12 December 2007

On folk science and lies

Lysander. O! take the sense, sweet, of my innocence,
Love takes the meaning in love’s conference.
I mean that my heart unto yours is knit,
So that but one heart we can make of it;
Two bosoms interchained with an oath;
So then two bosoms and a single troth.
Then by your side no bed-room me deny,
For, lying so, Hermia. I do not lie.
Hermia. Lysander riddles very prettily:
Now much beshrew my manners and my pride,
If Hermia meant to say Lysander lied.
But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy
Lie further off...
-- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene II, The Oxford Shakespeare
There are many reasons to think twice before calling a statement a lie (and especially before calling someone a liar), and most have little to do with hilarious Shakespearean punning. A lie is not the same thing as a mistake, or even a big mistake. A falsehood is not necessarily a lie. And of course there are various grades of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. It's election season in the U.S., and we're already hearing a lot of falsehoods, lies, and lies about falsehoods.

In any season, we hear a lot of falsehoods about evolution. Some of these are lies, even damned lies. But the factories that churn out anti-evolution verbiage are often too well-designed to fabricate outright. Lately, a person exploring evolutionary science can encounter a falsehood that is quite cleverly constructed, perhaps through surgically precise omission of relevant information, perhaps through brilliantly adept rhetorical obfuscation. Even after learning the rest of the story, the person might hesitate to call the critic's account a lie. Maybe it's just another viewpoint.

I would suggest that there is another way to approach many of these falsehoods. Specifically, I propose that most creationist claims about evolutionary science are best understood as folk science. In my opinion, this view provides explanation for some otherwise incomprehensible (and indefensible) behavior, and points to resources for dialogue and accountability.

Now, I don't mean at all to defend creationist polemics here. As a Christian, I am scandalized and sickened by nearly all creationist commentary on evolution. But I'm not a misanthrope, and so I find it hard to believe that so many people could be so overtly dishonest.

So what do I mean by folk science? Well, I first discovered this concept when reading a book written by a few of my heroes: Science Held Hostage, by Howard Van Till, Davis Young and Clarence Menninga. The book is subtitled What's Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism, and the authors were all professors at the great college where I now work. It was published in 1988, is now out of print, and most of its topics are now out of date. The authors' insightful discussion of folk science, on the other hand, is more useful now than ever before. Here are their words.
The troublesome tendency with which we are dealing here is the temptation to employ natural science for the purpose of supporting preconceptions drawn from one's philosophical commitments or system of religious beliefs. But such an approach stands the scientific enterprise on its head and must be resolutely avoided. The goal of natural science is to gain knowledge, not to reinforce preconceptions. The purpose of empirical research is to discover what the physical world is really like, not to verify its conformity to our preferences. And the aim of scientific theorizing is to describe the actual character of the universe, not to force its compliance with our preconceived requirements.

Science held hostage by any ideology or belief system, whether naturalistic or theistic, can no longer function effectively to gain knowledge of the physical universe. When the epistemic goal of gaining knowledge is replaced by the dogmatic goal of providing warrant for one's personal belief system or for some sectarian creed, the superficial activity that remains may no longer be called natural science. It may be termed world-view warranting or creed confirmation, or one may put it into the category of folk science, but it no longer deserves the label of natural science because it is no longer capable of giving birth to knowledge. Science held hostage by extra-scientific dogma is science made barren.
Science Held Hostage, pages 41-42
The following footnote is attached to the term folk science above:
We are using the term folk science in a manner similar to that of Jerome R. Ravetz in Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), especially pp. 386-97. Ravetz defines folk science as that "part of a general world-view, or ideology, which is given special articulation so that it may provide comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience."
Science Held Hostage, page 180
The reason it's called folk science is that the "articulation" is in the form of facts, observations, claims and/or hypotheses that are couched in scientific terms and based on facets of science and the natural world. Its purpose is to support or confirm a world-view, not to describe or understand the world, and so the accuracy of the information employed is relatively unimportant. (It just needs to sound good.) It follows then, that one might expect to find folk disciplines of every kind: folk psychology, folk biology, folk theology, folk medicine. And it's important to note that while the accuracy of the knowledge employed in folk science is irrelevant to its purpose, one ought not assume that the information used in a folk scientific argument is necessarily incorrect or even incomplete.

Some of the most annoying nonsense I've ever read has been folk science, and viewing it as such has helped me to consider the probable motivations of speakers/writers, and thereby to reconsider the otherwise inexcusable conduct of people who ought to know better.

Here's an example. The God Delusion cannot be understood as a work of scholarship or of effective engagement of a topic. It's frequently idiotic, and engages in rhetorical misconduct that disqualifies it as a work of intellectual value. Understood as folk scholarship (we might call it folk theology or folk philosophy), it makes perfect sense. The God Delusion isn't intellectually sound, and it's not meant to be. Its purpose is to make people feel better about their world-view. I have the impression that it's effective in that regard.

