Rewriting history: How creationism stays successful

Tomorrow is the final day of the Indiegogo fundraising campaign for We Believe In Dinosaurs, the documentary film about Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter and the effects that creationism is having on science and education in the United States. I’ve been proud to work with the filmmakers for the past few years, and I’m really excited about the project.

One thing I talk about in the film is why creationists seem to have enjoyed such a surprising amount of success in promoting their views. The primary answer, I think, is that the general public simply doesn’t grasp just how far young-earth creationism falls from reality. During his 2014 debate with Ken Ham, Bill Nye suggested several times that the acceptance of young-earth creationism will ultimately hinder science education and damage America’s scientific acumen. While that’s certainly true, I also argue the converse: a lack of science education and scientific awareness is what allows creationism to thrive essentially unchecked.
For the most part, creationists have no real intention of winning on the battleground of actual science. Their goal is to reassure their followers that they are an acceptable authority and that their views are reasonable enough to accept on faith. As long as they are able to maintain the illusion that their views are a reasonable alternative, they win. Despite how fundamentally wrong young-earth creationism is, the effort required to maintain the appearance of research and investigation will always be less than the effort required to openly debunk it.

This fact, I think, is something that is often missed within the scientific community. Young-earth creationism is so wrong, so fundamentally backwards, that it doesn’t seem possible for it to be accepted by anyone. To mainstream scientists, creationist claims are so bizarre that they simply don’t warrant comment.

The trouble is that the general public doesn’t have enough experience with science to see it in the same way. Insufficient exposure to science means that the public doesn’t automatically dismiss creationism, and that’s where it gets traction. Even among people who accept the scientific consensus about the age of the universe and the fact of universal common descent, it can be difficult to illustrate just how unreasonable it is to consider creationism a viable alternative.

Here’s an example I mentioned while we were filming.

Imagine a college history class studying European wars. On the first day, one student raises his hand. “Professor, I’ve heard some alternative theories about some of the things that happened during the two world wars. Will there be time during this course to discuss those?”

Then imagine that the professor, being fairly generous and wanting to encourage discussion, indulges the question and asks him what sort of theories he is talking about.

“Well, professor, I’m not some crazy conspiracy theorist or anything. Far from it! In fact, I agree with all the same evidence any historian would. I just think the timescales might have been a little different.”

At this point, everything seems reasonable enough. The other students might even be a little interested.

The student continues. “See, I think that if you interpret the evidence in the right way, you’ll find that all the same events in World War I and World War II definitely happened; they just happened a lot faster. Specifically, they happened at the same time. In the space of about half an hour.”

Such a suggestion wouldn’t be merely wrong; it would be so ludicrously wrong that disbelieving laughter would be the only possible response. The professor wouldn’t even consider addressing it. But if the rest of the class continued nodding and didn’t seem to realize the inanity of what they had just heard, that would be a problem.

And that is the case with young-earth creationism. Judged purely on the basis of timescales alone, the suggestion that the billions of years of life’s history on Earth can be compressed to under fifty centuries is as ridiculous as the suggestion that both world wars were fought in under thirty minutes.1 Yet the general public doesn’t have the same response, because they don’t have an appreciation for what’s actually involved in our planet’s history.

Of course, the disconnect is more than just an issue of understanding deep time. Scientists understand that the geologic record shows a dramatic progression in the history of our world. There is clear evidence of numerous and distinct ice ages at intervals across hundreds of thousands of centuries, something creationists try to compress into a single 200-year period. In the regime of human evolution, there is an observed and unambiguous progression of development as the branching tree of our ancestors gradually yielded upright walking, tool use, and ever-larger brains. Yet creationists insist that all these hominoids lived simultaneously, despite the clear evidence of gradual development across geologic history. Similarly, the thousands of independent catastrophes recorded in the fossil record – asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, worldwide extinctions – are imagined to have all happened at once, even when they are clearly layered in sequence on top of each other with hundreds of millions of years of intervening history.

To continue the analogy of historical revisionism, it would be as if a “historian” speaking on TV described a “new theory” that the American Revolution, the Civil War, and Cold War, and the Iraq War were all fought during World War I and World War II, with muskets and swords being carried alongside flamethrowers, tanks, assault rifles, and thermonuclear warheads.

If the general public had so little understanding of history that this seemed like a reasonable possibility, then it would be obvious that there is a fundamental lack of education about history which desperately needs to be corrected. Such is the case with creationism. Even if the scientific community chooses not to openly engage creationists, they need to educate themselves about these claims so they can present real science in a way that automatically debunks creationism. The public needs to be shown how real science reaches its conclusions, or pseudoscience will continue to have an unshakeable foothold.

For those interested in helping with We Believe In Dinosaurs, the fundraising campaign met its initial goal of $50,000.00 a few days ago, but still needs more funds for sound and post-production. Every bit counts!

1. As it turns out, this analogy is overgenerous to creationists, by three orders of magnitude. In reality, the timescale would be compressed to 1.3 seconds; I used a half-hour because otherwise it would be impossible to conceptualize. If the common creationist orchard of life were placed on the same scale as the evolutionary tree of life, the tree would be over nineteen miles tall. At the same time, the “orchard” would be over half a mile wide, because young-earth creationists believe that there were 12,300 times more species alive simultaneously before the Flood than have ever coexisted on Earth at once.