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Hullabaloo


Thursday, May 31, 2007

 
The Bad Pun At The Heart Of Creationism

by tristero

Sam Brownback's ghost writer gives us the Republican candidate's opinion of science and reality. He's against 'em both. On principle. The amount of deliberate misinformation, bad science, and even worse theology in this op-ed achieves a new high on the Idiocies Per Sentence Index (tm). However, while there is plenty of stupidity to unpack in Brownback [update: PZ Myers tears into Brownback with a vengeance], I'd like to focus on only one small rhetorical detail, which is usually ignored during triage by first responders to the latest "intelligent design" creationist atrocity:
If [belief in evolution] means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
One word interests me here: "materialistic." Brownback, or rather, Brownback's ghost, is punning on the meaning of "materialism." Doing so is a small but important piece of standard "intelligent design" creationism rhetoric. And it highlights exactly how cheap a fraud it is.

The following is from the mission statement of leading ID creationist William Dembski's blog:
Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins. At the same time, intelligent design (ID) offers a promising scientific alternative to materialistic theories...
Three "materialistics" in three contiguous sentences. The repetition hammers home the point: Materialism is bad. Very bad.

And who would disagree with that? "Materialism" means Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole, Donald Trump, and Gordon Gecko. It means greed, obsession with status, celebrating the perverse attitude that he who dies with the most toys, wins. Stretch Hummers. No question about it: Materialism is one ugly, ugly concept, representing All That Is Evil In Modern Life (unless you're a Republican fat cat, and then it's ok).

And the corollary to this rejection of materialistic values is, There's an alternative to shallow materialism. A view of life that prizes really important things, like the indomitable human spirit. As Paul McCartney - that paragon of anti-materialism - once put it, "Money can't buy me love" (well, actually... but you get the idea).

And here comes the pun. Science is all about what it calls materialism, by which it means not wretched excess, of course, but simply reality. It means only that science does not concern itself with woowoo. Not that science can't appear downright spooky to us layfolk - try mixing up some cornstarch and water to create a non-Newtonian fluid sometime. But a scientific explanation invokes only properties of ...you got it ... matter. Hence, the term "materialism."

What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, of course. And that's the point of the creationist's pun, to confuse the everyday notion of evil materialism with the morally neutral meaning of the word within science. In everyday life, we're appalled by materialistic behavior like the vulgar accumulation of vast wealth (GOP excepted). But that is light years removed from being appalled by one of the major operating premises of science, that reality has a natural explanation. Dembski and Brownback deliberately confuse the two, punning on our rejection of materialistic moral values to create sympathy for a rejection of scientific materialism (ie, epistemological standards).

And once you reject scientific materialism and open science up to - their term, not mine- supernaturalism, well, then astrology becomes a scientifically plausible theory. And UFOs. And ESP. And "intelligent design" creationism.

And,believe it or not, that is exactly what a leading proponent of "intelligent design" creationism argued at the Dover trial:
[Michael] Behe was called to the stand on Monday by the defence, and testified that ID was a scientific theory, and was not “committed” to religion. His cross examination by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Eric Rothschild of the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, began on Tuesday afternoon.

Rothschild told the court that the US National Academy of Sciences supplies a definition for what constitutes a scientific theory: “Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.”

Because ID has been rejected by virtually every scientist and science organisation, and has never once passed the muster of a peer-reviewed journal paper, Behe admitted that the controversial theory would not be included in the NAS definition. “I can’t point to an external community that would agree that this was well substantiated,” he said.

Behe said he had come up with his own “broader” definition of a theory, claiming that this more accurately describes the way theories are actually used by scientists. “The word is used a lot more loosely than the NAS defined it,” he says.

Rothschild suggested that Behe’s definition was so loose that astrology would come under this definition as well. He also pointed out that Behe’s definition of theory was almost identical to the NAS’s definition of a hypothesis. Behe agreed with both assertions.

The exchange prompted laughter from the court, which was packed with local members of the public and the school board.
Indeed. "Intelligent design" creationism is just a bad joke. A very bad joke. It prizes punning over reality. And no one, Republican or Democrat or otherwise, who puts any credence in this joke should be taken seriously for the position of dogcatcher, let alone president of the United States.


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