Monday, September 10, 2007

Creationism Whack-A-Mole

So I get this huge, very heavy package at work the other day. I open it up to find a book that is a coffee-table sized, but 800 pages long. A monster of a book filled with glossy pictures and holographic moving images on the cover. On top of that, it had been delivered from Turkey using a courier service that isn't cheap. And Aspazia got one, too. Someone put a lot bucks in getting us something neither of us ordered.

As I leafed through the richly colored book, I realized what the Atlas of Creation was. It was designed to be an encyclopedia of "evidence" showing pictures of fossils next to pictures of current day animals, displaying phenotypic similarities, thereby proving that the species have in no way evolved. Hundreds of pages of these pictures followed by a couple of essays by a Turkish creationist and an argument for Islam as the real truth.

Utterly bizarre, I thought. Who was sinking this kind of cash into reviving this silliness?

An article in The New York Times didn't help,

Who finances these efforts is “a big question that no one knows the answer to,” said another recipient, Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University in Missouri who studies issues of science and religion, particularly Islam. Dr. Edis grew up in a secular household in Turkey and has lived in the United States since enrolling in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where he earned his doctorate in 1994. He said Mr. Yahya’s activities were usually described in the Turkish press as financed by donations. “But what that can mean is anybody’s guess,” he said.
Cash? Creationism? One name came to mind. The Discovery Institute. But Turkey?

Then I heard this report on BBC's program, The World, entitled "Creationism in Turkish Schools." It turns out that American creationist organizations have followed the lead of the tobacco industry. If people are smoking less in the US, export the poison to less developed nations and get them hooked on it. If we have a global marketplace for unhealthy goods, why not a global marketplace of bad ideas?

The result comes directly out of the "Irony Can Be So Ironic" file, we have conservative literalist Christians bankrolling conservative literalist Islamists' efforts to keep science and reason out of the classroom. Those same people who gave us the phrase "Islamofascists" are perfectly happy to pump cash to the very same people to which they apply the brand, as long as they help undermine that awful, nasty, liberal slant that we find in reality. In one breath, they worry about a moderate secular country like turkey suddenly ruled by an explicitly religious Muslim political party, but then in the next they give them the means to radicalize education and undermine the moderates.

It is amazing. The Turkish creationists work closely with American groups and as a result, we find precisely the same tactics, the same moves, the same language in the Turkish version that are hallmarks of the American version. A major voice in the public debate is Mustafah Akyol who pushes the liberal fair treatment of all ideas line,
"If you want a fair and objective approach to science and the origins of science, right now there is a controversy in the scientific community. While many people believe in Darwinian evolution, yet there are many serious scientists who criticize Darwinian evolution and say, 'Well, life appears to have been designed by some intelligence." Why not teach about this if you are trying to make your young generations more open-minded and make them know about different opinions in different fields. Here is one, just make them learn about both opinions and let them make their own conclusions from them."
Ignoring the simply false claim that there is any controversy about this issue in the scientific community, the rhetorical move employed here involves two tricks worth pointing out:

(1) "Isn't excluding the creationist viewpoint a violation of the liberal virtue of open-mindedness?" No. The trick here is an equivocation, a subtle change of meaning, in the notion of "open-mindedness." What it really means is that every view gets a chance to bat, but what the creationists are doing is arguing that open-mindedness means everyone is automatically put on base. What the liberal notion entails is that while everyone gets to swing, those who strike out are out of the game. Creationism had its turn to bat for a couple of centuries and was given more than a few extra pitches and still struck out. It thereby is put on the bench and is no longer in the game. Evolution is on base. Might it get thrown out trying to advance? Sure. But it hasn't yet. Just because everybody gets to swing, doesn't mean everybody gets to be on base. but that is precisely what the creationists in Turkey and the US are doing when they invoke the notion of "open-mindedness."

(2) "Aren't evolutionists being unscientific in not giving creationism equal time?" Nope. Here's the second part of the trick. To play the game, you need to buy into the rules of the game. The creationist folks feign playing the rational game wherein everyone gets a turn at bat, but really they only want their own turn at bat and try like the dickens to make sure the other team does not get theirs. They use terms like "open-minded" in order to sucker the liberal-minded folks into treating them as equals all the time knowing that they themselves have no desire to treat the liberals as equals.
"The minister of education for the ruling AK party says he has an open mind about the debate about evolution, but eighteen months months ago five teachers claim they were suspended by the ministry for advocating evolution too strongly. Now teachers are forbidden to speak to the media without permission from the education ministry."
They demand that one side play according to rules which they themselves do not accept. Think this happens in Turkey and not here? Think again.

We've been fortunate that the intelligent design/creationist wave here has crested, but we're playing whack-a-mole and the place it has popped up now may be all the more dangerous. If we are worried about fundamentalists declaring a culture war on the West, to have our fundamentalists fueling the flames we should be trying to extinguish is not in the least helpful.