[My thoughts in essay form. Long-time readers will find it familiar. Feel free to share.]
Tonight’s debate on creationism between Ken Ham and Bill Nye will end—like most debates on this topic—with two camps even more certain of their views. One will celebrate Ham and conclude that the theory of evolution has been overthrown. The other will brand him a fool and insist that creationism undermines scientific literacy and America’s future. Here’s a different take: it doesn’t matter what people think about evolution.
For all the talk about the dangers creationists pose, it is a brutal empirical fact that you can reject evolution and still become a successful scientist. So if believing creationism doesn’t prevent people from getting a PhD in physics, how can it be that dangerous?
Consider a sports analogy. Some basketball players excel at offense but not defense. Otherwise excellent shooters may be simply average at free-throws. Any sports fan will tell you this is not surprising. Sports are complicated. Even within the same sport, skills don’t always transfer from one area to another. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest scorers in the history of basketball. He was also a terrible free-throw shooter. Those two sentences are perfectly compatible.
Let’s now reframe the debate: We already know that athletic ability is much more than a single discrete skill. Is intellectual ability similar? Maybe judging intelligence by belief in evolution is as ridiculous as judging Wilt Chamberlain’s basketball game by his free-throws. Note that this is an empirical question that should be studied scientifically. We must look at the evidence instead of getting emotional.
The Internet is always a good place to start. We can search for terms like ‘domain-specific knowledge in decision making’ and ‘transfer of cognitive skills’. We can skim a few abstracts to see that “considerable research and controversy have surrounded this issue” and that we must “view superior [decision-making] performance as a complex function of existing knowledge. Since the data are inconclusive, we cannot just assume creationists won’t be able to think critically outside biology.
But if rejecting evolution does not necessarily affect your ability to reason elsewhere (and it doesn’t), then who cares? Why get so excited? When this issue arises in schools, we can make compromises instead having a big fight. Parents who don’t want their children to learn evolution can substitute a unit on biochemistry, human anatomy or marine biology. For all the hype, the theory of evolution is usually just a few weeks of high school biology. That’s it.
None of this means creationism is “right” or “true.” But it does mean that those aren’t always the most important questions to ask. It means that without hard evidence creationism causes harm, we should hesitate before attacking those who believe it. It means an increasingly diverse, pluralistic and fractious America must weigh cultivating tolerance alongside abstract ideals.
Perhaps a step forward is to focus less on creationism and more on creationists—the actual human beings involved. They are as complicated and varied as all human beings. Just like any of us, they are good at some things and not others. Of course some creationists can become world-class pediatric neurosurgeons. Of course they can!
So the next time you hear someone argue that creationists are irredeemably irrational and unscientific, say: “Let me tell you about this basketball player named Wilt Chamberlain…”