Should we address the controversy?

by Quinn O'Neill

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 02 16.14At the Reason Rally held recently in Washington, Richard Dawkins made a rather provocative suggestion. He encouraged the crowd to ridicule and mock religious people for their beliefs.

Exactly how far he’d have his followers go with their ridicule isn’t clear. Jerry Coyne of the blog “Why Evolution is True” presumably considers Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion to exemplify the approach that Dawkins is advocating. He offers the converts' corner of Dawkins’ website as evidence of the approach’s effectiveness. It’s a collection of anecdotes from atheist converts who most commonly credit The God Delusion.

The book certainly can be credited for many conversions to atheism, but I think it constitutes an appeal to reason more so than an example of ridicule. In any case, what Dawkins advocated at the Reason Rally goes beyond what he’s done with any of his books. Ridicule can take many different forms, including well-crafted satire and cartoons like South Park, but Dawkins is suggesting that we make fun of people face-to-face. “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” he instructs.

Ridicule can be an effective tactic, but it’s risky. J. Michael Waller makes this clear in a White Paper for the Institute of World Politics, in which he endorses ridicule as a tactic in the “war on terrorism”. Distinguishing ridicule from humor, he says:

Laughing at someone – ridicule – is another matter. It is the use of humor at someone else’s expense. It is a zero-sum game destructive to one of the parties involved. Like a gun, it is a dangerous weapon. Even in trained hands, it can misfire. Used carelessly or indiscriminately, ridicule can create enemies were there were none, and deepen hostilities among the very peoples whom the user seeks to win over.

Robert Wright, in a piece in The Atlantic, questions what effect Dawkins’ advocacy of such a hostile approach might have on support for anti-evolution bills like the one recently passed in Tennessee. It’s a good question. It is a well-established marketing tactic to associate what you’d like to sell to people – be it a product or an opinion – with the values of the target group. Being a well-known advocate for evolution, Dawkins’ advocacy of hostile anti-theism may have an undesired effect. For some people, he may be reinforcing an association between evolution and a threat to something that they value. From a marketing perspective, this would be an obvious blunder. It’s like reminding people that Coke promotes tooth decay when you actually want them to buy Coke.

Of course, Dawkins isn’t a marketing strategy, he’s a human being who’s entitled to express his opinions. And I doubt that keeping creationism out of the science curriculum is his primary objective. He seems to be more concerned with eradicating religion.

But supposing that promoting acceptance of evolution and protecting the integrity of the science curriculum are our primary goals, is there not a better approach than making fun of religous people? One that’s less likely to backfire and one that’s better supported by evidence? I think there is.

There is evidence that engaging creationists in debate can change their minds. Coyne, in an earlier post, offered an impressive example in the form of a course that he taught. The course, called “Evolution vs. Creationism” was for nonmajors and was intended to promote critical consideration of the case for each side. He describes the class:

Every Monday I would lecture as myself, giving the evidence for one aspect of evolution, such as radiometric dating or the fossil record. On Wednesday I would lecture as a creationist, trying to overturn all the stuff that crazy evolution guy said on Monday. [I was very well versed in creationist arguments.] This, of course, deeply confused the students. On Friday we would all sit down and talk about the conflicting viewpoints, trying to adjudicate them. [We also had debates, in which I assigned all the creationist students to defend evolution, and the evolution-accepting students to defend creationism.] And although the class began with a nearly equal mixture of evolution-accepters and evolution-deniers among the students, by the end of the class the discussions had convinced more than half of the creationists of the truth of evolution. It was a deeply satisfying result.

It’s worth noting that the success of debate and appeals to reason may not always be readily apparent. It’s pretty rare for people to entirely exchange long-held opinions in a short period of time. Sometimes, a debate or a new fact plants a seed of doubt that grows over time. In this respect, Coyne’s success might have been even greater than it appeared. Small changes matter too.

Whether we’re talking about religion or acceptance of evolution, I think both the influence of The God Delusion and the success of Coyne’s class provide some pretty convincing evidence that facts and arguments, appeals to reason, and debate can change people’s minds. I think we need more of this. Everywhere. Especially in schools.

It’s possible to address the controversy in schools without teaching it, and I think we should. While there is no controversy among scientists, there is among members of the public and among students, and it matters. It is painfully evident that a sizable portion of the population -important decision makers included- don’t care much what scientists think. The controversy in the public realm has an impact on people’s thinking and, more importantly, on the behavior of politicians and curriculum committees.

So here’s an idea, partly inspired by Coyne’s classroom success. It may be ridiculous and completely unfeasible. I’m offering it here in the hope that it might generate some ideas beyond either ridiculing or coddling religious people.

I propose an evolution vs. creationism debate with representation for each side that would be deemed worthy by proponents of each view – perhaps representatives from a national science organization like the NSF or the NCSE, and from a creationist institution, like the Discovery Institute. The debate wouldn’t be public or in person and the time frame would allow for careful formulation and revision of arguments and rebuttals. Respective parties would be free to formulate their response in groups or appoint people they deem up to the task. The number of back-and-forths permitted should allow the entire process to be completed in a reasonable time frame, maybe a few months. The end result would be a formal debate which presents each side’s views and let’s students decide what to think, just as proponents of “teaching the controversy” claim to want.

I envision this debate being part of a booklet that might also contain brief deconstructions of common evolutionary misconceptions and maybe a section on the nature of science. I would have copies in science classrooms and school libraries. Teachers could mention the resource to students and encourage them to read it but still refrain from discussing religion in the classroom. It would be a supplemental curriculum resource not intended to replace coverage of evolution in the curriculum.

In addition to schools (science classrooms and school libraries), perhaps this booklet could be distributed to public libraries and museums and available online for order and/or download. It might be nice to have copies available for handout at various events, like Darwin Day celebrations.

I think this could be helpful for a number of reasons. I personally found a transcript of an evolution vs creationism debate to have a sizable impact on my own thinking about the issue. The debate was between Isaac Asimov and Duane Gish. It was only a few pages in length, but it sealed the deal for me in high school.

Reading the debate not only cemented my acceptance of evolution, it made me realize how weak the arguments for creationism are. This is important. There seems to be more proponents of teaching both creationism and evolution than there are strict creationists (a 2005 Pew Center poll puts the first group at 64%, a 2010 Gallup poll puts the latter at 40%). This means that a fair number of people who accept evolution still think it’s worth teaching creationism. With persistent attempts to undermine evolution education, it’s not enough that people accept evolution, they need to understand why creationism shouldn’t be taught as science.

Additionally, I think it’s generally more important for people to think for themselves than to think like I do. For this reason I think focusing efforts on promoting debate, providing facts and arguments, and appealing to reason is a superior course of action than face-to-face mockery. While the former approach enhances the critical thinking process, the latter punishes the conclusion. It’s possible that mockery may induce some people to examine their views more critically, but we don’t have any idea what percentage of the time this happens.

There’s much better evidence for the effectiveness of debate and appeals to reason than there is for the effectiveness of face-to-face ridicule. There also seems to be greater potential for harm with ridicule. Ridicule is like the homeopathy of available approaches and fundamentalism like a cancer.