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February 11, 2006

Tell the Scientists -- the Enemy Is Here

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

From Pharyngula, we hear of the latest horror:

Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"

The children roared their assent.

"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.

"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.

"God!" the boys and girls shouted.

"Who's the only one who knows everything?"


"So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?"

The children answered with a thundering: "God!"

Reading that makes me feel sick.  I can't imagine a scientist who'd feel differently. 

One of the ways you get people to become conscious of some aspect of their identity is to present them with an attack on it.  (The religious right is really good at making Christians feel that anything, even a friendly "Happy Holidays," is an attack on their religion. To take an example that's closer to home, our Nicholas came to identify with Seattle only after Matt Yglesias dissed his hometown.)  There's no shortage of horror stories we could tell scientists, from the sad tale above, to the Bush appointee who wanted to always put the word "theory" after "Big Bang" to signify that it was just one opinion. 

Identity politics usually runs along ethnic or religious lines, but I'm wondering if one could get occupational status as a scientist to operate as a genuine political identity that motivates voting, volunteering, donating money, and trying to persuade those near you.  On all sorts of issues -- global warming, stem cell research, tobacco, and the teaching of evolution in schools -- Democrats are taking the side of science against business interests and the religious right.  If scientists see themselves as scientists when they think about politics, their motivation to engage in progressive politics will increase.

Are there serious efforts out there to tell the scientists what's going on?  PZ Myers is wonderful at this, and big props to Chris Mooney on his book.  But I'm wondering if anybody's started an organization devoted to filling mailboxes in university science departments with news of how Ken Ham is destroying young minds.  You wouldn't even have to say anything about Democrats or Republicans -- just making scientists aware of the threat to everything they stand for is enough. 

February 11, 2006 in Science | Permalink


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» 'Excuse Me, Were You There?' from Scientific Assessment
That's what passes for scientific critique in the mind of one evangelist who's out promoting his ideas to kids. From Pharyngula via Ezra Klein... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 12, 2006 12:00:59 PM


The recent fast proliferation of science blogs, many of which constantly follow the political aspects of science, may be an indication that scientists are waking up. The Union of Concerned Scientists and some other organizations are slowly and timidly joining the political fray that most scientists are too afraid (as well as too busy) to join on their own. They even had scientists campaigning for Kerry on campuses in 2004. How much good can they do? Dunno. But science is becoming one of the Big Issues now, so perhaps this can be further utilized.

Posted by: coturnix | Feb 11, 2006 8:44:17 PM

I think an important step is for biologists to try to make the case to other scientists that they have a dog in the fight, too, that anti-science sentiment is all over conservatism and creationism is just the ugliest strain of it.

And heh, I blogged this article, too. For roughly the same reason. ;)

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 11, 2006 11:35:08 PM

My guess is that scientists in any field are going to be horrified by creationism -- it's not so much a practical thing where you're worried about your career, as a matter of principle. You care about getting things right, and these people simply don't. But I suppose biologists might have a special hatred of it, since it's the knowledge they hold most dear that's being trampled on.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 12, 2006 12:14:53 AM

Climate scientists and cosmologists have been on alert for quite a while now, and others are realizing that everything, even math, is coming under attack. If you are a regular on Pharyngula and other science blogs, you can see that many non-biologist scientists are equally worried. It is the nature of truth and evidence that is at stake (aka he Enlightment), so we all are taking notice.

The interaction is also two-way. It is only recently that the liberal politicos, including bloggers, started paying close attanetion to the Republican War On Science (both the concept and the book), and wiriting frequently about it. DarkSyde's promotion to the front page of dKos and the heavy accent on science on YearlyKos is a good step.

Posted by: coturnix | Feb 12, 2006 1:00:54 AM

Agreed, cot. One really great thing is there's not much of a downside, politically speaking, for Democrats and liberals to position ourselves (accurately, I think) as the Defenders of Science. Everyone likes science, except right wing ideologues. And even right wing ideologues enjoy getting antibiotics when they're sick.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 12, 2006 1:11:27 AM

I'd like to ask one of those kids if they were there when "the Book" was written. Do they know God wrote it? Can they prove it? Could it be a hoax? Are they sure it's not?

