The Science of Evolution - Anti-Evolution Creationism: An Assault on All of Science, in the Name of God

7b - Snake Oil Salesmen and Charlatans at Court

by Ardea Skybreak

Revolutionary Worker #1216, October 19, 2003, posted at

In the modern world, many Christian and other religious authorities and believers are willing to adapt their religious beliefs to encompass modern scientific understanding. But traditional Creationists will have none of that, particularly (although not only) when it comes to the scientific fact of evolution: to them the Bible is the Word of God and everything in it must therefore be literally true, so there is no possible way evolution could be true. Still, in today's world they realize that many people are not satisfied by blind faith any more and want some scientific evidence for things. So many of these traditional Creationists have tried to wrap their non-scientific--and even anti -scientific--views in what they like to call "Creation-science." They have even created so-called "research institutes" and creation-science "museums" (the San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research and its associated Museum being probably the most well-known) and they publish numerous books, pamphlets, web sites, etc., etc. But do they do any legitimate scientific research that gets published in any serious scientific journals under the supervision and critical review of the established scientific communities? NO.

There are thousands of serious scientific journals and professional scientific associations which regularly report results of all sorts of scientific research going on in the United States and around the world, but the Creationists can't get published in a single one of them. Why? Because they don't actually do any legitimate science. What is it then that they actually do? What is it that they fill their books with and talk about when they appear before school boards or in courtrooms to lobby for the teaching of so-called creation science? Religion--a belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible--an insistence that every thing, every single word, in the Bible must be accepted as literally true. But because they know there's supposed to be a separation of Church and state in the United States, they try to get these religious views accepted by claiming to have "scientific proof" that evolution is wrong. This is something that is really important to understand and be aware of: The main way these traditional Creationists try to "make their case" is not to provide scientific evidence of their own (which is impossible for them to do, by definition, since it is not possible to provide scientific evidence of a supposed force or phenomenon--a god--which even they admit is not part of the reality of the natural world). So all they can do is try to "poke holes" in the theory of evolution and then keep their fingers crossed that if they can convince enough people to have doubts about evolution then people will believe instead in the existence of a Creator-god and in particular the Biblical creation story. (See the separate box "Misrepresenting Working Scientists--A Favorite Creationist Tactic.")

These traditional Creationists are not simply nuts (though they are nuts!). They are also very dishonest. They remind me of nothing more than the old-style charlatans who tried to take advantage of despairing and gullible people by selling them bottles of snake oil as a supposed cure for all their ailments. And, just like the snake oil salesmen of old, they will change their arguments, as many times as they need, to fit the circumstances and the better to confuse people.

This is also very important to understand about the Creationist method: if you answer their objections to evolution with well documented scientific facts, they will just change the argument and claim to have good reasons to challenge something else in evolutionary theory. It's as if they're trying to run some kind of three-card-monty sleight of hand: You can never pin them down or get them to argue with any kind of real substance in support of their own "alternative theory." Since they are not particularly beholden to the actual truth of things (that is probably one of the biggest understatements of the year!) this gives them a certain perverse freedom to keep changing the terms of the debate until evolutionists finally give up arguing with them because it is only too clear that these people simply will never be convinced, no matter how much rational scientific evidence you present to them.

They want you!

Creationists know that they are not going to convince the professional scientists to abandon well proven facts and the methods of science. It is you , the non-specialist audience, that they are targeting. The defenders of evolution would like nothing more than to see more people become educated in basic scientific facts and learn to apply basic scientific methods to distinguish what is actually true from what is false. By contrast, the Creationists are hoping to take advantage of the fact that many (most) people in the United States have been denied a decent education and as a result have been prevented from understanding much of the basic facts and the basic methods of science. They want to plant enough confusion in people's minds ("could evolution possibly be wrong?") so that people start thinking that "just maybe" what the Creationists are saying is true, and that it wouldn't hurt to allow Creationists to bring their anti-evolution views into the science classrooms as an "alternative" to evolution. They are trying to appeal to a sense of generosity and fairness ("shouldn't everyone have the right to argue for what they believe in?") to get agreement that it would be OK to have the government force science teachers to teach a specific piece of religious dogma and to teach it as if it were science ! But their views have to do with religion, and are in no way based on science, so they really don't belong in the science classroom or in science textbooks or in any laws or policies regulating what should or shouldn't be taught as science. Science actually shows that evolution is a fact and leaves absolutely no doubt that the Biblical story of Creation cannot possibly be factually true--everything that scientists now know about the history of life on this planet and how life- forms came to be the way they are today proves this--so it is unconscionable to teach Creationism as "fact," in the science classroom or anywhere else.

Of course, people cannot be forced to give up various kinds of religious beliefs, even when they are not particularly rational and even when they have long been discredited by concrete evidence about the way things really are. People should be able to have their religious texts and places of worship and religious ceremonies, as long as they still feel the need for this. But the Christian fundamentalist Creationists should not be allowed to introduce and forcibly impose their particular brand of religious dogma anywhere in the public schools or in any other arena of public life. And especially if we don't understand this and act accordingly, there is a real danger that we could wake up one morning living under the regime of a religious theocracy (the rule of religious zealots giving their fundamentalist beliefs the force of law and government power).

In case you think I am exaggerating, you might want to check into the kind of political initiatives which have been taken by the Creationist movement in recent years. The most well known of these are their attempts to take over school boards and get state laws changed to impose the teaching of so-called "Creation science" on an equal footing with evolution in the public school science classrooms. But they have also directly sought to influence the government at the highest levels and to get the United States Congress to change laws to make teaching religious Creationism in the public schools mandatory in all states. And they came very close to succeeding! (See the separate box on the Santorum Amendment, "Look Who's in Bed with Whom!")

The current President, George W. Bush, and high-placed and influential people such as Attorney General John Ashcroft and Congressman and Republican Majority leader Tom Delay have all openly flaunted their Creationist beliefs. In the famous 1987 Supreme Court case known as Edwards vs. Aguillard (which makes for some very interesting reading) the Court's majority opinion overturned the Louisiana "Balanced Treatment Act," which would have forced teachers in that state to teach so called "creation-science" alongside evolution in the science classrooms. In declaring this Act unconstitutional, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court at the time (written by Justice Powell) correctly recognized that the purpose of this Act was to "advance a particular religious belief," especially since teaching "creation-science" would require that teachers put forward the religious belief that a supernatural being created humanity. The Court concluded that "the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles and prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma." This was a significant defeat for the Creationists. But it is interesting to also read the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Scalia, in which he expressed the reasons why he disagreed with the Court's majority opinion. Scalia wrote that, as far as he was concerned, imposing the teaching of "creation-science" would not necessarily impose the teaching of religious beliefs. He referred to the affidavits provided to the Court by Creationist "experts" who "swear" that "creation science" is "a scientific body of knowledge," and that they have "scientific data supporting the theory that the physical universe and life within it appeared suddenly and have not changed substantially since appearing."

Here's a supposedly highly educated Supreme Court Justice, who presumably went to both college and law school, unquestioningly repeating something that is so patently false that it would cause a high school student to totally flunk a basic biology test. Scalia astoundingly goes on to say that nobody can say that the evidence for evolution is completely "conclusive," and so the people of Louisiana are "entitled to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in the schools." Never mind the fact that there is no scientific evidence "against" evolution! As countless scientists are provoked to stress over and over again, not a single shred of actual scientific evidence "against" evolution has ever been found ( not one!). Scalia didn't seem to even know enough (or care) to be embarrassed by his own gross (and reactionary) ignorance. And keep in mind that Bush has said that Scalia is his idea of a model Supreme Court judge!