But I didn't bring up folk science to bash The God Delusion. (Remember that I'm otherwise an admirer of Richard Dawkins.) I wanted to discuss this concept because I'll be writing semi-regularly in the next few months about the work of Reasons To Believe (RTB). RTB is an old-earth creationist ministry that seems to enjoy a significant following among thinking evangelicals, and that claims to want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I've mentioned them a few times on this blog, and so you might already know that I am unimpressed by their commentary and positions regarding evolutionary biology. Now, my goal in this blog is to help Christians to understand touchy subjects in biology. Unfortunately, the work of RTB is a significant obstacle in that pursuit, and it seems to me that I should deal directly with RTB's claims and errors rather than occasionally linking to their mistakes.

And I feel that RTB's work, in biology, is largely folk science.

Here's an example. Fazale Rana, a former biochemist and current apologist at RTB, recently wrote a blog entry entitled "Are Biologists Willing to Test Evolution?" (He wants you to believe the answer is "no.") Rana is apparently unconvinced by the evidence for common descent, and claims (amazingly) that evolutionary biologists foolishly "avoid any critical evaluation of the validity of biological evolution." He then presents a summary of the evidence for common descent that is so shockingly incomplete that one might reasonably suspect dishonesty. I don't assume duplicity; I see instead the telltale signs of folk science. No one who knows anything about evolution would find that article credible, nor would any evolutionary biologist take seriously its challenge to consider the possibility that common descent is "unfounded." Why not? Because it's not a real challenge at all. It's classic folk science, designed to provide support to a specific world-view, not to inform anyone about the evidence for common descent. I'm angered by the article, because it's inexcusably misleading. But I don't believe it was intended to mislead  it was intended to encourage those who have already rejected common descent on nonscientific grounds. It's folk science.

I'll be interested to see what others think. I'm aware that some will suspect that I'm, um, soft on crime, while others will wonder why any Christian in his right mind would disagree with RTB. But I'll need this tool when examining RTB's claims and ideas, and I wanted to be clear about what I mean by folk science before labeling anyone's work as such.

Now I need to go lie down. No lie!


Peter Parslow said...

I think there is another angle on this issue. The target audience for much creationist writing, and a fair amount of science writing, is not scientists or theologians, but 'ordinary folk'.

Much of what we ordinary folk believe is 'folk science' and 'folk religion'. Those scientists (e.g. professors of public understanding...) & theologians who try to communicate with us feel that they must "come down to our level", and actually address the half formed / half forgotten things that many of us believe.

Your blog & others are good for a suitable audience, but would be beyond many people.

Having said that, I actually think that a lot of science, maths & religion taught in schools is a simplified folk version, anyway.

(My A level biology is rusty & twenty five years old, and my bible college was twenty years ago)

Anonymous said...

I think this concept of folk science is a useful construct, and could explain many things. But I'm still having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that someone with any sort of education in biology could manage to say some of the things creationists say. For example, in the blog post you cited from RTB, there are huge areas of evidence for common descent (everything related to the genome, for example) that are simply omitted. It would seem to me that even a person who had read only the popular literature would at least be aware of such evidence.

I can understand those poorly educated in science falling for folk science--it's easier and it makes you feel better! But I have a hard time understanding how a biologist could do so.

I was raised and educated YEC. The first thing that really turned me off to creationism was when I found just how many {lies | folk science explanations | omissions} were contained in the literature. Old earth seems a little bit better, but that appears to be mostly because they do not have to deny the same quantity of science as young earthers. The method still appears similar.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that this is a good model to understand creationism with.

The problem with creationism is that it's a self-working con. The people who push it don't have to be aware that it's false in order to perpetuate it.

Yet there are undoubtably duplicitous people working within creationism, such as those who clearly perjured themselves in the Dover trial.

For example Behe and others were shown to be false in their assertion that Darwin's Black Box was peer-reviewed more rigorously than most scolarly work. This was shown to be false, yet the DI's site still lists it as being a peer-reviewed book. So here is what I'd call a "knowing lie."

Look at the Nova special that aired recently about Dover. When they get to the point in the trial where Alan Bonsell was directly confronted by the judge for lying... and had to admit that he "misspoke" under oath... then we cut back to Bonsell interviewed after the trial and he's not one bit contrite:

"Never in a million years did I ever think that we'd...you know, I'd be in a federal lawsuit when I was on the school board or have the school district in something like that, over a one minute statement, a one minute statement."

You see what's going on here? He's got to rationalize his own behavior by defiantly saying over and over "a one-minute statement." His brain would short-circuit if he looked at his own actions and found them dishonest... I'll say that Alan Bonsell CAN'T willfully lie, because he's expert at not examining himself. He nevertheless CAN lie while distracting himself with rationalizations so that he doesn't even notice that he's lying.

I'm not going to further delve into Bonsell, but I do think that folks like that mentally focus on Important Truths, and Important Truths are always more important than little white lies of omission or not really lies when you really really mean well and God's really in charge anyway and my life's been so blessed that God must mean for me to bring his message to the blessed schoolchildren of pennsylvania.

Creationism is a self-working con. It's a telephone game where all sorts of claims arise from simple memetic mutation and are selected for their ability to find folks willing to repeat them.

