Months ago, I was worrying about how to characterize creationist statements that are untrue or misleading. The claims in question are not merely false (mistakes of various kinds can generate falsehood) and are not statements of opinion with which I disagree. They are claims that are demonstrably false but have been asserted by people who are certain (or likely) to know this. In other words, they bear the marks of duplicity. I said:Part of the problem that Matheson is trying to grapple with is that, as a Christian who knows something about science, reading creationist or ID "science" often leaves you wondering how such egregious errors or ommissions could be passed off so blithely if not through clear intent to deceive. Matheson is hesitant to use the word "lying", because he suspects that these people are not being intentionally dishonest. And yet, many of them are at least moderately well educated in their fields and are peddling interpretations and claims which can be disproved with only a few minutes worth of research with decent sources.As a Christian, I am scandalized and sickened by nearly all creationist commentary on evolution. But I'm not a misanthrope, and so I find it hard to believe that so many people could be so overtly dishonest.So I proposed the term 'folk science' as a way to refer to belief-supporting statements that sound scientific but do not seek to communicate scientific truth. I have two goals in my practice of using this phrase: 1) I recognize folk science as a particular type of argumentation, and I want to be able to accurately identify it as such; and 2) I want to create space within which I can identify falsehood, and especially falsehood that seeks to mislead, without making unwarranted accusations.
If these people aren't lying, and they're stating things so obviously wrong, what exactly is going on?
I think the root problem here is that very often when dealing with issues surrounding evolution, creationism/ID apologists are coming to the table with a preconceived answer and simply looking for evidence to support that answer. With creationism, the answer is biblically derived. With ID, it's built into the "if we can throw doubt on how a system evolved, that proves it was designed" false dichotomy which is at the root of the whole ID claim.
Either way, however, the apologist has a structure already clearly built in his head for which he merely has to pick up a few supportied pieces of evidence -- rather like the undergraduate paper-writer who first writes his text and then does some "research" in order to pull in three footnotes per paragraph supporting his thesis.
Of course, practitioners of all disciplines are subject to this affliction. If one is searching history for proof that the Church is a force or repression or that women are smarter than men or that all of Western knowledge was stollen from Africa, one of course finds it. A sufficient degree of certainty as to result allows one to only notice the evidence the supports your thesis, and to discard everything else as either irrelevant or probably the result of one's ideological opponents dishonesty.
Apparent dishonesty of the sort that Matheson highlights among creationsts (if you want to see examples of just a few howlers, click through to his article above, he's quite concrete) is, thus, a result not of an explicit attempt to decieve, but rather of a set of preconceived notions so strongly held do that one can easily deceive oneself -- finding only supporting evidence and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
My own favorite anecdote in this regard (and my apologies if I've trotted this out here before -- I fear I may well have) dates from my time at Steubenville, when I found myself in debate with a part time Classics lecturer who'd written several articles for Catholic magazines advocating Intelligent Design theory. (He's since gone on to become a fellow at the Discovery Institute and a prolific writer.) He asserted that the fossil record contained absolutely no evidence for evolution, and refered, if memory serves, to gaps like that between whales and their land-dwelling ancestors. Species were always so different, he asserted, it was impossible to imagine one was descended from another.
I pointed out that in less exciting (and far more frequently preserved) species such as mollusks, the sequential species in the fossil record were so closely and clearly similar that the species divisions seemed almost arbitrary. Without missing a beat he responded, "Maybe, but no one cares about mollusks."
At the time, this struck me as a clear disregard for facts and an interest only in scoring rhetorical wins based on the famous "gaps", and there may well have been some of that involved, but looking back based on Matheson's take (and a the calmness of past years) I think it was more simply that the whale gap fit with the worldview he was already totally committed to, and since the mollusks didn't, he assumed that they must not be very important.