SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part II – Creationism

by Steven Novella, Dec 08 2008

Last week I gave an overview of what I believe is one of the core missions of the skeptical movement – to fight the good fight against pseudoscience and mysticism. This week I will discuss what is perhaps our greatest victory to date – our vigilant campaign against creationist incursions.

This one issue nicely illustrates many of the points I made in Part I of this series any may even provide a road map forward for some of our other issues.

A Brief History of Creationism

The various forms of creationism, including its most recent incarnation in so-called Intelligent Design, are really just evolution denial. The theory of evolution has been culturally controversial since it was formally proposed by Darwin and Wallace in 1859. it is not hard to imagine why, it shattered one of the pillars of the human ego – that we are something more than animals, than the accidental products of nature.

Evolution also flew in the face of religious dogma, at a time when the institutions of science were very much in the ascendancy. While some religious sects accommodated the advance of science, others did not. In the US, certain fundamentalist Christian sects chose to draw their line in the sand at evolution. Evolution became “evilution” – the enemy, the cause of all evil in the world.

Meanwhile, the scientific controversy over evolution was rather brief, lasting a few decades at most. The fossil, genetic, developmental, geological and biological evidence quickly piled up in favor of the various aspects of Darwin’s theory: common descent, change over time, and natural selection acting on variation as the dominant mechanism (I will heretofore refer to these collectively simply as evolution).

But while scientists were quickly convinced by the evidence, the public was not. This disconnect continues to the present day. Greater than 98% of working scientists accept evolution as established fact, while less than 50% of the public does. Scientific understanding of the processes and history of evolution has advanced incredibly, and the modern synthesis of evolution is a rich, subtle, elegant, and beautiful theory. Meanwhile the public understanding of evolution is stuck on the 150 year-old basic concepts of survival of the fittest and branching descent. I doubt any significant portion of the public can give a cogent definition of punctuated equilibrium, coaptation, homology, or mechanisms of speciation.

Legal Strategies

Most skeptics are familiar with the litany of creationist assaults on the teaching of evolution in public schools – the primary battleground of this particular issue. The evolution-creationism conflict is all about what gets taught to students in school, and what goes into their textbooks.

The bad news for the US is that creationism has been a bigger problem here than in any other Western country. The good news, however, is that we also have a powerful weapon against it – the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

It began with laws that flat-out banned the teaching of evolution and favored the teaching of biblical creationism. Creationists tried to simply legislate a victory that they could not have scientifically. Tennessee’s version of this law was the Butler Bill, which stated:

“unlawful for any teacher in any of the. . . public schools. . .to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

This law was challenged in the famous Scopes trial of 1926. John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution, but his conviction was thrown out on appeal on a technicality. This was a defeat, however, for the defenders of evolution because it meant that the law would not be challenged at the state or federal Supreme Court level.

Anti-evolution laws remained on the books for the next several decades, and generations of Americans were simply not taught about the central theory of biology. Anti-evolution laws were eventually declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in the Epperson vs Arkansas case of 1962.

This led to the “creation science” movement. Creationism could not be taught in public schools because it is religious faith, so proponents simply renamed it “creation science” and lobbied for laws demanding equal time for creation science alongside evolution. They got 25 years out of this strategy, but then in 1987 equal time laws for creation science were declared unconstitutional in the Edwards vs Aguillard decision.

Time for another rebranding. “Creation science” became “Intelligent Design” with a literal cut and paste of these terms in creationist texts. Creationists wanted another go at the “equal time” argument, but this time with the words “God” and “creation” purged from their text. They also changed “equal time” to “teach the controversy.”

This strategy failed its first legal test in 2005 in the Kitzmiller vs Dover case. Judge John E. Jones III essentially concluded that the ID proponents were not fooling anyone. Even though their rhetoric may be more subtle and sophisticated than the blatant Butler Bill, their intent was exactly the same.

Now we are into the next phase of this apparently never-ending game. Creationists are now claiming that they are really for academic freedom – which is just another way of saying they want equal time to teach the controversy. It’s ironic that the creationist movement began by banning the teaching of an accepted scientific theory, and now are whining about being oppressed and all they ever really wanted was academic freedom. Right.

It also appears that the next phase will take the battle beyond evolution itself. ID proponents in particular have identified the enemy not just as evolution, but as materialism – the philosophical underpinnings of science itself (the stakes are indeed high). Next on the hit list of materialist science is neuroscience – the study of mind and consciousness.

The Battlegrounds

There are several battlegrounds in this debate. One is the textbook industry. After the Scopes trial, evolution became too controversial for science textbook publishers, so they removed the “E” word from their books. This battle was lost for almost the rest of the 20th century. While evolution started to creep back into textbooks after 1962, the quality was abysmal. It is only recently, perhaps the last 20 years, that most biology textbooks approach a decent treatment of evolution (at least compared to their treatment of science in general, which in my opinion is unacceptably poor).

Another battleground is the legislature. This battleground has seen one tactical loss in the Scope trial, but ever since then we have had a string of unmitigated victories. Whenever laws meddling in the teaching of science come before the higher courts, the First Amendment has prevailed.

It is for this reason, in fact, that creationists have tried to change the battleground to the local level. They started fighting at the level of the school board and at the state level with the science standards. In this arena there has been a mix of victory and defeat. Creationists can pack a school board or department of education committee, and get their anti-evolution agendas passed. Sometimes public attention reverses the trend and rational standards are reinstated. But this continues to be a raging battle with no definitive victory on either side. We are seeing this play out now in Texas over the state science standards.

And finally, perhaps the most important battleground – the mind of the public. The consensus of various surveys indicates that we are not doing well here. Less than half the public accepts evolution as an established scientific fact, and this number has not changed much over the last half century. It’s not clear exactly what to make of this. Perhaps this is a battle we cannot win – to the faithful, faith will always trump science. As long as fundamentalists are preaching lies about evolution from the pulpit, it may not matter what gets taught in the science classroom.

Or, perhaps there has simply not been enough time. Improved evolution teaching may take generations to have a significant effect, and we have not achieved that goal yet. Evolution is still not being taught adequately, if at all, in many school districts. Meanwhile, the science of evolution is steadily advancing. In the long run I think that will count for something.

