are never given flat vs. spherical earth or geocentric vs. heliocentric solar system and encouraged to choose. Perry seems to imagine that biology tests would be ungraded, and students would simply summarize their preferences for what they want to be the case.
Meyer’s article finally devolves into a suggested script for science-denying politicians. It includes agreeing where possible (to some debilitated version of evolution), saying “I’m skeptical” rather than “evolution is wrong,” mentioning “many scientists” while avoiding “the scientific consensus,” handwaving about the importance of understanding the weaknesses in scientific theories, and conflating abiogenesis with evolution.
In short, if the facts aren’t on your side, obfuscate the issue.
- Hey, GOP Candidates! Want to Reject Science Without Looking Like a Troglodyte?
- You Don’t Like the Scientific Consensus? Ignore it Away.
- Reject the Scientific Consensus? How Do You Justify THAT?
- Christians’ Secret Weapon Against Evolution
who want to mind other men’s business
than it is from the bad people
who are willing to let everybody
look after their own individual affairs.
— Clarence Darrow, 1908
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/4/16.)
Image from Jakob Lawitzki, CC license