by Mark Edon
Sceptical reader, follow me for a few moments as we embark on a thought experiment and imagine a world in which Homeopaths have adopted a clever and devious new tactic. Not content with their current markets and profit levels they have come up with a strategy to boost their sales in the longer term. In our alternate reality Homoeopaths have carefully developed an extensive set of claims about critical thinking, science and modern chemistry that poke holes in our current understanding of reality. They have written what appears to be a chemistry text book, “Exploring Chemistry” that doesn’t even mention Homeopathy. Instead of pushing the magical properties of water “Exploring Chemistry” presents a wide range of material including cleverly extracted sentences from genuine contemporary papers that seem to cast doubt on some basic aspects of covalent bond theory. Ionic bonding theory is examined from both sides of an apparently vigorous and far reaching dispute. Genuine discussions about the exact values of the strength of particular bonds between atoms are used to subtly suggest that there is a lot we don’t understand and that the whole edifice of chemical theory is built on shaky foundations. Comments from scientists regarding rival hypotheses are carefully mined and presented to support the general theme of the book; the whole field of chemistry is replete with dispute and ready for a major paradigm shift. There are even careful extracted quotes from respected Chemists arguing about where Hydrogen should be placed in the Periodic Table. Truly Chemistry is a wobbly edifice. Carefully worked out results and conclusions are dismissed as mere assumptions. The implication being that, if these assumptions turn out to be wrong, this will put the whole theoretical framework of modern chemistry at risk. Finely nuanced debates about theoretical interpretations of the evidence are presented as evidence of a field rife with disagreement. Modern chemistry is referred to as “neo-Daltonism”, and 20th-century developments (semiconductor doping, nuclear chemistry) are quite correctly presented as showing the limitations of Dalton’s 19th-century atomic theory. Using all-or-nothing logic, we are invited to infer that there is now serious scientific disagreement as to whether or not chemistry is actually true at all. Copious chapter end-notes are awash with references to peer-reviewed articles (many of which actually demonstrate exactly the opposite results to those implied in the text -but it needs careful and informed reading of the original literature to discover this).
“Explore Chemistry” also includes well written chapters on critical thinking and how science is done, these chapters stick to the truth and are well enough written that even Skeptic would approve of them. These chapters put the casual reader off guard.
In our thought experiment this textbook does not languish in alternative medicine book shops. It has been sent to every high school in the UK with an accompanying letter of recommendation from a tenured science professor at a reputable UK university stating boldly that the book conforms with the National Curriculum and is an excellent resource for students and teachers. The book was mailed to school librarians who were asked to put it into the library science section and to request more free copies as required. Public libraries and universities received similar mailings. Thousands of these book were sent out. Already homeopathy sales are slowly creeping upwards.
In the world of this thought experiment I am sure that Skeptics would be doing something about it. For a moment imagine that you had found out about “Explore Chemistry” and so you decided to ring a national association of school librarians to warn them about what was going on. Imagine what you think when you manage to speak to the chief executive of this librarian’s association and they tell you that they “don’t take sides on matters of scientific controversy, and to be honest, this kind of call really isn’t welcome. In this country we have free and open debate, librarians aren’t censors and the children should be allowed to see both sides and to judge for themselves” click.
Ok you can return to reality now. None of this has actually happened with homeopaths and hopefully it is a fairly unlikely future development.
But this is exactly what has already happened with Creationism here in the UK.
I’ll pause there for a moment while you take that in.
A textbook? Yes “Explore Evolution” No mention of creationism? No. What about Intelligent Design? No. With sections on critical thinking and the scientific method? Yes. Twisting and distorting quotes and papers? Yes. Undermining biology in general and all the rest of that you just said? Yes. What even that call to the head of the librarians? Yes - that happened to me.
The book is called “Explore Evolution” and was originally written for the US market, where the vigilance of our good friends in the National Center for Science Education combined with a constitutional ban on the promotion of religion in state funded schools upheld by court ruling banning the promotion of creation science and intelligent design have engendered an evolutionary arms race that has produced a superbly adapted species of creationism that consists entirely of portraying modern biology as crummy science. The book is genuinely impressive. It looks good, is logically laid out, well presented, very well referenced and chock full of sweet smelling and beautifully presented shite, disabusing us of the popular wisdom that turds can’t be polished.
