• Creationism, science denialism and other childhood indoctrination and intellectual abuse

    Having attended a fascinating talk by James Williams (a science educator) last night at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub, I thought I would post about it. The talk was called Insidious Creationism and concerned Creationism within an educational context.

    So, why ‘insidious’?


    adjective /inˈsidēəs/

    1. Proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects

    – sexually transmitted diseases can be insidious and sometimes without symptoms

    2. Treacherous; crafty

    – tangible proof of an insidious alliance

    And that starts to communicate what we are dealing with here. So what is the issue with creationism being taught? Well, when taught as science, or in the context of science, it is a form of intellectual abuse. As the description of Williams’ talk states:

    At various points, children believe in lots of things, from Santa Claus to the tooth fairy. Fantasy is important, and distinguishing fact from fantasy is an important filter that children must develop. A sound education, critical thinking and an understanding of science and nature help people distinguish fact from fantasy, but what if fantasy is promoted as fact by people in authority? Teachers, ordained ministers and people who flaunt their credentials as men or women of science have a responsibility towards children and their position can be very influential. Then, promotion of fantasy as fact, is no longer a harmless activity. It is a form of intellectual abuse of children.

    What is intellectual abuse? Williams states that this is:

    • The attacking or ridiculing of a child
    • Preventing a child from thinking for themselves
    • Presenting yourself to a child as being perfect, or as always being right, having no doubts or uncertainties

    How does this apply to creationism?

    When a person in a position of power and authority, claiming an expertise in science, deliberately provides a non-scientific explanation for a natural phenomenon knowing it to be at odds with an accepted scientific explanation, then that person is guilty of an intellectual abuse.

    And that is precisely what happens. There is a lack of transparency. Children, after all, are easy to dupe. Let me give an anecdote.

    I am a teacher and I teach young children. I remember, as a joke, announcing to the class, in response to “How do you know that?”, the following: “Because I know everything. I literally know everything.” I was expecting, of course, laughter and children retorting with the likes of, “Yeah, sure, sir! Of course you do!” equipped with obvious sarcasm. Except they didn’t. Thirty children of ages eight, nine and ten to whom I was talking, imparting knowledge, literally thought I was omniscient. I had the characteristics of God. To them, I appeared the fount of all knowledge. What power! And what opportunity for misuse!

    Luckily, I am fairly rational and uphold secular values of rational thinking and discourse. I put the children straight.

    So, in light of this, here is a challenge. Watch this video. Every minute of it. Watch this video and point out to yourself the number of times you see examples of the intellectual abuse of children through some of the definitions listed above.

    As a teacher, watching something like this is not only painful, but desperately enraging. The injustice of sheer indoctrination of those less able to know the difference between plausible and implausible. More on that later.

    But let’s look at the techniques being used by the ignominious Ham. Remember, he used to be a science teacher in Australia. Science (or any subject) teachers watching this should recoil at the use of questioning in the way presented. Ham asks children questions them and then gives them the answer, asking them to repeat the answer as mantra.

    It’s not just what is said, but how it is said, too.

    Ham: Put your hand up if you’ve heard that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. [most children in a packed auditorium put their hands up] Put your hands down. Dear oh dear.

    Here we have a figure of immense authority standing at a podium on stage with a massive powerpoint screen belittling the ideas of modern science, and this authority figure, godlike and equipped with biblical beard, dismisses thousands of fossil finds, peer-reviewed papers, scientific dating and mountains of data with a pithy and derisory “dear oh dear”, carried with such a dismissive tone, to a horde of unknowing children with no chance or ability to question such a dismissal.

    Ham: We don’t believe in evolution, evolution is the idea some people have to explain life without God. No! I believe what the Bible says, actually. I believe that God created everything.

    And here we have so much wrong, so many dubious tactics as to enrage me all over again. Ham has taken to talking on behalf of the children, announcing what their beliefs are, thus embedding notions that may not have previously existed in their minds as fact. He then announces that “some people” use evolution to explain life when he should be saying “virtually every single scientist in all the relevant fields, including many prominent Christians” use evolution. And it is slightly problematic to say it is used to explain life. Technically, it explains the diversification of life.

    In the above video, one of the reasons that one of the Christian parents used for defending her belief and denial of evolution was that “it just makes sense and it’s easy to explain to your children.” Excuse me? So education is about rejecting truths because they are difficult to understand in favour of easy to understand falsehoods? So, I could explain how apples get on my tree as a result of pollination and germination, but that’ s a bit tricky and requires some knowledge of biology… I prefer the easier explanation of fairies.

    The foundation of these erroneous claims is, of course, the Bible. So how do we explain dinosaur fossils? Well, since the world is so young, according to the Bible, then humans must have lived side by side with these huge animals to explain the existence of all of these fossils. But what is the biblical evidence? In its entirety, in the Book of Job:

    “Behold now, Behemoth, which I made [as well as you;
    He eats grass like an ox.
    “Behold now, his strength in his loins
    And his power in the muscles of his belly.
    “He bends his tail like a cedar;
    The sinews of his thighs are knit together.
    “His bones are tubes of bronze;
    His limbs are like bars of iron.

    And that’s it. Literally mountains of fossil evidence, evolutionary trees, genetics, geology, dating and many other disciplines trumped by that! But children have less chance to access or to have accessed those disciplines, let alone understand them, especially given the sheltered and censored existence under the auspices of creationist parents. And then to create catchy songs for the children to sing along to and clap to just sits badly with an educator like myself.

    “I’m going to teach you something very special this morning. And I want you to remember this, boys and girls – something that you will never forget. Has any human being always been there, yes or no? [No!] Nooo. … Has any scientist always been there? No… Who’s the only one who’s always been there? [God!] And who knows everything? [God!] Soooo, in a big loud voice, who should you always trust first, God or the scientist? [God!] God. And I want you to remember that.”

    Defining this as teaching is an insult to the teaching profession. It most certainly isn’t. At best, it is brainwashing.

    But Ham and his Answers in Genesis organisation together with the Discovery Institute and other nebulous and nefarious forces have other things up their sleeves than big educational conferences. I say nebulous by point of fact they are hard to pin down for accountability. They do not disclose their finances and it is all rather… insidious and clandestine, as though they have something to hide. As a vanguard to their attack on science, there are creationist books. Indeed, there are many creationist books and they all twist science and misrepresent or deny the facts. I could point out the terrible claims made inside these books and the outright falsehoods. But that can remain for another day, save for this one to illustrate my point.

    Duane T. Gish, a prolific and notorious Young Earth Creationist (now deceased) was responsible for a number of these books, one of which shows that dinosaurs could breathe fire, presumably to allow for dragons. This book showed a sauropod breathing fire and claimed that the mechanism is reflected in todays bombardier beetle (which he also claims couldn’t have evolved), a common creationist claim. The artist for the book creates an image of a sauropod breathing fire and then equates it to a bombardier beetle on the facing page. The bombardier beetle mixes chemicals and fires them out of its behind causing an exothermic reaction – great heat. Not fire. But this didn’t stop the artist picturing a bombardier beetle under threat with fire being ejected out of its posterior. This is simply a lie – this does not happen. But the child reading this would have no fame of reference, they wouldn’t necessarily know any better.

    What is clear is that not only do the pictures paint a false picture, but the language is either outright incorrect or entirely misleading. Evolution becomes a “story” whilst the Bible is the “truth” in these textbooks in a terrible ironic switch. That science and myth are reversed in such a potent manner is a travesty.

    However, what I would like to illustrate more forcefully is the strategy which such institutions utilise. The Wedge Document is famous to many, the idea that such a strategy gets the ID movement and creationism a foot in the door from which it can force the door wider and wider. As soon as IDists are given the oxygen of publicity, they are able to capitalise and appear more ‘intellectual’ and ‘rational’ and worthy than they really are. Together with other creationist books and documents and methods, we have unsurprisingly underhand tactics. Some years back, the Discovery Institute sent out particularly flash DVDs to science classrooms all over Britain, and no doubt the States. However, this project failed. These free, glossy and well-produced DVDs found no traction with heads of science at every single school up and down the country top whom they were sent. So the next time round, the Discovery Institute were far more cunning. Instead of DVDs with an overt creationist slant, they produced a book called “Exploring Evolution” and instead of heads of science they sent these books to the library heads. So the books looked scientific, looked good for kids, had nothing overtly denialist on the cover and went to people who either wouldn’t know better, or would simply file the book in the library without having time to look it over.

