May 13 2013

An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part I

On the SGU this week we did an interview with Don McLeroy, the former chairman of the Texas School Board of Education, famous for his (successful) attempts to insert wording into the science textbook standards that would open the door for creationist arguments.

The interview was very enlightening. In my opinion it was an excellent example of the power of motivated reasoning – if we have a conclusion in mind, people are very good at finding a mental path to get there.

We rarely do confrontational interviews on the SGU, but the few we have done I am generally happy with. The risk is that the tone of the interview will go sour. I have only done such interviews when I feel that the person being interviewed will be able to stay calm and professional even as we dismantle their position. Another risk is that the interviewee, who likely is a passionate and eloquent defender of their fringe position, will make it difficult to get a word in edgewise, resulting in a Gish Gallop.

Don McLeroy, I have to say, was an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments. This makes him a very interesting and valuable skeptical subject. I think he demonstrates a few phenomena about which skeptics should be aware.

First is that when we begin to learn critical thinking skills and principles we tend to apply them to the beliefs of others very easily, but only more reluctantly to our own beliefs. Second, when we do apply critical thinking skills to our own beliefs, the pathway of least cognitive dissonance is to use those skills to make our own rationalizations more subtle and sophisticated, rather than to actually change our core beliefs. The more strongly held those core beliefs are, the greater the mental barriers are to change them, the harder it is to get over the hump to actually changing our flawed beliefs (which is the third phase).

Individuals can be in all three of these phases (critical of others, rationalizing our own beliefs, and being truly critical of our own beliefs) at the same time with respect to different beliefs.

With regard to evolution and creationism, Don McLeroy seems to be firmly in phase 2 – he is engaging in a fairly sophisticated form of denialism with respect to evolutionary theory. ┬áIn this and in a follow up post I will address what I found to be Don’s main points. I have also invited him to respond and publish his responses.

Free to Believe

One point Don made that was tangential to the evolution-creation discussion, but which I think reveals his perspective, is that he feels as a fundamentalist Christian he is more free to either accept or reject evolutionary theory than I am as an atheist. I have heard this argument before, but still found it stunning because it is exactly opposite to my impression of reality.

His logic superficially makes sense – those with religious beliefs accept both materialist and supernatural explanations of the world, while strict materialist atheists accept only materialist explanations. Therefore an atheist has no choice but to accept evolutionary theory. Meanwhile someone who is religious can either accept or reject it.

The former component of this argument is strictly true in that there are Christians who accept evolutionary theory. One can have faith and accept the findings of science. In fact, I would suggest that those who choose to maintain a personal faith find a way to do so without rejecting science or the findings of science.

However, this ignores the fact that certain denominations of Christianity have as a strong and firmly held part of their core faith the literal accuracy of (their interpretation of) their version of the Bible. They would have to radically change many of their core beliefs – their entire approach to their faith, if they accepted scientific findings that directly contradict their biblical interpretation (specifically in a recently created world).

Don may be free to accept evolution, but doing so would force him to rethink major aspects of his faith, actually changing his denomination to one that is not fundamentalist. I cannot take seriously the claim that this does not provide a powerful motivation to deny evolution.

We should also not ignore the cultural aspects of this. Young Earth creationism is now a subculture of belief, with their own publications, mythology, distorted and cherry picked facts, institutions, and websites. When someone is deeply embedded in this community, young earth creationism is both encouraged and supported with a robust and sophisticated network. This creates a deep psychological and social hole out of which for anyone to dig themselves.

On the flip side, it is also strictly true but misleading to argue that scientists are forced to accept materialism. Yes, science does require methodological naturalism, because the process of science cannot function otherwise. Science is about providing natural explanations for observed phenomena, so it is trivially and pointlessly true that science only offers naturalistic explanations.

Don’s point is therefore the equivalent of saying that mathematicians are forced to provide mathematical answers to mathematical problems, and they do so using mathematical equations and processes.

There is also the assumption in Don’s position that evolution is the only materialist possibility. When you follow the process of science, evolutionary theory is currently the answer to which all the evidence leads. If the evidence pointed in another direction, then that would be the currently accepted theory. If the evidence were ambiguous or scant, then perhaps the current answer would be, we don’t know.

Science is a process of following logic and evidence, so you cannot fault scientists for following logic and evidence to the conclusion of evolutionary theory.

Don’s argument also appears to contain a hidden assumption – that the goal of all this is to arrive at the Truth. This is a bit of a deep philosophical discussion, and there is a range of opinions here, but to give my quick summary – science is about producing testable theories that make predictions about how nature will behave and what we will observe in nature. It is not about metaphysical certitude, but about testable models.

At present evolutionary theory is the best model we have of how life changes over time, and how existing life got to its current form. It has withstood over 150 years of potential falsification. New scientific disciplines have arisen since Darwin (genetics, for example) that could have entirely falsified evolutionary theory, but instead have strengthened it.

Teaching science is about teaching scientific methods and the current best theories that have emerged from applying scientific methods. It is not about Truth or belief.

In my next post I will address more of the arguments that Don put forward in the interview.

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