The Real Intelligent Designer

Does it matter? Who cares if a gold-medal-winning engineering breakthrough came from a young-earth creationist? When it comes to understanding our creation/evolution debates, I think it matters a lot, especially for those of us who want more and better evolution education in our public schools.

Here’s what we know: Recently, young-earth impresario Ken Ham has crowed about the accomplishments of Professor Stuart Burgess. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.


Reducible Complexity

SAGLRROILYBYGTH and others who share my obsession with all things creationist may wonder why we have to bring up this old chestnut yet again. We all know the script here. Young-earthers will trumpet the few engineers and doctors who hold young-earth beliefs. Mainstream scientists will point to the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve. If there are a few science-y creationists, there are bajillions more science-y non-creationists.

We’ve all been around and around this debate before, but I think it’s worth bringing up again. As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand American (and UK) creationism, we have to abandon the satisfying but false notion that creationism is a product of mere ignorance.

Or, to be more precise, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that there are vastly different forms of ignorance. In some cases, people simply don’t know things. In other cases, though, some types of knowledge are blocked by competing types of knowledge.

Creationists can certainly display both sorts of ignorance. Some of them might just have never heard the arguments of mainstream evolutionary science. But the fact that there are any young-earth creationists who have scored big successes in science-y fields helps prove that the real difficulty results from the second type of ignorance. Creationists can be very successful in society, even in science-related fields, even if they “know” that mainstream evolutionary theory is bogus. Even if we don’t want to admit it, Ken Ham is correct in boasting that “Professor Burgess is definitely both a real scientist and a creationist!”

We don’t need to tangle with the endless debate about whether creationism is real science, dead science, or zombie science. We don’t need to gnash our teeth and exclaim that Burgess’s scientific accomplishments happened in spite of, not because of, his creationist beliefs. The point here is different. The fact that engineers like Dr. Burgess are both successful mainstream practitioners and convinced young-earth creationists matters for different reasons.

Why does it matter? Because it reminds us that creationism is not simply the product of isolation from modern knowledge. Creationists aren’t people who simply haven’t heard about evolutionary theory or modern science. Since that’s the case, we won’t spread knowledge of evolutionary beliefs merely by making it available. We won’t successfully teach evolutionary theory to Americans unless and until we recognize the fact that creationism is more than a deficit hoping to be fixed, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a naïve lack of knowledge seeking the best modern knowledge.

As I’ve argued in my recent book (co-written with philosopher Harvey Siegel), if we really want to teach evolution in this creation nation, we need to start by understanding this central fact about American creationism.

The fact that creationist engineers like Dr. Burgess can have outstandingly successful technical careers serves as more proof that creationism is something other than a lack of knowledge about evolution. When we’re designing bike chains, it doesn’t really matter how old the earth is. It doesn’t matter that mainstream evolutionary theory offers by far the best current explanation of the ways species came to be different from one another.

What does matter—at least for those of us who are trying to understand creationism as it really is—is that creationism is not a leftover from hillbilly isolationism. Creationism isn’t the result of a lack of exposure to modern ideas. Creationism, rather, is a different way of being modern.

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  1. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.

    I don’t find this at all surprising.

    Ignorance is commonplace. I’m sure that I’m quite ignorant in many areas. It is easy to be expert in one field, while deeply ignorant of another.

    Participating in creation/evolution debates, we see some creationists who put up a poor argument, and are debunked. Most of them learn something from that experience, and usually avoid exposing their ignorance in future debates.

    The problem creationists are those who come back, time after time, with poor arguments. They are not merely ignorant. They have become expert at displaying their ignorance.

    • Dan

       /  July 16, 2017

      yes, it becomes an obsession because they are trying to organize world that is a kind of mentally (and maybe morally and politically) closed society, like any despotic state or authoritarian cult.

      Adam, do you really think there are a lot of people who don’t understand that creationism is usually an example of ignorance in certain areas, not necessarily others? I have never met anyone who thinks it is a matter of totally ignorant, uneducated, isolated hillbillies. These do not exist. “Science” came out of alchemy and religious-philosophical speculation; it operates on outmoded paradigms we just don’t know are outmoded until they are.

      The real problem is precisely what Neil says: the persistent, willful closure to a larger reality where they might be wrong, where there is rival evidence, and compelling alternative theories. They are dogmatists who strive to impact a much larger audience that thinks even less. People like Ken Ham help create black boxes for fundamentalists — he becomes an “expert authority” they trust, and because they do, they don’t have to engage in even the level of thinking and study he does. They can simply revel in his victories and conclusions, going on with their life working for Boeing on cruise missles, or as civil engineers.

      This is also the danger of the culture wars and alternative forms of religious schooling. Given enough success with a system that has strong separatist leanings where students are insulated from real competency in certain fields of knowledge (in order to keep them in the subcultural fold) or simply the sense that knowledge, culture, and humanity are shared and universal, then we could end up moving in a direction like Salazar’s Portugal, at least in certain parts of the country. In a context of protected economic decline, military and/or natural disasters, and political instability this becomes much more likely.

      • Dan

         /  July 16, 2017

        *protracted … decline.

        In essence, it seems to me Adam is like a Roman at the end of the empire telling his fellow citizens, “Look this Christian monastic movement is not that bad. They’re not complete morons. We can work with them, live alongside them. They’re educable.”

        Suppose the epoch of secular, liberal, scientific modernity is on the downswing? That is really what Ham and his audiences want and have been working for. A new world where end times and creationism believing fundamentalists fill the legions and serve the state, which begins to harmonize with their religious beliefs.

      • We don’t disagree that Ham and his YEC audiences HOPE that secular, liberal, scientific modernity is on the downswing. I just think they are wrong. And, more important, I don’t believe that American fundamentalists have the wherewithal to unite on the tiniest matters, much less in some vast conspiratorial scheme. Such cohesion and long-term teamwork go against every lesson taught by the history of fractious American fundamentalism.

      • Dan

         /  July 16, 2017

        Why do you think they are wrong? Because unity of purpose on the right is necessary for them to wreck an exiting order? Who said anything about a conspiracy? It’s precisely the disorder of a very diverse, fractious, generalized reaction that overwhelms and unseats an established order, and then they have to deal with the mess — which they are unprepared to do, and the results are generally terrible. Recent historians on the Russian revolution for example tell basically this kind of story. Reaction to terrible, hated rulers and economic conditions is not about unity or coherence of any kind.

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