Back in November, a debate with a Christian in another comment thread took a curious turn:
But I have faith in the gospel and what it promises me, just like you have faith in your readings. Your suposed facts and my suposed facts, what makes mine so wrong and your so right. Are facts from the bible so different from the facts you read from magazines, books and websites….nope. It all boils down to faith. Until you can tell me that you were there from the beginning up until now, you dont really have facts of your own do you. Neither do I, I dont proclaim to like you do. Faith boys, we all have faith, faith in what is up to you. I think I will stick with the gospel on this one.
Although this Christian believer didn’t notice, what he was actually advocating was postmodernism and relativism. Just like the strawman academics whom conservatives love to hate, he was effectively proclaiming that there’s no objective truth and no way to decide between competing worldviews, so we might as well choose whichever one makes us feel best.
But this bizarre position was not our visitor’s own invention. I doubt he was aware of it, but he was following in a trail that prominent Christian apologists, especially the creationists, have been laying down for some time.
Around the same time, a New York Times article, “Rock of Ages, Ages of Rock“, provided further examples of this phenomenon. The latest young-earth creationist is Marcus Ross, who recently received a legitimate Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island. But how he got that degree is an astonishing story:
Ross subsequently wrote a 197-page dissertation about a marine reptile called a mosasaur, whose disappearance he tracked through the Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago. Fastovsky [his thesis advisor] described the paper as “utterly sound,” and the committee recommended very minimal edits.
At the conference I asked Ross whether he still believes what he wrote in his graduate thesis. His answer confirmed him as the product of the postmodern university, where truth is dependent on the framework: “Within the context of old age and evolutionary theory, yes. But if the parameter is different, portions of it could be completely in error.”
John Scalzi’s sarcastic tour of Answers in Genesis’ new creationist museum turned up the same bizarre postmodernist approach:
And another example long-noted by creationism watchers: the Australian creationist Andrew Snelling, a degreed geologist who writes articles for peer-reviewed, mainstream scientific journals which casually refer to multimillion-year-old rock strata, and then turns around and publishes articles in creationist journals claiming that the entire rock record was laid down by Noah’s flood.
In the first room of the Creation Museum tour there’s a display of two paleontologists unearthing a raptor skeleton. One of them, a rather avuncular fellow, explains that he and the other paleontologist are both doing the same work, but that they start off from different premises: He starts off from the Bible and the other fellow (who does not get to comment, naturally) starts off from “man’s reason,” and really, that’s the only difference between them: “different starting points, same facts,” is the mantra for the first portion of the museum.
It’s mind-blowingly ironic that creationists and other Christian apologists, who’ve gone on so many jeremiads about our society’s drifting away from God’s absolute truth, are now advocating a relativist view in which the evidence is insufficient to decide any question and what you believe is simply a matter of which arbitrary premises you start out with. Perhaps we should take it as a good sign, an indicator of retreat: instead of arguing that their position is proven and others are disproven, religious apologists nowadays are seemingly reduced to claiming that we can’t know that their position is false. Or perhaps it’s just that they’ve discovered the postmodernist position can be useful: it makes it possible for even the most uneducated apologist to raise an insurmountable defense against rational counterargument.
For the creationists, postmodernism is a useful strategy. The best way for them to be taken seriously as scientists would be to publish in mainstream journals, yet papers advocating the transparently false creationist view would never survive peer review. So instead, they write perfectly valid papers advancing legitimate scientific arguments and then use those publications as stepping stones to legitimacy, pointing them out to bolster their scientific credentials even though their own papers advocate the complete opposite of the view they actually hold.
This presents real scientists with a difficult dilemma. Without a doubt, scientific journals and universities should not be thought monitors, refusing to publish perfectly good scientific arguments because they disagree with the views of the researcher. On the other hand, it seems intrinsically dishonest for scientists to publish and defend positions they do not really hold, just to give a semblance of scientific legitimacy to the positions they actually do hold.
I have an alternative suggestion. Certainly, we should allow any working scientist to publish a solid, evidence-backed paper defending any view they see fit. But thesis committees and editorial review boards should insist that the applicant make a sworn statement that they stand behind the reasoning and conclusions in their own paper. (Even the postmodern creationists won’t go so far as to lie about that – I hope.) This strikes me as a good idea for numerous reasons, and I don’t think it violates anyone’s academic freedom. What could be wrong with a simple declaration that an author actually supports the position which they claim to support?