U.S. News

12.15.13

When Creationists Collide with Stephen Colbert

Fundamentalists in Texas are still trying to stop biology textbooks from teaching scientific facts. Only now they’re not Bible-thumping; they’re denying that scientific facts are possible.

In April 2012 Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, Texas, appeared as a guest on The Colbert Report to talk about textbooks, evolution, and the nature of reality. McLeroy is famous for pushing creationism as the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, and the highlight of the interview comes when Colbert quizzes McLeroy about paleontology. “Human beings and dinosaurs walked side by side?” Colbert asks. McLeroy looks uncomfortable. “That’s my personal view,” he replies, and then Colbert pounces: “That’s your personal scientific view.” McLeroy agrees. “Science,” Colbert concludes, “can be a personal choice.” At the end of the interview, the host expands on that point. “I’ve always been a fan of reality by majority vote,” he says before shaking McLeroy’s hand.

In the past few months, the Texas State Board of Education has been in the process of approving high school textbooks for the use in the state’s classrooms. Because the Board has, in the past, voted to insert creationist language into curricula, and because Texas has an unusual amount of influence on textbook publishers on account of its size, these kinds of proceedings offer a very public platform for creationists. Taking advantage of the opportunity, they’ve challenged basic principles of natural selection, combed through scientific minutiae during lengthy debates, and, most recently, held up approval of Pearson’s Biology, a popular textbook co-authored by a science journalist and a Brown University biology professor.

The Board’s internal review of Biology, made public by the Texas Freedom Network, makes for especially surreal reading as review panel members evaluate detail after detail, accusing the textbook of a “propaganda effort” at one point, and, elsewhere, of deliberate attempt to avoid letting students know about the challenges”—i.e., alternatives to Darwinism—“that are making the advance”—i.e. undermining—“of evolutionary theory so exciting today.”

Mostly, this is spectacle; the other biology textbooks have been approved with their evolutionary content intact. But that Colbert Report interview has been an all-too-useful guide. As a non-creationist member of the board told the AP before one late-night session, “To ask me—a business degree major from Texas Tech University—to distinguish whether the earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for the purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable.” Reality by majority vote? Somewhere, Stephen Colbert was smiling.

The Board’s creationist wing shrunk during the last election cycle, and by the end of November it was clear that they would not be able to demand substantial changes. Staffers at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think-tank in Seattle that supplied one of the Board’s expert reviewers, complained that Texas was failing to teach its kids critical thinking, and alleged that the state was suppressing scientific debate, failing to teach students “to think independently,” and making a “capitulation to dogma.” The McLeroy-esque implications were clear. Scientific facts, like political opinions, should be open to discussion, debate, and personal choice.

This soup of relativism and politicized fact certainly isn’t a coherent perspective on science, but it’s something different than the Bible quoting that the average secularist perhaps imagines creationism to be. If you listen closely, contemporary creationists talk less theologians and more like caricatures of left-wing cultural theorists. The textbook debates in Texas are just the latest example of the subtle, often counter-intuitive ways that creationism operates today. Michigan State professor Robert Pennock, the author of several books on creationism, puts it best: creationist thought today, he writes (PDF), can often seem like “the bastard child of Christian fundamentalism and postmodernism.” What we’re seeing, perhaps, is an under-acknowledged third wave of American creationism: the postmodern turn.

Johnson and other intelligent design advocates argue that, rather than religious people with a mission, they are scientific revolutionaries, boxed out by a politically-charged, biased community.

The first wave, which reached a public pinnacle during the Scopes Trial in 1925, pitted the Bible against science, as if Genesis could easily trump the lab. That wave started to give way in the early 1960s, in large part due to the publication of The Genesis Flood. Unless you’re a conservative evangelical or a scholar of creationism, The Genesis Flood is probably among the most influential books you’ve never heard of. Written by John Whitcomb, a Bible scholar, and Henry Morris, then the head of the civil engineering program at Virginia Tech, it used geology to argue that Noah’s flood was a scientifically verifiable fact. In the process, Whitcomb and Morris popularized the idea of scientific creationism. Where the Scopes Trial might be seen as Bible versus science, scientific creationism argues that science supports the Bible—that, for example, by combing the geological record, you could find proof of Noah’s flood. Science and Christianity, the scientific creationist argues, are in perfect accord.

Scientific creationism still has its proponents—Ken Ham, known for his creation museum in Kentucky, is probably the most famous—but the most sophisticated creationists today are the proponents of “intelligent design.” Faced with defeat in early textbook skirmishes because their arguments were so explicitly religious, creationists got smart: they got a few scientists (and former scientists) on their side, and worked at establishing an scientific alternative to the mainstream view. Intelligent design can seem like a subtler, more politically savvy form of scientific creationism, using the trappings of science to argue for a transcendent power. But if you examine it closely, it’s clear that its arguments are based in an attack on the authority of the scientific enterprise itself.

It’s obvious why intelligent design proponents would mount that kind of attack. Actual scientists won’t spend much time entertaining the thought that Darwin was wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary, and that transcendent beings deserved a more prominent place in evolutionary theory. If intelligent design wanted any sort of place at the scientific table, it had to demonstrate that the theory of evolution as dominant a paradigm as scientists claimed. It had to show, in other words, that the whole scientific process was fuzzy. Not surprisingly, the father of intelligent design, Phillip Johnson, is not a scientist but a lawyer. He has spent years alleging bias and insularity in the scientific community.

It wasn’t just the defeat of explicitly Christian creationism that drove the rise of intelligent design; it was also lifted by favorable winds from certain corners of the secular university. Various academic movements in the humanities were emphasizing that scientific theories are constructed by humans—and that, as a result, biases and politics and other non-scientific factors might play some role in the formation of scientific theory. Maybe scientists were not quite as objective as they claimed. In this vein, Thomas Kuhn, a physicist-turned-philosopher, famously argued that science tends to be dominated by certain paradigms, each of which comes with a whole set of implicit premises and rules. These paradigms occasionally reach a point of crisis, when, burdended by their inherent limitations, they collapse and make way for a whole new way of conceptualizing the field.

Thinkers like Kuhn implied that change could come from unlikely quarters. Creationists needed to show that being on the fringe didn’t mean being wrong, and that scientific authority wasn’t as absolute as it seemed. It was an ideal match. Johnson—who originally wanted to title his first book on evolution Darwin Deconstructed—started writing about a Darwinist monopoly on knowledge, and about the difficult at arriving at objective truth, or at least objective truth not revealed by a divine being.

By taking these postmodernist insights to their extremes, Johnson and other intelligent design advocates can argue that, rather than religious people with a mission, they are scientific revolutionaries, boxed out by a politically-charged, biased community that will only gradually come to accept the radical reality of their ideas. To put is mildly, this is a massive stretch. But it lets them recast the whole conversation not as one of Bible vs. science, or of pseudoscience vs. science, but of one kind politicized science oppressing another.

And once mainstream academic science is seen as a political tool, then it starts to seem patently undemocratic. After all, scientific research is reserved to a highly trained elite. It does not take into account the opinions or worldviews of your average citizen. The winner of a debate, ideally, is the person with the best data, not just the person with the popular support. From within, science may seem collegial and egalitarian. But to the overwhelming majority of us who don’t work in a lab all day, it can seem distant, abstract, and powerful—an authority as inscrutable as Old Jehovah.

Which is why, perhaps, we get public figures like McLeroy, who just dismiss the experts out of hand and choose their own science. It’s all biased anyway—and look, we can vote on this. Our opinions matter. Who are you to tell us otherwise?

Here’s the part that can be hard to swallow: to some extent, McLeroy is right. It’s a quirk of our system of government that, while the scientific facts don’t change depending on the winds of public opinion, our government’s official reactions to them are sometimes subject to a vote. Creationist postmodernism isn’t just the rhetorical tool of savvy activists. It’s an accurate reflection of a strange system, in which school boards try to vote on what their students will learn as fact, and in which, say, a state legislature can outlaw the use of climate change projections to determine certain policies.

Science advocates would do well to remember McLeroy the next time they respond to creationists, or vaccine-deniers, or climate skeptics with a barrage of facts, as if a bundle of correct information will somehow right those persistent wrongs. Sure, the scientific argument may be right. But in politics, being right isn’t enough. Say what you want about postmodernism: in democracy, reality does come with a dose of social construction.