May 12, 2009

More on “Creationist Liars”: Ben’s Plea for Civility

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , at 11:31 am by Andrew

I suggested the following guidelines for whether atheists should call a particular creationist a liar:

I think it’s reasonable to hold someone who is representing himself to the world as an expert to the standards one would expect from such experts.

Such standards include, at minimum, that if one reads someone else’s research and draws conclusions not present in the original article, you should (1) contact the original author to get his views; (2) represent that author’s views of your conclusions fairly in making your own argument; and (3) submit your argument to a scientific journal for review by other professional academic peers within the respective scientific community.

When you bypass all of that … I think it’s fair to call that “misuse” at best and yes, even “lying.”

Commenter Ben responds:

I was actually thinking of that same distinction in the car yesterday and trying to decide whether it’s justified or not. I definitely agree the “expert” is much more responsible for the intellectual integrity of their claims, and I definitely agree that your three criteria are reasonable expectations for them that they should be held to. But it still seems to me that this forces you into a perspective rut where virtually every single “expert” creationist is now an official liar. Round them all up and in all likelihood every single last one of them supports some position paper on their side that you and I might agree misrepresents the source material. Surely they’ve even read some response from our camp that points that out. Are they really ALL liars? Even most of them? That’s just implausible like the whole mainstream creationist movement is composed of charlatans.

As it is, this gets instantly complicated because one of your criteria opens up the “Expelled”-esque can of worms and rather than focusing on the issue (whatever it happens to be), we now have to deal with defending against auxiliary politics and conspiracy. That’s a lot of work and a lot of yuck to sort through. Decision theory, in my opinion, would favor, A: Not calling even creationist “experts” liars even if they might be lying since laity typically rally around mainstream position pieces that get lots of attention. B: Politely encouraging and giving partial credit for honoring criteria 1 and 2 since that in and of itself would be progress. C: Allowing our criticism of their papers even in their own journals to partially count as criteria 3 since that’s basically what it is. In other words set aside the “this sucks because it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal” talk and just show qualitatively why it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal.

I could be wrong and granted I’m not always that polite myself, but I am working towards that goal in the long term and it seems to me that we would be better served that way. We could surely test it. The next big quote-mining fiasco or the next big news splash on PZ Myers blog that has “creationist” and “liar” in the same title…try out a different approach and see if you like those results better. Can’t really hurt can it?

I think it’s worth a shot. Thoughts?


  1. Robert Estrada said,

    Try listening to Dinesh Desousa. I think that answers the question of trying to use resoned debate with most of these “experts”

  2. Dinesh is awesome! He’s like a well-read version of Gish. Granted, I’m biased, because he’s terribly easy to parody (like Dinesh D’souza – The real problem with Newtonism, based on The real problem with Darwinism). It takes a special kind of special to believe that science is wrong because it’s not supernatural enough…and by not mentioning the supernatural, it’s automatically gospel for atheism (scientist that are theists notwithstanding)…and since atheism is a religion that means we can’t teach science in science class.

  3. Ben said,

    I’m reminded of the infamous PZ Myers break-in call into the Expelled showing where one of the producers replies to one of PZ’s accusations with, “Isn’t it possible we just have a different perspective?” The only thing those guys are likely going to remember from that incident is that PZ was an ass. It’s all great tribalistic fun to cheer for the bravado of it all, but I have a lot of trouble with that when it entails misrepresenting someone that you are accusing of misrepresenting someone else. It’s too much trouble to psychoanalyze the exact nature of someone’s error and I’d be a lot more proud of my team if they would take the high road a little more often.


  4. RBH said,

    I take “liar” to mean “one who persistently asserts falsehoods in the face of clear evidence that they’re false.” On that definition there’s no doubt that a lot of creationist leaders are liars.

    However, the question is effectiveness. I’m more comfortable, and I think it’s more effective, saying something like, “That claim is flatly false, and here’s why.” And saying it as often, as firmly, and as coherently as one has the stamina for.

    I know from long experience that won’t affect the hardcore proponents of creationism — they’re a lost cause due to the presuppositionalism built into their epistemology. (Roughly, evidence must be interpreted to conform to presuppositions, rather than presuppositions being subject to test and modification via evidence. (It’s the triumph of Piagetian assimilation over accommodation.)

    The target, as always, is the people in the middle where intellectual movement is possible, and tactics have to be evaluated in the light of their effectiveness with them.

  5. Ben said,


    I suppose if we used your definition of lying then we could call them liars, but I don’t think that’s the proper definition of lying in anything but a metaphorical sense. “They might as well be lying.” Or, “The information they present is a lie.” That’s still a tad inflammatory for no particular reason when you can just say they are wrong as you clearly already do anyway.


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