Science requires dissent and open inquiry for its very existence. This is true for high school students and teachers no less than for research scientists. For extra-scientific reasons, however, some members of the science establishment have long sought to protect the teaching of evolutionary theory from evidential challenges and dissent.
Probably the most effective strategy for quenching such dissent is to label it as “creationism.” Since the teaching of creationism in public school science classrooms has been ruled unconstitutional, one can effectively foreclose awkward but perfectly reasonable questions about evolution simply by saying, “Well, that’s the sort of question a creationist would ask — and creationism is out of bounds in this classroom.”
Let’s call this the creationism gambit. The creationism gambit silences questioning and dissent not only by removing a wide array of important topics from scientific discussion, but more subtly by conveying the implicit value that good scientists don’t ask certain kinds of questions.
1. A Logical Fallacy, With Added Features
The creationism gambit pervades the whole of the NCSE critique of Explore Evolution (EE). The argument is familiar:
Creationist X wrote about topic Y.
EE discusses topic Y.
Therefore, EE recycles a creationist argument (topic Y), which does not belong in public school science classrooms.
When seen in clear daylight, however, the creationism gambit is nothing more than the logical fallacy of the undistributed middle. Compare:
Karl Marx wrote about capitalism.
Milton Friedman discussed capitalism;
Therefore, Milton Friedman had Marxist sympathies.
But the creationism gambit is far more than a logical fallacy. Pervasively illiberal and censorious, the creationism gambit steals from teachers and students their freedom to ask legitimate scientific questions—because of what someone else wrote, in another context, at another time.
If this guilt-by-association principle were applied broadly in educational practice, it would spell the end of knowledge and open inquiry. In particular, within biology teaching itself, influential and widely-cited texts in evolutionary theory—including Darwin’s Origin of Species or Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb—would fall under the same ban, along with many publications in the current scientific literature. Start with a fallacy, and its destructive illogic is impossible to control.
2. Recognize the Theme?
We’ll come back to that point in a moment. First, here is a sample of the language in the NCSE critique. Notice the theme…well, you can’t avoid it:
- a creationist attack on scienceclassic creationist strategy
- the critics are creationists…motivated by a religious agenda
- a classic creationist falsehood
- long-discredited creationist claims
- common creationist talking points
- a creationist Senator
- a bogus creationist model
- a long history of creationist misrepresentation
- the modern creationist strategy
- the usual creationist focus
- a dolled up creationist model
- a petty creationist caricature
- a common creationist trope
- some hackneyed creationist claims
- a rehash of older creationist arguments
- He is also apparently a creationist [this refers to a professor of biology at the University of San Francisco]
- creationist canards
- simply restatements of long-discredited creationist falsehoods
- the erroneous creationist canard
- a whole stable of intelligent design creationist writers
- a Creationist cause célèbre
- a flawed creationist interpretation
- a lightly repackaged creationist attack on science
- Another creationist canard
- a common creationist strategy
- a restatement of the creationist doctrine
- typical creationist ploy
- ID promoters and other creationists
- a common creationist assertion
- creationist misrepresentations
- creationist errors
No sentient English-speaking person could miss this NCSE motif, where the adjective “creationist” modifies “caricature,” “ploy,” “error,” “canard,” “falsehood,” “attack,” “misrepresentation,” and the like. Anyone who reads through the NCSE critique will have “creationist,” followed by “something really wrong or objectionable,” buzzing in his head for weeks.
This may work as effective, albeit rather obsessive, rhetoric. As a reasonable argument, however, the creationism gambit does not rise above guilt-by-association, or the fallacy of the undistributed middle — that is, he talks about Y; she talks about Y; talking about Y can only mean that he and she are in cahoots.
Here’s the problem. Self-identified creationists, such as the members of the Creation Research Society (founded in 1964) have written on, and argued about, a wide range of scientific and philosophical subjects. The Creation Research Society Quarterly is now in its 46th volume. Other creationist journals, such as Origins from the Geoscience Research Institute of Loma Linda University, have been published for decades.
This accumulated material represents literally millions of words on thousands of scientific topics. If being mentioned by, or argued about, by a creationist were a disqualifying rule for public school science curricula, most of biology would be suspect.
3. Censoring Science: Two Examples
Consider, for instance, the related phenomena of fossil stasis and so-called “living fossils” (forms that persist unchanged through many millions of year), which have been featured in creationist writings since the early 20th century. EE includes illustrations of these phenomena. Is this, then, yet another example of recycled creationism?
No—unless one wishes to exclude any discussion of stasis or living fossils, whatever the reason, in which case the 34 chapter compendium Living Fossils (1984), edited by paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Steven Stanley, would also be inadmissible. But how does the very same evidence, unacceptable because published in a creationist text at some time or another, magically become acceptable when published in a book edited by evolutionary biologists?
A sort of parlor game renders the point vivid. Was the following argument written by a creationist, or someone with creationist sympathies—and hence unsuitable for public school science classrooms?
With the possible exception of behavior, evolutionary biology is treated unlike any other science. Philosophers, sociologists, and ethicists expound on the central role of evolutionary theory in understanding our place in the world. Physicists excited about biocomplexity and computer scientists enamored with genetic algorithms promise a bold new understanding of evolution, and similar claims are made in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology (and its derivatives in political science, economics, and even the humanities). Numerous popularizers of evolution, some with careers focused on defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools, are entirely satisfied that a blind adherence to the Darwinian concept of natural selection is a license for such activities.
“A blind adherence to the Darwinian concept of natural selection”—that must be creationist polemics, right?
No, again: the author is evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch (2007, 366), professor at Indiana University. But let’s suppose the very same passage, making the same argument skeptical of the misuse of natural selection, came from a creationist publication. Would it then be inadmissible in science curricula? Why, exactly?
In summary, the creationism gambit is a fallacy, unworthy of serious attention.
- NCSE. October 17, 2008. Critique: Explore Evolution, available online at https://ncse.com/creationism/analysis/explore-evolution.
- Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray.
- Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1973. “Nothing In Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” American Biology Teacher, 35:125-9.
- Eldredge, Niles and Steven Stanley. 1984. Living Fossils. New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Gould, Stephen Jay. 1980. The Panda’s Thumb. New York: W.W. Norton.
- Lynch, Michael. 2007. The Origins of Genome Architecture. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.