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Want good reasons to be a Creationist? You won’t find them here.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I don’t know why it surprises me when technology reporters turn out to be not only anti-science, but also deeply confused about what’s actually going on in scientific knowledge-building. Today’s reminder comes in Virginia Heffernan’s column, “Why I’m a creationist”.

There seems not to be much in the way of a coherent argument in support of Creationism in the column. As near as I can tell, Heffernan is down on science because:

  1. Science sometimes uses chains of inference that are long and complicated.
  2. Science has a hard time coming up with decisive answers to complicated questions (at least at a satisfyingly prompt rate).
  3. Science maybe provides some good reasons to worry about the environment, and she’d prefer not to worry about the environment.
  4. A scientist was mean to a religious person at some point. Some scientists just don’t seem like nice people.
  5. Science trades in hypotheses, and hypotheses aren’t facts — they could be false!
  6. Darwin based his whole theory on a tautology, “whatever survives survives”! [Nope!]
  7. Evolutionary psychology first claimed X, then claimed Y (which seems to directly contradict X), and neither of those claims seems to have especially rigorous empirical backing … so all of evolutionary theory must be wrong!
  8. Evolutionary theory just isn’t as compelling (at least to Heffernan) as a theory of human origins should be.

On item #5 there, if this is an issue for one’s acceptance of evolutionary theory, it’s also an issue for one’s acceptance knowledge claims from other areas of science.

This is something we can lay at the feet of the problem of induction. But, we can also notice that scientists deal quite sensibly with the problem of induction lurking in the background. Philosopher of science Heather Douglas explains this nicely in her book Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, where she describes what it means for scientists to accept a hypothesis.

To say P has been accepted is to say P belongs to the stock of established scientific knowledge, which means it satisfies criteria for standards of appraisal from within science (including what kind of empirical evidence there is for P, whether there is empirical evidence that supports not-P, etc.). Accepting P is saying that there is no reason to expect that P will be rejected after more research, and that only general inductive doubts render P uncertain.

That’s as certain as knowledge can get, at least without a divine guarantee. Needless to say, such a “guarantee” would present epistemic problems of its own.

As for Heffernan’s other reasons for preferring Creationism to science, I’m not sure I have much to say that I haven’t already said elsewhere about why they’re silly, but I invite you to mount your own critiques in the comments.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. John McKay 7:35 pm 07/11/2013

    Heffernan’s column was fairly incoherent and a little weird. It’s hard to take on her arguments because she never formed any. She threw out a few strawmen and rambled a bit. Her main points sounded to me like “science is hard and I don’t really like science people.”

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  2. 2. Marko Bosscher 8:36 pm 07/11/2013

    I would argue that if your argument against science is that it is self-correcting, whereas the bible stays the same you are not qualified to comment on either science or religion.
    Unfortunately Heffernan is not the first to use this “argument”, and probably won’t be the last either :-/

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  3. 3. Rocza 9:09 pm 07/11/2013

    John – more than that, Heffernan’s piece traded in gender stereotypes. Even though she never explicitly stated “math is hard, let’s go shopping,” she made it clear, next to her perky blonde photo, that it was just SO HARD to understand science and electronics and things that required learning and that was just soooo boring so let’s just leave it to the cell phone angels and God, kay?

    You could practically hear the bubblegum snap.

    Her defense on Twitter broke down into incomprehensible blather faster than this took to type, and included the notion that science is “self-sentient.” Which really, I think, tells everyone everything they need to know.

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  4. 4. Scienceisnotagenda 11:27 pm 07/11/2013

    As an atheist I find some of the knocks against Creationism hypocritical from anyone that even has a smidgen of a belief in the dead guy on a stick.

    Once one accepts some being, essence or whatever outside of the physical properties of matter and energy, then all becomes equally possible. Elves, creationism, angels…

    Believers who knock creationists are equally silly but just don’t see their silliness. A god nudging an atom is no less absurd a concept than one who creates existence in 6 days.

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  5. 5. rkipling 12:43 am 07/12/2013

    It is lamentable that technology reporters/science writers frequently are journalists without benefit of science. Some bloggers on this site fit that description. It shows in their writing. You make complete sense in your post with one exception.

    When my son (approximately your age with a PhD in engineering) expresses similar frustration with people, I remind him there is a bell curve. Not everyone has the capacity to learn and understand scientific concepts. So, while your arguments are sound, broad segments of the population will never have the ability to grasp what you are saying.

    Since little hope exists for the enlightenment of Ms. Heffernan and those of like mind, I would counsel that letting intractable ignorance upset you wastes your time. I know of a fundamentalist preacher who believed dinosaur bones were put on earth by the Devil to confound the righteous. What would be the point to presenting him with scientific arguments?

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  6. 6. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:53 am 07/12/2013

    @ rkipling, while it may be the case that not everyone has the required combination of capacity and commitment to become a working scientist, I’m fairly sure that most human beings of average intelligence have the capacity to grasp the basics of scientific patterns of reasoning. (In part, this is because I regularly teach a “Philosophy of Science” course to college students who are scared silly of science but are taking the course to fulfill an upper division science general education requirement. Those students, as scared as they are of science and as uncertain as they are of their own capacities, come out knowing how scientific inference works.)

    Ms. Heffernan is neither uneducated nor unintelligent. I suspect, however, that she prefers willful ignorance as a matter of aesthetics. Honestly, it’s not a good look, on her or on anyone else.