The Evolution of Evolution Defenders

The story behind this story is that the skeptical movement had played, and continues to play, a central role in defending evolution from its deniers. The mainstream scientific community correctly perceived the threat from creationism, but they did not have the tools necessary to fight it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by Duane Gish, a “creation scientist” who made a career going around the country debating biologists and evolutionary scientists in public. Most of the scientists who squared off against Gish got their clocks cleaned. They naively believed that because they were right – because they had science on their side – that they could easily win. They actually thought that being right was enough.

They were not sufficiently familiar with the specific claims of the creationists, the ways in which they distort science, the half-truths they tell about the findings of science, and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) logical fallacies they commit to throw doubt upon science. They also did not understand the nature and pitfalls of public debate itself. They got blind-sided. They became stooges for Gish’s traveling show.

(As a side note, many of you likely know that our own Michael Shermer debated Gish. He did as well as can be expected, but even he learned a few lessons from the experience – mainly that open debate is an inherently disadvantageous setting for the side of science. It falls victim to the infamous “Gish Gallop” – in which lies and misconceptions are thrown out in such great number that you can never deal with them all.)

Who came to the rescue and truly held the front lines of this battle, were skeptics and science popularizers. Those who spent their time explaining science to the public understood best how creationists were manipulating the public perception of evolution. Stephen J. Gould, for example, was key to the 1987 Edwards vs Aguillard victory. Since then other science popularizers, like Kenneth Miller, have played a central role. The most popular science blog is Pharyngula by PZ Myers – a developmental biologist who takes on the creationists at every opportunity.

And of course Eugenie Scott took up the banner of evolution full time with the National Center for Science Education. She has been an effective watch dog on creationist shenanigans – she is like a general, sending in troops whenever skirmishes break out at the local level. The NCSE performed a Herculean task, organizing the expert testimony for evolution during the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial.

It is important to recognize that these people and institutions are not simply extensions of mainstream science. They are skeptics, either all-purpose or specialists in the creation-evolution issue.

What’s more is that the skeptical community has done an outstanding job of dissecting every last creationist argument and pointing out in detail all misstatements of fact and logical fallacies. They have not only understood the tactics used by creationists, but even started anticipating their next moves.

Skeptics have also done a great job of educating mainstream scientists about creationism. I recently interviewed Steven Schafersman of Texans for Science and Reason for the Skeptics’s Guide podcast. He has been on the front line for decades, and he reports that 20 years ago he was the lone skeptical voice fighting in Texas. When scientists were called upon to give testimony before the school board, they generally did not understand the arguments of creationists, they often argued past them, and basically didn’t get it.

At the recent hearings for the Texas science standards, however, his experience has been totally different. Scientists and even students are making cogent on-target arguments. They have the creationist arguments nailed. And they understand how to explain this to non-scientists.

Perhaps the skeptical community has actually managed to educate the mainstream scientific community about creationism, how to combat it, and the importance of defending science in the public arena. Maybe that’s partly why ID proponents are shifting their efforts to neuroscience – they want a naïve specialty to go after.


At the beginning of this post I characterized creationism as perhaps our greatest victory. And yet I also described that we have had a mixture of victories and defeats on the various battlegrounds of this issue, and have made little progress in the ultimate goal of changing public opinion.

Yet I maintain my former claim because on this issue the skeptical movement has discovered how to be successful. We have formed dedicated watchdog organizations, we have websites and books to serve as detailed references, and we have learned the tactics of our opponents and actually try to counter them, rather than just naively playing into them. We have clearly defined the relevant battle lines, and have strategies to deal with them. We can mobilize the troops at a moments notice.

Even more importantly, we have fully partnered with the mainstream scientific community and have even trained them how to be good skeptics and science popularizers on this issue – or at least they understand their value. And within academia, otherwise ivory-tower academics know exactly what you mean when you bring up the issue of creationist incursions into science education.

There is much work ahead – but we are winning.

Next week I will discuss what is currently our greatest failure.

53 Responses to “Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part II – Creationism”

  1. Rob says:

    Eugenie Scott was in Louisville last week to give a couple of talks at U of L, and my wife and I, skeptics through-and-through, went over to attend.

    The one I got to see was about Kitzmiller vs. Dover, and what (legally) is coming next. The one I missed was about TEACHING evolution. I would have loved to see that, too.

    Dr. Scott brought up a point that has always bugged me since I started paying attention to what the creationists were saying…

    The scientists have a vastly different definition of the word THEORY than the public does. To a scientist, a theory is something that has been hypothesized, tested, evaluated, adjusted, etc. It’s rigorous. When something is a theory, it’s as good as a fact (Dr. Scott said it was “better than a fact”).

    The public, however, uses the casual definition of THEORY, which is basically no more than some random idea. “I have a theory that the rainbows I see in my lawn sprinklers are caused by crazy chemicals the government is dumping in the ground.”

    So when scientists talk about the “Theory of evolution”, a lot of the public sees it as just an idea. It might be true, but it might not.

    I think that’s one BIG problem that we face. If the public thinks the scientists aren’t even sure if it’s true, then they’re surely not going to come on that bandwagon. I don’t know the best way to educate the common man about the difference between a theory and a Theory, but…

    …we’ve got to find a way.

  2. Mike B says:

    Rob – I wish I had known about this. We need a Louisville Skeptical Society, especially being so close to the bible belt and being home to the “six flags over jesus” church.

  3. At least a lot of you are dealing with the ID Creationists who at least consider that the earth may be older than 600 years… Down here in the Panhandle of Florida, the Young Earth Creationists are rampant.

    Rob, I know exactly what you mean. An essay I found that has been somewhat useful (for people with at least a partially open mind) is located here: I know I am constantly pulling out those analogies.

  4. Julian says:

    “So when scientists talk about the “Theory of evolution”, a lot of the public sees it as just an idea. It might be true, but it might not.”

    Probably the saddest part of all this. From now on I’m going to outline as much evidence as I can and ask them ‘Given all this, how would you describe evolution?’ Maybe that will have an effect on the one-on-one level but we can’t change the PR bit.

