Life is a never-ending process of living and learning. In the mid-1980s, I learned to avoid baby-powder-scented feminine hygiene products. In the mid-1990s, I learned that there was no way whatsoever that Christianity could be an objectively factual religion. Last Wednesday I think I learned what a “10” on the pain scale looks like.
Part of the fun of being me is living with early-onset osteo-arthritis. I’ve never known exactly what to answer when the doctors ask me–as they do every visit–to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. What number exactly is “why is this happening to me?” Where does “curling into a little ball and whimpering while the painkillers start to kick in” fall? I had this vague idea that childbirth is probably a “10,” but since I’ve never had children and never will, that was a bit of an abstraction. I’ve never even broken a bone or been stung by a bee. My pain tolerance, consequently, probably floats somewhere around that of a toddler at a birthday party.
But things were getting a lot worse a lot faster than anybody expected, largely because of this little bugger here:
This picture illustrates a part of the human pelvis called the sacrum. See the paired dots? A nerve comes out each one of those dots; one of those nerves is a major one that runs all the way down each leg. And one of mine had gotten constricted because of a slipped disc I’d also managed to acquire (because the fun never ends around here). Constricted nerves are like the angry babies of the human body; they aren’t really good about shutting up and going away after they’ve made their initial observations.
I’m having this back pain, in large part, because of human evolution. Simply put, at one time our far-distant ancestors were like apes, muddling along on all fours, and then at one point we stood up on our hind legs and eventually never got back down again. A lot of stuff had to shift to accommodate a spinal column and pelvis that were part of an upright posture, and it didn’t do it quite perfectly. These aren’t flaws from the standpoint of evolutionary theory itself. As that link’s author puts it (emphasis his), “natural selection never creates ‘flaws’, it just makes deals.” This was one of the deals: a tradeoff between the benefits of upright posture (better visibility, greater ease at traversing long distances or insanely rough ground, ability to freely use one’s hands and arms) and the detriments (back pain and chronic conditions in later life especially). It’s a symphony and a beautiful one, and we don’t understand each note in the music quite yet–even in that link, you can see a pair of medical professionals respectfully duking it out over minor details in the ideas there, complete with copious citations for those who are curious–but we’re moving closer and closer all the time toward understanding and fixing some of those deals’ less thrilling aspects.
So last Wednesday I trooped on down to a clinic to get a spinal shot of steroids in that clamped-down hole in my sacrum in a procedure called a transforaminal epidural steroid injection. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard of in medicine. It’s a shot straight to the spine, injecting steroids that will hopefully relieve the swelling and inflammation there, relaxing the nerve and letting it run free and wild again like a pretty pony. First there’s the shot to get the shot that is the numbing stuff, and then there’s a chemical injected that makes colors on a fluoroscope scanner that runs above the
victim’s patient’s back the whole time, and once the doctor can see what’s going on in there, then there’s a shot of the actual steroids right into the tiny hole of the constricted nerve. Then you’re done. The whole procedure takes about two minutes. You get crackers and juice afterward and the nurses keep an eye on you for a half hour to ensure you don’t die of an allergic reaction. (Here’s a very Star Trek-looking video of the whole procedure, minus the crackers and juice.)
In theory, it doesn’t hurt much because there’s that painkiller shot first. I should have heard that and just laughed and laughed. For some reason I always get lucky when it comes to those things–I must have the most freakishly persistent or weirdly-shaped nerves in history or something–because the theory fell apart pretty quickly once we got down to the deed. If someone had told me beforehand how much this would hurt, I’d never have believed it, so it’s just as well that nobody even tried.
Pro-tip: If you ever ask a doctor if something is going to hurt and only get jokes or minimizing statements back in response, then yes: it is going to hurt. A lot.
I don’t know much about the doctor who gave me the shot, but I can tell you a couple of things about him.
First, the field where he grows his fucks is as barren as it could possibly be.
Dude epitomized the saying “cool as a cucumber.” He was in and out faster than lightning. I was trying to hold still while screaming F-bombs that shook the walls, and though he was decently nice and not unsympathetic in a general sense to the distress I was clearly suffering, he was one honey badger who just didn’t care because he was getting that steroid shot in there whether I fucking liked it there or not. (Yes, there’ll be drugs next time. Lots, and lots, and lots of drugs. Nobody was expecting that to happen, least of all the doctor, who probably actually really prefers it when the people he jabs don’t scream and move around.)
