I had a wonderful afternoon Sunday at the Madison Science Pub. The featured guest was Ron Numbers, the historian of science at UW-Madison whose research has focused on the origins and history of the creationism movement in the U.S. and worldwide. Ron drew a crowd well over 50 people – I didn’t count, but the large salon at Brocach was packed high and tight.
The conversation was a rollicking exchange – Ron told a story about his meeting with Turkish creationist guru Harun Yahya, gave some insight on the very earliest origins of the creationism movement, and shared his good humor. He reminded us that the fraction of Americans who claim belief that humans were created within the last 10,000 years has basically remained unchanged above 40 percent for three decades.
Attendees came from every walk of life and many had their own stories. My favorite was the inside view of the home-schooling movement, with some groups banning publishers that print science curricula, others banning prominent creationists.
Invariably, when a group of well-thinking people get together and start talking about creationism, the discussion drifts toward speculation about why folks would turn to creationism – especially young Earth creationism – when it means they must reject the most basic principles of almost every branch of natural science. In a crowd of people there will always be several who turn to stupidity as an explanation for different beliefs. Very few things irritate me more than witnessing people’s biases coming out in this way. Yet there were many at the Pub who had close and direct experience working with and confronting creationism, and I think we gave some needed perspective.
Science Pub organizer Skip Evans, speaking from experience at the NCSE and as an organizer of the Wisconsin Citizens for Science, noted that most students who resist the idea of evolution are actually driven by convictions about what will happen to them after they die. Many perceive that religious doctrine about eternal life and personal salvation can be maintained only if other literalist aspects of religion are accepted without question.
Explaining the history and diversity of life is simply not an issue of great concern to most people except as a marker of belief system. On that score, many “evolution believers” have knowledge that is just as shallow as creationists. They simply nod and smile in response to different cues. Professing a belief in evolution or creation is a not-so-secret handshake that signals membership in a loose clan. That’s why the press is so insistent that presidential candidates take some position on the issue; it marks them like a scarlet letter.
Some committed creationists are simply ignorant of biology – not stupid, but unschooled in the facts. These can be foiled, and sometimes even persuaded, with a few simple, widely-known examples.
But many are well practiced in the art of debate and will not easily play into your hands. They will have taken your measure and they know the ground well. The stakes are higher for the creationist, souls hanging in the balance. Wrestling with skunks, you’d be a fool to think you’ll keep the stink off.
As with most things, becoming skilled at advocating for evolution requires much practice. When it comes to debate, many trained students of science are not merely wet behind the ears, they are still tadpoles breathing with gills. Producing simple, effective examples of evolution does not come easily to those untutored in the skills of rhetoric. Yet few things serve a teacher so well as a handful of two-minute examples, told with some style. Saying something credibly means saying it easily and self-evidently, in terms that are familiar to the audience.
This is the essential skill for every kind of science communication.