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An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part I

by Steven Novella, May 13 2013

On the SGU this week we did an interview with Don McLeroy, the former chairman of the Texas School Board of Education, famous for his (successful) attempts to insert wording into the science textbook standards that would open the door for creationist arguments.

The interview was very enlightening. In my opinion it was an excellent example of the power of motivated reasoning – if we have a conclusion in mind, people are very good at finding a mental path to get there.

We rarely do confrontational interviews on the SGU, but the few we have done I am generally happy with. The risk is that the tone of the interview will go sour. I have only done such interviews when I feel that the person being interviewed will be able to stay calm and professional even as we dismantle their position. Another risk is that the interviewee, who likely is a passionate and eloquent defender of their fringe position, will make it difficult to get a word in edgewise, resulting in a Gish Gallop.

Don McLeroy, I have to say, was an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments. This makes him a very interesting and valuable skeptical subject. I think he demonstrates a few phenomena about which skeptics should be aware.

First is that when we begin to learn critical thinking skills and principles we tend to apply them to the beliefs of others very easily, but only more reluctantly to our own beliefs. Second, when we do apply critical thinking skills to our own beliefs, the pathway of least cognitive dissonance is to use those skills to make our own rationalizations more subtle and sophisticated, rather than to actually change our core beliefs. The more strongly held those core beliefs are, the greater the mental barriers are to change them, the harder it is to get over the hump to actually changing our flawed beliefs.

Individuals can be in all three of these phases (critical of others, rationalizing our own beliefs, and being truly critical of our own beliefs) at the same time with respect to different beliefs.

With regard to evolution and creationism, Don McLeroy seems to be firmly in phase 2 – he is engaging in a fairly sophisticated form of denialism with respect to evolutionary theory.  In this and in a follow up post I will address what I found to be Don’s main points. I have also invited him to respond and publish his responses.

Free to Believe

One point Don made that was tangential to the evolution-creation discussion, but which I think reveals his perspective, is that he feels as a fundamentalist Christian he is more free to either accept or reject evolutionary theory than I am as an atheist. I have heard this argument before, but still found it stunning because it is exactly opposite to my impression of reality.

His logic superficially makes sense – those with religious beliefs accept both materialist and supernatural explanations of the world, while strict materialist atheists accept only materialist explanations. Therefore an atheist has no choice but to accept evolutionary theory. Meanwhile someone who is religious can either accept or reject it.

The former component of this argument is strictly true in that there are Christians who accept evolutionary theory. One can have faith and accept the findings of science. In fact, I would suggest that those who choose to maintain a personal faith find a way to do so without rejecting science or the findings of science.

However, this ignores the fact that certain denominations of Christianity have as a strong and firmly held part of their core faith the literal accuracy of (there interpretation of) their version of the Bible. They would have to radically change many of their core beliefs – their entire approach to their faith, if they accepted scientific findings that directly contradict their biblical interpretation (specifically in a recently created world).

Don may be free to accept evolution, but doing so would force him to rethink major aspects of his faith, actually changing his denomination to one that is not fundamentalist. I cannot take seriously the claim that this does not provide a powerful motivation to deny evolution.

We should not also ignore the cultural aspects of this. Young Earth creationism is now a subculture of belief, with their own publications, mythology, distorted and cherry picked facts, institutions, and websites. When someone is deeply embedded in this community, young earth creationism is both encouraged and supported with a robust and sophisticated network. This creates a deep psychological and social hole out of which for anyone to dig themselves.

On the flip side, it is also strictly true but misleading to argue that scientists are forced to accept materialism. Yes, science does require methodological naturalism, because the process of science cannot function otherwise. Science is about providing natural explanations for observed phenomena, so it is trivially and pointlessly true that science only offers naturalistic explanations.

Don’s point is therefore the equivalent of saying that mathematicians are forced to provide mathematical answers to mathematical problems, and they do so using mathematical equations and processes.

There is also the assumption in Don’s position that evolution is the only materialist possibility. When you follow the process of science, evolutionary theory is currently the answer to which all the evidence leads. If the evidence pointed in another direction, then that would be the currently accepted theory. If the evidence were ambiguous or scant, then perhaps the current answer would be, we don’t know.

Science is a process of following logic and evidence, so you cannot fault scientists for following logic and evidence to the conclusion of evolutionary theory.

Don’s argument also appears to contain a hidden assumption – that the goal of all this is to arrive at the Truth. This is a bit of a deep philosophical discussion, and there is a range of opinions here, but to give my quick summary – science is about producing testable theories that make predictions about how nature will behave and what we will observe in nature. It is not about metaphysical certitude, but about testable models.

At present evolutionary theory is the best model we have of how life changes over time, and how existing life got to its current form. It has withstood over 150 years of potential falsification. New scientific disciplines have arisen since Darwin (genetics, for example) that could have entirely falsified evolutionary theory, but instead have strengthened it.

Teaching science is about teaching scientific methods and the current best theories that have emerged from applying scientific methods. It is not about Truth or belief.

In my next post I will address more of the arguments that Don put forward in the interview.

Recommended Reading

18 Responses to “An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part I”

  1. David H. says:

    Great job presenting this interview, Steve. I listened to it this morning and was pleased to hear that he was, if wrong, at least reasonable–a creationist, but not a ranting creationist. One point that interested me was his admission that he had not always been a Christian–that he had never really thought about evolution before his conversion, he assumed that the scientists knew what they were talking about–then he found problems with it after he was “saved” (not his term). One thing that really bothered me: He kept insisting that the students can make up their own minds based on the “evidence” presented. But can they? Do he really believe that we believe that the students are not being pressured–in church and at home–to reject the science and accept the religious teaching? Baloney.

    • Max says:

      “Do he really believe that we believe that the students are not being pressured–in church and at home–to reject the science and accept the religious teaching?”

      He does religious teaching himself in Sunday School.
      http://blog.chron.com/texaspolitics/2012/10/film-documents-bid-to-stand-up-to-the-experts-on-evolution/

      But someone “has to stand up to the experts,” McLeroy asserts several times during the film. “Science doesn’t deserve the plateau it’s put on.”
      McLeroy’s pitch job is not always an easy one – not even with easy audiences. For example, he asks his Sunday school class: “Were dinosaurs on the ark?”
      The children respond with a chorus of “No!”
      “Sure they were,” McLeroy tells them.

  2. Max says:

    Good interview, but too focused on Evolution rather than the big picture, which is that a chairman of a board of education who is a crank who doesn’t accept the mainstream science and uses the Galileo gambit (“one of the most reliable indicators of a crank”) can “stand up to the experts” and demand that textbooks present what he thinks is the weakest evidence for something because to him the strongest evidence is not sufficient.
    I’d ask him how he’d like it if the next chairman of the board of education was a Holocaust denier who forced textbooks to talk about the lack of a written order issued by Hitler, or any other bogus denialist argument.

    • Daniel says:

      “I’d ask him how he’d like it if the next chairman of the board of education was a Holocaust denier who forced textbooks to talk about the lack of a written order issued by Hitler, or any other bogus denialist argument.”

      He might respond by saying that it’s the teachers of evolution that are the real holocaust deniers. Frankly, it would be as valid as the question itself.

      This reveals that comparing whomever to a holocaust denier is a form of circular logic. (You also hear it a lot when people compare something they don’t like to the “big lie”). We’d be better off leaving it out of things, and just address the holocaust deniers in their own right.

      • Max says:

        It’s not an argument that “evolution is true because Creationists are wrong like Holocaust deniers.” It’s an argument for limited government that McLeroy might understand: That even if he thinks he isn’t abusing his power, what about the next guy?

        Obviously McLeroy thinks evolution is false, but he admits that he disagrees with “the experts.” Well then, if he thinks that a chairman of the board of education can “stand up to the experts,” then what’s to prevent a Holocaust denier or any other crank from doing the same thing?

        The one thing he could say is that the public is on his side, and if the majority wants to teach their children that the Earth is flat, then it’s their choice. As long as it’s not religious, it doesn’t violate the First Amendment.
        All I can say to that is that people get the government they deserve. It just stinks that stupid decisions in Texas affect other states simply because Texas has a big population.

  3. Max says:

    It’s always funny to hear a religiously-motivated authority figure who “stands up to the experts,” comparing himself with Galileo.

  4. Citizen Wolf says:

    I found it to be a very interesting interview. I’d welcome more of this type, but as you pointed out, perhaps not always the easiest to organize.

    I disagree with his point that atheists are pre-determined to believe in evolution. That’s way off the mark. Most atheists believe in evolution because it’s the best explanation of the biological facts. If something better comes along with better evidence, then that’ll supercede the present theory. He also conflated atheism with belief in evolution. Another error.