    And so this book ended up in far more school libraries than it should have done. Little Jessie needs to do her biology homework on evolution, goes to the library, grabs the nearest book on evolution and hey presto, she is misinformed with science denialism. These are the sorts of approaches which take place under the radar. Insidiously.

    As I have documented before, children are often taught or assimilate cultural memory and identity; stories are imparted as fact: Noah’s Ark and the flood happened; Adam and Eve were literal. These ‘facts’ are imparted into the very credulous and gullible minds of young children. AND THEN they are taught what the world is like; what is likely and probable to happen; how science works; how to critically think and analyse and rationalise; how to differentiate the plausible from the wildly unlikely. They apply these techniques and methods in their later lives to other truth claims to rule them out as being patently ridiculous. No Muhammad didn’t do that. No Sathya Sai Baba didn’t do that. But Moses? Noah? Well they slipped into the house before it was built. They are what it’s made of. These cultural memories have infiltrated the very brickwork.

    By becoming embedded before a child has learnt the cognitive techniques with which to decipher the world, these truth claims bypass such mechanisms and remain critically untouched. At such time that they are challenged later on, they are so embedded that critical analysis merely further entrenches them through processes of cognitive dissonance and suchlike. John Loftus, in his excellent book The Outsider Test for Faith details how we end of believing things which might not be rational. One source he quotes is Joe Keohane who states:

    Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

    So facts and rational argument are trumped by embedded falsehoods. The truth does not necessarily win out, and cognitive dissonance often plays a part. Cognitive dissonance is the pervasive and ubiquitous cognitive heuristic which means that when a person has a core belief that is disconfirmed by some evidence, three things can happen:

    1)      the core belief is rejected

    2)      the evidence is rejected

    3)      the two are somehow harmonised

    We cannot handle dissonance in the brain, so two competing views or ideas cannot remain. With the core belief being so strong and entrenched, it is no wonder that our brains undergo mental contortions to allow it to remain, especially given its importance if it is relied upon for an entire worldview. Thus we either reject the evidence out of hand, or find ways (using confirmation bias and other mechanisms) to devalue it so it is not in disharmony with the core belief. If both remain, it is usually rationalised with ad hoc explanations. That prayer works as a core belief is disconfirmed by all tests revealing no meaningful verification. This is rationalised in an ad hoc manner by explaining that God moves in mysterious ways and cannot be tested.

    So in later lives, when confronted with evidence that evolution works, or a global flood is physically impossible and disconfirmed by evidence or that the Exodus was historically near-impossible, such people (indoctrinated as children) go through these processes to either reject the evidence outright (rather like ostriches with their heads in the intellectual sand), or reject the evidence or harmonise it with the core belief in ways which beggar belief. Outrageous mental contortions and gerrymandering are the order of the day. Think the rejection of fossil evidence by rejecting all scientific methods for dating or something like this ( a real ad hoc answer): “the reason dinosaurs and mammals are near the top is that they float when they die. and they stay up longer than other organisms.”

    As William J. Bennetta stated:

    Creationism is a fundamentalist political movement. The creationists seek to impose onto the population at large, by political means, a religion that revolves around the creation myths of the ancient Israelites, as retold in the King James Version of the Holy Bible. The creationists’ ultimate goal is to abolish natural science and to replace it with a system of pseudoscience devoted to affirming the narratives in the Bible’s first section, the Book of Genesis.

    In working toward that goal, the creationists try to corrupt the public’s understanding of scientific knowledge and of science itself. Their most conspicuous efforts are aimed at eroding the teaching of science in public schools. They promote curricula that misrepresent science, they demand that teachers present scientific findings and biblical myths as equivalent alternatives, they try to prevent the teaching of any science that contravenes biblical lore, and they try to force the schools to disseminate Bible stories that have been cloaked in “scientific” disguises.

    In all of these efforts, the creationists make abundant use of a simple tactic: They lie. They lie continually, they lie prodigiously, and they lie because they must. The idea that the Bible could serve to explain nature collapsed in the 1800s, under an overwhelming mass of scientific information that discredited any naive, literal reading of Genesis, but the creationists have to deny that this ever happened. They also must deny all that science has learned since then about the history of Earth and Earth’s organisms — and the only way to do this is to tell lies. They tell lies about nature, lies about science and lies about their own doctrines and aims, and they change the lies, from time to time, to fit prevailing circumstances.  Alabama Will Use Schoolbooks to Spread Lies and Foster Creationism”, William J. Bennetta, The Textbook Letter, November-December 1995

    Children are vulnerable. They are humans in their infancy, obviously, but that is not just physically, but mentally – they have no frames of reference and minds more devoid of knowledge of the world. They are ripe for the picking, ready to be taken advantage of. As the old alleged Jesuit maxim goes:

    • “Give me the child, and I will mould the man.”
    • “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.”
    • “Give me the child until he is seven and I care not who has him thereafter.”
    • “Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man.”

    Pick any of them and you get a sense of what is going on here.

    “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you a misinformed individual full of misconceptions, set up for a life of psychological problems.”

    With these children who are predominantly home-schooled, or who attend free schools, private schools, faith schools or other establishments which can offer non-mainstream, non-secular education, we see intellectual abuse taking place. These children are not in a position to differentiate what is plausible from what is religiously motivated dogma. And evolution is not naturalistically motivated dogma – it is scientific fact supported by dozens of different disciplines with a predictive power that makes creationism green with envy, since it has absolutely no predictive power, or even negative, since one has to ad hoc rationalise why there is bad design in the natural world if God created everything.

    The tactics utilised by such organisations, authors, churches and people of religious authority appear to involve such psychological and pedagogical manipulation that one must wonder how it sits with the conscience of the people involved. Even if they believe whole-heartedly in the truth of what they claim, they must still understand that they are taking manipulative advantage of the young and vulnerable.

    What do we do about it? Well, there are some serious options to consider, some of which are already being done:

    • Provide better resources on evolution – textbooks and examples
    • Begin the teaching of evolution earlier in the curriculum
    • Give science teachers the information and expertise to deal with challenges in and out of the classroom
    • Cut out the language of design from papers and books which mistakenly creeps in, implying agency

    Sadly enough, the Genesis Expo has reopened locally, in Portsmouth, UK, misinforming those who cross its threshold. With its lack of dating suspicious on all of its displays, one must suspect the worst, as a local skeptic I am in contact has found out, with some secret filming:

    That is the first of 4 parts, watch them all if you can bear to surround yourself with such ignorance!

    And this is only the tip of the iceberg when considering the issues surrounding creationism and education. My next piece on this will be revisiting the Accelerated Christian Education programme and how such direct religious indoctrination provides a mountain of educational worries.

    For the time being, let me post the conclusion to a  2007 report (“The dangers of creationism in education“) carried out by the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe:

    Conclusion: the denial of evolution is particularly harmful to children’s education

    80. Prohibiting the teaching of key theories, such as evolution, is totally against children’s educational interests. Education has a duty to be a means of enabling children, young people and adults to become important players in the transformation of societies, whereas adopting a denialist stance on scientifically proven theories constitutes a brake on education and the intellectual and personal development of thousands of children. Science is a prominent player and plays a big and active role in this process of the evolution and transformation of societies.

    81. The knowledge it provides cannot be arbitrarily challenged. By denying proven facts, the creationist ideas do not contribute to the transformation of societies but to making them become archaic. The creationists are in fact supporters of a radical return to the past, which could prove particularly harmful in the long term for all our societies. This is therefore a crucial issue.

