Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Creationism and my (unpleasant) touch with it

These days, my cousin's husband Constantin Chipev sent me a New Year greeting and a link to his article refuting creationism. It is titled Scientific creationism - is there ground for it in Bulgaria? and is published in the Nov. 28, 2007 issue of Kultura weekly paper. Bulgarian readers can find it online here.
The article made me realize that the nasty phenomenon of creationism (call it scientific if you like, communism was also once called "scientific") is getting stronger and time has come when everybody working in science or education has to struggle against it. Unfortunately, my participation in the struggle must begin with bringing a skeleton out of the closet, that is, confessing an old sin. One of the jewels of creationism available at the Bulgarian book market lists my name as "scientific editor". Just don't ask me for the title of this book because I don't want to give any free advertising to guys who have too much undeserved money anyway.
Here is the story. I knew a woman with whom we had enough mutual sympathy to call each other friends. Unfortunately, she suffered a crisis in her life. She coped by joining a community which passed as Christian but was in fact a cult organized around a leader. I did what most other people would do in my shoes. In other words, I severed my contacts with the lady but was conscience-stricken for failing to help her and for leaving her behind.
Unexpectedly, some time ago my ex-friend contacted me. She said that the people she was working for were translating from English a great book about evolution. Would I agree to see a part of the text and check whether the terms were correctly translated? My displeasure was immense, but I just couldn't decline. So I read what she gave me and corrected two or three terminological inaccuracies.
Then she asked me whether I would agree my contribution to be acknowledged by listing my name as a scientific editor. Because some researchers from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences had seen the book and although they recognized the power of its arguments (sic!), they refused their names to be connected to it because they feared unpleasant consequences for their careers.
Of course I knew right from the beginning that those guys wanted not my insignificant editor's work but my very name. Because creationists, while trying to prove our science stupid, entangled in contradictions and unable to explain this and that, at the same time are very eager to cite names of scientists or teachers in support of creationism. However, I agreed because of the old friendship. When I declined any payment, they gave me a Bible plus a copy of the book I had "edited".
I am now feeling miserably because I agreed, but I would also feel miserably if I had refused. I just was in a lose-lose situation. To grasp my loss, you must understand that for teachers and people of science, reputation is invaluable capital. So I did major and irreversible damage to my capital. Remember that despite the very low incomes of ordinary Bulgarians in general and teachers/researchers in particular, no money could convince the other people contacted by the creationists to mar their reputations as people of science. I agreed only because of special circumstances of deeply personal, emotional nature.
Some time later, I read in FrontPage Magazine an article defending "intelligent design" (the current fashionable variety of creationism). You can find it here. I added a comment in disagreement. There were many other comments by evolutionists, most even better than mine. Unfortunately, all comments seem to be deleted now.
I also wrote an e-mail to the author. Because he wasn't a scientist, I tried to explain why "intelligent design" has nothing to do with science. In my message, I also described my experience (more openly than in this post, because here I keep in mind that my ex-friend or her family member could accidentally come across my text). The article's author didn't even bother to answer my e-mail. You can fully understand how I felt only if you have also revealed, with utmost effort, embarassing facts about yourself for the sake of a cause, just to find that your story isn't welcome.
Creationism has gradually gathered strength as a part of the anti-intellectual trend described by blogger Prometheus as a coming Age of Unreason. In the USA, the number of creationism supporters has exceeded the "critical mass" after which an opinion is considered too popular to be entirely dismissible. That is, if you try to explain to Americans why it is shameful for sane people with normal intelligence in the 21st century to have creationist views, you will face the same surprise as if you try to explain to Palestinians why it is wrong to attack Israeli school buses. Even non-creationists will accuse you of arrogance and advise you, if you really have any arguments, to offer them in a polite way to try and convince "moderate" creationists. Support to teaching creationism spoils otherwise good articles on unrelated subjects, e.g. Deroy Murdock's Keep Christmas "Christmas". And Europe seems to follow the same path. It is sad for me to watch conservative Christians and Jews, whom I respect, making themselves laughing matter for the enemy. Happily, our worst enemies - the Islamists, aren't much in a position to laugh because they are stubbornly committed to their own, Islamic creationism.
Let me now say two words about creationism itself. It claims that science in general and the Darwinism-based evolutionary theory in particular is unable to explain the diversity and perfection of the living world. That life's emergence on Earth was too fast to be explained by natural processes and the living organisms are too complex to have evolved by mutations and natural selection. All this allegedly compels us to acknowledge that organisms are products of "intelligent design".
Creationism is based on so deep ignorance about science and such factual and logical errors that when criticizing it, we wonder where to begin. E.g. creationists with much emphasis "prove" that Darwinism is "just a theory" and so bang on an open door because all science is "just theories". If present-day science "isn't able to explain" something, we must just wait until it becomes able to explain it, rather than renouncing science and embracing quackery. In fact, science even now explains perfectly many of the problems which creationists in their ignorance proclaim inexplained. And when a scientific theory is wrong, it is just replaced by a better scientific theory and not by extra- and antiscientific concepts. At last, although science is a quest for the truth, it never claims that it does or ever will possess the whole truth. Such a claim is a characteristic of religion, not science.
The root error of creationists is using supernatural forces as an explanation for natural phenomena. To illustrate how absurd this is, I'll give an example from criminology, which resembles science because it treats only natural phenomena and doesn't promise the whole truth. Let's say that the body of a man with slit throat was found in an out-of-the-way street last night. The police of course will begin seeking the perpetrator. They may never find him but this will not make them resort to the working hypothesis that the victim has been slain by an angel with a sword of fire. If he has been a thug terrorizing the entire town, somebody may say that "God has punished him". However, this will mean that God has used as His weapon another thug with a knife, not that God has sent an angel with a sword of fire.
Let's consider that the murder investigation comes to some contradiction. E.g. the forensic expert says that the man was already dead at 10 PM while a witness says to have walked that street at 11 PM and seen no body. Will this make us think that God has accelerated the post-mortem processes in the body so that to make His role apparent? No, we shall seek a natural explanation again. We'll think that the witness is lying, the expert is wrong or the murder was done somewhere else and the body was moved after 11 PM. If you implicate God in the unclear circumstances around a crime, everybody will question your sanity. Why are phenomena in living nature considered to be different?
I hope that you already understand why arguing with creationists is to no avail. Their heads are impermeable to the arguments of reason. They are like people who are sure that Earth is flat. Or like the character from The Good Soldier Svejk who admits that Earth is a sphere but thinks that inside it there is another, bigger sphere. To argue with creationists means to regard creationism as an ordinary faulty scientific theory, i.e. to attribute to it undeserved legitimacy. As physicist Pauli would say, this doctrine not only "isn't right, it isn't even wrong". Hence, we'd better not argue with these people, just struggle against them.
At the end, I am throwing them a challenge. Dear creationists, would you enlighten us about what message is sending to us your "intelligent designer" by creating, with remarkable speed and ingenuity, drug-resistant bacteria? Perhaps He doesn't want us to use chemotherapy? Then I appeal to you, if you really stick to your convictions, not to take antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, however serious it is.
Update: I had forgotten that I had already written shortly against creationism in my chapter The cell as a basic unit of life. Viruses. Origin of life (published in 2006, in Bulgarian). The final sentence of this text advises the creationists "to stick to the Genesis or whatever religious cosmogony fits their taste, instead of disguising their anti-scientific message in science-like terminology and tormenting their brains with scientific problems".

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