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What Does Critical Thinking Mean when You’re in a Conspiracy Theory?

What Does Critical Thinking Mean when You’re in a Conspiracy Theory? December 7, 2020

I recently came upon an Answers in Genesis article that piqued my interest:

Are fossils “rock-solid” evidence for evolution? Museums and textbooks might say so, but here’s how you can apply the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking to reach a biblical, logical conclusion about any “transitional fossil” claim.

The young earth creationists at Answers in Genesis have developed “7 Checks of Critical Thinking” for their followers to use when evaluating claims. I’m going to evaluate each point they walk their readers through, because at this moment, this feels like something that goes far beyond young earth creationists.

Consider all of the conspiracy theories swirling in our world today, from QAnon to claims that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax to claims that the 2020 election was rigged. 2020 could be called the year of the conspiracy theory. And young earth creationism is one of the longest held conspiracy theories in our nation’s history.

Let’s turn to Answers in Genesis article:

1. Check Scripture

Genesis indicates God designed creatures to reproduce according to their kinds, even if there’s impressive variation within those kinds. So biblically, we wouldn’t interpret a fossil as being half-way between two kinds. (See Check 6 below for biblical interpretations of fossils instead.)

This has absolutely nothing to do with critical thinking. This is effectively confirming and cementing your conclusions before addressing new evidence. In other words, it’s the opposite of critical thinking.

(To make this relevant to the present, how many election conspiracy theorists start with Trump’s twitter feed, or the word of Sidney Powell, and make those their scripture? Sidney Powell said it, so it must be true!)

2. Check the Challenge

Given that fossils are dead things, the fossil record is a chronicle of death and suffering. Biblically, death and suffering resulted from Adam’s sin (e.g., Romans 5:12 and 8:22). Saying that fossils represent an evolutionary process of death and suffering leading up to humans, therefore, challenges clear teachings from Scripture. So, let’s move onto Check 3.

In fairness, if I were an ordinary scientist examining a fossil that contradicts our current understanding of the evolution of humans (or of some other species), it truly might be helpful to ask “what exact specific parts of our current understanding does this particular find conflict with.” But here’s the thing: it would be helpful to determine this largely because your find means that particular part of our understanding may be wrong.

Whereas here, in the world of young earth creationists, there is no possible course in which “well, maybe our understanding of that part of scripture is just wrong” is the answer. Scripture is always right. Always. In other words, this step isn’t about determining which particular scriptural understanding may need to be reassessed. It’s about determining which scientific claims need to be dismissed.

3. Check the Source

Where do claims about transitional fossils come from? Such claims can’t stem from sources which start with God’s Word as their absolute authority, because the term transitional already assumes evolution between kinds is happening.

This started out so well, and then went south the moment I got beyond the heading. Yes, it’s important to check sources! Always! Sources matter, because different sources have different levels of credibility, as well as potential bias. For instance, if a source said “the COVID-19 vaccines may not be safe,” I’d want to know whether the source has scientific expertise and experience with vaccines, and if so, what their concerns are and whether other scientists share them, or whether the source is a “wellness expert” whose background is in aromatherapy, running anti-vaxxing Facebook groups, and being an Instagram influencer.

The trouble, of course, is that such analysis of sources’ credibility or bias is not actually what this Answers in Genesis “7 checks of critical thinking” list is suggesting. Not at all. In their sample analysis regarding transitional fossils, they note only that an article discussing transitional fossils “can’t stem from sources which start with God’s Word.” This is the full extent of this section. There’s nothing about checking whether the source has a scientific degree, whether they have a history of work in this field, etc.

How any claims of “fake news” look like this?

4. Check the Definitions

On that note, when defining keywords in fossil discussions, some researchers recommend using the term intermediate form rather than transitional fossil, to avoid evolutionary implications. But it’s still worthwhile clarifying what type of intermediate we’re talking about. Does a fossil look like an intermediate between two kinds, was it found in rock layers between two kinds, or both? Does its whole body appear to be an intermediate between two kinds; does it have one feature which looks like it belongs to another kind, or does it have several features which resemble intermediates between two kinds? Clarifying what seems to be “intermediate” will help you describe the observational science later in Check 6.

This one I’ll get behind, in part because young earth creationists so often have false understandings of scientific terms (understandings seeded by groups like Answers in Genesis). It would actually be helpful if young earth creationists spent more time trying to understand contrary claims before rejecting them.

5. Check for Propaganda

Why might transitional fossil claims sound convincing? Evolutionary claims about Tiktaalik, Archaeopteryx, and Lucy may seem persuasive because they’re repeated so often from different sources. But repetition cannot make a message true. Neither can eloquence, popularity, or illustrations depicting what artists imagine fossils’ living counterparts looked like. Such illustrations often have built-in evolutionary assumptions, which you can identify with Check 6.

 

If the goal here were to understand the actual claims—to move beyond science reporting and read the actual studies—I would be completely behind this. There is a lot of science reporting that is objectively bad. But you know what I don’t see? Any suggestion that the reader should pull up the actual study an article is based on. Instead, all I see is an assumption that science writing includes “propaganda” and thus can’t be trusted.

Now, with check number 6, we finally get something more detailed. I’m going to do some summarizing, as this one is long and divided into sub-steps, but you can read the whole section here if you like.

6. Check the Interpretations

Here, it’s important to remember that Answers in Genesis’ whole schtick is that scientists and young earth creationists alike look at the same evidence and come away with different interpretations. According to Answers in Genesis, young earth creationists approach scientific evidence having already predetermined that a literal reading of Genesis is true, and interpret that evidence in ways that are consistent with young earth creationism, while scientists approach scientific evidence having already predetermined that molecules-to-man evolution is true, and interpret that evidence in ways that are consistent with molecules-to-man evolution.

