Differences of Opinion, Lies, and Seeing the Other Side

I got started this morning on this topic by reading this post at Quintessence of Dust. Dr. Matheson is looking for a good model to use in referring to creationists and their arguments. The temptation is to regard all false statements as lies. But at the same time we have to ask why people who are otherwise honest, and doubtless wouldn’t cheat on tests or steal from their neighbors nonetheless would say so many things that are simply not so.

Matheson is looks at the model of folk science. I left a comment on his blog in which I question just how well this works. But I’m working on this one myself. I have to ask myself how a microbiologist, for example, could manage to believe in creationism. There is always Kurt Wise (paleontologist), who admits the strong evidence for evolution, but believes that the Bible must be true, and thus no matter what the evidence looks like, eventually he’ll find the proper evidence for young age arguments. Now I can at least understand the mental process in Dr. Wise’s case, though it still astounds me that one could look at the strength of the evidence and study it as a paleontologist and still come out not just a creationist, but a young earth creationist.

I had already bookmarked his post for a link, if not a substantial response, when I came across this article (HT: It seems to me ….) In a weird sort of way, this article is making a point similar to what Dr. Matheson is making, though perhaps with greater humor and less finesse–there are some beliefs and viewpoints that are comforting to us, and we cling to any means by which we can avoid losing those beliefs.

I think it’s quite possible that many creationists simply cannot imagine a world in which man is not a separate creation, especially put here by God with a unique and special relationship. It is quite possible that their lives would lose meaning–or at least they feel viscerally that they would–should any element of this prove wrong. If one’s identity is at stake, just how much might one be able to rationalize?

Just as I was preparing to write this post, I found this post on Pharyngula, in which the Discovery Institute is shown to have taken e-mails out of context (gasp!) regarding the Gonzalez case as ISU. Here, of course, we have a greater level of interpretation involved, but it still is hard to see how the DI got what they did from their source. Liars? Good PR men? Different point of view?

And immediately after that one, my RSS reader turned up another one, titled Gene Duplication and the GENE project’s … Duplicity?. Again, the author, generally a very polite man and one I respect after reading quite a number of his substantial blog entries, is having trouble finding out just what you call it. ICR is gathering scientists to study the genome, and their going to conclude–you guessed it–that humanity is not related to the other animals. And they haven’t even started yet!

Now I know that it is very easy to regard a difference of opinion as good evidence of skullduggery on the part of one’s opponent. Sometimes opinions are simply so different that it’s hard for us to imagine that the other guy can possibly have good motivations or can be honest. After all, we know that we are careful with the facts, and our brains are all highly logical. So if we come to conclusion A, and they come to conclusion Z, it can’t be a legitimate difference of opinion–it has to result from questionable morals.

Of course, sometimes things are what they appear to be on the surface. Not always, perhaps not even frequently, but sometimes. There are people who hold a particular position to keep their power, or because they just can’t admit to having been wrong. But I think there are relatively few people who consciously say, “I know that X is true, but I’m going to say I believe Y instead.” Whatever the motivation, one is going to think of it in some very different way. Which leads us to this question: Is it a lie if the person telling it deceived himself first, and believes he’s telling the truth? I do know one thing–if a person believes he’s telling the truth, it will be hard to influence him by telling him he’s actually a liar. “Truthful” is part of his self-image.

I would say something to creationists, however. I once was one of you. I made it about half way through college. When I was a child, I started collecting creationist books and reading them. I was totally convinced that evolution was not only evil but stupid, so stupid, in fact, that only evil people could possibly believe it. To me, as is still the case for many creationists, evolutionists were great liars and conspirators, since the truth that God created the earth in a literal week 6,000 years ago was so plain.

Now I first encountered the problems with the facts when I looked at Biblical genealogies. In doing so, I spent enough time with ancient chronology to see that the hardline young earth position, about 6,000 years (not 10,000!) was in conflict not only with geology, but with archeology, and even with written history. Civilizations would have drowned in the flood, civilizations that had clearly done no such thing.