  5. It is important to recognize that these people and institutions are not simply extensions of mainstream science. They are skeptics, either all-purpose or specialists in the creation-evolution issue.

    Yes, this is a key point. Even for an issue of this scale, one which regularly achieves national prominence, the task of tracking and responding to pseudoscientific and paranormal claims is either picked up by dedicated skeptical activists — or it is left undone.

    This is true for any given paranormal claim, no matter how dangerous, and all the more so for smaller, more local, more specialized, or less visible claims. Either skeptics like the contributors and audience of this blog make a conscious decision to personally do something about the claim in front of them, or they choose to give it free rein do its mischief.

    That story sitting smugly in the Lifestyle section of your local paper this morning, the one you’ll be complaining to your spouse about at dinner? Any responsible action on that topic is up to you — you personally. No one else, typically, will do anything about it.

  6. SeanJJordan says:


    I’m a former creationist myself. I was raised in a very conservative Christian home, and grew up going to churches that taught that science was an institution of atheism and that evolution was designed as a counter-claim to rob God of his glory. It’s only been in the last five years that I’ve shed my religious worldview, and I’m still in a position where I can understand the “believer mentality” and have some sympathy for how the majority of pro-creationists feel.

    One of the problems with a lot of the discourse I’ve seen is the way that the skeptics and scientists approach the problem. Most Christian denominations teach that the Bible is the cornerstone of truth and that whenever science disagrees with it, it is science that is wrong, not the Bible. Many Christians honestly believe that science is designed to provide explanations around religion, and most do not understand what science is truly about. When they attend these debates, they are less concerned about understanding which side has more evidence and more concerned with having their own views affirmed. In fact, even if they are disconfirmed with overwhelming evidence, they are still likely to continue to hang on to their beliefs. Studies of millenarian sects (the people who believe their savior is going to return soon and set the world right) have shown that an irrefutable disconfirmation can occur two or three times before believers will begin to question their convictions. This is exactly why churches can claim that the rapture is going to occur on 6-06-06 and still continue to function years later after that day comes and goes.

    A commonly held misconception is that ignorance should be fought with truth. This simply creates conflict, particularly since the other side feels that it holds the truth as well. The reality is that ignorance needs to be fought with understanding. Many Christians would accept 99% of all the science that’s being practiced because it’s evident that science provides good things. But they don’t know how to think critically about it, and they reject the entirety of science because of the 1% they’re opposed to. If they had a better understanding of science and its aims, they might be more likely to move past their emotional response and consider cognitive arguments that challenge their views.

    I would suggest that the way to combat creationism on a social level is to focus on the common ground. An outreach program where scientists and skeptics can work with churches would be ideal. For example, most church groups don’t believe in ghosts or in psychics. Many are also on their guard against faith healers, alternative medicines and modern day prophets. Skeptics can use this to help educate churches about the nature of pseudoscience, and explain how the scientific method works and why we can trust it. The connection between creationism and pseudoscience doesn’t have to be specifically drawn; many people will make that connection on their own over time once they learn how to evaluate pseudoscientific claims.

    Believe it or not, many Christians are less certain of their faith in creationism than they want to admit. But they look at the good things that their churches provide for them, and they feel the pressure to accept the creationist teaching because it is part of the group norm. If scientists and skeptics can work with churches to inspire thinking rather than to stand across the line in the sand in opposition, far more will be accomplished.

  7. Sean,

    I completely agree with you – up until the false dichotomy at the end. When dealing with public understanding of science, outreach and education is our approach. And we endeavor to do this from the kind of perspective that you present. I agree that it may be necessary to change the culture of fundamentalist religion to move the poll numbers on belief in evolution – we have to show them that science is not the enemy.

    However, in the meantime there are very real battles being fought over public school education, science standards, textbooks, academic standards, and what counts as science. We cannot pull back from these conflicts out of fear of being confrontational.

    The challenge is to pursue these goals simultaneously. This is a real dilemma, and I don’t think anyone has the one perfect answer. But I don’t think we can give up on any front.

  8. Here’s a new approach:

    As one poster said in the comments: It’s a bizarre thought.. instead of saying “Evolution isn’t necessarily true so we shouldn’t teach it” it’s “Evolution is SO necessarily true that it’s obvious and we shouldn’t teach it!”

  9. Rob says:

    Mike B – there is the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers, whose meetup website is I haven’t attended anything of theirs yet, but my wife and I are considering joining up with them soon. That being said, I don’t think they had anything on there meetup site about Dr. Scott’s visit.

    Larian – I really like the car/slingshot analogy for theories/facts. Thanks for that link.

    Steven – your comment in #7 is something else Dr. Scott mentioned in her talk (I know, I sound like a fawning groupie). We need to keep up efforts to keep this I.D. nonsense out of our schools, because they are working at the local level now, trying to gain a foothold any way they can. If they’re not stopped at every turn, they’ll start to gain momentum.

  10. SeanJJordan says:


    Thanks for the response! I appreciate what you’ve been doing for the skeptical perspective, and I’ve enjoyed your articles and your podcast!

    My apologies on one point — I didn’t mean for that final paragraph to sound like an either/or dichotomy, but rather two extreme ends of a scale. I’m a graduate student in a marketing research program, so I’m used to thinking of extremes and assuming that the truth will fall somewhere in the middle. That’s good and well for attitudes about purchase intent, but I forget to check myself for that in my arguments on more important issues.

    And speaking of extremes, the talks I’ve had with my Christian friends have reminded me that most perceive the “pro-evolution” side as being solely filled with people like PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, who are all thoroughly disliked in Christian circles for their insistence on atheism and tendency to antagonize those with deeply held beliefs. Or, I should say, that is the Christian _perception_ of these gentlemen, filtered through other sources; I don’t know many Christians who will pick up “The God Delusion” or “The End of Faith” unless their purpose is to debunk these books with apologetic arguments and scripture references.