But that would take rational thought. Never mind.


Posted by: Captain Sunshine | Feb 12, 2006 1:43:08 AM

Dark Ages, here we come, at least in the good ole USA.

Is it possible that there may occur a brain drain out of the US as scientists (and later medicine) are beat down by laws and popular opinion?

If I were a bright young researcher in genetics, evolutionary development, biochemistry and related fields I'd sure be putting in place a Plan B.

The slope downhill from the enlightenment and the rule of science and technology is likely to be quite steeper and faster than the upward trek from the 15th century, at least in the countries that come under the sway of fundamentalist religion, and their political partners in govenment, the tax-exempt think tanks and some of the major corporations. Those folks are committed to ensuring their views prevail, and their message is considerably easier to sell to poorly educated people than is the pro-science view. They already have a majority of the population in the US that believes in one or more of the theist views that are opposed to evolutionary thought and the science that supports it. They take a long view, and are making their impacts now on the very young, darkening the future considerably.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Feb 12, 2006 2:57:39 AM

What was happening to those children from that "evangelist," was, IMHO, child abuse or something quite close. It was not "evangelism," or any kind of legitimate religious instruction. Evangelism means to spread "good news." How is it good news if all you are doing is training up a generation of militant ignoramuses?

It is wrong to force ignorance upon children. It is wrong to create reasons for them to rebel against their families and their faith. Church leaders talk constantly about the number of 12-14-year-olds that leave the church, never to return. There are conventions, books, strategies, programs, et. al trying to deal with the problem. Yet no one, it seems, is willing to admit that the problem is not "the world," or entertainment or the ACLU or those doggone biology teachers. The problem is the sheer idiocy that is endorsed by the Church itself.

There is no inherent conflict between religion and science. Newton, Pascal, Einstein, Galileo, Da Vinci, all these and more were motivated by a spirituality, if not an "orthodox" Christianity. Medieval Islam produced many fine scholars in many fields. The fact that the Church has, in terms of its hierarchy, been on the wrong side of many scientific debates says more about the unwillingness for the ruling classes to A)allow any institution to remain separate from their influence, and B) accept change in any form that might disrupt their station in society and the profits they make from it.

That is why the Bush admin fights science so much - accepting what scientists say cuts into the bottom line. And since so many of this nations "Christians" occupy the upper tier economically, they have the same reasons for fighting science. They couch it in terms of faith, but like everything else for them, that's just a convenient and effective smoke screen for their real motives. That so many of them buy into their own lies changes the facts not one whit.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 12, 2006 3:49:17 AM

This is why the militant atheism that often accompanies discussions of evolution was a huge mistake. If evangelicals did not perceive a direct threat from science, they wouldn't be doing this.

That said, it's still a retarded thing to do. But just remember that these people vote, and have more children than do atheists. We will be living with the consequences for a long, long time, especially if your response is to attack them directly. What needs to happen is for the evangelicals to be persuaded to change their behavior voluntarily.

Posted by: Mastiff | Feb 12, 2006 4:38:21 AM

It sounds just as awful until I envision all of you coming for these people with torches and pitchforks and then *YOU* become the "worse" guys.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 12, 2006 9:54:05 AM


"the militant atheism that often accompanies discussions ofevolution" does not exist--its a figment of the imagination of evangelicals who have always needed a demon, and specifically needed a demon called education--to keep the control over the masses. Darwin was not an atheist. Many scientists are not atheists. The catholic church (except in the US) has come out in favor of science and sees the issues of religion and science as, largely, separate. Evangelists have been anti-science for a long time because they are anti-intellectual, anti-"elitist", anti-urban. All these things but specifically education have been seen as things that taint the innocence and ignorance and faith of the young (and of women) and have been rejected for that reason. Evolution is only one in a long line of things --from smoking to dancing--that have been seen as leading to atheism. But atheism isn't militantly pro smoking or dancing.


Posted by: amai | Feb 12, 2006 10:26:08 AM

"Are there serious efforts out there to tell the scientists what's going on?"

