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Voices: Defending science: The link between creationism and climate change

Science education is controversial in many U.S. schools.

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© iStockphoto.com/Aldo Murillo

What do creationists and climate change deniers have in common? Over the past few years, this riddle has been on our minds a lot at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought for more than a quarter-century to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Now, we’re expanding to defend the teaching of climate change — and with it, science in general.

What originally brought this riddle to mind was the poorly named 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act. Intended primarily to encourage creationism-leaning teachers to use their classrooms as pulpits, the bill identified three topics in addition to evolution for special treatment: “the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” A handful of similar bills in other states followed in its wake, most recently in Tennessee and Oklahoma.

The answer to the riddle is that creationists and climate change deniers have a lot in common — most especially in their assertions about science itself. In addition, they are often the same people! For example, Answers in Genesis, the young-Earth creationist ministry that runs a creation museum where animatronic dinosaurs cavort with humans in the Garden of Eden, also produces a DVD entitled “Global Warming: A Scientific and Biblical Exposé of Climate Change.” In another case, Roy Spencer, a climatologist featured in the film “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” has written that he regards “the theory of creation” as having “a much better scientific basis than the theory of evolution.”

Of course, it’s easy to find counterexamples. The geologist Ian Plimer, whose book “Heaven and Earth” is a no-holds-barred attack on climate science, previously wrote “Telling Lies for God,” a no-holds-barred attack on creationism. Televangelist Pat Robertson, who hosts a steady stream of creationist guests on his show, “The 700 Club,” declared in 2006 that he was a convert to climate change: “It is getting hotter and the ice caps are melting and there is a build-up of carbon dioxide in the air ... We really need to address the burning of fossil fuels.”

What it boils down to is that creationists and climate change deniers both reject central principles of science on ideological, religious and political grounds. Moreover, they deny not just these principles, but also the idea of science itself as a way of knowing about the world.

Attacks on evolution and climate science are both based on the rejection of well-established scientific techniques. Geologists demonstrate the age of the Earth with the techniques of radiometric dating. “Bunk,” say young-Earth creationists: These techniques rely on unproven assumptions. Climate scientists develop complex computer models as a technique to understand what might happen to future climates. “Bunk,” say climate change deniers: Such models are just a convenient fiction.

Where both are going wrong, however, is in failing to understand that the techniques they dismiss as bunk are part and parcel of the standard scientific toolbox. It’s not just geochronology that assumes the constancy of radioactive decay rates, and it’s not just climatology that deploys computer models to understand complex systems: These are principles and methods that work throughout the sciences, not just the areas under attack. Whether they realize it or not, climate change deniers and evolution deniers are committed to rejecting basic methodologies accepted by scientists across the disciplines.

Having failed to convince the scientific community of the credibility of their views, both creationists and climate change deniers have taken their case to the public in a way that distorts and misrepresents the nature of science.

Take petitions, for example. Creationists maintain a “Dissent from Darwin” list of several hundred Ph.D.s who have signed a statement encouraging “careful examination of the evidence” for what is vaguely termed “Darwinian theory”; climate change deniers have the so-called Oregon Petition, with more than 31,000 signers endorsing a statement denying that there is any “convincing evidence” that the human release of greenhouse gases will cause “catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

Such petitions convey the misleading impression that science is a popularity contest. Whether evolution and climate change are good science is, ultimately, a matter of evidence, not of who can amass more signatures. But that’s not the way deniers portray it.

Ironically, science deniers accuse the scientific community of accepting evolution and climate change because of ideological prejudices, not on the basis of evidence. Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research argued, “evolutionism is not science, but religious faith in atheism”; physicist Ivar Giaever, resigning his membership in the American Physical Society to protest the organization’s recognition of climate change, reportedly commented, “Global warming has become the new religion.”

This strategy posits that science comes from ideology rather than evidence. This is a convenient assertion for creationists and climate change deniers who do not have scientific data on their side, but it is harmful to the public understanding of science. This is an attack on science itself.

It’s for this reason that, starting earlier this year, the National Center for Science Education expanded its focus to include defending the teaching of climate change. In a world where evolution and climate change are increasingly important to our economy and lives, science is something worth defending.

Steven Newton
Monday, April 30, 2012 - 16:00