Questionable Motives

March 17, 2010

What is the key to accepting unjustified beliefs as true?

Several posts ago we looked at the issue of homeschooling biology textbooks out of Bob Jones University that endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True was asked to respond to a homeschooling parent who was concerned about this issue. He was then quoted in the New York times saying that these science textbooks lied to children by misrepresenting the science of biology and how irresponsible it was for parents to support this kind of lie for the maintenance of religious sensibilities over and above what is true.

I think to better understand how people can wholeheartedly believe unjustified notions (like creationism, for example) as if they were just as likely to be true as some notion informed by evidence and supported by a very high probability of the notion being true  (like evolution, for example) lies not in the facts as we find them but in the way we approach those facts.

Michael McHugh is head of a young-earth creationist organization, CLASS, that sells home-school materials on biology to parents. He states (on audio clip 100316 here) that the biology textbooks in question can select whatever ‘facts’ best supports the creationist worldview, that there are “no neutral facts.”  That is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview.  His suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview the parent believes suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview.

That assertion is jaw-dropping stupid. It is so stupid, it burns. It is unconscionable in an educator, but it does explain an extraordinary phenomena we come across time and again of how people can remain fixated on some belief being true regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. How can this be possible?

The mindset described by Michael McHugh explains exactly how so many otherwise rational people can become so selective in the ‘facts’ they already believe are representative of and meaningful to their worldview, while able to so callously disregard other ‘facts’ that are in direct conflict with the worldview. What this essentially means is that anyone who says “…there are ‘no neutral facts’…that is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview…” holds a worldview which cannot be changed by facts and will ignore or refute any evidence counter to their absolute premise. (Tip to #7 Oldfuzz commenting on WEIT about this subject.)

The facts don’t matter to someone who subscribes to this approach that no facts are neutral, that all facts militate for or against a worldview. But this approach means that all evidence does not count but only selected evidence, and this is exactly what we find with people who hold unjustified beliefs. They are only unjustified when all the evidence is considered, but appear highly justified when only carefully selected evidence is considered. In other words, to such people truth dos not matter. Inquiry is not needed. Intellectual integrity is disregarded. Knowledge is subordinate to and dependent on belief in that worldview.

And that’s exactly how ignorance becomes champion and can be promoted by so many well-intentioned homeschooling parents.


  1. “…all evidence does not count but only selected evidence,”

    I don’t know if Michael McHugh meant that the way it comes across. All evidence should be taken into account, but there can be many interpretations of the evidence. The Prosecutor, and the Defense, can present entirely different interpretations of the facts. Sometimes the best lawyer prevails, and not the truth. One of the things that swayed me from an evolutionary worldview, is the way that other interpretations are censored.
    Sometimes those other views are justifiable. I have found that Evolutionists tend to put a twist on the wording, and presentation of the facts, to a greater degree than Creationists. On the other hand; I don’t think that we who believe in special creation have been as scientifically curious as we should have been about God’s creation. The Bible quotes God as saying, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

    Comment by themysteryof — March 19, 2010 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  2. Are you a ‘gravitationist’? A germinist? An atomist? What might you think of someone who has been “swayed” to think of the theory of gravity as merely an idea open to interpretation, that germ theory is based on a twist of wording, that atomic theory has merit because of the way it has been presented?

    What ever answers you have to the questions above are similar to those about the theory of evolution. Because the explanation has over the past 162 years never failed to yield testable, predictable, falsifiable, and repeatable testing, because whenever we apply the theory to applications in the real world and they consistently work, because overlapping data from many fields of inquiry mutually support the theory of evolution every time, because no other explanation can hold a candle to this rich history, the theory of evolution is on the same level of scientific acceptance as gravity, germs, and atoms. That this isn’t enough for you in no way casts any shadow on the theory but on how you think.

    “How you think determines what you think.” (source: me)

    Because of the way you think about evolution, you have determined what to think about it. Yet the evidence in its favour is absolutely overwhelming in the same way that the evidence in favour of gravity is overwhelming. Of course you can dismiss these facts and believe what you want. But will you act on your beliefs? Will you jump off a building with a reasonable hope that your body will not be fully susceptible to what we call gravity? Will you allow a wound to remain uncleaned because you believe the theory doesn’t yet have enough support to actually believe in it? Come on. Of course not. So what is it about the way you think about evolution that misdirects you into believing that it is only one of many supposed theories?


    It is your belief in special creationism that comes smack up against evolution. If it came smack up against gravity or germs or atomic theory, I have no doubt that you would feel perfectly justified in your own mind to believe that they, too, were merely some other kind of interpretation of the facts. Because they leave your religious beliefs alone, you can safely trust them for the insight into nature and the worldly applications they provide. But evolution? Uh oh. Better grab any argument no matter how bereft of knowledge and scientific validity you can to fight this bugaboo.