Answers in Genesis doesn’t disagree with the allegation that they have pre-determined their conclusions before they even get to the evidence. They have, and they admit as much willingly. They simply argue that scientists do the exact same thing. Except, of course, that there’s actually several very big differences going on here.

First, to the extent that scientists use an evolutionary understanding of the universe and biology as a starting point, this is because this understanding is based on enormous amounts of evidence across multiple different fields. When young earth creationists, in contrast, use Genesis as their starting point, that is because they have decided that a religious text written over 3,000 years ago contains an accurate description of the origins of our universe. This is not the same as holding an idea that is buttressed by all available scientific evidence.

The second difference is that scientists are willing to admit that they are wrong and change their minds, while young earth creationists are not. Sometimes scientists make a find that changes their understanding of human evolution, for instance. This does not happen to young earth creationists. Reassessment and willingness to change or adjust hypotheses is built into science; not so for young earth creationism.

So. Back to check 6 in the 7 checks of critical thinking: “Check the Interpretations.” This section contains several different discussions, and I find it helpful to give each sub-headings.

6.1 Undermine the scientists: “All I see is a rock.”

Another distinction Answers in Genesis draws is between “observational” and “historical” science. This distinction is nonsense, and is something they made up so that they can accept the fruits of the scientific process in some areas—such as cancer treatment—while simultaneously rejecting the results of the scientific process in other areas and arguing that evolution is a con.

 

Identify the Observational Science

For any transitional fossil message, what are the facts we can observe in the present? The facts are the fossils themselves, and the rocks in which they were found. Interestingly, those rocks don’t always give dates that match a straightforward evolutionary scenario, even using evolutionary dating methods. (More on that in a moment.)

Identify the Historical Science

When it comes to fossils, observational science doesn’t always have much to go on—especially if the skeletons aren’t complete. Ideas about what missing bones might have looked like, how those bones affected the animals’ body plans, and how the soft tissue functioned and fitted everything together are all interpretations from historical science. Presenting these interpretations as reality in textbooks and museums is just propaganda—an attempt to make evolutionary stories seem persuasive by appealing to aesthetics rather than fact.

Ah, see, here’s where that earlier reference to checking for “propaganda” runs into trouble! For young earth creationists, identifying “propaganda” isn’t about looking behind bad science reporting to read the actual studies, it’s simply about dismissing your opponents’ views.

Also, LOL at the idea that putting soft tissue and skin on ancient fossils and presenting them in museums is propaganda. I’ve been to Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum in Kentucky, and that whole place is chock full of dinosaur replicas, complete with soft tissue and skin and lots and lots and lots of claims about how they lived and functioned and coexisted with humans. The passage above reads like an unintentional admission that their whole museum is propaganda. Oops!

In summary, this step in the checks of critical thinking is about undermining their readers’ willingness to trust scientific findings regarding physical evidence. When scientists attempt to explain the significance of a particular fossil or rock, young earth creationists familiar with the 7 checks of critical thinking will respond “all I see is a rock.” This step is an attempt to undermine the very idea that scientists can learn anything at all about fossils or rocks.

6.2 Make up your own explanation: “No, what must have actually happened is—” 

You know those people who will argue that aliens really do exist no matter how many times you explain that their reasoning or evidence is nonsense? You know how they’ll pause and say “well maybe what actually happened is” and then launch into an entirely new supposition, based on no actual evidence?

This section is a blatant endorsement of that.

Identify the Assumptions

What are some of those assumptions? Generally, “transitional fossil” stories assume that earth is millions of years old and that evolution can change one kind of creature into another. (For more about the problems with these assumptions, check out articles on information theory, life’s origins, mutation, and natural selection.)

Identify an Alternative Explanation

What’s a different, biblical explanation for intermediate-looking fossils? Because Genesis indicates God created creatures “according to their kinds,” we can predict that any transitional fossil claim probably involves one of three scenarios:

Scenario 1: The fossil represents a specimen from either one kind or another kind—not something in-between. …

Scenario 2: The fossil is made of bones from different specimens belonging to separate kinds. …

Scenario 3: The fossil represents another, separate kind, with a mosaic of features resembling those of other organisms and reflecting creatures’ shared Designer. …

You don’t like the scientist’s findings? That’s fine! Just make up some of your own, based on absolutely nothing! Insist that you must be right, and the scientist must be wrong, just because!

Finally, we arrive at the last check:

7. Check the Logic

What final lines of faulty logic should we watch for in transitional fossil claims? One example is circular reasoning in arguments that transitional fossils are evidence of evolution, given that the word transitional assumes evolution happens. Even saying, “evolution predicts intermediate forms, and intermediate forms exist, so evolution must be true,” uses the affirming the consequent fallacy.

Yes, this paragraph really and actually exists in a document on the “7 Checks of Critical Thinking.”

Here’s what all this comes down to: it’s about convincing people who believe in a conspiracy theory that they are the ones who are critical thinkers, and everyone else are sheep. When, in fact, it’s a conspiracy theory. If you’re starting with predetermined conclusions—the main tenets of your conspiracy theory—and dismissing alternative views out of hand, you are not engaging in critical thinking. Period and full stop.

All of this feels particularly sad at a moment when conspiracy theories are rife. The people arguing that the 2020 election was clearly rigged are convinced that they’re the ones who are woke, that they’re the ones who are thinking critically. They can’t see outside of their warped perspective to consider, for a moment, that alternative evidence might be something to consider, rather than something to reject out of hand—that perhaps expertise in an area is something to draw on, and not evidence that someone is “in on it.”

I don’t know where we move on from here, as a country, but I do know that believe in conspiracy theories feels almost sewn into our national DNA. Remember, 40% of Americans believe that God created man in their present form at one time at some point in the last 10,000 years.

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