18 March 2008

On folk science and lies: Back to the basics

Months ago, I was worrying about how to characterize creationist statements that are untrue or misleading. The claims in question are not merely false (mistakes of various kinds can generate falsehood) and are not statements of opinion with which I disagree. They are claims that are demonstrably false but have been asserted by people who are certain (or likely) to know this. In other words, they bear the marks of duplicity. I said:

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 I proposed the term 'folk science' as a way to refer to belief-supporting statements that sound scientific but do not seek to communicate scientific truth. I have two goals in my practice of using this phrase: 1) I recognize folk science as a particular type of argumentation, and I want to be able to accurately identify it as such; and 2) I want to create space within which I can identify falsehood, and especially falsehood that seeks to mislead, without making unwarranted accusations.

Not everyone was all that excited by this. One example I used, in which Fuz Rana presents a completely inaccurate – and wholly misleading – summary of evolutionary theory, led one commenter (Henry Neufeld) to reflect as follows:
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.

And Steve Martin of An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution, had this to say:

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.

Some people noted that the moral and intellectual milieu within which folk science is generated is not amenable to simplistic moral analysis. But I surmise that many of my respondents back then were concerned about going soft on crime, as I put it.

Lately, as I've been describing the folk science of "junk DNA," I have run across examples of falsehood that stretch the limits of the term 'folk science,' in that they resemble what many people would refer to as 'lies.' And I started to describe these disheartening and regrettable falsehoods as 'lies,' even as 'outrageous lies.' These are descriptors that I had deliberately avoided in my earlier posts, and I'm sorry to say that I drifted into this habit rather than making a specific decision to use this more serious language.

My friend and colleague Kevin Corcoran is urging me to reconsider this practice in a St. Patrick's Day post on his blog, Holy Skin and Bone. Now would be a good time to read his post, and the intense discussion that it generated. Come on back here when you're done.

Now, I don't buy Kevin's argument about the implications of the word 'lie'; he asserts that to call a statement a 'lie' is to call the speaker a liar, and I disagree. I don't see any problem with separating the statement from the speaker, and I think many English speakers would agree. If you read that the Holocaust never happened, you're reading a lie, no matter how you end up characterizing the motivations or competence of the writer. How else could we refer to the sinful practice of "repeating lies?" Moreover, I think a lie can evolve, such that it can come to be through careless repetition (with modification), subtly transformed into a perniciously misleading statement when full-grown. In other words, I believe that a lie can exist without being traceable to a specific liar. In fact, I think it's likely that Hugh Ross' sickening fable about the "team of physicists" arose through some sort of evolutionary process, and not through a spasm of malicious dishonesty at a keyboard in Glendora, CA.

But what's the difference between a lie and a falsehood? Unlike Kevin, I label a statement a 'lie' after making a judgment regarding intentionality. If a statement is being used to deceive, or was conceived to deceive, then I will judge it to be a lie, whether or not the person who most recently uttered it – or who forwarded the email in which it was found or whatever – meant to deceive. In this vein, I regularly deem the behavior of some people to be the repeating or spreading of lies, without necessarily assuming that those people are dishonest in any way.

The problem, though, is that some people (Kevin, at the least) don't see things this way at all. And if, as I suspect, Kevin speaks for others as well, then some of my readers have reached the conclusion that I believe Hugh Ross to be a malicious liar. This is not the case, and I have explicitly stated as much in previous posts on this subject. But it just won't do to have confusion regarding character judgments. I will henceforth commit myself to complete avoidance of the word 'lie' in describing folk science. If I think something is really an actual lie, I'll show it to Kevin before I write anything about it. (Seriously.)

Now let me be clear: I will continue to refer to certain examples of RTB's behavior as misconduct, and I will not hesitate to identify the promulgation of falsehood by Ross and Rana as irresponsible, indefensible, and even dishonest. I will not hesitate to question Hugh Ross' intellectual integrity, and I think he should not be considered trustworthy as long as he persists in the reckless dissemination of fabricated nonsense that serves only to direct Christians away from basic facts of biology. The fabricated fable about the "team of physicists" is deeply troubling to me, and it should be troubling to anyone who claims the name of Christ. If I knew Hugh Ross, I would urge him to do whatever is necessary to change course, and I would encourage RTB to invest in mechanisms designed to establish and maintain basic integrity. But I won't call him a liar, or refer to his falsehoods as lies, and I won't assume that he seeks only to mislead or misinform Christians.

Please provide me with some feedback, and feel free to be as critical as you can.

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