You Can’t Disagree with What You Don’t Understand

You Can’t Disagree with What You Don’t Understand

Here’s a little story I threw together this morning to put you in the right frame of mind. Imagine this:

Cousin Angus is visiting his U.S. relatives from Scotland. One day he tells his little American cousin Mary that she’s very twee. Being young and sensitive, she runs away in tears and tells her mother what Angus said. Mom, not knowing but wanting to soothe her daughter assures her, “oh, honey, he was just teasing you about being short. He didn’t mean anything, and besides, you’ll grow!”

In school, she tells her classmates with authority, frequently, and over many years, that in Scotland, the word for short is “twee”. As she and her classmates grow older, and learn more about the world around her, there are some who wonder, “I thought I heard that it meant cute or precious?” or “Are you sure it wasn’t an insult? I heard it meant really nauseatingly sweet,” only to be firmly assured by Mary that it means short, and that’s the end of it.

In her teens, she finally gets to go on a plane for the first time to visit Angus’ side of the family. She picks out an outfit that she thinks will make a good first impression, something with lots of plaids and pleats, a darling little hat, kneesocks with garters – kind of a Hot Topic take on the pictures she remembered from her childhood books. She touches up her hair and makeup before the plane lands, and debarks knowing she’s looking wonderful. When she’s greeted by cousin Angus, she declares, “Remember when I was little and you called me twee? Well, look at me now!”

“Oh,” he says, taking her in, “You’re still twee.”

(Needless to say, every Scot she meets tries to correct her understanding, but she goes back home convinced that they don’t even know what their own slang words mean.)

The inspiration for this came from reading statements from people in Florida who are protesting proposed school science standards that would mandate teaching evolution. None of their arguments are new, none of the statements contain any valid refutations, and each one shows that they understand science just as well as Mary understood anything about Scotland. Someone told them their assumptions were true, maybe even fed them a scripted argument, and since it reinforced what they wanted to believe anyway, they have no reason to question or (god forbid) change their minds.

Most of these egregious, deliberate redefinitions have been fed to people from the Discovery Institute into the churches, books, radio broadcasts, and internet forums and blogs of creationists, who gobble it up.

Of course, it started with the word “Theory”. In science, a Theory is an explanation of facts – how they work, how they came to be, what causes them, what they cause, etc. A Theory is not a fact because it isn’t one single thing that can be expressed in a sentence or a mathematical statement, but is a collection of many facts, formulas, observations, etc. A Theory is not a fact the way a Library isn’t a Book. However, people who haven’t been educated in science have allowed this word to be co-opted by the cdesign proponentsists as equivalent to the colloquial “theory” (small t) that means a wild stab in the dark. As soon as you hear someone describe the Theory of Evolution as “only a theory,” you know that more misunderstandings and lies will soon follow:

“To be scientifically proven, it has to be observable and no one was around 6,000 years ago. We want students exposed to all theories so they can become critical thinkers.”

This comment was made on February 11th, during a meeting about the new standards, which took place in Orlando. The speaker shows how incredibly wrong you can go just by starting with a basic lack of education and then swallowing the rest of the anti-evolution propaganda hook, line, and sinker. It has allowed people to simply accept that Intelligent Design, or whatever flavor of creationism they favor, to qualify as a Theory, once it’s been redefined as a theory.

The success of this linguistic sneak attack has led to more of the same. People who have found their assertions of biblical truth torn apart by scientific facts are appropriating the language of those facts and repurposing them for their own ends.

For example, take “random mutation”. What it’s like is a random number generator that’s told to pick a two-digit number. Well, all the numbers from 00 to 99 are there, all the program does is pick one of them. In biology, there’s a limited set of mutations, determined by species, parental genetics, dominance or recessiveness of traits, environmental factors during development, and so on. In arguments against evolutionary theory, though, it means that a fish could turn into a bird, or cows could develop wings. To a scientist, “random” means not predetermined. To an antievolutionist, it means something that comes completely out of left field.

The worst, in my mind, is the recent interpretation of “peer review” by the Discovery Institute. Defenders of the “Theory” of Intelligent Design have consistently been criticized for their lack of documented, peer-reviewed research. (Any research at all, really.) To circumvent this, they’ve assembled a group of like-minded thinkers to approve of their books and papers, and called it peer review. With that kind of peer review, you could go into a bar in Massachusetts, buy everyone a few rounds, and have a peer-reviewed opinion that the Patriots really won the Super Bowl this year, someone just tinkered with the TV broadcast.

There are many, many examples of this tactic. The credibility of all science is eroded by this linguistic attack on “Evolutionism”. Like actors long ago who sought to make themselves shine in film by surrounding themselves with a dull supporting cast, these people are trying to make their arguments valid by devaluing the truth. We could hope for the same result, that people would see through the deception, but there are so many who are accepting this without question, repeating it in public, and having their words spread by the media that it seems to lead only to more credulity. No matter how much is said to show that these statements show a lack of education and understanding, they still hold sway whenever the subject of evolution comes up. Like Mary in my little story, their minds are made up, and they won’t allow themselves to be confused by the facts.

Ooh, for some more fun reading on this, check out this editorial by Carl Hiaasen and its comments on the Florida Science Standards issue.