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  7. 7. DuFarle 1:30 am 07/12/2013

    The whole science is easy thing got blown over 2000 years ago when it was discovered if one extended the equal sides of a right triangle the hypotenuse couldn’t be an integer. But it is comforting to know some of our politicians are still in the bronze age.

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  8. 8. seanosapien 2:43 am 07/12/2013

    Oh when will the myths end, humanity I weep for you.

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  9. 9. David Cummings 5:45 am 07/12/2013

    Janet, thank you for another excellent article and thanks for the link to Gould, who I have read much of but somehow missed the piece you included here.

    To compare Gould to Heffernan is like comparing a giant to a gnat. You could argue, “well, that’s not fair, you’d have to compare Gould to a more knowledgeable Creationist”. But since there is no such thing, I stand by my comparison: Gould vs. Any Creationist =equals= Giant vs. Gnat.

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  10. 10. notmebug 6:17 am 07/12/2013

    Oh god how is this person a TECHNOLOGY REPORTER when she blithely says her understanding of her telephone amounts to “might as well be angels” making it work. I’m not saying you need to be some scientific genius and know Quantum Mechanics and everything to be a tech reporter, but SOME minimal level respect for science should be a prerequisite.

    Heay, Ms. Heffernan….. Virginia…. if you wrote bashing Physicists and declaring Relativity to be merely “another hypothesis”, how would you expect people to respond? And you wrote proclaiming that you don’t really understand any of the sciency stuff, and declaring you’re entitled to “You can choose your story” regardless of any facts and evidence, how would you expect people to respond? Or how about you casually dismissed Chemists and Chemistry, and your entire argument for doing so is because you like the STORY of Alchemy turning lead into gold. Do you seriously think anyone would consider that a remotely respectable position?

    Pardon the low blow here, but what if your child one day tells you that people being able to fly MAKES FOR A BETTER STORY, while they are standing in front of an open 12th floor window? I’m sorry, but NO, it’s ridiculous for you to claim “You can choose your story”. Reality exists, and reality doesn’t give a hoot what you want to believe. Reality doesn’t give a hoot what arguments of philosophy you make. If your kid steps out the window then reality gets the final say, and reality says your kid is gonna die. I’m sorry, did I just kick a rock?

    Evolution is not merely some empty “hypothesis”. Evolution is backed up by hard evidence, Evolution is backed up by mathematics, Evolution is backed up by countless experiments, Evolution is backed up by endless confirmed predictions, and in the last several years Evolution has developed into an APPLIED SCIENCE producing valuable concrete results. Yes, commercial applied science. You’re denying flight while the Wright Brothers are going into business building airplanes. Eppur si muove.

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  11. 11. rkipling 6:43 am 07/12/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    My guess is that students in your classes have a significant advantage and may be, as in Lake Wobegon, at least somewhat above average. While I’m not as optimistic about the capabilities of average people, I wish you success in your quest.

    Regarding Ms. Heffernan, I quote the mother of a fictional late 20th century philosopher, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

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  12. 12. M Tucker 2:14 pm 07/12/2013

    For Heffernan to simply say she is a Creationist seems to be a superficial catch-all drawer to stash the issues she seems to be annoyed with. There are many types of creationists and she did not explain anything more about her belief other than to say that she found Genesis compelling and that the Bible has endured, unchanged, for thousands of years. I’m not sure why, as a believer, she might expect the Bible to be modified because she never explained her comment.

    She wrote a rambling superficial piece and she does not seem to be much interested in a deeper investigation of any of the topics she raised. But if she wants to start at the beginning with her mild curiosity about the periodic table, if she really would like to learn why she should care, and if she really does “still read and read and listen and listen” then she might have some fun. Of course Atari won’t help but there might be an app for that. But considering that she has reached her mid-forties and she still doesn’t know why she should care about Pasteur and his work, I don’t hold out any hope that she really does care about learning something new.

    I do feel sad that she had such a terrible experience in a NY restaurant but that superficial person who walked out on her is simply a reflection of the superficial person she also seems to be. “God did it” is decidedly not a compelling creation story.

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  13. 13. rock johny 3:22 pm 07/12/2013

    I think both camps are right. God’s creative process ‘evolved’ as did his prototypes leading to his crowning model – one he created in his own image (higher qualities of love, wisdom, judgement not found in previous models). Taking the Genesis creative days as literal is where creationists go off the rails. They were creative epochs. Just as someone might say, “Life was so much simpler in my Grandfather’s day”. Or as the bible itself says, ‘a thousand years is like one day to God’. Even that isn’t establishing a hard and fast rule. The Genesis account was giving a rounded off view of creation from the viewpoint if observed by a man. The way the light from the Sun was obscure at first as the solar system was enshrouded in nebulous material at first, etc.

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  14. 14. David Cummings 5:43 am 07/13/2013

    rock, Genesis isn’t giving a “rounded off view of creation”… it’s just plain wrong. How could it be right? It was written before telescopes. It says, for examples, that the earth was created before the sun and the stars. It couldn’t be more wrong. Genesis is a product of culture, not science.

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  15. 15. Qiloff 11:29 am 07/13/2013

    Heffernan’s column appears to be in the Arts and Entertainment section of Yahoo news. Definitely entertaining. If one is overwhelmed by the technology of the 21st century, then there is always the fall back position of the 1st century world view. Some people just like being blissfully comfortable with antiquated knowledge.

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