(and firing shots at each other)
The Super Bowl was painful to watch, but at least everybody was playing by the same set of rules. And at the end, fans from both teams could sit down together and lament what a boring game it was. Debates between evolution and creation, on the other hand, are like watching one team play soccer while the other’s trying to play rugby. And they never seem to end in camaraderie. While Bill Nye and Ken Ham were civil enough on stage, social media was full of condescension. For example, one guy at Buzzfeed said- “I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.” The culture wars rage on and frankly they’re getting boring. That’s understated, more frankly they’re dangerous. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to learn.
Before talking about culture wars, let’s talk about why these debates never go anywhere. In the debate last night there were all sorts of arguments made and evidence cited, but nobody was swayed. In order to understand why, we have to talk about epistemology, a very fancy (and stodgy) word for how we know what we know. To understand someone’s epistemology you don’t listen for what they believe, you listen to how they justify the things they believe. Why do you believe what you believe? That’s epistemology. Ken Ham, representing the creationists, was completely blunt about his epistemology: “The Bible is the word of God. I admit that’s where I start from.” His appeal is to authority. More specifically he accepts the authority of the fundamentalist tradition, which has only been around since the end of the 19th century. For Ham, and many others in the fundamentalist camp, authority is the ultimate decider of truth.
Authority isn’t in vogue these days, but don’t dismiss it immediately. Instead, think about it as the trust we give to people and institutions we respect. By that definition most of our beliefs are based on authority. We’re cognitive misers and trusting authorities saves us a ton of effort- think about how hard it would be to fact check everything! The question isn’t whether authority is good or bad, but which authorities to accept.
Bill Nye’s epistemology comes out the most clearly at the very end of the debate. When asked what evidence would change his mind, Nye replied- “any single piece of evidence.” Of course this is a rhetorical jab, but he’s also echoing the tradition of science which rests on empiricism. Nye’s referring to the epistemology of science, which (at least in ideal form) is grounded in experimental tests of evidence. The enterprise of science is built around a persistent communal refinement of questions, criteria, and evidence. It’s a complex and multifaceted enterprise, but when it comes down to epistemology it’s based primarily on empiricism.
If authority is “because we say so,” empiricism is “show me.”
These different epistemologies are the fundamental difference within this debate. Ham takes a particular interpretation of the Bible as the final arbiter of truth and Nye takes the scientific enterprise and empiricism as the means of knowing. This is the level of the difference, but of course this isn’t the level of the debate.
That’s why no amount of evidence either way is going to sway anybody. They’re two ships passing in the night. It’s a dog and pony show.
But that’s a little too benign of a description, because the whole debate simply fuels the culture wars. Far from coming to any sort of resolution, debates like the one last night promote the myth that there are only two ideological camps: science or religion.
I think Kurt Vonnegut’s advice is relevant:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.“
If we pretend that the choice between either science or religion is a real choice, then it slowly becomes a real choice. The middle ground, that nearly all of us stand on, will begin to vanish.
There are all sorts of reasons that would be bad news, but I’ll give you three.
1) It’s a demeaning and patronizing view of religious believers- the vast majority of whom have no problems believing in the Big Bang and evolution. Remember, the fundamentalist stance is a recent minority position in the long history of Christianity.
2) That’s reason enough to be wary of such polarizing debates. But an even more serious danger is that such debates weaken science. Plenty of people would agree because they see last night’s debate as a way for Ken Ham to raise money for his ark. Those people are probably right, but that’s not the case I want to make. I see the danger as more significant than that.
Science needs sharp and serious philosophical critics. Above I described science as progressing toward pure knowledge through empirical investigations, but that’s a fantasy. Science is a cultural project interwoven with politics and money and philosophical assumptions. This isn’t to say I don’t love science- I think it’s amazing. My point is that science needs strong and critical conversation partners to keep it in check. Without such partners, I believe, science will actually be weakened.
Ham and creationists simply aren’t strong conversation partners. These debates present weak criticisms of science. That may seem harmless, but the impact is to water down more serious critiques. If you’ve heard a dozen trite accounts about the uncertainty of scientific evidence, you’re going to begin thinking all such critiques are trite. Furthermore, the polarized atmosphere of the culture wars promotes the idea that- you’re either for us or against us. In such a hostile space it becomes taboo to question, much less critique, science.
3) It’s only on the middle ground that we’re going to solve many of the challenges we face. We need both religious leaders and scientists working together to address the serious dangers of climate change. Global health initiatives advance by scientific and religious leaders working together. This middle ground is the hospitable terrain where most of us live and is the space where we face problems together.
I’d welcome a real debate that addressed the different ways we come to believe things. That’s the sort of conversation that defuses the culture wars, recognizes the other side without disparaging it, and can then begin moving towards some real solutions to very real problems. That sort of debate might never be televised, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have such conversations with each other. Because in the end, the culture wars are only as real as we let them be.