Whenever I read about the conventions held by creationists, it is always staggering to see so much ignorance of science and scholarship on display. If you read through one of their programs or peruse the abstracts, your mind is boggled at the bizarre thinking and intellectual contortions these people must attempt, from weird ideas of how to fit all living thing into Noah’s ark to odd explanations of where the flood waters came from and where they went, to even weirder ideas of why the universe appears to be 13.7 billion years old (but is only really 6000 years old), or why radiometric dating doesn’t work or how to explain the complex geologic history of the earth with Bronze Age myths of superstitious shepherds. One paper after another is replete with special pleading, ad hoc and supernatural “explanations”, none of which would pass muster in even an introductory physics or geology class. As I discussed in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, these people are profoundly ignorant of real science and proud of it, because their faith comes first. Sadly, they have about 40% or so of the American public believing their anti-scientific view of the world.
No matter how weird their ideas seem to the outsider, we can at least understand their motivation. To the fundamentalist creationist, a literal interpretation of their version of the Bible is a life-or-death, salvation-or-damnation matter, which is why they invest so much energy confusing people with their distorted ideas about sciences like evolution, geology, anthropology, and astronomy. If one truly believes that Darwinism will lead you to hell’s door, we can see what makes them think this way, no matter how wrong it seems to us. But, as we smugly assert, they are just fringe religious fanatics, and they are only fighting the most recent scientific battle over evolution (that still rages 152 years later). Surely, the great victories of science, such as the Copernican system of astronomy and the Einsteinian revolution in physics, are no longer disputed and even religious fanatics accept them. Right?
There you would be wrong. Literal interpretation of the Bible is not only inconsistent with evolution, but it also extends to other claims about the world as well. Google the term “Flat Earth Society” and you’ll find websites describing small but sincere groups of believers who are convinced that the earth is not a sphere but a flat disk. When confronted with photographs of the earth from space, they always claim that these images are fraudulent or doctored in some way. When the topic of the Moon landings is brought, up they claim it was all a NASA hoax filmed in a sound stage. Their insistence on a flat earth and a geocentric view of the world (with the earth, not the sun, at the center of the solar system) is based on biblical literalism. There are many verses in the Bible (e.g., Isaiah 11: 12, 40:22, 44:24) that say so, and they believe the Bible must be literally true. Most people find these people and their ideas amusing and silly, but their belief system is just as strongly held as the beliefs of many of their audience. Nevertheless, if you read their screeds, you find they are deadly serious and fanatical about their dogmas. The passage below from the Sept. 1988 issue of their journal (complete with their own bad grammar and spellings, and odd use of ALL CAPS) is typical:
“IN USA today, as in Russia in ’20s and NAZI Germany in ’40s full scale campaign to create USA ALSO A BEAST NATION… no God… no right no wrong no up no down 2 added to 2 is whatever scientists say it is… Adults today either jailed or shot down… at own homes for even teaching their own children… GOD EXISTS and Right and Wrong exists (State of Utah)… bells have been tolling for so long… for the helpless pitiful innocent ‘animals’ as they are tortured to death by priests of the State Religion ‘GREASE BALL SCIENCE’… now … 1988 … no use, too late… to send to see for whom the bell tolls… THE BELL TOLLS FOR THEE!”
Likewise, there is an entire group of religious fanatics who still believe that Copernicus and Galileo (and every astronomer since then) was wrong and the Church was right in insisting the earth was the center of the universe. They held a conference in November 2010, with dozens of speakers with impressive-sounding credentials (but none with any true scientific training in astronomy). If you look at the list of talk titles, they are a mix of weird science, paranoid conspiracy theories that claim the shots of earth from space are hoaxed, and apologists for the literal interpretation of the Bible (which does indeed claim the earth is the center of the universe, as all ancient cultures believed). Ironically, the Catholic Church has long ago apologized for its persecution of Galileo by the Inquisition, and for its long rejection of the heliocentric system, so clearly they do not endorse these views by “Catholics” who don’t follow their own Church’s teachings.
The latest convention of crackpots and crazies occurred on the weekend of July 6-9, 2011, when the “Natural Philosophy Alliance” held their 18th Annual Conference at the University of Maryland, claiming 269 participants with 138 abstracts. The term “Natural Philosophy” in the title is a clue, because that’s what people used to call investigations of nature (usually in the context of studying God’s handiwork) before the term “science” came along with its secular influences and emphasis on experiment and testability. The entire world of “natural philosophy” faded away slowly in the mid-nineteenth century as truly scientific ideas like evolution, modern chemistry and physics, and uniformitarian geology drove out the old-fashioned religion-based approach to the natural world.
So who are these “natural philosophers” in the 21st century world of modern science? If you scan down the list of named “scientists”, you’ll find a lot of writers, “independent researchers,” engineers, artists, film makers, a dairy farmer—but hardly any real scientists. Some claim the title “Dr.” in their biographies, but when you look closer, their “doctorates” are questionable ones from diploma mills. If their credentials are legit, their doctorate is in a field far from what they were talking about at the conference, such as philosophy or religion, not science. Almost none with doctorates seem to have ever held an academic position, so they were seldom exposed to the continuous challenge of skepticism, peer review, and scientific give and take that real scientists must continually deal with. Instead, most seem to have made their living outside of science where their ideas are not challenged.Their entire output seems to be abstracts for conferences like this one, or publications in their own journals, or self-published books. Clearly they are afraid of peer review by real scientists. A good indicator of the disreputable nature of the meeting is the large number of abstracts published “in absentia” with no speaker to deliver the paper or defend the abstract. This is not tolerated at real scientific meetings, where you are supposed to designate a backup speaker if you can’t attend, or withdraw your abstract. No hiding from your peers is allowed!
But let’s not resort to an ad hominem argument—maybe these people is actually on to something that scientists have missed. Unfortunately, a scan through their abstracts is even more discouraging. The program is a veritable smorgasbord of nearly every discredited idea that ended up on the scientific trash heap over the past 200 years. Most are attempts to restore “intuitive” notions about physics against the counter-intuitive world of modern physics and cosmology, from many attacks on Einstein and relativity (complete with “Neo-Newtonian theory”, even though we still use good old Newtonian mechanics in most everyday matters), to weird ideas about gravity and electromagnetism, to attempts to deny heliocentrism or the nature of the universe. The long-extinct concept of “ether” (debunked a century ago) makes its reappearance, which seems truly odd to anyone who is raised in modern science and has only heard of it as an historical mistake. Several of these presentations are actually modern versions of Velikovsky’s crackpot notions of planets violating the laws of physics as an attempt to explain biblical miracles. There were a handful of geological talks proclaiming weird ideas about the earth that no one has taken seriously in a century, and showing just how ignorant the speaker is about modern geology. Apparently, these folks don’t discuss biology much here, so the meeting focuses mostly on attacking modern physics, not evolutionary biology.
So what is going on here? If you read the abstracts carefully, you’ll find that a few of the authors reveal religious motivations or attempts to square reality with the Bible (as Velikovsky tried to do). But most seem to be old-fashioned Luddites, battling against modern physics and cosmology because it is counter-intuitive and not easy to understand without advanced training in physics and mathematics (which most of the speakers apparently lack). In contrast to a convention of creationists twisting the science to fit the Bible, most of these guys (almost none are women) are just old-fashioned cranks who think they have a great idea—but are unwilling to listen to any legitimate scientists who might prove them wrong. Thus, they preach to the converted and speak to conventions of other fringe scientists and crackpots, publish their non-peer-reviewed abstracts, and pad their “credentials” as if this would make their ideas any more credible or scientific.
We laugh at them and go on with our lives, thinking that their pathetic “convention” is of no consequence. But there are serious issues here. First, why was the University of Maryland renting out its space to crackpot pseudoscientists? There are lots of convention centers and hotels that will host meetings of any size regardless of affiliation—so why does a major research university allow these pseudoscientists on campus? I realize that state universities are desperate for money these days, but this is scandalous. Are they just selling out to the highest bidder to use their empty buildings in the summer? If so, they might as well rent their buildings to Neo-Nazis or con artists or fundamentalists doing revival meetings. Don’t they realize that each time a legitimate research university sells its soul to pseudoscientists for a few bucks, they are giving the cranks the appearance of legitimacy—and sullying their own reputation?
But there’s an even larger question. We may laugh at this gathering of 269 crazies once a year (or 2143 “scientists” their website claims for the “World Science Database”) as inconsequential. Yet there are a lot more of them out there. The office of the Skeptic Society gets letters and phone calls and emails from cranks several times a day, all claiming to have the latest “great idea” that they want Skeptic to publish. But even though they are not as numerous as the creationists, who hold 40% of the American population in the their thrall, these pseudoscientists are a clear example of why science has to stand up against nonsense, not ignore it. The creationists’ current favorite political tactic is “teach the controversy”, where their garbage is given “equal time” with legitimate science—and a large percentage of politicians and the American public agree with this and think it is only fair. What happens when a state with “equal time” legislation on the books (like Louisiana) decides to teach “the controversy” about geocentrism, ether, Velikovsky’s ideas, and attempts to discredit Einsteinian relativity and modern physics in their classes instead of teaching real physics? All these anti-scientists need do is point to the “Natural Philosophy Association” and their many “published abstracts” and meetings, or get one of their “scientists” to testify—and then our students would be just as misled about physics or chemistry or geology as they currently are about modern biology.
We’ve all heard stories about crackpots like this—but they are much more numerous than you realize, and no longer isolated, but meeting at their own conventions and “publishing abstracts” so that a layperson wouldn’t know the difference between them and real scientists. That is no laughing matter.