Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Facing the Facts and Missing the Forest

Bill Nye, he of Science Guydom, recently had this to say about creationism and evolution, and the debates between them.

I have mixed feelings about his position on debating creationists.  I sort of agree with him that there should be debate—although I view most televised debates as theatre without much illumination—but I think he goes about it in an ineffective way.

And it's sort of lampshaded immediately, in that link, in his explanation as to why people oppose evolution.  "I think humans have an unwillingness to face the facts...."  I think many of his answers are well considered and on point, but with that sentence right off the bat, you might as well dig trenches for everyone and tell them to settle in.  Nothing's going to make people more hostile to evolution than telling them they're only opposed to it because they're delusional.

One of the more illuminating ideas in Michael Shermer's Why Smart People Believe Weird Things is the notion that people generally do not arrive at their beliefs through a series of rational arguments.  They might construct rational arguments once they've arrived at a belief (and smart people are usually better at that, convincing not only others but themselves), but the order is usually belief first, rational argument second, and that goes for evolutionists and creationists alike.  Of course, we all have conclusions that we do reach through rational argument, and that tends to make us think that we do that as a matter of course—because rational argument is good, right?—but I got from Shermer the principle that that sort of situation is the part of the iceberg above the water, the part we're conscious of.  The part below the water, the unconscious part, is much, much larger.

There's no way to prove that, of course—it's a way to view the world, not really a testable statement (yet)—but I find it useful.  It explains a lot of things to me, such as why Nye in some ways got owned by Ken Ham in their debate: He tried to make the debate about facts.  To do so is reasonable at first blush, since the facts are on his side, I think, but wouldn't evolutionists suppose that if the debate were about facts, it would have been over a long time ago?  Nye claims that he, unlike previous scientists in his position, was not outcompeted or outmaneuvered, but I think he was, a bit, because he failed to adequately address what makes creationism compelling.  If Nye, and others, are genuinely interested in drawing people "across the fence" (or, at least, "off the fence"), they must convey something of the elegance and wonder of the scientific view.  Scientists often say that the scientific view is elegant and wonderful (and it is!), but it's not enough to say it; one must, I think, illustrate it in a vivid way that's not simultaneously a knock on creationism.

I think scientists in this debate fail to consider sufficiently what draws people to the creationist perspective in the first place.  What is creationism, after all, but a way to view the natural world?  There's a wealth of beauty and danger in the world; how did that all come about?  Creationism provides an explanation for the natural world that is straightforward, intuitive, and convincing, if only largely because most of its adherents were exposed to creationism before anything else.  With theories, as with people, first impressions matter, a lot.

In speaking with people who find creationism at least plausible, I sometimes ask them why they like it.  One common thread is that they like it because they enjoy the thought of the ubiquitous immanence of God (although they don't usually put it that way).  It reinforces the pleasure they get from believing in God; each biological oddity becomes yet another brick in the divine edifice, a reminder that God is once again just around the corner.  The constant refrain of God-did-it, far from being the vehicle of ridicule intended by evolutionists, is encouraging to creationists.  It proclaims God's pervasive influence in the universe.  If you're invested in believing in an all-powerful deity (and evolutionists generally say that they want to accommodate these people), honestly—why wouldn't you find that appealing?

Science has, to a large extent, not spoken loud enough on this matter.  In my more cynical moments, I feel that creationists intentionally draw evolutionists toward facts, not because they're too clueless to realize that their facts are wrong, but because they're insightful enough to recognize that it doesn't matter whether their facts are wrong.  Even if that's not the case, though, it behooves scientists to every now and then resist the siren call of facts, and speak more about why science is a beautiful way to view the world.

And it is beautiful, in my (admittedly biased) opinion!  If one thinks of creationism as a sequoia with God in the towering trunk and the various aspects of the natural world as branches going outward at every height, then science in general and evolution in particular is a web of unimaginable richness, with connections in every conceivable direction, splitting and rejoining and looping in almost infinite variety.  The strength of the sequoia is its enormous trunk, a monolithic invulnerability; that of the web is its deep interconnectedness, so that even if a few of its strands are found to be flawed (and they surely are, from time to time), the overall structure retains its integrity with room to spare.  A scientific theory can tie a wide array of observations together, and do it with a beauty that is utterly captivating.  Albert Einstein was famously convinced of the rightness of his general theory of relativity, not through observation, but through its elegance and beauty.

One of my favorite stories as a child was Aesop's fable of the fasces, so much so that I reference it all the time.  Maybe you know it: An old man demonstrates to his squabbling sons the strength of unity, of a single purpose, by showing how easy it is to snap a single stick, but how difficult it is to snap a lot of sticks bundled together.  I was struck by the moral when I first read it, but when I was rather older, I began wondering why one wouldn't simply split the bundle down its length.  As far as I could tell, one could put together sticks in a more connected way that would be much harder to break down significantly.  And I find in that a deep metaphor for how I see the world.

I do not know which of these views of the world is more beautiful in any inherent sense.  It's entirely possible that the guiding principle here, as elsewhere, is de gustibus non disputandum est.  But I feel quite confident that there is little to be gained with continued debate that does not engage, at a significant level, the profound and abiding manner in which the human mind cleaves to beauty and elegance.  It's why many of us became scientists, and it seems a shame that we don't spend more time sharing it.

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