It's not like these claims are usually authored by a knowing intellectual who knows ID is wrong but writes something for the rubes. Hardly. No, this stuff bubbles up from a million people's misread or misunderstood idea of a natural phenomenon. You really think that someone willfully decided that they'd twist the Second Law? No way! All that happened is that someone misunderstood it... didn't get that the earth isn't a closed system, took only the dumbed down idea that it somehow means "everything always breaks down eventually" and morphed that into "nothing can build up, ever".

Put this idea into a population where checking facts before repeating them is absolutely NOT a cultural norm, and you've got a memetic evolutionary tropical zone with a finger permenantly pushed on the fast-forward button.

Creationism is at bottom a set of faith-claims. There are many flavors (YEC, OEC, ID, AiG, Hovind, etc)... but each one occupies a niche. Each set of claims is selected by its adherants as those claims most pleasing and fulfilling of their needs for evidentiary reassurance of their religious beliefs and bounded on the other side by their access to scientific knowlege and their level of belief in certain scientific understanding and their level of critical thinking skill.

If at base a person believes that "what you believe" is more important in defining reality than "what you can prove", then you're arguing with someone who cannot accept argument.

These people will always exist.... and they're numerous. I honestly think that most creationists of any stripe just LIKE the idea of creationism for reasons completely divorced from the actual claims creationism makes, or the evidence they can bring.

Want to fight creationism? Fight it with religion, not science. Show that the logical conclusion to creationism is that God is evil, or stupid, or bumbling. Show that Creationism is a dangerous idea theologically. Dirty it.

Cause these folks aint' listening to the science.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Stephen,

I think “folk science” is a great model and it works perfectly for the common folk ie. for the vast majority of people who reject evolution because they believe it is irreconcilable with their faith, don’t have the tools to really investigate it properly, and simply trust their leaders. However, I think there is a different level of accountability for those in leadership. We all need to take seriously the words in James 3:1. (And I’m speaking for myself here too – even if my own role is virtually insignificant in the larger debate). For those in leadership that ignore data that contradicts their teaching, I’m not sure the appeal to “folk science” cuts it. Integrity is just way too important.

John Farrell said...

I think this project is a great idea, Steve. Of course, I'd prefer starting with the Discovery Institute before RTB, mainly because I think they are more deliberately dishonest, and therefore more damaging, than RTB.

But I look forward to reading your next posts on the subject.

Stephen Matheson said...

Folks, those are great comments. I'll respond sometime tonight or tomorrow morning, but thanks already.

Ben said...

I've read lots of blurbs on creationist lies and I've never really been able to fully accept that. "Telling lies for God." While that might be the most parsimonious input/output evaluation, if you asked a creationist of this sort "Is it okay to tell lies for God" and “Do you tell lies for God?” and put them on a lie detector test, I imagine they'd say "no/no" and that the machine would say they thought they were telling you the truth.

I wasn’t very impressed with the God Delusion either. Actually I didn’t even get through the first chapter. Ideally the “shopping” should have already been done, but as it is, one had to re-test all the “fruit” before putting it in the “basket.” I said, “Sorry self,” and moved on.

It’s very important to make sure that what you say about your opponent is accurate because inevitably the more tiny nuances of inaccuracy that creep into your polemics, the more things escalate in a polemical war. And you hand them something. "They call us liars, but we know we aren't and so...[dovetail into favorite Bible cult think verses]". And you help fuel their own self deception and reinforce their bible-based delusions because you happen to be stepping into an ancient formula from the era of the Epistles where Christians were being confronted by “heretics” and thus the “orthodox” pulled out of their holy arses the quickest, easiest route to getting their sheep back on track.

Of course being accurate is very hard to do, especially with the internal tangled webs being what they are. And it is very tempting to summarize and feel validated because it is pretty straight forward that; they knew, they did, and therefore…they are liars. Right? I imagine that over 90% of the time people probably aren’t lying. “Never assume a conspiracy when incompetence and self deception will do.”

I’m not really convinced by the “folk science” label. “Lies” seems a little strong in general and “folk science” seems a little weak. Ultimately if “folk science” caught on it would take with it a derogatory tone not represented in the label itself. Because this isn’t the methodology of some cloister out in the boonies…it’s the methodology of these people in confrontation with the scientific establishment. “Punk folk science.” Lmao. I do appreciate where you are going with this but something in between is probably more warranted. Normally I’d have a new label on hand that fits just right…but I’ll have to ponder for a while.

Anonymous said...

I have been toying with the idea that inerrancy, dispensatoinalism, creationism, etc., are really not issues of belief, but rather serve as 'gatekeepers' to the community. The community can use these as ways to ensure that people entering are like them.

It seems to me, from what I have seen, that people are not really interested in the particular reasons for their beliefs, and don't even actually care much about whether they are true or not. You can tell if people are safe (that is, like you) by just finding out if they subscribe to a particular set of beliefs.

This kind of relates to the idea that the 'evidence' doesn't really have to be all that strong, so the Strobel-type arguments are good enough. And people who would want to question it, are not welcome in the community.