Creationism for Liberals

We know the problem with science in America, right?  Ignorant groups cluster around pseudo-scientific claims; people cling to outdated and disproven ideas out of a false sense of moral purity and righteousness.  Worst of all, scheming charlatans profit off this manufactured ignorance.

Same old, same old.  But what if we’re not talking about religious creationists, but rather about secular liberals?  In The Daily Beast, Michael Schulson recently accused shoppers at fancy-pants Whole Foods supermarkets of succumbing to pseudo-scientific claims.  Worst of all, Schulson writes, such folks often do so while feeling intellectually superior to the rest of benighted America.

As Schulson puts it,

From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.

Read the entire piece.  Schulson describes the more-than-questionable claims of many of the products on sale at Whole Foods.  When he invited a biologist to look at some of the probiotic claims, she offered a quick conclusion about their scientific accuracy: “‘This is bullshit,’ she said, and went off to buy some vegetables.”

Most compelling, Schulson asks why creationist institutions such as the Creation Museum cause such outrage among the mainstream scientific community, while the anti-science on display at Whole Foods doesn’t.  One thing he doesn’t consider is the difference of scale here.  Young-earth creationists claim that the earth is somewhere between six and ten thousand years old.  Such an idea is utterly at odds with the fundamental premises of today’s science.  Claims that probiotics can work medical wonders might be false, but they’re not so enormously out of sync with mainstream science.

But that doesn’t mean that the parallel between young-earth creationism and organic-food fetishism isn’t important and valid.  As I have argued elsewhere, too often anti-creationists take false comfort from calling their creationist foes “ignorant.”  Certainly, some creationists might be naively ignorant, but more significant are those who know modern science and simply reject it.  The real question, IMHO, is not simply who is more ignorant, but rather a question of which cultural authorities people on each side choose to believe.

Along those lines, I appreciate Schulson’s stirring conclusion:

The moral is not that we should all boycott Whole Foods. It’s that whenever we talk about science and society, it helps to keep two rather humbling premises in mind: very few of us are anywhere near rational. And pretty much all of us are hypocrites.

Leave a comment


  1. I think the issue boils down to:

    1) What do we know
    2) How do we know it

    No one (okay, virtually no one) has the expertise and the resources (especially time) to independently verify much of the stuff that’s thrown at them that “sounds reasonable enough.” That’s how incorrect premises stick around and lead, through sound logic, to incorrect conclusions.

    Far too many people remain blissfully (or belligerently) unaware of how incorrect some of their premises are because they stick to a couple trusted sources for information to cut through the chaos of all the information out there (with, again, no real way to verify how good these sources are – it’s a nearly-infinitely-looping problem). And all the while everyone pats themselves on the back about how “informed” they are and sniffs derisively about how “ignorant” others are.

    It’s frustrating that in an era of nearly limitless information, people (all of us) are still so limited in how informed we are by our free time and brain capacity.

  2. Not everyone has the time to research what is out there, regarding science. They firmly believe, as the example given shows, that probiotics and prebiotics are worthwhile. They haven’t seen the studies that now say those are not effective. Many of these folks are not sniffing in derision at those around them. Nor do they go to Whole Foods because they feel superior.

    My sisters shop at Whole Foods or Wegman’s. The Wegman’s sister is definitely one who believes she is superior. The Whole Foods sisters go there because they like the variety offered, and can afford to pay the prices there. You can’t generalize people in the way the article above does. Within my own family there is diversity of thought. There must be diversity of thought throughout our country. I don’t lose much sleep over grocery stores.

    • Great line: “I don’t lose much sleep over grocery stores.” !!

    • My comment was about the general nature of information and the human condition that leads to (among other things) young-earth creationism, anti-vaxxers, a lot of chatter about climate change, and yes, probiotics in grocery stores. Probiotics in grocery stores is a mundane example, to be sure, but the underlying issue is so much bigger – it’s that underlying issue that I was talking about. People don’t become young-earth creationists and anti-vaxxers because they’re stupid (usually); they do it because that’s the most rational conclusion with the information that they trust.

      Are you saying you’ve never encountered anyone who looks down on those that think differently than they do? Because I’ve known plenty of people who seem unable to assume good faith among those who disagree with them.

      • I agree, Athena. It’s not that people CAN’T shop at Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s, or wherever, without being snobby or self-satisfied about it. But there’s certainly some element of snob appeal to such upmarket markets. I think that was the thrust of the Daily Beast article. We all can use a reminder to be carefully humble about our own preconceived notions.

      • “Are you saying you’ve never encountered anyone who looks down on those that think differently than they do?”

        Of course, most often as a nurse. One nurse was fired after her initial hire probation of 90 days. She was the most educated of us. She also didn’t play well with others due to her arrogance.

        I don’t make sweeping judgments, though. I believe that’s what you did.

        Again, I’m not losing sleep over grocery store preferences. And if people are making decisions based on the information that have up to that point, what’s your beef?

      • My beef is organic, grass-fed, free-range, no-BGH, family-raised Kobe. 🙂

      • Great answer!

      • “Again, I’m not losing sleep over grocery store preferences.”

        Again, it’s not about the grocery store. See either of my first two comments.

        “I don’t make sweeping judgments, though. I believe that’s what you did.”

        It’s the nature of distilling observations into opinions on general cultural trends. Did I not include enough qualifiers to indicate that I wasn’t speaking about every single individual?

        “And if people are making decisions based on the information that have up to that point, what’s your beef?”

        My beef is that all the misinformation out there makes it more likely that even non-lazy people will end up with a bad answer. I think we can at least agree on that.

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