Scientists have been aware of whats going on for a long time. Usually they've shunned the political debate since, from their perspective, political ideology has no bearing on the outcome of scientific observations. Unfortunately, this is not a scientific debate, its a political one and it may have serious consequences for the advance of science in this country as funding for whole areas of research are cut off.

President Confuses Science and Belief, Puts Schoolchildren at Risk

Redefining Science

Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds? http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7037/full/4341062a.html

Posted by: mike | Feb 12, 2006 11:15:16 AM

"Militant atheism" is a red herring. Is science a threat to religion? Yes, just but the religions of the world have been destroyed over and over again, usually to be replaced by a different kind of religion, and the world hasn't collapsed yet. That's the way of life--religions exist because their beliefs fill a need for a society. When that need disappears, so does the religion.

Despite a very vocal fundamentalist minority and a majority that identifies as "Christian", most Americans are not religious people. Saying you believe in god doesn't make you religious in my book, because saying you believe in god gives you social acceptance at no personal cost to you. Claiming you go to church when you don't only costs you a minor amount of discomfort. Actually going to church? That's a pain in the ass and therefore a reasonable marker of actual commitment to religion.

The numbers I've seen on Americans who attend church regularly vary from 20-40%, which means, by my reckoning, that this nation has progressed from a majority religious to a majority non-religious nation. This is unsurprising to me--the needs that the Christian religion filled for people are being filled by other means. This is why fundamentalists want to deprive people of an opportunity to choose anything but religion, because they know that the alternatives are superior.

Pro-science atheists are not militant. The vast majority of us simply want to educate people about science, but leave them free to reject it after they learn the facts. That's an easy choice--my gut feeling is most people reject religion on one level or another after learning the truth via science. It's the fundamentalists who are militant because they have to be; they can't make a positive case for themselves so they're trying to wipe out the competition.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 12, 2006 11:57:44 AM

Nearly every grad student I know at my science and technology oriented grad school is horrified by this type of stuff.

There's one guy who defends creationists and asshatery like that by saying that _some_ scientists treat science like a religion...

While this is true, that certainly doesn't excuse the horrible, distending b.s. fed to children by their religious overlords.

Posted by: TJ | Feb 12, 2006 12:57:43 PM

I'm pretty skeptical using stuff like this to create a scientist activist movement. First off, there aren't all that many scientists. Second off, they're already overwhelming liberal and Democratic, just not activist. Third, the empiricist worldview of scientists doesn't really lend itself to effective political advocacy.

Posted by: ptm | Feb 12, 2006 2:43:19 PM

As a scientist, I know we are all very aware of what's going on. Many of us rely on government grants, so of course we're sensitive to the political environment. Most scientists don't want to get involved in the political debate, since they see taking sides as hurting their image as objective observers.

Scientists are starting to take stands. Unfortunately, the other side is way more organized and passionate than the right side. The American Chemical Society published an editorial supporting evolution (not a controversial decision) and got a lot of letters from wingnuts opposed to the editorial (even arguing for intelligent design). Of course, the flood of counter-letters was amusing, but this is very scary. The wingnuts are always in the sidelines waiting to intimidate whenever we start to speak up.

I think we really need to get scientists way more involved in politics. Science is how the U.S. is going to stay on top of the world. Make no doubt about it, we're under attack.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope | Feb 12, 2006 3:48:15 PM

Is science a threat to religion? Yes

I disagree. Science is a threat to the existing power structure, and religion, unfortunately, is usually co-opted by the existing power structure for its own ends.

However, religion is also a threat to the existing power structure. That is why those nations that either fully reject or embrace religion destabilize and then cease to be. Of course, there are always many factors in the downfall of a nation, and the case can be made that those who fully embrace religion are usually desperate for some cause with which to unite their people.

In terms of religion existing so long as it serves a need, I sorta disagree. To me, religion comes out of experience with the divine. However, I think we both can agree that when a religion - or movement within a religion - fully aligns itself with a temporal political movement, the end or radical transformation of both is only a matter of time.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 12, 2006 4:34:20 PM

I know many scientists, academic, goverment, and private sector, who, in the past, have been apolitical Independents who are now moving into the Democratic camp. While evolution is a 'hot-button' issue, their primary concern is the crappy funding situation. As one government scientist told me a few months ago, "my budget gets cut when Republicans take office."