In the years since Edwards vs. Aguillard there have been additional important court cases, and many prominent scientists have testified in a unified voice that so-called "creation-science" doesn't have a scientific leg to stand on. And the fact that there is solid scientific evidence for evolution (and no scientific evidence against it) has been emphatically reiterated by every single major scientific organization in the country, including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But none of this makes any difference to the fundamentalist zealots of the Creationist movement and their ruling class backers. As far as I know, Scalia has never recognized or attempted to correct his grotesquely ignorant and politically motivated statements, and the Creationists of various stripes continue their march forward--or, rather, backward--to try to get the highest levels of government to line up with their agenda and make Christian fundamentalist religious doctrines the law of the land.

In recent times they have been vigorously lobbying Congress and came very close to getting Congress to pass the anti-evolution Santorum amendment as part of the "No Child Left Behind Education Act." When this anti-evolution amendment made its way through the Senate, not a single Senator spoke up to oppose it! The fact that most Senators and Congressional Representatives at first didn't even realize (or perhaps, in some cases, pretended not to notice) that this Santorum amendment (which had been drafted by Intelligent Design Creationists) was aimed at undermining science and promoting religion in its place, and the fact that most of them did not even have (or did not care to act on) enough scientific literacy to immediately reject this amendment on the grounds that the scientific consensus is unified that evolution has in fact occurred and that this is well supported by the scientific evidence--this is a chilling reminder that the (never very strong to begin with) separation of church and state in the United States is being eroded on a daily basis, and that significant Christian fundamentalist theocratic elements are already ensconced in many positions of power. (See the separate Box " `Project Steve': Evolutionists Use Humor To Make A Serious Point.")


It's important to think about how you can tell whether something is really true or not. What are the methods and approaches which can be used for getting at the truth and distinguishing it from falsehood? Without a basic grasp of these approaches and methods it's easy to fall into accepting just about any lie or falsehood, especially if it seems to be put forward with conviction by people in positions of power and influence (governments, religious authorities, TV personalities, and so on).

It's good to have a critical mind and to question everything. But then again it's also important to recognize when at least the basic truth of something has already been clearly established. If human beings always went around thinking that " nothing is ever sure," how could we ever survive or get anything done? Should we walk in front of a moving bus because "we can't ever really know for sure" whether we'll get run over? Should we not bother setting an alarm clock because we "can't ever know for sure" that it will ring, or that it even really exists, or that we really exist and have a reason to get up? These examples may seem silly, but they make the point that, even just to function in day-to-day life, we human beings really need to have some way, some approach and method, which can help us to determine when something is actually true (or false).

Of course we'll never have absolute truth--in the sense that we'll never know everything there is to know about everything--but we do have some means and methods for getting to the point that we can say, with a high degree of confidence, that something is true--meaning that it actually corresponds to some aspect of material reality as it really is.

Again, the point is that it's good and important to question everything, but it's also good and important to recognize that not everything is forever up for grabs--sometimes we can know enough about something to accept it as true, stop agonizing about it, and move on. Such is the case with the basic theory of evolution.

But a lot of people in the United States today still don't realize that we can be that sure about evolution. Anti-evolution and anti-science Christian fundamentalist Creationists have worked to confuse people's thinking on this since the late 19th century, typically becoming particularly active and aggressive in times of social turmoil and when the overall direction of society is being broadly questioned and debated. It's especially at such times that reactionaries resist all forms of social progress and call instead for looking backward and "restoring core values and traditions." Today is no exception.

The Creationists have waged such determined anti-evolution and anti-science campaigns in recent years that U.S. universities are now reporting that they are getting very worried about growing scientific illiteracy in the country as a whole as they notice that more and more freshmen are arriving on campuses so poorly trained in even basic science that they actually believe "the scientific community is divided on whether evolution happened" and that "evolution is still just an unproven theory." To state it clearly again: both those notions are completely false.The scientific community (in the U.S. and worldwide and in every field of science) is not "divided" on the basic facts of evolution. The consensus is overwhelming that a) life has definitely evolved and that b) the basic mechanisms involved in how life evolved and continues to evolve (such as natural selection) are by now well understood.

The "theory of evolution"--what a scientific theory is.

As for the question of evolution being "just an unproven theory": This is also false. As I have tried to show throughout this series, there is an incredible amount of accumulated and mutually reinforcing evidence for evolution, and the general scientific consensus is that the theory of evolution is among the best proven and best documented theories in all of science.

