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On plausible arguments without strong evidence

February 5, 2014

Marcus has two comments you should look at, especially because of his great orbital mechanics analogy. Let’s focus on this claim for now:

There are also fields where being a YEC [Young Earth Creationist] would be crippling – paleontology, geology, paleo-climatology anything involving radiocarbon dating, etc. And indeed, there is a decent fraction of climate science which would be problematic for YECs… so there’s a potential conflict between understanding climate science (and therefore, appropriate climate policies) and YEC. (not to mention people and politicians citing God’s promise that there will not be another Flood as evidence against sea level rise)

My writing may have been too glib on this point. So let me acknowledge that it is possible rejecting evolution can lead to very bad things. Some YEC do in fact reject climate change precisely because of their religious faith. But then again, some YEC care more about the environment for the same reason. Both groups presumably hold strong to God’s promises. Yet they reach opposite conclusions when it comes to climate change. So how can we be so sure one effect will win over the other?

When it comes to creationists, we are too quick to accept the worst possible outcome. And, unlike we do elsewhere, we don’t carefully accumulate evidence to make our point. Instead, we simply string together a series of plausible statements and leave it at that.

But if we’re going to play that game, this argument also works: “Since TOE has almost no practical value, we should just back off and let people believe what they want. Not attacking their worldview will make it easier to convince them about things like climate change that actually matter. Just look at all those folks in the creation care movement! We should be partnering with them, not attacking them.”

I’m not saying this approach will solve climate change. But since we don’t have any hard data, and that there are anecdotes all over the place, I’m not sure it’s any worse. Our blistering confidence that belief in creationism is uniformly bad is unwarranted.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2014 11:17 pm

    Consider the possibility that some – like Nye – who are concerned about the consequences of allowing creationism to thrive as a non-theologic worldview (or a policy input) are conducting a risk analysis rather than an evidence-based assessment. That is, the consequences of the bad outcome are bad enough that they aren’t willing to risk the possibility – as remote as it might be.

    So perhaps it’s not that creationism is uniformily bad. Perhaps it’s that the negative outcomes of creationism are bad enough that we don’t want to take the chance of them being realized.

    Since we’d be talking about risk, evidence is only one part of the conversation. Values come into play. And presumably those who consider evolution so awful have their own risk calculus in play. Ham certainly does.

    • February 6, 2014 7:31 am

      Thanks for this comment. I hadn’t really thought of it from that lens at all. I suspect you’re completely right. I’ve had many conversations on this with scientists, and they all accept that as far as individuals go, there’s probably no real danger from creationism. So I guess my complaints are what all STS people complain about…that we should acknowledge the value components of risk analysis. You certainly know more risk analysis than I do (my main source is Jasanoff’s The Fifth Branch). But from what I remember, hiding your values and pretending they are scientific is par for the course when risk analysis enters the public sphere.

      Thanks again…very helpful.

  2. February 6, 2014 10:47 pm

    Arguably the engine that drives creationism is hiding values as science and/or necessary educational curriculum, which doesn’t get enough attention in this Strum und Drang.

  3. February 6, 2014 10:53 pm

    When we conduct this risk analysis, clarification of what we think is at risk matters as well. For instance, I don’t think your argument is making any claims about teaching creationism as science (or as part of a controversy in science) in schools. But the fights, at least from the perspective of those who seek to counter the apparent scientific gloss of creationism, are really focused on that point.

    Nye may not make explicit value statements in this area, but I don’t think he hides what he values as science.

    • February 8, 2014 1:45 pm

      Yup. Good points as always. I mean to address the school issue soon.

  4. Victor permalink
    February 8, 2014 3:23 am

    Thanks for your thoughts as well as David’s on risk analysis arguments. One thought came to mind of geologists and paleontologists and climate scientists who do their job well and (maybe secretly) believe in the Young Earth Creation story. There is a subset of YEC in which they believe the earth and universe are young but they were created with the appearance of age. Thus they can easily and happily do their job and separate that from what they believe the universe age actually to be. I’m not sure why such a cognitive suspension between realms isn’t acknowledge. I think people do this a lot. You change systems from group to group.

    • February 8, 2014 1:45 pm

      My eternal question Victor. I would argue that ‘cognitive suspension’ is a scientific, empirical fact. It seems to be a fact scientists want to hide and pretend don’t exist! In this case it’s okay to ignore evidence…

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