OK let’s put this into some kind of perspective. Creationism only hits the headlines here in the UK from time to time. This usually results from the antics of some Creationist numpties (I use the term advisedly). Here I follow Simon Singh’s advice on the use of the term with connotations of shallowness and silliness but no underlying malice aforethought. Urbandictionary2 gives us this;
“Scottish usage: a) Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others. b) A good humoured admonition, a term of endearment. a) “No. That wisnae wit she meant, ya big numpty!””.
Creationists proclaiming their intention to teach “both sides” or that “evolution is just a theory after all isn’t it?” surely deserve to be told “No. That wisnae wit it means, ya nig numpty!”.
Open Creationism gets the wider public, and Skeptics in particular, excited and there is generally a vociferous backlash of outrage, scorn and derision. Newspaper articles are written. Comment threads get very long. MPs are written to. Usually it fades away in time.
But Explore Evolution is not produced by numpties, who, as Simon pointed out, are usually sadly misinformed and generally well intentioned but just incredibly bad at knowing just how stupid they are being. Explore Evolution is produced by biology deniers. Simon wanted to avoid this “d” word in the AGW debate as it had associations with Holocaust denial in which people twist the facts deliberately to serve a deeper and more sinister political and racist agenda. But “denier” is an appropriate term for some Creationists. The folks who wrote Explore Evolution had to put an awful lot of effort into twisting things to serve their agenda. Explore Evolution was produced by people with a decent grasp of modern biology who are simply trying to serve their own political and religious agenda by lying about it. Think about it - they produced pretty good sections on critical thinking and the way in which science works and then they wrote the rest of the book to promote their concealed agenda. As in my fictitious homoepathic example, they refer to present-day biology as “neo-Darwinism”, point to 20th or even 21st century extensions of the 19th century theory to suggest non-existent fundamental inadequacies of biological science, and go so far as to present separate creation (which they call the “orchard model” of life) as a viable alternative. That’s why I think they deserve the “d” word.
The book has no mention at all of Creationism or of Intelligent Design (Creationism dressed in a lab coat). In fact it is astoundingly well disguised. A friend of mine is a lecturer in science education and will sometimes ask groups of aspiring science teachers to look over a selection of textbooks. He includes good and bad textbooks, an intelligent design book and a Creationist book as well as Explore Evolution. Often they fail to spot that Explore Evolution is a creationist tract and pop it on the pile with the genuine text books. These are folks with science degrees. (BTW if anyone is interested in doing some work on this to produce some evidence regarding existing science teachers please get in touch)
The truly wonderful NCSE put together a comprehensive web site full of a detailed analysis and exposure of all the content of Explore Evolution. At the BCSE we put together a shorter UK version of this mass of evidence which you can see and download for free here we cover off the relevant curriculum issues and guidance together with a suggestion for a letter to your local school librarian. Please let us know how you get on.
This is not the only recent example of this kind of thing.
The Times Education Supplement Scotland recently published an article in print and on line announcing the launch of a new “educational” website. This site was promoted to creationist numpties up and down the UK at the talks given by Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe in his recent lecture tour of churches.
One of the things BCSE does is to try to keep track of creationist activities and plans by asking members to attend creationist meetings and report back to us. We had several reports that the WAU site was promoted at Behe’s talks as being “perfect for children to prepare challenging questions for their science teachers”.
Oh, by the by, we did write to the TES. In fact we wrote more than once. First we pointed out that in no conceivable way could the contents of WAU be considered a useful resource as it was full of pseudoscience and in fact such materials are explicitly ruled out for use in science classes as unsuitable by the existing teachers guidelines and that Michael Gove has also repeated this since he became the education secretary. The initial reply seemed to imply that the editor thought that being “sceptical of evolution” was actually a tenable scientific position and our second email linking to our analysis and asking for equal treatment has so far been ignored. The web site was augmented by some quotes from the Department for Education last year, apparently endorsing the material for use in schools. BCSE has since uncovered that WAU have been ignoring government requests to remove these misleading quotes since December 2011.