    82. As we have seen, evolution is not simply a matter of the evolution of humans and populations. It now pervades the whole of science and is one of its fundamental principles, so it appears legitimate to consider the consequences that denying evolution could have on the development of our societies. How, for example, can advances be made in medical research with the aim of effectively combating diseases like AIDS if every principle of evolution is denied? Basically, evolution pervades all medical research. How can we consider living in a world without medicine? That appears absurd, but removing the teaching of evolution from the curriculum, as advocated by the creationists, could result in a considerable reduction in, if not the end of, medical research.

    83. In addition, the “scientific” approach adopted by the creationists to put forward and support their ideas is itself a particularly dangerous instrument of mental manipulation: presenting a thesis as a scientific theory without providing any evidence can be compared to an attempt to manipulate minds for purposes that are, moreover, scarcely virtuous. As Charles Otis Whitman, an American zoologist (1842-1910) wrote, “Facts without theory is chaos, but theory without facts is fantasy”. Accordingly, as G. Lecointre notes, any clever manipulator relies on “facts” alone.

    84. By only presenting facts without any theory or proof, Harun Yahya abuses the credulity of individuals who listen to him or read his works. Moreover, as Jacques Arnoult emphasises6, the BAV and Harun Yahya in Turkey, just like the American Institute for Creation Research, resort to partial, indeed erroneous, references to develop their creationist arguments. The authors do not hesitate to quote magazine articles that defend evolution but they succeed in turning the meaning round by shortening the quotations. This is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty, which is particularly harmful.

    85. Harun Yahya refutes the theory of evolution by systematically referring to the Koran. However, as Malek Chebel has stressed, the Koran does not mention evolution directly but only creation.

    86. The science of evolution, like any science, does not claim to answer the question “why things are” but simply seeks to consider how they work.

    87. Some creationist fundamentalists attack “Darwinism” and materialism by accusing them of being the “real ideological source of terrorism”. “Darwinism is the basis of several violent ideologies that brought disaster to the human race in the 20th century”. Is it necessary to point out that human beings did not await the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s work The Origin of Species to indulge in a large number of massacres? How many people have died in the name of religious wars? The use of religion, like the reference to “social Darwinism” by some dictatorial regimes, is insufficient and cannot in any way call into question the theory of evolution or religion. Social Darwinism is an ideology that claims to have been inspired by Darwin but it has nothing to do with the Darwinian theory of evolution7. Moreover, it is impossible to ascribe all the evils on Earth to Darwin and his theory of evolution. He is not responsible for the deviations from his theory after his death. It is absolutely scandalous to present Darwin as the father of terrorism, and that may sow doubt and bewilderment in the minds of many young and inexperienced individuals.

    88. Finally, there are, especially in the United States, a number of aberrations inherent in the denialism practised against evolution and in the accompanying proselytising. A documentary film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, entitled Jesus Camp and released in the United States in autumn 2006, provides evidence of them. It shows a Pentecostal minister, Becky Fisher, who has opened in a North Dakota forest a holiday camp overtly devoted to the indoctrination of children. In front of the camera, she explains that from the age of 7 to 9 a human being can be made to believe anything and that that remains engraved in their brain for life. Fisher says she found her model among the Muslim fundamentalists. This documentary reveals all the violence and fanaticism of the most radical of the creationist movements and the effectiveness with which they succeed in manipulating human beings.

    89. The creationists claim that evolution is only one interpretation of the world among others, but that is not the case. The scientific nature of evolution remains irrefutable today. However, it must be repeated that the science of evolution cannot claim to give an explanation as to “why things are” but tries to explain how things are happening or have happened. The theory of evolution constitutes a body of knowledge fundamental for the future of our democracies and cannot be arbitrarily challenged.

    90. It is important to point out that the theory of evolution has had a profound effect on science in general, philosophy, religion and many other aspects of human society (for example, agriculture). Evolution has also entered the field of psychology: evolutionist psychology is a field of psychology that aims to explain the mechanisms of human thought on the basis of the theory of biological evolution. It is based on the fundamental hypothesis that the brain, like all the other organs, is the result of evolution and thus constitutes an adaptation to specific environmental constraints, to which the ancestors of the Hominidae were forced to respond.