Second, I am reasonably sure that he doesn’t have a single appointment for acupuncture anywhere in his itinerary, nor a single donation to the Institute for Creation Research anywhere in his recent banking history.
I was recuperating afterward with the juice and crackers and shaking like a leaf because someone had just opened up a hole between the good clean air and my spinal column and put me into levels of pain I had not previously thought it was possible for me to reach, and already I could feel blessed numbness seeping through my lower back and I could already tell that there was Something There That Wasn’t There Before, as the song goes. I was thinking to myself that this entire medical marvel was only possible because someone had once asked questions and refused to settle for “Well, because that’s just how it is”–which is largely how Creationism works. After recovering at home for a bit, I looked up the Creationists’ own list of scientists willing to publicly say they’re down with Creationism and found absolutely no orthopedic specialists, and indeed other surveys of medical professionals have found that most doctors don’t go in for that sort of quackery.
Creationism–and its failed rebranding attempt, “Intelligent Design” (the terms are completely interchangeable; the latter is just a sneaky attempt to phrase Creationism in a non-religious context, a ruse that falls apart pretty quickly when one notices that the ID party van contains only fundagelical Christians)–has been in the news off and on lately. This pseudoscience (for indeed it fits every single hallmark of a pseudoscience) is one of the last-ditch attempts of fundagelical Christians to sneak their religion’s indoctrination into public schools, and it now forms one of the marker beliefs for a certain segment of very zealous Christians. As one of our commenters has mentioned in the past, as a marker belief it’s a pretty safe one overall; while giving its adherents a very firm identity as members of a specific group, it doesn’t require those adherents to dress weirdly, commit large amounts of resources to the group, or do anything violent, and it provides its adherents a reason to fight hard against what they view as a nearly-overwhelming enemy–which in this case is “pretty much all of established science as well as qualified scientific professionals.”
At its heart, Creationism is a fight over how people can know what is true and what is not–in the form of a concerted effort on the part of religious zealots to maintain their privilege and dominance over those outside the group. It is certainly not a fight between “Christianity” and “atheism”–lots of scientists are Christian, and many are other religions entirely (not to mention that the idea of evolution is no more a religious or anti-religious idea than the idea that the Earth moves around the Sun). It is not a fight between “science” and “the Bible,” either, though Creationists often act like they think it is, and certainly the Bible is their primary–and really the only–tool they have in the fight they’re imagining is happening here.
No, what we’re actually witnessing here is actually a fight between a very, very narrow subsection of American Christianity and reality itself. It’s a fight for religious identity, for dominance, and for certainty. And it is not that old of a fight. When I was one of that narrow subsection of American Christians myself, Creationism was a common belief, but hardly a required one. I was not a young-Earth Creationist myself and thought the very idea was blithering, ignorant nonsense; if anything, I probably would have been classified as holding to theistic evolution, which is viewed by many Christians as a sort of halfway point: yes, evolution happens, yes, current species evolved from other species long ago, yes, the Earth is super-old, but surely our god was involved somewhere, guiding that process or kick-starting it or something. Because no religions’ supernatural claims are based on reality anyway, there is as much variety in beliefs here as there are religious people–some Christians I’ve run into believe everything evolved except humans, which were popped into existence by magic, for example.
Thankfully, reality is winning this one–though you’d never know it to talk to Creationists. Though many American Christians say they are hardcore Creationists, once you get into the nitty-gritty details, most folks turn out to at least kinda-understand if not embrace most of the science involved in reality-based science. Every single year, more and more people assert a secular view of the origins of life, as well. As Christianity continues to hemorrhage numbers, and as we continue to clamp down on sneaky attempts to indoctrinate children so they can actually learn about the real world rather than mythology in their science classes, we can expect to see more people take that (correct) view.
Of late I’ve run into a lot of people–Christians and non-Christians alike–who are asking questions about how to go about learning about this reality-based view of science. I think that’s a very good question. Pseudoscience sources are very good about making themselves look legitimate. A mind that is not trained in critical thinking skills–or which is very motivated to find rationalizations for holding a pseudoscientific belief–can be easily taken in.