    The recent incident with the Cincinnati Zoo, for example, may appear to be a triumph for reason in the short term, but I suspect that it could be one of the many things that is used to galvanize creationists against modern science. That’s not to say that the Zoo made a bad decision by canceling its promotion; it never should have paired up with the Creation museum in the first place. It is to say that these things have broader implications than those in the thick of the fight may realize.

    I would never say that these battles should not be fought; they are clearly important and relevant, and the creationist view has no place in a science class. But those fighting them need to be conscious of the fact that many Christians believe that evil is not simply a moral construct, but the natural state of the world. These Christians believe that spiritual beings actively battle to influence people in one direction or the other. Thus anyone who opposes “the truth” is in rebellion against God, and likely influenced by the lies of unseen devils. Myers, Dawkins and Harris don’t care if they’re “going to hell” because they don’t believe it exists. But these Christians are appalled that there are those out there who would choose to embrace a “lie,” and they believe these ideas are straight out of Satan’s mouth.

    Anyhow, sorry to wax on about this. Perhaps my biggest concern with the skeptical community is that many skeptics are so pro-atheism that they are unable to understand how they are perceived by those who have religious viewpoints. When I was a Christian and a creationist, I disliked Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould immensely for what I took to be arrogance against God. Now, I read their writings and am stunned by their humility towards the universe. It took a major shift in my thinking to understand that. As we say in the marketing field, “perception, not reality, is what influences belief.”

  11. Jason says:

    Hi Steven,

    I was wondering if you’d consider expanding on the upcoming battleground of neuroscience that you alluded to in this article, with respect to its likely manifestation in this ridiculous culture war.

    I have recently been reading up on some current research in this area, specifically with regards to the studies in the areas of the emergent properties of consciousness, but the accessible information is few and far between for the layman not trained in medicine. While reading about it, just after having listened to some of the audio of the Texas SBOE meetings, I immediately thought about its implications for this ongoing battle between science and dogmatic credulity.

    I think it’d be a great topic, but regardless, I’ll continue enjoying your show and your entries on this blog.


  12. dogscratcher says:

    Rob: “The public, however, uses the casual definition of THEORY”

    Very true, but a related problem in my opinion, is that a lot of scientists use the casual definition… casually, which then gets quoted by various purveyors of pseudo/anti-science.

  13. Brandon says:

    I should report that there’s something about this post in particular that is making the article unviewable in Internet Explorer.

  14. I redid the text and now it works in IE.

  15. Bob Kirk says:

    Reading these comments I am struck by the fact that local politicians can determine what is science by selecting the science textbooks. In the UK, for example, the curriculum is set nationally, and the text books have to cover that. The way things in the USA are done seems to be different (OK, maybe I’m too influenced by the account Richard Feynman gave of reviewing text books in “Surely you’re joking mister Feynman ?”), and I suspect that national standards for science teaching need to be set.
    As a start, why don’t the American Association for the Advancemt of Science start vetting of text books ? Surely scientists could give up spare time to review text books, and give them a rating. OK, this would be unofficial, but the publicity should put pressure on text book writers/publishers to improve quality, and pressure local school boards to use better text books.
    You skeptologists have the connections to get such a scheme started; how about it ?

  16. Mike says:

    From a UK perspective the creationism debate is largely an American phenomenon as Steven acknowledges. I have often wondered why – it might perhaps be related to the fact that Americans are much more religious than any other advanced industrialised country.

    In the UK as society has advanced it has become more secular and churchgoers represent a tiny fraction of the population. We have an established religion, religious schools and it is compulsory to teach religion in state schools yet creationism has struggled to find a foothold over here.

    I am not sure what conclusions to draw from the above and what advice I can offer our American cousins other than to keep up the struggle. Steven’s blog as always is well written and full of sense.

  17. Ian Mason says:

    Mike’s comment is also true of where I live in Denmark. Creationists are regarded as a bizzare bunch. However, the other kinds of “New Age”
    and “Anciet Wisdom” groups thrive. Any critic of them is swept aside with knowing looks and the incomplete Shakespeare quote of “there are more things in heaven and earth….”. A real pain in the Khyber Pass.
    Keep on going, American cousins. You are not alone.

  18. Cambias says:

    I kind of have to agree with Sean, above: the conflation of a scientific or skeptical worldview with the kind of aggressive atheism so often on display isn’t helping anything. We should indeed be looking for common ground rather than staking out a place in opposition.

    For example, keeping Creationism out of schools might actually be easier if one could get the Christians on the school board to agree that teaching Creationism could open the door to all sorts of pernicious mysticism, and that science class should be kept for science only.

    Instead, too often the rationalists and skeptics are reduced to shouting “You’re all STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!” like the alien at the climax of “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

    • Wrong says:

      I honestly don’t see how you can see that. The rationalist and skeptical response to creationism in schools is: It isn’t science. That’s it.

      And the percieved “Aggressive Atheism” isn’t real either, when I was religious, I didn’t think much of Dawkins. I also wouldn’t have recognised him. I never listened to him, saw his lectures, or even knew that he had a degree.

      Few religious folk try to view things which contradict their beliefs. I can’t think of any of the more controversial atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Atheist Experience, specifically Matt Dillahunty, or Sam Harris) who aren’t rational, and polite (Mostly), and I’d take exception to the whole “Extremist” and “Aggressive” angle people put on it.

      Religion had its turn, and is happy to brainwash impressionable people. Anything else, is small fries.

      More importantly, as I heard it put of the far right “Anything to the left of you must seem like communism” I’d extend this to religious people: Anything that denies god, to them, must seem like an aggressive and satanic principle.

  19. BillDarryl says:

    There is much work ahead – but we are winning.

    I just caught PZ Meyer’s lecture this last week here in Orlando. The topic of the lecture was science education, and he concluded that in the creationist battles, we are indeed winning… in the courts.

    But culturally, we are losing.

    The creationist camps are running their plays around the schools and going directly to the hearts and minds of the general population, getting their attention by painting academia as the elite “other” who is trying to stifle alternative beliefs. They are getting more and more creative in their tactics – for example, some aim to get their doctorates just so the ID movement has more “PhD” initials to flaunt.