    And that’s what you’ve done. You have allowed the way you think about science and the knowledge about nature and successful applications it informs to suddenly be suspect… but only in the case of evolution. It’s not suspect at all! Evolution is a scientific theory meeting the identical criteria used for any scientific theory: it’s an explanation that works, works well, works consistently well, and is used as the foundation for what we call biology. Upon this foundation we have built modern medicine, which you undoubtedly use whenever the need arises. Our understanding of genetics is dependent on evolutionary theory and, once again, we have developed applications in genetics that work, that work well, that work consistently well. Do you ‘trust’ medicine? Do you trust genetics? Do you ‘accept’ heritability? Or do you feel that you are in a position to cast aspersions and doubt on these ‘worldviews’?

    Once you remove this impediment to the way you think called religious belief and look at evolution like you would (and do) any other scientific theory, you begin to realize just how deeply religious belief pollutes what you think.

    Let’s look at the alternative ‘theories’ you think have been censored and what you will find is various forms of religious belief without any comparable evidence or applications to back them up. Not any. Not one. If we switched the playing field away from evolution and stuck gravity or germs or atoms in its place, you would realize just how skewed you need to think to make any kind of sense out these so-called alternative theories. And if you remove the alternative theories reliance on accepting magical thinking associated with religious belief, you would see that these alternative theories are simply empty of explanatory power in a fair and unbiased comparison.

    What has swayed you from understanding and appreciating evolution (it’s NOT a worldview whatsoever) as a scientific theory is your decision to believe in special creationism. Yet there isn’t a shred of evidence to back up special creationism. But you believe it to be true. On what do you base this belief? It’s not evidence. It’s not science. It’s not its ability to coherently explain what is (you can’t build an ark big enough to handle only two of every kind of beetle and have it float without breaking up in water with waves). So the bottom line is that you don’t accept evolution not because it isn’t true or that it doesn’t meet all the benchmarks of what constitutes a scientific theory, nor because the applications fail to work in a dependable manner just like wing designs to cope with gravity. You don’t accept evolution because it challenges your belief and your belief alone in special creationism.

    So don’t pretend that creationists may not be scientifically curious enough; that’s bunk. Creationists use science and its applications when it’s convenient and refute science when it competes with cherished beliefs that have no substantive evidence to justify doing so. I don’t know what god says about that and you don’t either. Nor does anyone who wrote or interpreted or translated any of the books of the bible.

    Comment by tildeb — March 19, 2010 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  3. “If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” ( 1st. Corinthians 8:2 ) Yes, I believe in gravity, but I’ll bet there’s a lot about gravity that we don’t know. Even if scientists could answer every question that I could ask about gravity, ( which they can’t ) there would be questions I wouldn’t know to ask.
    It would stand to reason that the forces and processes that God created would be testable to some degree. In a way, that is even true of God himself, because we all “test” him in the experimental ways we try to live life. In that way, some of us reach the conclusion that the Bible is telling the truth after all.
    Some scientists have taken that which was once only taught as heredity, and called it proof for evolution. That is like saying our children have evolved because they don’t look exactly like us. God programmed his creatures to adapt to changing environments, so why wouldn’t this be testable. Some proponents of Intelligent Design call this microevolution, and go on to say this is no proof for macroevolution.
    Evolution is just a word, that represents an idea. It has become a substitute for adaptation, heredity,and creation. Anything would work just as well without the word.
    Many insects could have survived the flood on their own little arks of floating vegetation, but there wouldn’t have to be two of every sort of beetle we have today, because of heredity. Someone has said, “The Bible and nature are two books of God.” If both are correctly interpreted, there will be no contradiction.

    Comment by themysteryof — March 22, 2010 @ 11:47 am | Reply

    • Gravity doesn’t need your belief to be true; it is an explanation of the attraction between bodies of mass that we incorporate into our lives in meaningful and dependable ways. Gravity doesn’t exist because you believe the explanation to be true; gravity is a brute fact explained by the theory, which informs successful applications that rely on it to be true. There remain many unanswered questions about gravity – about this relationship between bodies of mass that attract one another in predictable, testable, falsifiable, repeatable and measurable way – but in no way do those questions impede our current understanding or bring the theory into any kind of disrepute. Unanswered or unasked questions do not imply some kind of justified belief or faith in the supernatural relative to gravity. Your point here is questionable.

      I suspect there is a great deal of excitement that you have devised a reliable, repeatable, falsifiable, predictive method to test whether the god hypothesis is true or false. That would be a first.

      The same excitement does not hover over your assertion that the bible is true. We have ample evidence that many of its scientific claims are flat out wrong, which raises the question: Which bits are true and which bits are false and, more importantly, how can we tell the two apart? Fortunately for religious leaders everywhere, we can’t. It’s all a matter of… interpretation. Rrriiiiight.

      Do you understand what evolution means? Go here first and then revisit your thoughts.

      You claim god ‘programmed’ his creatures to adapt. How convenient is that? One might be tempted to think that he would get his creations right the first time. Or establish the right conditions. Isn’t it revealing that we paltry humans have to keep coming up with more excuses as we learn more about god’s shortcomings as a ‘design’ engineer? Funny, that.

      The problem here is that all you can do is assert special creationism must be be so to agree with your beliefs with no means at your disposal to offer evidence for this hypothesis. As long as you are willing to substitute the phrase ‘god did it’ as part of your explanation, you are not dealing with science. And that’s the problem for special creationism in all its ‘cdesign proponentsist’ guises: it’s all theology. And none of it successfully countermands the evidence that informs the theory of evolution.

