Should Historians Talk Politics?

The question is not whether or not historians should get into politics. The proper question is whether or not historians should get into history. In case you missed it, journalist Andrew Ferguson just antagonized historians by mocking their attempts to weigh in on impeachment. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, sometimes the intellectual “sloppiness” Ferguson condemns is right on the money.

president supervillain

Should cartoonists weigh in on cartoons? Should Red Skull weigh in on villainy? [Side note: If you’re not following President Supervillain (@PresVillain) on Twitter, you’re missing the best part of today’s politics.]

Full disclosure: I signed. Ferguson was fluffed about the petition signed by over 2,000 historians in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal. And, no doubt intentionally, Ferguson used provocative language to condemn activist historians, calling them merely “obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts.”

Beyond my hurt feelings, I think it’s fair to wonder if Ferguson’s accusations have any merit. The basis of his complaint is that historians are calling for impeachment based only on an argument from authority. As he puts it,

It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick.

In this case, though, Ferguson misses the central point. Historians are not merely weighing in as credentialed experts who have a certain political belief. Rather, in an age of fractured truth, historians are weighing in on an historical issue, as credentialed experts who have earned their expertise at great cost and toil. They are signaling to a bewildered public that not all forms of history have equal merit. All historical claims are tentative, but some are far more wildly bogus than others.

Trump letter pelosi

It is no longer self-evident that all historical arguments are not born equal.

The disagreement in this case is not merely whether or not historians as individuals think Trump is a dangerous lout. More specifically, the impeachment case hinges on the nature of American history itself. In his self-defense, for example, Trump has made all sorts of claims based on his reality-TV-level understanding of history. As he wrote in his recent letter to Speaker Pelosi,

You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme—yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.

In other words, Trump is leaning on history to make his case against impeachment. Trump is not only defending his “perfect” phone call, but insisting that his actions are in line with the intentions of America’s founders centuries ago. The fight here is not only about today’s politics, but yesterday’s. To say that historians should not weigh in on events of the past seems more than a little silly. As Princeton’s Kevin Kruse put it,

The GOP invoked “history” repeatedly in their defense of the president — making claims about the Constitution, Franklin, Hamilton, past precedents of impeachment, etc. Don’t get angry when actual historians respond to those claims to point out they’re wrong.

Right on. In this case, historians are not merely voicing their views about politics based on their PhDs and institutional authority. They are speaking to the public on issues in which they have reasonable claims to expert authority.

Consider a parallel from another field of fractured truth. As science historian Adam Shapiro noted, telling historians not to speak politically is similar to the ways scientists have been told to stay in their labs. And it is just as meaningless.

Back in 1968, for example, SCOTUS was considering the constitutionality of a bunch of 1920s anti-evolution laws. As SCOTUS considered, scientists weighed in. The scientific case was clear. Leading biologists, 179 of them, signed a brief informing the justices that “scientists and other reasonable persons” no longer doubted the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. The justices eventually agreed.

These days, too, mainstream scientists happily lend their authority to the prestige of mainstream evolutionary theory. As the National Center for Science Education playfully demonstrated with its Project Steve, the number of scientists who support evolution—JUST NAMED STEVE—stretches to over a thousand.

Are these arguments from authority? In a way, but what Ferguson misses is that in an age of fractured truth, when politicians and preachers make outlandish claims about history and science, the authority of historians and scientists has real value. To a public confronted with bogus ideas about the past or about DNA, arguments based on the number of experts who attest to the truth of the matter is not only acceptable, but absolutely vital.

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.

team-great-britian-olympic-bicycle-display

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.

Pro-Evolution I: Introduction

EVOLUTION: INTRODUCTION

In 1972, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky told the annual meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  The line stuck.  Not just because of Dobzhansky’s credentials.  An émigré from the Soviet Union in 1927, in the 1930s Dobzhansky’s work in genetics helped explain the
way Darwin’s idea of natural selection really worked.As evidence, Dobzhansky pointed to the fantastic diversity
of life forms.  A fungus which forms only on a certain part of a certain beetle that only lives in certain limestone
caves in France.  A fly whose larvae can only survive in seepages of crude oil. Each of these incredible and incredibly diverse forms of life evolved to fit an evolutionary niche.  They represented only those that have survived the ages; many other exotic and specialized forms of life also developed, flourished, and died off as conditions changed.  Dobzhansky argued that none of that made any sense—indeed, he called it blasphemous to think of—if such life forms had been created in all their specificity by an all-knowing God.  It would suggest a whimsical and cruel Creator; one who deliberately set up evidence that life had evolved in order to fool curious humans.  Plus, it would suggest a Creator who only created in order to destroy.  But it made perfect sense if life had evolved.

This is why Dobzhansky’s 1972 speech title immediately became a lasting favorite among those who sought to prove the importance of evolutionary thinking.  Dobzhansky summed up some of the reasons why evolutionists could not live without evolution.  Nothing they did made any sense if it was not unified by the idea that life forms had evolved to fit the diverse conditions of the planet.  Nothing made sense without the notion that each form had come into being as it took advantage of
niches within the diverse sphere of earthly life.  But all came into focus when understood as elaborations of the evolutionary process. All became clear when seen as the ways the process of natural selection allowed life to adapt to changing and diverse conditions.

Dobzhansky relied on the fact that such arguments had convinced every careful and honest student who had studied the evidence.  In these posts, I will not rely on that preponderance of agreement by academic scientists.  This is not because that evidence is not strong.  One of the best known projects that demonstrate the overwhelming agreement among scientists is the National Council for Science Education’s “Project Steve.”  In response to the lists compiled by anti-evolutionists of scientists who doubt the notion of evolution, NCSE compiled a much, much longer list just of scientists named Steve who do support evolution.

However, just as arguments from the Bible would never convince these evolutionists that evolution can’t be true, so such compilations will never convince those who do not believe in evolution.  The number of scientists who believe in evolution will not impress someone who assumes that such people have fallen into a lamentable intellectual trap. Just like a list of the number of healthy people who smoke will not convince me that smoking is healthy.  Just because many people do something can’t prove that it is right.

The purpose of these posts, as with all of the efforts on this blog, is more modest.  I will only attempt to make the arguments in favor of evolution that can demonstrate to a committed anti-evolutionist that one does not have to be deluded or ignorant in order to believe in evolution.  There are good reasons why people believe it.  As Dobzhansky argued forty years ago, once we understand this vision of life, nothing makes sense without it.  It becomes the key to unlocking life’s secrets.