But then I was faced with the science side. Now I spend a great deal of time reading popular level science. But I’m a high school dropout, so I never had high school science. I took a GED test and took as little science in college as I could get by with, which turned out to be one year of chemistry. My college allowed one to make it up with math, which I did. So when I first started, the vast majority of the “science” I knew came from those young earth creationist books. How was I to judge the material?

Well, I concluded I wasn’t very qualified to do so. What I was qualified to do was to see how well creationists represented evolution. What I found out there was that the presentation of evolution in creationist books bore no resemblance to the presentation in books favoring evolution. They were, in fact, talking about two things. Further, when creationists quoted scientists, they generally got the quotation wrong. For me, that was pretty substantial evidence that there was a problem in the creationist camp.

Since then, I’ve found nothing to suggest to me any differently. One of the best arguments against creationism for the layman (in scientific terms) is that the creationists can’t get their facts straight about evolution. I personally think Dr. Matheson is right, and they don’t do so because they’re congenital liars, but rather because they’re engaging in some form of “folk science.” Or perhaps it’s Santaism as defined in the Ship of Fools article.

Bottom line: differences of opinion, lies, and failure to see the other side? It’s damn hard to tell the difference!

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  1. When I read Stephen Matheson’s post yesterday, I couldn’t find a way to his conclusion. Giving it a second try here, I still can’t get there. Sure, there are lots of well-meaning, earnest creationists who trust the books they’ve read and the speakers they’ve heard. I can’t fathom their positions, but I can accept that they are genuine. Then, I’m sure, there are people who cling to beliefs that they know are false. We’re good at deluding ourselves. It’s on a matter of degree. That’s the impression I get reading Philip Johnson – that he is desperately trying to cling to beliefs he knows to be false, but that he need to them all in order to hold onto his belief in God.

    But why should we think that the majority of the creationist proselytisers are any different from the other charlatans the church attracts – the ones who sexually abuse their flock, the ones who use the church as a way of enriching themselves. No one is going to accuse the paedophile priest of engaging in “folk science”. So why make excuses for the hucksters who use “creationism” as their tool for misleading people? It makes no sense to bend over backwards to accommodate this particular perversion.

  2. For me there are two elements: 1) I don’t really want to think of that large a group as knowing liars, and 2) I like to keep the heat down in the debate so there’s some chance of communication.

    I’m probably just unrealistic, but there it is… And I’m not convinced Dr. Matheson’s model is workable either.

  3. “I think it’s quite possible that many creationists simply cannot imagine a world in which man is not a separate creation, especially put here by God with a unique and special relationship.”

    What is so sad is that adopting evolution does not require abandoning these beliefs. Sure, evolution connects us to other living things (a good thing in my opinion), but it doesn’t negate the claim that mankind is special, set apart, even from an evolutionary perspective. No other species on the planet is capable of language, music, recursive and abstract thought. No other species contemplates or possibly even suffers. Even Daniel Dennett has made great arguments to this account.

    It is common to hear biologists say things like, ‘evolution means we are just another species on the planet, just another animal,’ and of course on one level this is true; but a moment’s thought reveals that this statement is not the whole story. We may have gotten here via evolution like every other living thing, but our mysterious and unique characteristics clearly set us apart.

  4. You’re right–on one level. But to many creationists, there is no distinction from being biologically unrelated, and unique as a spiritual creation.

    I think there are quite a number of ways to put together the development of all those distinctly human characteristics. But for many creationists, that won’t be enough. A genetic relationship means, to them, that we are not unique in any way.

    Personally, however, I go a step farther. I doubt that we are all that unique in the universe. I suspect that there are many other life forms, and presumably, given that evolution is capable of producing intelligence and self awareness in a creature, there are other such intelligences. In my view, any such creature automatically carries the image of God.

    I also don’t believe that creation is over, but that’s another topic.

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