But one of the favorite methods of the Creationists is to play on people's ignorance and confusion about some basic words: in regular everyday English, the word "theory" often means "a guess, or something that has not been proven to be true." So the Creationists hope that when you hear the words "theory of evolution" you will automatically think it hasn't yet been proven to be true. But, in scientific circles, the word "theory" has a very different meaning: a "scientific theory" is what scientists call a complex body of thought that ties together a number of different ideas and proposals which successfully explain--from a number of different angles--the basic principles and mechanisms involved in a natural process, such as the origins and later change and development of some part of actual material reality. So, for instance, scientists talk about the "theory of gravitation" or the "Copernican theory" (of the motion of the planets, including the earth, around the sun) but that doesn't mean they're "guessing" that objects fall towards the earth because of the pull of gravity or that they're "guessing" that the earth goes around the sun rather than the other way around. The theory of gravitation and the Copernican theory are by now well documented and supported by the accumulated scientific evidence, and the same can be said of the scientific theory of evolution.

Of course scientific theories are always being further extended and developed as human knowledge expands and comes to understand some things that we didn't previously understand.

And as knowledge develops, it is inevitably the case that some old ideas are discovered to be wrong and therefore need to be discarded. Science actually advances by calling into question and critically reviewing previously established scientific notions. It is true that there is always going to be more to learn and discover about everything . But that doesn't mean that we can never come down and say that something is true . People who like to say things like "but you can never be sure" fall into the mistaken outlook and approach known as philosophical relativism . (Of course, since human knowledge is never complete and perfect, and is always developing, people who think and act like they have "absolute truth" about everything, or everything important, fall into the erroneous method known as dogmatism, which is the "flip-side" of relativism.) But when we say something is "true" it simply means that there is good, compelling and concrete evidence (preferably from a number of different and mutually reinforcing sources and directions) that our understanding of something actually does closely correspond to how that something really is in objective reality, that is, in the real material world--which includes all that is part of the natural world and which encompasses the features and workings of human social organization as well.

Scientific theories (whether pertaining to the world of nature or human society) do not get proven to be "true" overnight. Before any great idea or set of ideas can be confidently said to be "true," it has to get put through the scientific crucible--that means it gets poked at and critiqued and challenged and tested over and over again and from countless different directions. A good scientific theory puts forward some predictions about what we should expect to find in the real world if the theory is true; and it is also makes predictions about some of the things we should not be able to find in the world if the theory is true. This is known as the principle of "scientific falsifiability": a genuine scientific theory, as a matter of principle, has to be capable of being disproved by facts (things which, if discovered, would prove your theory to be wrong). The theory of evolution could be falsified (proven wrong) if, for instance, fossilized dinosaur and human footprints were ever found in the same undisturbed rock layers, because that would mean dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, and this would completely contradict everything we know about how and when different species evolved. Biologists can give many such examples of the kinds of things that--if they were ever found to exist--would make a complete shambles of evolutionary theory. So, like all good scientific theories, the theory of evolution is falsifiable in principle--but, as a point of fact, science has never found anything (not a single thing) that actually falsifies it. It has however found many, many things that support it.

The theory of divine Creation is a religious belief, not a scientific theory. One of the sure signs of that is that the theory of divine Creation is, by its very nature and definition, impossible to falsify. The Creationists refuse to give people any examples of any kind of scientific discoveries that they could accept as proof that their divine Creation theory is wrong after all. They make a principle of this, because for them it is a matter of absolute religious faith. But if you make a principle of saying that there is no possible way that any information could ever come to light that would prove your theory wrong, then you are, by definition, not being scientific, and your theory has nothing to do with science!

Again, the theory of evolution was, from its very beginnings, falsifiable as a matter of principle. But as it turns out, all the actual scientific data that has been collected in the century and a half since Darwin has repeatedly supported the theory of biological evolution; and none of it has ever provided evidence to the contrary. This more than anything is why there is such a broad and solid scientific consensus on the matter.