The important thing to know here is this: you are not an idiot if you are or were a Creationist. As scientific scams go, this one’s really polished and honed. It plays to the very deepest of human fears and hopes, and panders to the very worst of human impulses toward control, narcissism, and tribalism. So lots of smart, well-educated people fall for it and scams like it. The whole thing is best thought of as one of those blind spots that people can sometimes have. And nobody wants to think of themselves as reality-denying or having a blind spot, so this one’s a really tough one to escape.
Here is a partial list of online sources that will help a layperson learn how to assess scientific claims. And in the comments, please feel free to add ones you find useful (be aware that WordPress sometimes classifies comments with a lot of links as spam, so I’ll keep an eye on that folder, but try to keep the link love to 3 per comment so you don’t accidentally land in the spam folder):
* National Center for Science Education (NCSE). This is the official site of a huge group of people who teach science. It is at the forefront of the battle against Creationism (and some other pseudoscience crankery, like climate change denial), and compiles lists of not only scholarly critiques of Creationism but also documents related to the various court cases involving Christians trying to sneak this pseudoscience into schools. Don’t miss the judges’ summary papers, which often cover why Creationism is not science at all. If you don’t know much about why Creationism is bullshit, this is probably a good start for you–it’s accessible to laypeople, has tons of documents, and is as a whole extremely sympathetic to the distress that religious people are going to feel as they explore something they’re going to find very challenging.
* The final opinion paper from the Kitzmiller v. The Dover Area School District trial from 2005, wherein a bunch of teachers and parents brought suit against their school board for trying to sneak Creationism into their local public-school science classes. This was a groundbreaking trial that Creationists thumped their chests over, convinced that it would be a total vindication of all their efforts and pave the way for them to freely push religious indoctrination at public-school kids. Instead, they got their asses kicked ten ways from Sunday–by a fellow Christian judge and Bush appointee, no less. This is a really long paper, but if you have any questions whatsoever about the legality of teaching Creationism in public school science classes, this will settle you out nicely. Not only does it extensively and devastatingly address the issue of Creationism’s status as a pseudoscience, it covers quite a few of the talking points that Creationists like to use and completely busts Creationists’ self-serving declarations that their pseudoscience is not in fact completely religious in nature. If you’re really curious, here are the actual trial transcripts and here’s a link to Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, an incredibly useful NOVA special about this trial.
* TalkOrigins’ Archive. There’s a lot to explore here, but what I find very useful is this page of debunks to common Creationist talking points and claims, but even reality-embracing folks will like this index to some of the major strains of evidence for evolution.
* Bad Astronomy, a popular-science blog written by an astronomer. It often tackles things like “age of the Earth” and Creationism in general. One of my favorite pieces by this blogger is Answering Creationists’ Questions, written in the wake of the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debates regarding those written-out questions Creationists posed to “evolutionists.”
* The Sensuous Curmudgeon, which frequently discusses Creationist claims and pokes holes in them. They’re not quite as worried about Creationists’ feelings over there, but with extensive citations and often spirited discussion in the comments, someone seeking to escape that indoctrination will find a lot to chew on. As well as linking to the TalkOrigins list of Creationist claims, this blog also has its own list and debunks.
* Rosa Rubicondior, which covers a huge range of Christian quackery, hypocrisy, and pseudoscience in a number of fields. I’ve linked to her numerous times and find myself learning new things every time I visit there. She cites sources, makes excellent points, and often dukes it out in her comments with well-meaning but pseudoscience-embracing Christians.
* If you prefer your information in video format, Aron-Ra is a really impressive science educator who speaks out against Creationism over at YouTube. Neil DeGrasse Tyson maintains Star Talk Radio there as well and often talks about Creationism. Most of the documentaries debunking Creationism can be found there, too.
Some Final Observations.
In the end, we’re seeing this rise in Christian pseudoscience as a result of the religion’s waning hold on American culture. Fifty years ago, Christian leaders didn’t need to push pseudoscience to keep people indoctrinated–simple cultural hegemony kept butts in pews, and people didn’t have a lot of access to copious amounts of information freely exchanged and offered as we do today.