    No matter how many times the courts can lay the smackdown on ID and keep the classrooms pristine, it will mean nothing if people generally distrust the classroom’s teachings (leading to private schools, home schooling, etc).

    So tic off a win as it happens, but we can’t assume winning is assured. This is no time for back slapping, no time for marching bands – this is the time to put up or shut up because the future is at hand.

  20. BillDarryl says:

    I’m sorry, Dr. N… you covered my point exactly (and far more eloquently) in the second to last paragraph of “The Battlegrounds” section.

    Don’t know how I missed that.

  21. Dave says:

    I have to agree with Sean; confrontation is not what will work with creationists. Most believe that obfuscation, hiding the truth, or out-and-out lying when done in the name of furthering their cause is not sinful. Let’s not make martyrs of creationists.

    • Wrong says:

      Let’s not make matyrs of science: Giving up the confrontation is not an option. We can’t let them teach their rubbish. Imagine how bad the situation is now. Now imagine how much worse it would be if the next generation of scientists, skeptics, and the general public, were taught in science class that creation is fact, and evolution is slanderous lies. It’s a fight that may not endear us to the religious, but that’s their problem. We’ve got the duty to keep science scientific, and stuff the rest. Confrontational tactics may be less than effective some times, but they are definitely necessary much of the time.

  22. John Paradox says:

    Just a note, NetFlix now has “Expelled” available, either via the mail or on their Instant View:

    Beats actually paying for it.


  23. Erika says:

    Just had to delurk and drop a comment here — one problem I see with the normal confrontation between ID and Evolution is the all/or worldview on both sides. Much as Sean commented, many times the refutation of ID leads directly into the refutation of Christianity. Basically, it boils down to: “ID is a fantasy. And you’re all dimwits to believe such a fantasy. In fact, your basic belief structure is stupid and not worthy of dialogue; it’s only worth taunting and insulting and laughing at.”

    Somehow this type of rational confrontation doesn’t work well… Substitute science for ID and Christianity, and how insulted would you be? Richard Dawkins has some great points, but he really is self-involved in proving how stupid the rest of the world is to take comfort in a religion than become an atheist like him. The tactic of insulting someone’s faith really needs to be tamped down, or stopped when it isn’t necessary.

    When it is necessary, religion should be refuted, but not insulted. This is someone’s worldview, and they will cling to it no matter what. Atheist or Buddhist or Christian, we all cling to the worldview we’ve developed.

    Instead, we should keep focussing on the basic idea: Evolution is a proven scientific explanation of how life, and the earth, changed thru the eons, and how life and earth will continue to change. Understanding science is necessary to function intelligently in today’s society. ID is not science, it is a religious explanation of how a portion of humanity sees themselves. Thus ID should never be taught as a science, or in a science setting. However, ID may be presented in a philosophical class for comparison with other religions and worldviews.

    IMHO, of course…

    • Wrong says:

      I’m not sure you’ve watched Dawkins, since the way you speak reminds me distinctly of his way of speaking. For instance, the referances to the philosophy and religion of the individual being caused by what they were raised with, the necessity of science etc.

      I’d like to point this out once and for all: Dawkins is not the giant ass the media, and christians, portray him to be. If you’ll watch any of his speeches, you’ll see that he’s a softly spoken person, passionate about rationalism, the necessity of critical thinking, logic, and ethics. There’s a common misconception about him, that he’s a jerk, an asshole, or something, but it seems to be entirely fictional.

  24. Jason says:


    Nevermind, I found your two entries on the topic of neuroscience and consciousness, and how it relates to the creationism/ID movement over at Neurologica:

    Great posts, and I’m ever so glad that someone in the know is keeping an eye on this latest front.

  25. Max says:

    Steven said, “Since then other science popularizers, like Kenneth Miller, have played a central role. The most popular science blog is Pharyngula by PZ Myers.”

    Who do you think is more persuasive to Creationists? Catholic theistic evolutionist Ken Miller or atheist fundamentalist PZ Myers? Then you got “Professor of the Public Understanding of Science” Dawkins telling interviewers that the theory of evolution leads to atheism. That may be true, but it doesn’t help the public understanding of science. What do you do when the honest answer is antagonistic and ineffective?

    • Wrong says:

      Make it effective. If we play nice, we tend to sidestep the issue. Now, as a present Atheist, I’m probably on the more antagonistic side. But the thing is, what’s titled antagonism does work. Once the evidence piles up, a theist if forced to deal with a tremendous cognitive dissonance. I was. I couldn’t believe that there was a God, considering the events I’d seen and been a party too. Yet the thing that cemented my opinion was the likes of Penn Jillete, Matt Dillahunty, the Atheist Experience, and Dawkins. Most of these are rather antagonistic at times, but also for the most part, fair. The trick is to engage in discourse. The religious person is unlikely entirely confident in their faith. All they need is convincing that God isn’t necessary, and that their pursuit of him only brings them misery.

  26. Pedro Gimeno says:

    Couldn’t we just change the word? Like, “Evolution theorem”. The “theory” argument catches well in the public and is very damaging.

  27. Kyran Graham says:

    Hi Steven,
    I am a trained neuroscientist (specialise in neuropsychopharmacology) living in Australia and this is the first I’ve heard of ID/creationists focusing their attacks on neuroscience.
    For the sake of educating myself and knowing the arguments against my field, are you able to expand on that point? Or direct me towards resources on the subject?

  28. Greg Taylor says:

    Dr Novella wrote:

    “Last week I gave an overview of what I believe is one of the core missions of the skeptical movement – to fight the good fight against pseudoscience and mysticism.”

    Hi Dr Novella,

    I’d like to reply to the whole sequence of posts once you’re done, but just quickly I’ll address something in this post.

    I think right from the get-go you’re setting yourself up to lose the ‘battle’ with this introduction. Like it or not, mysticism is a part of human life (you lost my vote the minute you disintegrated the artistic output of Blake and Yeats). Even applying materialistic neurology to the ‘problem’ of mysticism, a possible view is that some people are wired that way genetically. If so, do you propose medical intervention to ‘cure’ mysticism in order to win the “good fight?

