The Giant’s Causeway and the Nature of Scientific Thinking

The Giant’s Causeway is a spectacular natural formation of some 40,000 basalt columns on the north coast of Ireland. The site managed by the National trust who have been receiving a lot of criticism for the inclusion of a young earth creationist interpretation of the formation at the new visitor centre.

The interactive exhibition in question includes an audio package re-enacting debates between historic figures, who argued over the origins of the Causeway, as well as their contrasting biblical and scientific beliefs on the origins of the planet.

The exchanges end with a further clip stating: “This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

“Young earth creationists believe that the earth was created some 6,000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

“Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

“Young earth creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.”

Northern Ireland evangelical umbrella group, the Caleb Foundation, welcomed the inclusion.

In a statement, the Foundation’s chairman, Wallace Thompson, said: “As an umbrella organisation which represents the interests of mainstream evangelical christians in Northern Ireland, we have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway visitor centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this.

Young Earth Creationism is rooted in the idea that the world was created in 4004 BC, a figure derived in the 17th century by James Ussher. In reality, the Giant’s Causeway was formed around 50-60 million years ago.

There is a link to a phone interview with Richard Dawkins on Jerry Coyne’s website. A shorter version can be found on Eric MacDonald’s blog. In this clip, a caller gives a list of “creationist scientists” in response to Dawkins’ claim that no reputable scientists believe in a young earth. Eric MacDonald gives some details on these scientists. Eric notes:

The whole thing is quite bizarre. Here are highly trained and accredited scientists who are actually betraying science in order to uphold the biblical story of creation. And they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: young earth creationists, young fossil creationists, old earth creationists, Floodists, etc., bringing their expertise to bear on something completely unscientific, so that people like Mrs. White, who thinks of herself as an intelligent, thoughtful person, can claim to be using the latest scientific knowledge to underwrite her biblical beliefs.

The adducing of a list of scientists who endorse a claim to support that claim, rather than using appropriate evidence, is a classic creationist tactic. If was this approach that led to NCSE‘s satirical Project Steve (of which I am a proud signatory!)

Although there is some legitimacy to the claim that the people listed by the caller are scientists, it is not the case that they are using scientific methods and knowledge when considering issues that are in conflict with biblical literalism. Scientific thinking is a process, not an inherent characteristic of an individual who has received a doctorate. In a forthcoming chapter, Corinne Zimmerman and I describe scientific thinking as

“an umbrella term that encompasses the reasoning and problem-solving skills involved in generating, testing and revising hypotheses or theories, and in the case of fully developed skills, reflecting on the process of knowledge acquisition and change”.

Anybody can think scientifically about an issue, regardless of profession or educational achievement; conversely, just because someone has a PhD, it does not necessarily follow that they will apply scientific principles and knowledge in every aspect of their life. In fact such people are likely to be extremely rare. In part because we do not all have the requisite knowledge in every domain and in part because thinking scientifically can be effortful, which leads to a trade-off: in many everyday situations we do not need to expand the cognitive effort necessary to reach a conclusion using scientific methods.

However, I would argue that the “scientists” who expound creationism (along with its offspring, Intelligent Design) are going further than simply failing to apply scientific knowledge and methods to bear. They are deliberately ignoring all the evidence from multiple disciplines which points to the true age of the earth. PZ Myers offers a cute analogy:

A carpenter is a person who practices a highly skilled trade, carpentry, to create new and useful and lovely things out of wood. It is a non-trivial occupation, there’s both art and technology involved, and it’s a productive talent that contributes to people’s well-being. It makes the world a better place. And it involves wood.

A pyromaniac is a person with a destructive mental illness, in which they obsess over setting things on fire. Most pyromaniacs have no skill with carpentry, but some do; many of them have their own sets of skills outside of the focus of their illness. Pyromania is destructive and dangerous, contributes nothing to people’s well-being, and makes the world a worse place. And yes, it involves wood, which is a wonderful substance for burning.

Calling a creationist a scientist is as offensive as praising a pyromaniac for their skill at carpentry, when all they’ve shown is a talent for destroying things, and typically have a complete absence of any knowledge of wood-working. Producing charcoal and ash is not comparable to building a house or crafting furniture or, for that matter, creating anything.

You can’t call any creationist a scientist, because what they’re actively promoting is a destructive act of tearing down every beautiful scrap of knowledge the real scientists have acquired.

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No Critical Thinking in Texas

Living in the USA has its advantages and drawbacks. I live in a great little town, know lots of fabulous people, have a great community of scholars (both locally and nationally), and can avail myself of some excellent microbrew beers. However, the conservative/republican/religious axis is an ever-present reminder of the downside.

The 2012 report of the platform committee for the republican party of Texas makes for some chilling reading (pdf here). Some of the highlights include getting rid of affirmative action, abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing employers to discriminate against employees with “sinful and sexually immoral behavior”, opposing homosexuality, repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, opposing any mandatory vaccinations, and opposing sex education in schools. You can read discussions of this report here, here, and here.

Here’s another of the gems included in this document:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Wait… this was a mistake! According to this report, the inclusion of “critical thinking” was an oversight. The republicans are not opposed to critical thinking skills. So why did they include it? It seems that what they are actually opposed to is challenging students’ beliefs and undermining parental authority. Is that clear? Critical thinking is fine, as long as it doesn’t challenge existing beliefs or encourage children to question anything their parents have told them.

I assume that the reasons behind the opposition to challenging beliefs are concerns that children might question their religious upbringing, accept gays, and/or become feminists. However, it is not “just” these kinds of beliefs and values that would be affected by the rejection of critical thinking. A generation that is taught to reject critical thinking would also be handicapped in many other ways, including how to make good financial decisions, and whether to accept medical advice from a magazine, TV show, or a website. Those who are accepted into universities would have a steep learning curve, particularly in science disciplines.

In scientific domains such as medicine, evolutionary biology, and climate science, there is a tension between scientific and pseudoscientific arguments. This tension is illustrated by the acceptance of medical practices that are not based on science and evidence, anti-evolutionary claims, climate change denialism, and the assertion that autism is caused by vaccination. These are all cases of an uncritical stance among the public and media. Pseudoscientific arguments often rely on logical fallacies, appeals to magical thinking, and a lack of empirical support from controlled experiments, (e.g., homeopathy). In order to successfully evaluate such claims, critical thinking skills are necessary. Without such skills, children would grow up with little regard for science and evidence.