Biblical literalism has existed in some form or another from Christianity’s get-go, but became a major belief in the 18th century, according to the Wiki link there. When Charismatics began drilling down and getting super-political in the late 1970s in America, what had been a fairly fringe belief began to take on more prominence, and along with it a new surge of interest in Creationism; this politicization is only getting worse in recent years. The sheer extremism I see now in fundamentalism simply didn’t exist back when I was myself a fundamentalist–and I’d have been considered pretty extreme.
In the same way that anti-vaxxer parents often drill down even harder on their beliefs when presented with copious evidence against their claims, Creationists often retreat further and further into their conspiracy theories and talking-points when challenged and debunked. One can see why. A lot of these Creationists’ claims involve their entire religious and spiritual outlook’s validity, their feelings of superiority over outsiders, their fitness to rule other Americans and influence laws, and their feelings of being a persecuted minority underdog struggling against the Big Bad Ole Atheists being all mean to them. Creationist belief is used to justify not only public-school indoctrination but also a host of public-policy issues ranging from equal marriage, stem-cell research, and reproductive justice all the way to human civil rights, animal treatment, and environmental concerns. The idea of “humans are thuper thpeshul” and “all this was made for humans” underpins, as well, how relationships ought to work and people’s relationship to our planet and cosmos, and justifies Christians’ mistreatment of others in their rush to evangelize and proselytize.
If When Biblical literalism turns out to be wrong, then a fuckerload of other claims totally fall apart and have to be re-examined.
That’s why I classify Creationism as one of the “cruel dilemmas” that some forms of Christianity set before their adherents. It’s a showdown that doesn’t need to happen at all. Less extremist, black-and-white forms of Christianity already came to grips many years ago with science’s total lack of agreement with the Creation myths.
For many decades now, Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists have been claiming that there’s tons of evidence for their beliefs. People like believing stuff for good reasons, and even fundagelicals know that “a belief held for no good reason whatsoever in total opposition to observable reality” sounds kind of lame. But as time goes on and scientists begin to engage with popular culture more and more, it’s going to be a lot harder to maintain that bravado in the sheer face of so much stacked evidence against fundamentalist beliefs.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as showing a Creationist tons of evidence for scientific claims. Creationism is not only not-science, it’s not-rational in any way. A Creationist has to be ready to seriously examine the very underpinnings of his or her belief itself, and that’s not an easy thing to ask or undertake.
So now you know how back pain led me to one of the most amazing medical marvels I’ve ever encountered, and how it led me to think about how evolution shaped how this problem came about. Indeed, the human back, if “created” in its current form in one piece, would be evidence only of the most ludicrously-inept “designer” in all the universe! We’re simply not very well-designed for the kind of life we’ve been living for the last few million years. Usually we see this criticism of Creationism leveled at the human eye, which is incredibly flawed in many ways, but this week I realized that it’s the back we really should be taking as the ultimate debunk of “design.” Human spines are so obviously poorly-suited to life as an upright-walking primate that it’s shocking that anybody could study it for long and come out thinking even a little that a divine designer could have decided that this is the best route to go out of all possible designs.
Because we’re starting to recognize the limitations of what evolution has imposed in its side of the “deal” it made with us, we’re able to address those limitations better and better as well as ensuring future medical students are educated in its principles. Increasingly our medical establishment is figuring out that ignoring evolutionary theory would hobble us even worse than back pain itself does, and indeed trying to conduct medical research and treatment without embracing evolutionary theory (as that link mentions) has caused problems for humanity in the recent past, leading to a reductionistic, mechanistic approach that doesn’t help as much as it could. Ignoring reality has some serious impacts on us in the real world. Creationism-vs-evolution is not just a lofty, ivory-tower argument. Closing our eyes to evolution has ramifications in the real world.
I’ll just remain very happy that most of my country’s scientists can suspend their religious ideology enough to be able to research new techniques in medicine. Given how little Creationists have added to our scientific discourse (how little, you ask? How about 18 out of 135,000 peer-reviewed papers examined in one survey?), it’s a damned good thing real scientists are working on the stuff that really matters–like figuring out ways to ease the pains of the deals that human bodies have had to make to get us where we are today.
Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this in mind when the time for the next spinal injection rolls around, because I am seriously not looking forward to another of these damned things.