    Materialism may well be “the philosophical underpinnings of science itself”, but it’s largely become a circular argument in its pursuit of knowledge. Once we define that only that which can be measured is “real”, then it becomes a belief system of sorts whereby everything else is excluded as heretical. A very handy belief system for the continued existence of a physical body no doubt, but still a belief system.

    I think if you want to win the ‘battle’ you need to concentrate more on the dangers posed by certain communities trying to influence public policy (as you have here on Creationist groups). Individuals should have the right to do as they please, if it harms no-one else. When you start attacking meaningful aspects of individuals’ lives – as mysticism is to many – then IMO you are losing possible valuable foot soldiers. Liberty is what you should be fighting for, not materialism.

    • Wrong says:

      The problem is, that it doesn’t work that way. If your religious, but you gradually reject all the religious teachings which are unpalatable, you become an atheist. The mysticism has been dying too, most don’t believe in psychics, ghosts, or the like, to the same extent as they did historically. In fact, atheism, and trust in science, is on the rise. The problem is, that believing as you will, effects your decisions. I’m not advocating personal attacks on those who believe (I saw PZ Meyers and a bunch of sycophantic atheists gang up on a writer I admire, simply for being religious). That’s intolerant, and in my view, evil. But passive atheism, promoting the concept frequently, without attacking individuals. Its not stupid to believe. But it isn’t right either. Those who do, just need a little more informing, and to be removed from the bloodsucking octopus of organised religion.

  29. Julian says:

    Greg Taylor –

    “Even applying materialistic neurology to the ‘problem’ of mysticism, a possible view is that some people are wired that way genetically.”

    How do you know that? I may not know much (or really anything from genetics) but from what I gather how people’s minds develop is almost entirely due to the environment they are raised in.

    “When you start attacking meaningful aspects of individuals’ lives – as mysticism is to many – then IMO you are losing possible valuable foot soldiers. ”

    This argument always gets under my skin. If your beliefs are demonstrably untrue, there is no reason I should respect them. They are lies. Why should anyone bow down and smile when presented with a lie?

  30. If Dr. Novella and other materialists are to respect and incorporate every mystical idea that might be true, the menu becomes unwieldly, to say the least, and negates the discovery process from the outset. Presumably you wouldn’t have materialists pick and choose among unevidenced mysticisms for inclusion, so the entire set would be admitted. Comforting for mystics, certainly, but the death knell for productive science.

    As is suggested to UFO/alien believers, bigfooters, psychic proponents, et al, if you wish inclusion, produce tangible, measurable evidence of your particular mysticism.

    Evidence. Got any?

  31. Greg Taylor says:

    Julian wrote:

    “If your beliefs are demonstrably untrue, there is no reason I should respect them. They are lies. Why should anyone bow down and smile when presented with a lie?”

    Where in my post did I say that you should “bow down and smile”? The second problem with your comment is that many elements of mysticism are not “demonstratably untrue” (in addition to being “unprovable”). The key point is that it doesn’t involve respecting the beliefs. It involves respecting the individual.

    Devil’s Advocate wrote:

    “Presumably you wouldn’t have materialists pick and choose among unevidenced mysticisms for inclusion”

    You appear to have missed the point of my post. I was trying to point out that the “skeptical battleground” should *not* be about trying to enforce a materialist viewpoint. Or maybe I missed the point, and the title of Dr Novella’s post should have been the “Materialist Battleground”?

    “if you wish inclusion, produce tangible, measurable evidence of your particular mysticism.”

    You’re assuming too much. I’m not ‘wishing’ for inclusion. I’m just trying to point out where you’re losting unnecessary assets in your ‘battle’. As someone interested in strange topics, but also who sees the high value of skepticism (as opposed to materialism), I’m interested in the well-being of skeptical thinking. But if you ‘wish’ to marginalise yourself, by changing the definition of skepticism, it won’t break my heart particularly.

    Just offering my 2 cents, which may or may not be worth much.

  32. Julian says:

    Greg Taylor –

    Look, you said ‘respect meaningful aspects of an individual’s life’, right? If those aspects are beliefs and those beliefs are demonstrably untrue why should they be respected? Just because something is important to you does not place it on a pedestal out of the reach of criticism.

    “The second problem with your comment is that many elements of mysticism are not “demonstratably untrue” (in addition to being “unprovable”).”

    You used mystiscm as an example. Your comment was about beliefs.Here it is again. “When you start attacking meaningful aspects of individuals’ lives – as mysticism is to many – then IMO you are losing possible valuable foot soldiers. ”

    And this has nothing to do with respecting the individual. (That bit of multi-culturist propaganda needs to be called out for what it is) This is has nothing to do with you. If you cannot separate your self from your ideology, you can’t be much of a man.

    “As someone interested in strange topics, but also who sees the high value of skepticism (as opposed to materialism), I’m interested in the well-being of skeptical thinking. ”

    Define skepticism. I want to see if our definitions are really all that different and you’re just setting up a double standard.

  33. John Draeger says:

    You are barking up the wrong tree with your support for mysticism (the polite term for religion IMO) on the skeptic blog. You’re making the fallacious assumption that there are things materialistic science cannot ever explain with naturalistic causes. I can almost hear the new age baloney and the word “energy” now. I once pressed someone of that ilk about the nature of the spirit/soul/consciousness she thought survived after death of her brain. She only gave me a description (in a lot of pseudobabble) that matched infrared radiation. By that description apparently rocks can pick up a soul after being in a fire.

    On Sean’s first post:
    Most church attendees DO believe in ghosts—at least one—the Holy Ghost. They probably recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday and don’t even realize they’re stating that they believe in a ghost. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lack of evidence for green aliens or a lack of evidence for holy ghosts—both are in the same boat from where I’m standing.

    To those who whine about atheists making noise:
    There so many atheists and agnostics in the skeptic crowd because there’s been no convincing evidence of any supernatural agents or actions. Scientists and believers have been looking for thousands of years. If anything else was looked for with such tenacity and financial expenditure, it would have been considered nonexistent long ago. But when you have a god and souls that cannot be described with any measurable physical characteristics, you can’t distinguish such things from what’s not real.

