The appeal to fair play

This is another archival repost, originally written for the old blog in march 2007.

Shockingly, it’s a new article on the blog. Even more shocking: there will be several more following over the next few weeks.

“All those people who feel that denial of ID is heresy are missing the damage they do to their own faith by forcing it to sit atop a platform of scientific argument.” — John Rennie.[1]

“May” commented on my blog, back in October, about EvoWiki and its pro-evolution bias. May is a “supporter” of evolution, but thinks that we should be “giving the viewpoint from both perspective [sic].” I gave a short reply at the time (which was accused of being condescending – it’s not intentional!) but I’ve been meaning to write some more about this for a long time, as this area is too often neglected. In most (if not all) western countries creationists are in a minority, as are biologists. It is commonly accepted that creationism is nonsense, and the claims of scientific legitimacy made by creationists, certainly of the young Earth variety (YECs), are taken seriously by few. Yet the creationists have an powerful tool for winning over the majority who are neither creationists nor scientists. That is, the argument that it is only fair to present all points of view on a controversial subject, and that it is at best arrogant snobbery and at worst censorship to attack other people’s “beliefs”.[2][3] Sure genesis is just an old legend, but isn’t it only fair that people have the right to hear all the views? The slogan of the creationists is: “Teach the controversy!”[4][5][6]

Within science of course, there is no controversy. The theory of evolution has a large body of observations and data behind it, can be used to make verifiable predictions in all branches of biology, from molecular genetics to ecology, and it survives the acres of new data that come in daily. Claims of scientific legitimacy from creationists meanwhile still have mountains of contrary evidence to explain away before they have a chance to get of the ground. But this is going to do nothing to convince those who already accept evolution but have a great sense of fair play — there’s still a controversy, even if it’s not scientific.

“It’s true, I’m pretty dogmatic about 2+2=4, and that one shouldn’t light an open flame near an open oxygen cylinder, or that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. We tend to think there are some realities that should be taught to our kids.” — Paul Z. Myers.[7]

The goal of organised creationism has been, since its inception, the demotion of evolution and promotion of creationism to equal positions in the science curricula of secondary education. It is here where the legitimacy of an artificial “controversy” has to be questioned. If we agree that a controversy motivated by religious belief can be taught as science, what’s to stop a controversy motivated by political extremism being taught as history? Historians treat holocaust denial with the same contempt as scientists treat creationism. (I hesitate to bring up holocaust denial, for fear of falling foul of Godwin’s law. I am not trying to accuse creationists of fascism, merely using the best known and most contemptible equivalent “controversy”.) Either we accept that creationism is not science, and therefore any controversy, if it exists, has no more a place in science education as the 2+2=5 controversy, or we treat creationist claims as scientific ones, and find that as failed scientific claims, their place in science education is alongside Lamarckism and the four humours: a footnote of the “look at the crazy things people used to believe” variety. And even if we believe that creationism, Lamarckism, holocaust denial, the four humours and 2+2=5 are interesting nonsense, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to have every piece of niche interesting nonsense in the secondary curriculum.

Either way, this is what motivates the opposition to creationism. It’s hardly arrogant to take down the claims of creationists, when they themselves entered the ring by making claims of scientific legitimacy, and the right to a place in the science classroom. Science works by testing hypotheses; one doesn’t accept a hypothesis so much as reject those hypotheses that are incompatible with the evidence. Even those who think that faith and religious belief should have a privileged position immune to question and criticism can not fault scientists who criticise religious beliefs when they have been put on a scientific platform by those who hold them, and subsequently found to be incompatible with the evidence.


  1. Rennie, John, 2005. Protecting science from religion (and vice-versa). Scientific American Perspectives Blog.
  2. Derbyshire, John, 2003. Pseudoscience vs. Snobbery, National Review Online.
  3. Crowther, Robert, 2006. Censorship Rears Its Ugly Head in Michigan as Debate over Evolution Heats Up. Discovery Institute Evolution News.
  4. Meyer, Stephen C., Teach the controversy on origins, Cincinnati Enquirer, March 30, 2002.
  5. Morris, Henry M., 1974. Scientific Creationism, Master Books, Arkansas, 197-198.
  6. Easterbrook, Gregg, 2000. The New Fundamentalism, Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2000
  7. Myers, P.Z., 2005. A Minnesota creationist in the senate. Pharyngula Blog.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *