Sunday, July 22, 2012

Miscreant Mimicry Among Creationists

For four long days my colleague Carl Zimmer has been wielding the battle axe for sound science education, fighting the good fight for evidence and evolution. In the aftermath of this battle I have noticed a disturbing trend among the current generation of evolution denialists - they are shape-shifting!

First, a brief history of the debate.

Since the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 a sub-group of stubborn Christians have been in a perpetual war with reality. Over the years the deniers of evolution have changed their name in order to re-frame their rhetorical attack on the mounting evidence supporting evolution. For the better part of the twentieth century they went by the title "creationists." They sincerely believe an imaginary sky-father "created" all living things six thousand years ago and just plopped them all down on earth in their present form before taking the next day off for a nap.

All was good from their perspective and they were allowed to tacitly poison science education in the United States for more than a century.

But alas, that pesky establishment clause in the US constitution caught up with them. In a 1987 Supreme Court decision six of the nine justices came down squarely on the side of science. Edwards v. Aguillard established that teaching creationism along with evolution in science classrooms is unconstitutional.

The stubborn creationists were undaunted. They knew what any good snake-oil salesmen knows. When your name gets smeared, just change your name. So began the rise of the "intelligent design" proponents. The idea being that the overtly Christian feel of the word "creation" would be remedied with a switch to the more scientific sounding "intelligent-design."  With this new name came new propaganda. Well, not really, as writing is tough work! So they just took an old creationist text-book and changed some words around a little bit so they could slip it into science classrooms without calling it creationism. The book was called "Of Pandas and People." 

The problem with this book was that the editors were lazy and left bits of the old "creationist" language behind in textual fossils. Where the text once read "creationist" it then read "cdesign proponentists."

In 2005 a group of nosy lawyers and science educators took issue with the use of this book in a science classroom in Dover, Pennsylvania. As a result the book and the faith-based science education it promoted was banned from science classrooms. It was deemed by a federal appeals court to violate the precedent set by the 1987 Supreme Court decision mentioned earlier.  

What's a creationists to do?

Here we are seven years later in a scary place where the intelligent design movement has dispensed with identifying themselves altogether and are now just publishing propoganda with scientific-sounding names.  

Enter the copy-cats.

In evolutionary biology some species copy the shape, color, smell, or sound of unrelated species. They do this to protect themselves in order to survive. This is called mimicry. Remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the scarecrow, tin man, and lion dress as the wicked witch's guards to enter her fortress unharmed? That is what I'm talking about.

Guess what? Evolution deniers are doing this like crazy! They are cloaking themselves in scientific sounding names so they can slip through the cracks and deliver their propaganda to students of biology caught unaware.


 Listen to these names.  Biologic Institute, Evolution News & Views, and Science and Human Origins.

These are a facebook page, a website, and a printed book respectively.

Coming to these titles cold one would assume they are legitimate organizations for teaching biology and evolution.  Not so. All three are propaganda outlets for the notorious "Discovery Institute."  (*)

You may know about this Seattle based outfit by their incessant call to "teach the controversy." Their goal being to have intelligent design taught along side Darwinian natural selection in biology classrooms around the country. This is total bullocks as there is no controversy. The physical evidence of evolution is overwhelming and grows with each new discovery in biology. This idea of being fair and balanced regarding every single topic discussed often confuses speculation and facts. Lawrence Krauss describes this dilemma well.
Too often in the media, speculative ideas are treated on the same footing as well-tested ones. As a result, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between them. This is particularly unfortunate when firmly grounded ideas that are known to accurately describe the physical world (such as evolution and the big bang) are passed off as mere theoretical whims of a group of partisan scientists.

As a scientist, writer, and educator it is highly disturbing to see this kind of re-branding by the intelligent design community. By conflating scientific ideas with assumptions of faith and slapping a sciency-sounding name on their front page these groups further damage an already crippled science education program in the United States. Shame on them!

Back to Carl Zimmer.

Intelligent design proponents have been goading Carl with snarky ad hominem attacks on a combination of online forums including Facebook, his Discover Magazine blog - the Loom, and their own comment-free web space - "Evolution News & Views." He has been gracious with the amount of attention he has paid this group of pseudo-academics. Carl has responded at length to a series of games they have been playing with him over the past four days. Read all about it here

My advice to Carl is the same advice being given all over the web lately - Don't Feed the Trolls! That being said, I think he has done a great job of staving them off so far and keeping his talents where they belong, on HIS blog. As I walk away from these ceaseless trolls I keep in mind the perennial duty to play the role of a catcher in the rye. For as long as my words last I will attempt to catch those who have fallen into fuzzy-logic and irrational faith-based thought and bring them back to reason. I want to thank Carl for reaffirming my dedication to this goal and for exposing the harmful mimicry going on in the intelligent design community.  

(*) ~ in a previous version of this post I had incorrectly stated that the Discovery Institute and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY were of the same ilk. I was informed via a facebook friend that those organizations had cuts ties when the Dover descision came down in 2005. So as not to offend I have deleted mention of the creation museum. That batch of crazy is brought to you by Ken Ham. Apologies for the error and I hope this paragraph is sufficiently transparent.
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