    It’s not that science is against any particular religion, it’s just that all objective evidence thus far says they’re all baloney. Nearly everyone on the planet has blindly accepted the religion of their parents and other authority figures taught them as a child—they all think theirs is the one true religion even though there are thousands to choose from past and present. That tells us religion is at least partly a cultural phenomenon, having nothing to do with the truthfulness of the information.

    Some of the skeptologists may side with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences statement that science can only investigate claims of natural phenomena, and not supernatural phenomena. But that’s just a way to keep the funding coming from a supernatural-believing majority. I can think of something that would falsify the claim that there is no god. Let’s say a creator god appeared in front of every person on the planet at the same time and said it is the creator of the universe. That would be pretty hard for even some advanced alien to pull off (okay, maybe, if they figured out a way to beam the hallucination right into our little heads). Making the moon disappear permanently would be another way to convince everyone, although the subsequent impact on tides would not seem to be the actions of a benevolent god.

    So being a non-theist just happens to be the only rational choice after a careful examination of the evidence and an understanding of what’s known in the field of neuroscience. That line of study has provided a rough draft explanation of consciousness without the need to invoke anything resembling a soul (Francis Crick got the ball rolling with his 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul). The problem is, no matter how well consciousness is explained, believers in a soul/spirit will keep looking for a magical explanation for a question that’s already been answered.

    We should not call creationists or anyone else stupid. That would be mimicry of the creationists that frequently engage in ad hominem attacks on non-believing scientists. Such arguments are used when they’ve got nothing else to throw at us. We shouldn’t stoop to that level. But we can rightfully say they are ignoring a vast amount of objective evidence, or ignoring the lack of it when it comes to their claims of gods/souls/spirits. And not everyone is going to have the patience that someone like Dr. Shermer has with these people in debates (must be some calming endorphins on his side from all the bike riding he does). I think I’d at least say, “You ignorant bonehead!” ☺

    People say some atheists are being militant, but I have yet to see any of them carrying around weapons or whacking creationists on the head with atheistic books. If the arguments or religious dogma of any group of people can’t stand up to criticism, then they are obviously wrong. Religion mostly gets a free pass in the U.S. because it’s seen as impolite to criticize another person’s religion—no matter how ridiculous the dogma. But when a belief is as destructive as creationism is to a realistic worldview, it should be stopped for the benefit of society. Such beliefs are not harmless, as the “new atheists” have pointed out, even at the risk of personal harm from whacko believers. So those “militant atheists” deserve our respect; they are doing the necessary work that other scientists don’t have the guts to do.

    Sometimes there are only two possible answers to a question (a real dichotomy). Such is the case with the fundamental “war” between naturalism and supernaturalism. Oh, you might think that the cosmos requires the injection of the supernatural in some instances (god of the gaps argument). Okay, let the rest of the world see your evidence. There aren’t many phenomena left that can’t be explained by natural causes—used to be—but not anymore (evolutionary biology, physics, neuroscience have closed a lot of gaps). And even the beginning of the universe has a plausible natural cause (see Victor Stenger’s books). The “something from nothing” argument that theists like to use can be turned right back against them by asking, “Where did the highly complex creator come from?” It’s much more probable that there was a bottom-up explanation like evolution rather than the top-down explanation provided by the insertion of a god whenever science hasn’t completely explained how it happened naturally.

    Many have been brainwashed into believing that faith is a good thing. It’s not! It specifically demands belief in something in the absence of objective evidence. As skeptics learning neuroscience we learn how the brain is excellent at making things up—subjective experience cannot be trusted. When someone has schizophrenia they will perceive things subjectively that others do not, and that’s bad for both the affected individual and others who may be harmed by their delusions and hallucinations. Most religious beliefs are delusional. Though they might be comforting to the individual, they are potentially dangerous for both the individual and society. Need I remind everyone that international terrorists are harming innocent people mostly due to a delusion that their god thinks what they are doing is justified, and that they will gain everlasting bliss for what they are doing?

    I’m one example of a fundamentalist believer who changed his worldview after learning enough evolutionary biology, critical thinking, neuroscience, and physics to make a complete 180. So nobody here should think we can’t change the minds of believers in any sort of baloney. True, it’s more difficult to change the minds of people who are surrounded by peers that believe the same nonsense, and it seems to be more difficult the older people get. But it can and must be done if people are going to get along on this planet together and solve some big problems facing humanity in the future.

  34. Simply stated, Greg = Special Pleading Fallacy

    • Wrong says:

      Exactly. I’d like to wonder how you can say that mysticism is necessary to be accepted. Anyone believing in it, is by definition, commiting the God of the Gaps argument, and is reduced to believing on faith. It’s irrational, and pointless.

      Those pleading for a lack fo effort, a nicety of the effort made, etc, usually haven’t even seen the work of those they criticise. Are the prominent atheists ferverent? Hell-yes. No more than the religious sermons I grew up with, and a damn sight more rational and even handed.

      This nonsense has gone on long enough. Fuck the double standard, and fuck the special pleading. Religion is not rational, and has no place in a scientific mindset. Supernatural beliefs can be useful (I hope like hell there’s a God), but they’re inherently wrong, illogical, and cause demonstrable harm. Fuck Religion.

  35. James Severin says:

    Personally I struggle with being in agnostic in the bible belt, because I get enraged when people assert their religious beliefs on me and presume that I need saving. That the bible is the inerrant word of God. That I should fear Hell. What underlies this sense of rage is a strong feeling of betrayal.

    A pastor told me that the reason the bible is so special is because all the books relate to each other even though they were written by separate authors, of course it would when you pick and choose which books make up the bible!

    So while I want to feel compassion and understanding for the people who are trying to convert me I just can’t do it. I’m so jaded that I look at these people as trying to con me. A lady came up to me in the Walmart parking lot and tried to hand me a pamphlet called “Should you fear Hell?” I think what really gets me is that most of these people can’t come up to me and try to inform me of God’s love and understanding, rather they try to scare me into the church using whatever means necessary. That’s why I have a hard time being civil to these people.