Posted by: Mike the Mad Biologist | Feb 12, 2006 7:29:53 PM

I'll take one out of my old sci-fi habits. A nice trick is to take academic material and reposition it in a different society from the original in an attempt to costruct a believable dynamic. That's how I was tricked into reading about the real concerns of empire : stasis in society is the major tool of ensuring stability. People instinctively reject most change.
Control necessities by depriving others access and you have defined the roots of power. That's "military intelligence" thinking and the left doesn't give it the recognition it deserves.

Now if we could call the "evangelicals" what they are .. pedants appealing to the wistful longing for "the way it used to be"..... not the way it never was.

I enjoy "Contrary Brin" http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ : he's been popularizing science-based inquiry for quite a while.

Posted by: opit | Feb 12, 2006 9:48:23 PM

I think scientists already are pretty overwhelmingly Democratic, and already (as far as I know) highly participative in the process. Getting the few holdouts who vote Republican, Green, Libertarian, or whatever into the camp might not be the best use of scarce political resources (it's a bit like luanching a campaign to convert black Republicans).

I should note that I base this on my father's scientific social/coworker group, but he's an academic scientist (Washington University), not an industrial one. Industry might be more mixed.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 13, 2006 4:26:26 AM

Ugh. I don't care. If retards in the south want to do this to their children let them. As long as they don't infect my part of the country, I don't care. Yes yes yes, national politics and all that jazz, rah rah rah. But that voting bloc just isn't as big as you'd imagine. Provided Democrats aren't alienating those who believe in God, we shouldn't have to worry about those that do and want biblical law written into law. Americans still do believe in the separation of the church and state.

Posted by: Adrock | Feb 13, 2006 11:12:12 AM

I worked in a corporate cancer research lab for two summers (1998 and 1999, if I remember right), and I didn't remember any high level of political engagement. Of course, people generally weren't as engaged then as they are now, and I didn't have an especially huge sample.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 13, 2006 11:21:04 AM

the tone and frequency of political discussions amongst the academics i've been interacting with for the past few years has changed dramatically since this bush has been in office. prior to 2000, political discussions at those random science conferences i attended, were generally taboo. people would make a few comments here and there, mention something about personal philosophy (and how it is perhaps tied to some process they observe in their research), etc.....but virtually no one ever mentioned anything about any particular politicians or even politics outside of how it related to the lives of scientists. things are different now. scientists that i used to consider as "conservative" are (according to some disingenous observers) "frothing at the mouth" anti-bush. at every conference i've gone to the past 3 years, i've come across heated "faux-debates" in which everyone is in total agreement over how awful bush is for science, the world, philosophy, whatever.... the vast majority of them are angry at this point, but at the same time, they feel there's nothing they can do. the people in power won't listen to them---rationality and nuance don't pay in politics. they also can't give up their "day-jobs" and enter politics---while still maintaining an option to return to cutting-edge scientific research afterwards. for the most part, they seem to be waiting...not so much out of patience, but out of frustration and lack of options.

it may behoove our society if universities altered their policies so that academics whose knowledge and wit could greatly serve our nation could more easily move into the political arena without having entirely the abandon the field that inspired them to acquire so many extra years of education (without even the promise of big paychecks).

Posted by: huh | Feb 13, 2006 9:26:41 PM

Thanks for posting that, huh.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 15, 2006 2:31:22 PM

I am so fed up of people like this who are so incredibly ignorant to science. They seem to think that science means the down-treading of religion, and the attempt to disprove their beliefs. The principles of science are based on the idea of evidence - we believe something to be true because (most of) the evidence points towards it. I was recently reading a christian forum in which one user attempted to disprove gravity, based on his complete misunderstanding of the physics involved, and the fact that the 'evolutionists' had 'made it up to counter-act the Bible'. The number of people who replied (and I can imagine were banging their heads on their desks) with very good explanations, and explaining that nobody was trying to disprove the Bible. To which he responded with more of the same.

I despair.

Posted by: Jim | Jan 25, 2007 12:47:51 PM

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