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The Principle of Shallow Thinking

January 13th, 2008

After seeing this story summing up all the candidates’ stands on evolution (read Mike Gravel’s in particular), I was reminded of an excellent television program aired a few months back: NOVA’s (when aren’t they excellent?) special two-hour Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. If you haven’t seen it, you can (and should) watch it wholly online at NOVA’s web site.

The program does a very good job of describing the trial in Dover, PA, where a judge ruled unconstitutional a school board policy to present Intelligent Design as an alternate theory to Evolution. Not only did the Evolution side blow the ID claims out of the water, but they also succeeded in revealing a paper trail which showed that ID was the direct evolutionary descendant of creationism.

I’ve made my thoughts on ID clear in this blog before. It is, as the Dover case illustrated, nothing more than creationism reworked for the sole purpose of sneaking it into science classes. Simply put, ID has no evidence to back it up; its entire case is that evolution is wrong, and therefore ID is right. There is no evidence, no mathematical model which supports ID; it is a theory based upon a negative, relying purely upon fallacious criticisms of evolution so that a metaphysical argument is “proven” by nothing more than the process of elimination.

It is a theory which personifies the creationist mindset: don’t think. It doesn’t rely on any positive evidence. It requires no deep study, no deep thinking–just belief. Essentially, it says that we are just too complex, so don’t even bother finding an explanation other than god. And that pretty concisely sums up how creationists approach things: not with deep understanding, but with a superficial denial based upon a poor grasp of core issues.

You can see this in action by looking at the PBS Ombudsman’s column for the show, where a good deal of viewer mail is displayed. It is quite educational.

One question asked by several creationists is best stated here:

If evolution were true and man “evolved” from apes, why do we have apes and monkeys co-existing with man? Why have the apes not all turned into humans?

This is the sort of question that so baldly expresses the simple lack of understanding of evolution by those who feel they know more than enough to dismiss it. It reminds me of my co-worker from years back who felt confident that radioactive dating methods that showed the Earth being far more than 6000 years old were wrong because she believed she found a fatal flaw in the science… based on her hearing a summary of the procedure in her high school Science class. She didn’t study, didn’t ask, didn’t investigate; she just found something that sounded like it could be a flaw, and immediately decided that science must be wrong and her religion correct.

This question about co-existing with other primates is a classic example of this sort of shallow, non-thinking reasoning. The person who asked it obviously wasn’t looking for an answer; a quick Google search would have provided him with the answer, as would have a simply query over the phone to any local Science teacher or perhaps even any librarian. Clearly this person had either heard this question asked but not answered, or thought of it themselves, and never sought an answer to it beyond the ID community.

Had they done so, they would have found the answer. First, and most glaringly, we did not evolve from “apes.” Both humans and apes evolved from early primates. There is somehow the idea that the apes that now exist also existed back then, and we are descended from them; this is incorrect. Now, if you want to call the early primates “apes,” go ahead, but it is an incorrect classification that leads to further misunderstanding. Second, evolution is not a process where all members of a species change at the same time and in the same way; this was amply demonstrated in the NOVA documentary when it explained “branching.” And while the early primates from which all current primates evolved went extinct, there is no rule which says they have to disappear. Some species have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years; it is possible for a new species to have branched from an ancient one, and yet both still exist side-by-side.

Of course, one writer mentioned the whole “macro-evolution” paradigm. Since evolution can clearly be seen at work over the course of a few years, ID’ers have split evolution into two categories–“micro-evolution,” which they concede happens but does not contradict creationism, and “macro-evolution,” which is large changes over large spans of time, which they deny because it does contradict creationism. This is known as “moving the goal posts,” something that the creationist crowd does constantly. You provide proof that a creationist claim is wrong, they either ignore it, deny it, or, in the goal-post-moving paradigm, claim that it’s not enough and more specific evidence is needed.

Another viewer writes:

This was labeled as a landmark case. Not so. This was a smaller court not a Federal court from what I have found.

Again, we have people not just assuming facts not in evidence, but assuming facts contrary to clear evidence. Right at the beginning of the documentary, it was made clear that the judge in the case was appointed by President Bush. That clearly makes him a federal judge. Not to mention that a very quick Google could have shown the fact even more clearly. The same writer continues:

Most scientists who are Darwinists have atheistic beliefs just as there are people of faith who support creation or ID. About two years ago a FEDERAL court ruled that atheism is a religion.

And here we come to another common belief among creationists: that evolution is as much a child of atheism as creationism is of religion. Of course “Atheism” (“strong Atheism,” that is, the belief that god does not exist) is a religion belief system not based on fact, as is a belief in the existence of god [edit]. But evolution has nothing whatsoever to do with Atheism. Atheism is a belief system; evolution is a scientific theory with huge amounts of physical evidence which has healthily survived a century and a half of strident and piercing attack and review.

It is only from the fundamentalist religious viewpoint that evolution is a belief system, or is part of one, and that is chiefly because fundamentalists use biblical scripture as if it were a Science text, and from there come to conclusions about the nature of the universe which are easily shown as false by physical observations. Fundamentalists see any idea or information which contradicts their religious beliefs as being just as much based on a belief system, and so they ascribe it to Atheism, or as an attack on their religion.

Most of the negative views on the documentary accused it of bias. An easy accusation, since it’s such a contentious topic, and so many see it in a deeply subjective light. But ultimately, it’s a false claim, based upon the perception that their side was not adequately presented–because their side was shown as losing.

Any look at the evolution vs. ID debate is going to be controversial, and any view that winds up supporting one side will naturally be called biased by the other side. What NOVA did was to focus on the two in the crucible of a federal courtroom, not to mention one presided over by a Republican, a Lutheran, and appointed by George W. Bush, no less. ID’ers could not have asked for a fairer judge, and initially, were pleased, as this commenter on a ID blog wrote:

Judge John E. Jones on the other hand is a good old boy brought up through the conservative ranks. He was state attorney for D.A.R.E, an Assistant Scout Master with extensively involved with local and national Boy Scouts of America, political buddy of Governor Tom Ridge (who in turn is deep in George W. Bush’s circle of power), and finally was appointed by GW hisself. … Unless Judge Jones wants to cut his career off at the knees he isn’t going to rule against the wishes of his political allies. Of course the ACLU will appeal. This won’t be over until it gets to the Supreme Court. But now we own that too.

NOVA looked at the issue in the most even-handed venue that could be found (one which actually leaned in favor of ID from all appearances), where both sides had their chance to present their arguments.

One clear fact is that the side representing evolution won, and won big. That would suggest that they made their case much better, and therefore NOVA’s presentation was probably more toward the “fair” side of things. The only way you could get around this would be to suggest that Judge Jones was somehow so biased and unfair that the decision was fatally flawed and incorrect… and predictably, this is exactly the tack that ID’ers have taken since the decision was handed down, and they turned viciously against “their” judge.

Some commenters on the NOVA documentary felt that there was even a conspiracy at work:

WHAT IS PBS AFRAID OF, that they would not allow it??? PBS’s refusal to allow a fair rebuttal tells the whole story. What a shame that so many Americans who can intuitively see that there is a difference between intelligent involvement and random chance must pay for such one-sided reporting. It is sad that the Intelligent Design idea has been hushed-up. Talk about loss of freedom of speech!

What it really comes down to, however, is that the claims of “Intelligent Design” are completely unscientific, and are not backed up by a shred of evidence that can withstand any sort of review. Any “evidence” posited by the ID side can inevitably be knocked down. For a large number of examples of this, visit the Index to Creationist Claims, which deals with all such “evidence” with comprehensive and devastating detail. Really, go take a look at it–it’s pretty impressive.

And that’s why Science ends up winning cases like the one in Dover: they have got their stuff together. I guess defending a theory successfully over a century and a half of arduous attack will leave you that way.

Though I kind of like the way Ars Mathematica put it, graphically:


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  1. Samuel Skinner
    January 14th, 2008 at 06:56 | #1

    Nice, but atheism isn’t a religion. I think you are refering to antitheism (the belief that religion is bad and should be eradicated). Religion has to do with the afterlife, man’s relationship with god or salvation (I think that covers all the religions). Atheism is the rejection of the idea behind the second point. Most atheists reject all supersticion and reject all three beliefs as simply being not true, but that isn’t necesary to be an atheist. Although it is true that atheism is a position on the idea of god, saying it is a religion is like saying a neocon is a pacific because he has a position on violence. Atheists simply show activism for the same reason that scientists true to get people interested in what they discovered: they value truth, can believe anyone could believe otherwise and get a kick out of someone who suddenly relizes they are right.

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