  36. sbaldrick says:

    Talking about textbooks being a battleground, what about the marketing genius at Google Books who has Behe and others included in the Non-Fiction/Biology section?

    Get some poor kid looking for references on REAL science directed to books shilling the metaphysics of The Biology of Belief (also posted in that category) and you’ve now got to remove the factoids before you can start explaining the facts.

    So much for “Don’t Be Evil” vs. short-term, monetary gains from the book referral bidness Google is engaged in.

  37. Edwin Hensley says:

    Rob and Mike B,

    The Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers did post notices about the Eugenie Scott visit on the message board and notices were sent out to the meetup mailing list. I was at Scott’s visit to UL.

    You are welcome to attend our holiday party tonight, Dec 16, at 7 at Austin’s Inn Bed and Breakfast on 1st Street.

    Edwin Hensley

  38. Rob says:

    We won’t be able to make tonight, but my wife and I are planning to meet up with you guys really soon.

  39. Gwen says:

    Another problem with the ‘sciences’ is that the word ‘theory’ is not used consistently (I don’t know if this was addressed). In the biological sciences, there is nothing stronger than a theory. In chemistry and mathematics (for example)we have ‘laws’ as well as ‘theories’.

    • Wrong says:

      Actually, we don’t. Some things are still called laws, but they’re equal to theories (Maths geek here). The fundamental theorem of calculus is just as important as say, L’Hopital’s Rule, or anything else. The term law was used in naturalistic sciences, but was generally phased out, and came into disuse, because it conveyed an excess of certainty, and when rules and laws were proved wrong (such as earlier versions of the Law of Gravity) Science as a whole suffered.

  40. David P says:

    I OBJECT !!

    First of all, a real scientific debate would discuss the logic and science behind creationism, and prove that it is wrong. Not just put it down.

    Not one comment by Steven Novella or anyone else has addressed even one issue that the creationists raise and prove logically or scientifically that it is wrong. Novella just assumes that because of his Yale education that he can put down creationism without addressing any issues. This is academic arrogance.

    Steven Novella stated that creationism is “just evolution denial” and that “evolution is a rich, subtle, elegant, and beautiful theory”.

    The key word is theory. No one was there over a period of millions of years to actually observe evolution. It will always be a theory. The question is, why do its proponents feel so threatened by people who don’t accept it?

    I would challenge Mr. Novella to consider this:

    There are “3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA”.

    A base pair in many ways is equivalent to a word in a simple computer language, such as assembly language. And in many ways DNA is similar to a simple computer program, in that it is a very long list of instructions that create the mystery of life.

    There are over 700,000 words in the Bible. Human DNA has as many “words” as over 4000 bibles.

    Human DNA, if stretched out is about 6 feet in length.


    And nobody questions that this is all just an accident, or a series of literally billions of accidents over billions of years.

    Without any mistakes.

    A 6 foot long molecule, with as many instructions as 4000 bibles, and not one serious mutation.

    Where are all the “mistakes” ?

    Where are all the mutations that didn’t work and died out, a key assumption to evolutionary theory? Where are the 3 eyed creatures, the one eyed creatures? The 3 legged animals. The blobs of human flesh? For every perfect baby born there should be dozens of horrible accidents. The more complex a structure, the more likely it is that something will screw up.

    Evolution didn’t stop in this century. It should be still happening today. Where are the mistakes?

    How can literally billions of “accidents” produce something as complex as the human brain?

    The human brain has 50–100 billion neurons and around 100 trillion synaptic connections.

    Darwin lived in an age where nothing was known about DNA. At the time his theories made sense.

    If evolution is to be believed, you have to accept that mutations, which are random acts, continually create base pairs that didn’t exist, and that these base pairs apparently produce structures that are of a complexity that is literally unfathomable.

    100 trillion synaptic connections, they all work together, and its all just an accident.

    From a logical perspective, this is clearly absurd.

    Perhaps Mr. Novella should go back to Yale and study logic and mathematics.

    Only in evolution does something come out of nothing by accident, creating structures of dazzling complexity, without the billions of mistakes that random acts would produce.

    I submit that is academic arrogance to claim that evolution is essentially a fact, not a theory, without addressing these issues.

    • douglas carson says:

      Evolution Is still happening in my neighborhood. The family down the street has three children, one an athlete with a reasonable IQ, one really smart nerdy kid, and the third with autism. All from the same parents. Which will leave the most offspring? This is how evolution occurs, mistakes or near perfect copies, or in between, added up over many generations.

    • Wrong says:

      I submit that you should go to Yale and study logic and mathematics. Logic-you fail at it. You can’t substitute a hypothesis for a phenomena simply because you don’t understand it. So you lose once.

      Let’s check the maths. If say, abiogenesis is unlikely (The root of your insane claim), then that probability multiplied by the number of opportunities gives the expected outcome (That’s basic probability, I don’t have a degree, and even I know that). So say abiogenesis has a 1/(1 trillion) chance of occuring every second. Then over the period of a trillion seconds, the even is likely to happen. Extend that to millions of years, and it becomes almost inevitable that it will occur at least one, and the improbable event is the non-event.

    • Somite says:

      The record of evolution is present in concrete objects like fossils and in the genomes of all living things. The things you mention like duplication and base pair “creation” has been documented and is clear for anyone with eyes to see.

      Evolution is a proven fact. There is no evidence consistent with creationism.

  41. shahar.lubin says:

    It is academic arrogance to claim that gravity is essentially a fact, not a theory.

  42. chickenfish says:

    I suggest we substitute “facts” for “seems to be true for the moment”. History shows that just when we think we “know” something to be fact, something comes along and dismisses the whole notion. There is perhaps something on the horizon to dispute the evolution theory as well as creationism. To consider evolution as the sole and only alternative to creation is to dismiss and limit the infinite wonder of our universe.

    I would like to ask a creation question to any who can provide information. Genesis in the old testament of the bible is where the creation story is based. The old testament of the bible in jewish tradition is called the torah. As I understand it and I may be wrong, jewish boys are required to memorize this text in hebrew by their thirteenth birthdays. Is this true? Is creationism a jewish doctrine as well as a christian one? How do jews feel about creationism?