The Judean People’s Front vs the People’s Front of Judea

2 03 2007

Over at Pharyngula, the debate over kicking the creationists “‘inna fork” verbally (and perhaps otherwise) has spring up again. To me, the whole thing smacks of this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

While many people have responded to PZ’s post with “harumph!”s and cheers, I have to wonder what good amping up the vitriol and fierce rhetoric is going to do. Creationists of all kinds piss me off to no end (my wife usually tries to dissuade me from reading anything by a creationist too close to the end of the evening, else I’m up all night grumbling/blogging about it), yet I have to wonder if the cavalier “Fuck you” attitude is primarily bred on the internet. I haven’t yet found a study via PubMed to back this up, but I have heard it said (and I agree) that the internet essentially makes it easy to be a jerk; your thoughts are showing up on-screen with no feedback from a real person (other than maybe more impersonal text via an IM or comment), so it’s easy to be impersonal as there are no consequences for it. It would be exceedingly easy for me to go on near-constant tirades (containing plenty of expletives) about things/people I don’t like, but would I ever act that way to their face? Of course not. While some may consider this “wussing out,” for my own part it would be impolite and ineffective to try and change someone’s mind by loudly berating them at length, only hearing their reply once I was finished.

Not long ago I had dinner with a creationist speaker and an ICR member (I was invited specifically because I was an evolutionist) and although I held my ground and spoke my mind I didn’t jump over the table and smack the speaker or say “Pass the salt, you Bible-beating idiot.” I can’t think of any way in which such actions would lead to a favorable outcome, nor reflect anything good on me. I don’t want to me an immature loudmouth who bullies people into my point of view, but rather be confident, to the point, and honest, hoping to illuminate rather than forcefully coerce.

There is certainly a place for anger in this debate and a way to use it, but using Ann Coulter-like tactics of vitriolic rhetoric doesn’t do much more than polarize groups who have already made up their minds. While scientists certainly do need to raise their voices about th e pseudoscience that is creationism, I don’t think profane name-calling and “[breaking] out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles” would do much more than pinpoint the immaturity of those using such tactics. Hell, I can’t really even picture what “[breaking] out the steel-toed boots” would look like in terms of confronting creationism, because I’m sure it is not meant literally. The film Flock of Dodos showed scientists gathered at Stephen Jay Gould’s poker game (its namesake obviously no longer attending, of course) speaking frankly on the subject and they come off as cantankerous, condescending, cranky old men; what good such rhetorical tactics would have out into the public, I really can’t see (especially when the film concludes that although they may be horribly wrong, creationists are far more personable and that helps their cause).

Anyway, I’m a bit adrift in a muddle of my own thoughts, but I’m not suggesting that we go “soft” on creationism or take the relativistic “Well, you can believe whatever you want and that’s ok” approach. No, beliefs, assumptions, superstitions, etc. must be questioned and considered carefully, otherwise people can simply create their own mental reality that does not reflect the real world in the least. That said, people are going to continue to disagree and fight about this issue for a long time to come, and much critical thinking is going to be needed. As a Christian of the “Doubting Thomas” variety (I’m working through a lot of issues involving my faith and what I believe and why I believe it, so give me time to use my brain please) I seriously believe Christianity needs major reform, and just because someone else is a Christian doesn’t mean they should get a free-pass. Not everyone is going to agree when it comes to religion, but I tire of the Christian ideal that as long as someone is a “brother in Christ,” they are somehow beyond reproach and allowed to lie, cheat, and steal as long as it gains more converts. Indeed, Christians today have become very much like the Pharisees Jesus rebuked so often in the New Testament, and it seems to me that the religion is slipping back into the Dark Ages, at least judging from some of its more vocal conservative members. That being said, I often feel that some atheists do not give people who have a religion enough credit, the climate of the debate often being “Well if you believe in God, how smart can you be?” It doesn’t seem to cross many people’s minds that it is possible to have personal religious/spiritual beliefs but seriously contemplate and question them; questioning your own beliefs does not always lead to atheism (although I’m sure many would argue that such self-investigation should lead to some absolute viewpoint). I would like to say that I’d be happy as long as people used their brains, but in such a case I have to be comfortable with the fact that people simply employing critical thinking doesn’t mean they’re going to agree with me or a given idea; there will always be arguments and dissenting views. Given that, although I truly hope that critical thinking comes back into fashion, I believe that scientists must be firm yet respectful in communicating to the public. I don’t mean this as “we must respect creationism as an idea” but rather to have respect that you are talking to another human being whose life experience is something entirely different, whose brain likely works differently, and who is an unique individual formed through billions of years of evolutionary innovation. If we lack respect for others, then why should we expect them to show the same to us? An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.




20 responses

2 03 2007
Chris Harrison

Interesting to hear your thoughts on the subject. I agree that the nature of the internet seems to coerce people into being less compromising and more insulting. No one is going to punch your through the screen when you call them a “Bible humping moron”, and we’re all hiding behind screen names and pseudonyms anyway.

Anyway, I couldn’t help feeling how set up Stephen’s poker game felt in Flock of Dodos. I’m suspecting that Olson staged that scene. I mean, he had quite, mid-day one on one interviews with the creationists/IDers, yet he jammed a bunch of evolutionist friends together over poker and alcohol one night. If you want fireworks and general asshatery, friends + beer + poker is a failsafe combination.

2 03 2007

You have a point about the poker game; no one is really “at their best” in such a setting, although things didn’t seem to get too rowdy. If I recall, there was even one scientist who was a bit more moderate and he was a bit drowned out , at one point one scientist proclaiming “I have the floor” over the others. While perhaps the scene was a little “staged” I referenced it simply because the one scientist said that scientists need to stand up and say “You’re an idiot” to creationists. It’s easy to engage in such tactics when you’re not looking someone right in the eye, and while we can all get together on blogs and usenet groups and be as unforgiving as we want, if we took the same sentiments out to the public trying to communicate science, I don’t think it would bode well. I do the same thing; it’s easy to decry creationism when I have the floor on here, but in conversation there’s a different dynamic, especially when I’m arguing with a friend or acquaintence (which has happened a few times in the past few weeks). Maybe it’s just me, but I get the feeling that many scientists have communication issues, not just with the public but amongst themselves. The breakdown of communication between disciplines that could enrich each other is appalling, and many scientists I’ve run into just want to do their own thing and not be bothered with talking to other people or the public. I’m not trying to say they’re “bad people” or this holds true for all scientists, but it’s a “publish or perish” world where it’s easy to build an ego, and I think there’s a lot of condescention coming from both creationists and scientists (having different roots, of course). I just have gotten tired with the infighting and such that goes on in the debate, and while it’s important to take a stand for your position and allow it to be questioned (how else are we ever going to learn anything?), the “take no prisoners” attitude unsettles me. Blogging and the internet is great, but it seems almost to be mostly a forum for people already invested in the debate in one way or another; hopefully more scientists will branch out and write books, do documentaries, give lectures, etc. to educate the public about how important evolution is.

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