      You give away the game when you introduce this notion of accepting ‘micro’evolution but not ‘macro’evolution. This is right out of the Discovery Institute (aka, the neo-theocrats called discoveroids) playbook and can be revealed for the nonsense it is with this single question: where is the line between micro- and macroevolution? The answer is pretty simple if you deal with the science of biology: there isn’t a line because evolution is. This micro/macro obfuscations is driven by theology and not evidence. And when it comes to understanding evolution, no god is required. No divine intervention is necessary. There is no evidence to suggest we or any life on earth was created in some special event by some supernatural design engineer. None. Nada. Zip. Bupkus. Quite the opposite, in fact. The only ‘evidence’ for special creationism is by people who assert there MUST have been because life can be complex. That’s a failure of imagination and scientific understanding in the creationist supporter and not a justified criticism of evolutionary theory.

      There was no global flood in the past 10,000 years because there is no evidence for such an event. It’s a fairytale to which you subscribe based on believing in your preferred book of ‘truth’, which does not make it any less false. Nor does your suggestion that heredity could account for the many kinds of beetles we find today: your explanation fails on many levels, least of which is to account for geographic distribution. Good luck finding that ‘interpretation’ from the bible. It is not there.

      The bible is a compilation of selected, edited, and interpreted writings and made into a book. Nature is. The two are not kinds of books that can reveal the same kind of knowledge if interpreted correctly; belief in god and his supernatural interference in the world is no substitute for evidence-based knowledge, and religious belief in general is antithetical to the honest inquiry and the maintenance of intellectual integrity necessary to gain evidence-based knowledge.

      Comment by tildeb — March 22, 2010 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  4. The book of nature is incomplete without the revelation of the Bible. We can’t create a Utopia, or Paradise, correctly interpret the earths past, or our own history without the Bible.
    I have an old 1971 set of Encyclopedia Britannica’s that I have kept. An article on the layers of sedimentary rock says, “No satisfactory explanation exists for the millions of cubic miles of sediment that formed these layers.” The author says that to think of these layers as being “oceanized,” boggles the mind. I’m quoting this from memory, and I realize that such honest statements would probably be weeded out by now. The global flood is the best explanation for these layers, but if you can’t accept that, then you have to try to come up with another explanation, even if it isn’t completely satisfactory.
    God created a perfect environment, but he knew change was coming, and that his creatures would need ability to adapt. That’s no different from designing the eye to adapt to different lighting conditions.

    Comment by themysteryof — March 24, 2010 @ 10:22 am | Reply

    • Why do you suggest that to understand nature requires some kind of biblical revelation, and can you give an example to back this up?

      How, exactly, does the bible inform the earth’s past?

      Do you understand the process of sedimentation? Do you understand the process of isostatic rebound and tectonic movement? Can you still think of “no satisfactory explanation” for the geological layers of sedimentary rock with evidence of once being submerged? The global flood is not true, not because I say so but because there is no evidence for such an event. The sedimentary layer of chalk that makes up the ‘white’ cliffs of Dover is of a different geologic age altogether (late Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago) than the salt flats of Arizona (about 15,000 years ago) or Ayers Rock laid down during the very early Paleozoic period (about 500 million years ago). All of these sedimentary layers are ‘oceanic’ but in no way support the notion of a global flood. And there are many excellent local explanations how these features came to be based not on belief but evidence that makes sense.

      You keep using the word ‘design’ to attempt to explain adaptability. Clearly, the design we find in organs comes from the random shuffling of genetic material from parents. And the design of parents come from the random shuffling of genes of their parents, and so on. This string of evidence is very useful, for example, in determining very specific parentage. It helps us to better understand heritable diseases, and can even be extended to establish general human migration patterns and common heritage with other species. This evidence does not provide us with any reason whatsoever to suggest some kind of divine interruption and/or interference either during parent to offspring genetic transmission or an historic starting point. Rather, this evidence is powerful support for the idea of evolution by means of natural selection. Whatever adaptation results in an advantage to produce more offspring fits perfectly with how speciation occurs. And that’s exactly what we now find in the lab when we do thousands of generations, speciation. This ‘micro’evolution leads inevitably to what creationists like to call ‘macro’evolution as if the two were different processes or mechanisms; the reality is that macroevolution is microevolution but (usually) over very long periods of time. In other words, there is no different process of mechanism and creationists cannot find any evidence for their assertions about divine design. That’s why you will hear scientists in biology say over and over that there is no science to back up creationism or divine design, which is why when creationists attempt to insert their theology (for that is what it is) into the science curriculum, they run up against a scientific consensus that only evolution fits the criteria. Find another line of investigation that is science and by all means teach it in the science classroom, but unless and until that other line of investigation has scientific merit, we cannot in good conscience include it in the science curriculum any more than we can justify ‘teaching the controversy’ in family studies by including Stork Theory as some kind of legitimate ‘alternative science’ to explain where human babies come from.

      Comment by tildeb — March 24, 2010 @ 11:29 am | Reply

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