    Anyway, good interview, if somewhat frustrating to realise that educational board policy is being dictated by such thinking.

  5. madscientist says:

    It’s a great example of how religion poisons the mind and even drives people to reject reality in favor of a deranged fantasy. This zombie Jesus I hear so much about – where is he?

  6. Titousensei says:

    Evolution is actually not the only materialist possibility. There was many hypotheses trying to explain the diversity of life. Lamarckism is a famous one. There was also many supernatural explanation attempts, such as spontaneous generation.
    They were all tested by fact and new discoveries, and all of them failed except evolution. That’s how science works: make a claim, test it. It doesn’t matter if the claim is supernatural or materialist.

    • Max says:

      Lamarckism is a type of evolution, just not by random mutations and natural selection.

  7. Mathew Goldstein says:

    You say “science does require methodological naturalism”. I disagree. Science is completely pragmatic, it will utilize any method that is productive and accept whatever conclusions follow from the available evidences. In our universe methodological supernaturalism is ruled out for one reason, and only one reason: It does not work. But again, this failure of methodological supernaturlism is a result of our universe being naturalistic, it is not an a-priori necessity of science. If methodological supernaturalism worked then scientists would practice methodological supernaturalism.

    • tony duncan says:

      Matthew,

      That is what interests me in certain forms of science fiction and Fantasy. David Brin wrote a fun book, “The Practice Effect”, and about a sort of Lamarkian physics. How his protagonist dealt with this new physics was very entertaining.
      Also Piers Anthony’s many books, and jack Chalker. My favorite being Barbara Hambly and her treatment of magic, as a complicated sophisticated “science”.
      My point being that I think atheists and other naturalists would LOVE it if there were supernatural powers that could be utilized for good or evil!

  8. Scott says:

    Great interview! You are right, such a calm, level-headed discussion is often impossible with people who represent a totally opposite viewpoint.

    I think it was great how it was pointed out that the one potential weakness in evolutionary theory (according to McElroy, anyway) is just one aspect of a greater set of much stronger arguments in favor of the TOE.

    It seems that people like McElroy view the theory of evolution as a house of cards – remove one card and the whole thing plummets to the ground , as if the theory is weak and sketchy.

    But it seems like the TOE is more like a fortified castle – one or two stones may be crumbling somewhat, but the structure as a whole is in no danger.

    In my opinion it is obvious what McElroy was trying to accomplish with the text book standards – create a situation in Texas where the thousands upon thousands of public school teachers who are creationists can emphasize the weaknesses of the aspects of evolutionary theory that are harder to support. At the same time, the more strongly supported aspects of the theory will be under-emphasized. In other words make it seem like evolution is just a house of cards by cherry picking what is emphasized.

    • Max says:

      “It seems that people like McElroy view the theory of evolution as a house of cards – remove one card and the whole thing plummets to the ground , as if the theory is weak and sketchy.”

      Same as conspiracy theorists like 9/11 truthers and Holocaust deniers: e.g. “No holes [in the roof of the gas chamber], no Holocaust.”

  9. Glen says:

    That interview was one of the best I’ve heard in a very long time. The civility was refreshing.

    While he was talking about cellular evolution, I kept envisioning someone walking up to him on a beach. He looks past them and sees the last few steps in the sand (that haven’t yet been washed away) and deduces “clearly you magically appeared out of the sand”.

    Which, to a certain degree is correct. That’s all the visual evidence there is. If I apply “science” the “evidence” indicates that you did not exist until 4 steps ago.

  10. Frank Jude Boccio says:

    Dr. Novella,

    I wish to be clear about your position. You write:

    “Don’s argument also appears to contain a hidden assumption – that the goal of all this is to arrive at the Truth. This is a bit of a deep philosophical discussion, and there is a range of opinions here, but to give my quick summary – science is about producing testable theories that make predictions about how nature will behave and what we will observe in nature. It is not about metaphysical certitude, but about testable models.”

    Do I take it then that you are not a realist (in the way scientists from Galileo to Einstein were, assuming the existence of a physical object domain with observer-independent values) and that your view of science and the scientific endeavor is purely of the descriptivist/instrumentalist perspective? I know such a view is fashionable since the hegemonic acceptance of the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, but such a view leads dangerously towards some rather disastrous relativist ideas.

    I’m asking because I am reading Christopher Norris’ book, “Quantum Theory and the Flight From Realism” and finding myself questioning some deep assumptions of my own.

    Thank you.