    91. With creationism today, we are witnessing a growth of modes of thought which, the better to impose religious dogma, are attacking the very core of the knowledge that we have built up little by little concerning nature, evolution, our origins and our place in the universe. There can be no doubt that this is a serious attack on human rights.

    92. There is a great risk of a serious confusion being introduced into our children’s minds between what has to do with convictions, beliefs and ideals and what has to do with science, and of the advent of an “all things are equal” attitude, which may seem appealing and tolerant but is actually extremely harmful8.

    93. Creationism has many contradictory aspects. “Intelligent design”, which is the latest, more refined version of creationism, does not completely deny a degree of evolution. However, this school of thought has hardly provided any fuel for the scientific debate up to now9. Though more subtle in its presentation, the doctrine of intelligent design is no less dangerous.

    94. The teaching of evolution by natural selection as a fundamental scientific theory is therefore crucial to the future of our societies and our democracies. For that reason evolution must occupy a central position in the curriculum, and especially in the science syllabus. If we prevent our students from accessing scientific knowledge, we run the risk of their being unable to compete effectively with other students who are being educated in states where science has a key status.

    95. Evolution is not simply a matter of the evolution of humans and of populations. Denying it could have serious consequences for the development of our societies. How can advances be made in medical research with the aim of effectively combating diseases like AIDS if every principle of evolution is denied? How can one be fully aware of the risks involved in the significant decline in biodiversity and climate change if the mechanisms of evolution are not understood? Evolution is present everywhere, from medical overprescription of antibiotics that encourages the emergence of resistant bacteria to agricultural overuse of pesticides that causes insect mutations on which pesticides no longer have any effect.

    96. Our modern world is based on a long history, of which the development of science and technology forms an important part. However, the scientific approach is still not well understood and this is liable to encourage the development of all manner of fundamentalism and extremism, synonymous with attacks of utmost virulence on human rights. The rejection of all science is definitely one of the most serious threats to human rights and civic rights.

    97. The teaching of alternative theories can only be considered if they provide sufficient guarantees as to the scientific nature and truth of the ideas put forward.

    98. The alternative ideas currently presented by the creationists cannot claim to offer these guarantees, so it is inconceivable that they can be allowed to be taught within the scientific disciplines, either alongside or instead of the theory of evolution.

    99. The creationist ideas could, however, be presented in an educational context other than that of a scientific discipline. The Council of Europe has highlighted the importance of teaching culture and religion. In the name of freedom of expression and individual belief, creationist ideas, like any other theological position, could possibly be described in the context of giving more space to cultural and religious education.

    100. At the same time, it is necessary to consider the causes of such a challenge to the theory of evolution. This theory leaves itself open to many attacks but that could perhaps be explained by the poor way in which it is taught, especially from the epistemological point of view.

    101. These reflections lead us to conclude that better teaching or the more appropriate teaching of the sciences and evolution might enable the dissemination of alternative pseudo-theories such as those of the creationists to be combated effectively. This importance of quality science teaching that is better suited to the realities of daily life was highlighted in the report on students’ declining interest in scientific studies.

    102. Science provides irreplaceable training in intellectual rigour. It seeks not to explain “why things are” but to understand how they work.

    103. Jacques Arnoult10, a research scientist but also a Dominican monk wrote: “I confine belief to religion, human relations, indeed intelligence, but not science. Science is a matter of reason, observation and hypothesis, theory and testing. It has its rules and its areas of application”.

    104. A detailed study of the growing influence of the creationists shows that the discussions between creationism and evolutionism go well beyond intellectual disputes. If we are not careful, the values that are the very essence of the Council of Europe will be in danger of being directly threatened by the creationist fundamentalists. It is part of the role of the Council’s parliamentarians to react before it is too late.

    In the future, I may well concentrate some effort in analysing this report.

    Category: CreationismEducationEvolutionScience


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce