Science denialism is alive in the United States and 2014 was yet another blockbuster year for preposterous claims from America’s flakerrati. To celebrate the year, here are the top 10 anti-science salvos of 2014.
1) America’s leading science denialist is Ken Ham, head of the Answers in Genesis organization that built the infamous $30 million Creation Museum in Kentucky. He also put up a billboard in Times Square to raise funds for an even more ambitious Noah’s Ark Theme Park. Ham’s wacky ideas went primetime in February when he debated Bill Nye. An estimated three million viewers watched Ham claim that the earth is 10,000 years old, the Big Bang never happened, and Darwinian evolution is a hoax. His greatest howler, however—and my top anti-science salvo of 2014—would have to be his wholesale dismissal of the entire scientific enterprise as an atheistic missionary effort: “Science has been hijacked by secularists,” he claimed, who seek to indoctrinate us with “the religion of naturalism.”
2) Second only to Answers in Genesis, the Seattle based Discovery Institute continued its well-funded assault on science, most visibly through Stephen Meyer’s barnstorming tour promoting his book Darwin’s Doubt. I was a part of this tour, debating Meyer in Richmond, Virginia in April. Meyer’s bestselling book is yet another articulate repackaging of the venerable but discredited “god of the gaps” argument that goes like this: Here is something so cleverly designed that nature could not do on her own; but God could. So God must have designed this. Meyer insists, however, that his argument is not “god of the gaps” since he says only that the anonymous designer was “a designing intelligence—a conscious rational agency or a mind—of some kind” and not the familiar God of the monotheistic religious traditions. For his tireless assault on evolutionary biology and downsizing the deity to fit within science, I give Meyer second place.
3) The Discovery Institute is staffed by a tiny number of clever people who have convinced most right-of-center journalists that the issues they are raising are scientifically relevant. World Magazine did a cover story criticizing the BioLogos Foundation for promoting science to evangelicals but not including the perspectives of Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism. “Doesn’t the scientific method include presenting theories to skeptics” they asked, “so the theories can be confirmed, refuted, or made better?” World gets third place for the strange claim that talking to science denialists will make science better and is not, in fact, an utter waste of time.
4) Climate change is arguably the most serious form of science denial. Creationism may be wrong, but embracing it won’t wreck the planet. The last few years have seen many howlers on climate change including Senator Inhofe’s claim that humans cannot possibly influence the climate because “God’s still up there." We got a new one in 2014, however. An op-ed in Provo, Utah’s Daily Herald notes that the Bible is filled with stories of “climate chaos” but “Nowhere in Genesis does Abraham’s family drive gas-guzzling SUVs…Bricks made by the Israelites didn’t come from pollution-belching factories, and the writer of Exodus never alludes to the 3,000,000 refugees, who wandered for 40 years in the desert, upsetting the desert’s carbon footprint. Yet ancient peoples all had climate chaos.” Fourth place goes to the claim that “calamities come because of God’s punishment for wrongdoing,” and apparently reckless burning of fossil fuels does not constitute “wrongdoing.”
5) The number five spot goes to Sarah Palin for muddling weather and climate, although she could win in several categories. She seems to think that “climate science” is “long range weather forecasting.” “We can’t predict the weather next month” she notes triumphantly, so how can we predict the weather in “5,000 years”?
6) 2014 was the year of a frightening but imaginary Ebola epidemic in the United States. Many people were afraid, of course, because they didn’t understand it, and the news from abroad was scary. Unfortunately, the most confused Ebola alarmists had millions of followers: Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. Hannity warned his viewers and listeners repeatedly that that the danger was not “extremely low” as Obama and the Center for Disease Control was assuring the country, and demanded all sorts of drastic measures in response. His frequent guest Ann Coulter was even more hysterical, stating ominously in October that “We’ll tell you how dangerous Ebola is after the election” as if Obama knew there would be a widespread outbreak but was hiding it until “after the election.” For pretending to know more than the experts at the CDC, Hannity and Coulter share the #6 slot for being anti-science. (By the way, the election has passed and Coulter has still not told us how dangerous Ebola is. In fact she has stopped talking about it altogether.)
7) Many folk cowering at the non-existent threat of Ebola dismissed the actual threat from measles and other childhood diseases that began spreading because of anti-vaccination hysteria. Refusing to accept the well-established claim that vaccines were safe and did not cause autism or other serious problems, many parents refused to have their children vaccinated. “People only see the bad with infectious diseases,” rationalized one parent, “But infectious diseases do help children strengthen their bodies.” The most irresponsible comments however would have to be those of Donald Trump, since he should know better. “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations” he tweeted in September. “The doctors lied.” The Donald’s clueless tweets give him the #7 spot on this list.
8) The Institute for Creation Research has been claiming for decades that evolution and the Big Bang Theory were collapsing, and 2014 was no exception. For the umpteenth time they jumped on a minor problem with the Big Bang and announced that it was dead: “The Big Bang theory has been imploding for decades as scientific experiments and observations continue to confirm Big Bang deal-breakers,” they wrote, when measurements revealed the universe has more Lithium than the theory predicted. To solve this problem and a host of others, they recommend that we “jettison the Big Bang theory altogether” and replace it with the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.”
9) In their determination to topple science from atop its pedestal of reliable knowledge, anti-science enthusiasts have long claimed that scientific results are based on unprovable presuppositions rather than observations, as is the case with religion. Fundamentalist theologian Al Mohler puts it like this: “Every mode of thinking requires belief in basic presuppositions. Science, in this respect, is no different than theology.” Science, says Mohler, is built on a circular argument: it starts with “purely naturalistic presuppositions” so we should not be surprised that its theories “affirm naturalistic assumptions.” This claim, like Mohler’s other attacks on science, vaporizes when we consider the history of science. For centuries scientists included God as a part of their explanatory package. Newton was quite explicit about God’s involvement in both the formation and the operation of the solar system and even Darwin alluded to a creator. But, over time, naturalistic explanations slowly edged out theological ones until scientists stopped using theological explanations. This, of course, is why the enterprise is called natural science. For suggesting that there is something unnatural about natural science, Al Mohler gets the #9 spot.
10) Bryan College in Dayton, TN—named for the celebrated lawyer who prosecuted local schoolteacher John Scopes in 1925—launched war on both evolutionary biology and the college’s own biologists. Since its inception shortly after the famous trial, the college has affirmed “the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis.” Since no method of creation was specified, Bryan faculty have been free to embrace the notion that God created humans, and all life-forms, through the process of evolution. This view is known as “theistic evolution” and is widely embraced by educated evangelicals. This was too much wiggle room, however, and the administration has “clarified” the statement by adding: “We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.” For its assault on both biology and its own faculty—some of whom have been forced to leave since they cannot affirm the new statement— Bryan College is awarded the #10 spot.