I think that Skeptics should be just as active in the promotion of good science education as we are in the fight against the promotion of nonsense. This means that we should be vociferous and active re MPs and schools and in our communications to the public. This is all part of the same fight for libraries, for good high schools and good university science education.
The US should be a warning for us - recent results1 show that in parts of the USA, when asked to describe how they teach evolution 28% self describe as an “advocate of evolutionary biology”, 13% as an advocate of creationism and 60% as an advocate of neither.
Two important factors enable such a situation to have arisen. The first is the lack of a National Curriculum in the US. There we see a fragmentation of school management with effectively 15,000 curricula. Free schools anyone? The second factor and the one prevalent in the existence of the 60% group, is a wish to avoid controversy with or pressure from parents, combined with a lack of confidence in the material. Shall we stop teaching teachers?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that pressure not to teach evolution can already be found here and there in the UK, and, since we have no constitutional ban on the promotion of religion in schools, one could apply to run a Creationist free school that would operate entirely with the current system, using public money, and have children taught in school by other teachers, including the Head in assemblies, that their science teacher is either a fool or deliberately lying to them. In fact BCSE has highlighted several such applications already, in Newark, Newcastle and Sheffield. Michael Gove has gone some way to try to prevent this, he has stated that presenting Creationism as a valid scientific position in any lesson is not acceptable in UK schools and has changed the free school funding agreement to prevent them presenting anything not supported by mainstream science as a valid scientific position is not allowed. This does not apply to mainstream schools or academies.
For these reasons I think that the sceptical community should take more notice of Creationists, in particular the actions of the deniers and their attempts to infiltrate mainstream science classrooms.
But there is also another much bigger reason. I think that a good case can be made that Creationists are the high achievers of the non-sceptical world. Whilst it is true that AGW numpties do deny evidence from a range of fields of science, and quite a healthy pile of evidence it is too, they are lightweights when compared to your average Creationists. To Creationists the underlying and unifying principle of biology is, of course, wrong, but to make this fit their own viewpoint so too is most of astronomy, and, as this is built on physics, then they must also cast serious doubt on large parts of physics as well. Of course Geology and Chemistry, as far as they relate to the age of the earth, the way living things work and even the way in which stars and galaxies develop, are all also cheerfully thrown away. Compared to this level of non-sceptical achievement, the amount of knowledge that must be denied or ignored by, say, homeopaths, is tiny.
Faced with having to get new recruits to make such a huge leap into their worldview, Creationists go out of their way to engender a general mistrust of science together with an automatic reflex reaction against almost anything science comes up with. Nearly every Creationist I have met is a Global Warming numpty, against advances in GM crops on principle and has grave doubts about vaccines.
A recent discussion with a young Christian who happened by chance to sit next to me on the train one day led to a discussion of her faith and I brought up the subject of biology and evolution. She told me that after hearing a recent church speaker, her and many of her friends, now felt that they had been lied to at school by the science teachers because apparently evolution was nowhere near the firm conclusion they had been told about and in fact she now knew it was more like just a big guess. Her and her friends are now starting families of their own. I wonder what attitude to school science lessons their children will have? She attends a church in Newcastle that are currently applying to run a free school.
Creationists claim that science is an atheist conspiracy, which effectively makes it a work of Satan. Our society is built on science. Our future prosperity, not just the current economic recovery but the future place of the UK in world history will be greatly influenced by our place in the world’s scientific community and such conspiracy thinking is therefore deeply worrying.
Mark would like to point out that his oft-used web name “psiloiordinary” is an “ancients tabletop wargaming” reference and nothing to do with woo. Find out more about Creationism in the UK and what you can do about it on the BCSE blog: http://bcseweb.blogspot.co.uk/
1. Berkman MB, Plutzer E. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science. 2011;331(6016):404. Available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6016/404.full [Accessed March 20, 2012].
2. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=numpty [Accessed March 20, 2012]