Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Letter to the editor

I've gotten old.

Once upon a time, I relished a good fight. It helped that I was a student of evolutionary biology at a university of around forty thousand who were decidedly neither Down With It nor afraid to show it. I'll never know who produced them, but maroon "Darwin Lied - Genesis 1:1" shirts were as commonplace as "Truth" fish, devouring Darwin sigils, on vehicles. I wanted a piece. Nineteen-year old business majors at the coffee shop, professing a profound mastery of biochemistry and physics that "disproved evolution"? Baited hooks. Mostly harmless crackpot Tom Short spouting nonsense on a sunny day in the quad, rocking Hawaiian shirts and six-day creationism? Blood in the water.

I was the kid who was first up on the mike in the Q&A sessions following engineers/executives/whatever who were brought in to attempt to discredit science. I could never understand why most of my professors, and in particular a short, irascible Yankee, would never get involved. Save one bizarre and ill-advised [more on this in a moment] debate between our department chair and Mike Behe, poster boy of Intelligent Design (think Creationism with a spoiler) and some weird beers out afterward, most of the silverbacks would just shake their heads and listen to me vent.

I loved the fight. Upon meeting Genie Scott, former director of the National Center for Science Education, while I was in grad school, I probably would have quit on the spot to accept a job offer.

I've gotten old.

...but I haven't given up the fight. It took me a long time to realize that my advisors weren't choosing to abstain, to abdicate some responsibility to the maintenance of sanity and reason in society. They were just doing it smarter, and they didn't have the teenage Gibraltar-on-one's-shoulder that I bore. They knew that Some Men You Just Can't Reach. Indeed, that's why I would go spar with Tom Short; not to win anyone over, but to correct any gross falsehoods (and boy, were there some howlers!) that he or his scions would sling to see what stuck.

These guys just coolly breathed science and reason into everything they did in class. Arguably the best positioned to do so was not the Evo prof, but rather the mild-mannered and brilliant guy teaching Embryology. There is perhaps no better class for demonstrating key principles of both evolution and development, and without the Day One stigma to the recalcitrant of a class called "Evolution."

This is the best that we can do through science. Demonstrate how evolution is the only remotely viable lens through which to view the objective reality of life on Earth; in other words, Daniel Dennett's "universal acid." This has so far been my joy of the semester - teaching a small but bright group of students how "Life found a way" across the scope of biodiversity.

So what do we do for everyone else? Not for the pre-physical therapist or budding researcher, but for the lawyers and librarians and contractors of the world, who are every bit as bright but are neither a captive nor particularly interested audience (on average)?

The one thing we should not do is consent to the entirely sisyphean, futile prospect of public debate. I've seen it in our Chair vs. Behe, in Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham. Civil debates work, and only work, if the participants present data that are generally recognized to be credible and can bolster one perspective or position or the other. That is most definitely not how "debates" over evolution vs. creationism work. Please indulge a dramatic reenactment:

Participant A: "Here is something that is the case."
Participant B: "That is false."
Audience: "Well, crap. I guess we have to go look everything up when we go home."

And, without fail, people will cleave to their narrowcast sources of choice and will reinforce their previous opinions irrespective of anything that actually transpired on stage. It certainly doesn't help that much of the subject matter is esoteric as all get-out; see coverage of the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial if you want to visualize a judge's eyes rolling back in his head from days of testimony over the majestic bacterial flagellum.

I have been invited to participate in such a debate, and I will no more fall into this snare than engineers on the Apollo project will debate moon landing hoaxers. The optimal outcome is that I would do a passable job of defending the notion that we can use our minds to learn more about objective reality, with the inevitable side effect of lending credence to mysticism by elevating it to a position of false equivalency and providing the opposition with exposure and a fund-raising opportunity.

It worked out pretty well for Ken Ham, and we was trashed by The Science Guy.

So. Uh. Why are we here today? Because this letter to the editor was published in our local paper last week, and I saw in it an opportunity to respond from a less conventional perspective.

Probably the thing I love most about my school, which is a church-affiliated institution, is the opportunity it's given me to befriend and collaborate with bright, thoughtful theologians. Last spring, I gave a joint lecture with my buddy on the Biology and Theology of Monsters ("T-Rex vs. Leviathan" - more on this in upcoming posts), and our friendship has broadened my perspectives on the historical interplay between religion and science / natural philosophy.

The truth is that young-earth creationism is a bankrupt philosophy that in its current, fundamentalist form is surprisingly young and born of a rejection of societal change. Think of it as a weed. Refuting (again, ultimately up to the audience to fact-check claims with reputable sources, a grueling exercise) scientific claims one-by-one is like snipping the terminal leaves of the weed. It won't kill or keep it in check.

You have to go for its deep roots, exposing them as deeply and philosophically rotten: science is not inherently evil nor anti-religious, and indeed science and religion have been and continue to be two complementary Tools of Knowing for most of humanity.

When I chose to respond to the creation "science" letter, I knew it was fruitless to lance sciencebolts from on high. I took the other path. Here is the link to the QC Times letter, which is edited and for which I am trying hard not to read the comments, although I was pleasantly surprised by the retorts to the creationists' post. Below, I reprint the original, uncut letter.

I hope my nineteen-year old self would approve. My biologist and theologian friends have.


To address Mr Brouard’s comments in his recent letter:

The claim that science must “hide behind judges” is one of the most astonishing bits of misdirection I have seen outside of the caucuses. It is in fact creationists who have fled to litigation as well as legislation after being soundly defeated in court. From 2004 to 2011, over forty “academic freedom” bills promoting creationism in public school science classes were filed in 13 states. Science and rational thought are on defense for once.

Mr Brouard lists several prominent scientists who believed in a Creator. This is irrelevant. All of these men were also white males. Are only theistic, white males capable of good science? The tremendous technological achievements of recent decades suggest otherwise.

The statement about “falsehoods” is a mishmash of, ironically, abject falsehoods and straw men. Trotting out old Haeckel’s drawings to undermine modern biology is akin to denying modern astronomy because early sketches of Mars were inaccurate. Just as we now have rovers and orbiters exploring the red planet, biology has advanced to a degree that Mr Brouard would likely find incredible.

Finally, the idea that science leads inevitably to atheism belies a poor understanding of both theology and history. This is known as the “wedge strategy” of those who recognize that they can’t win with science. Historically, scientists used natural philosophy as a way to interpret creation and God’s design. Metaphors in the Bible were understood to be just that: symbols. Biblical literalism is a surprisingly recent contrivance of Western society.

Creationism is head-in-the-sand denialism that is neither science nor sound philosophy. It obscures two of the most beautiful truths of all: the objective history of life on Earth, and our place in God’s creation. Science and religion can be in harmony if we use evidence and our gift of reason to shine light on the How of creation, and our hearts to understand the Why.

Neil C. Aschliman, Ph.D.


After publication, I received a voicemail invitation to debate, as well as a letter from the NCSE that mentioned cribbing my "head-in-the-sand denialists" line and made me geek out pretty hard.

It was a good day.