Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Losing the battle for truth

Tonight I watched James Carville debate Ralph Reed on the topic of teaching creationism in schools. Despite the fact that Carville had all the facts on his side, he ended up looking stupid. And this, from a man who is considered a master of the political mudfight.

It is time for this to stop, and the only way for it to stop is for pro-science people to stop being so bloody earnest, and to admit there is an element of verbal gamesmanship to the process. The creationists figured this out long ago, and they had to, because they don't have anything else on their side, such as facts. Defenders of science have let the creationists frame the debate, and on those terms, truth usually gets whomped.

The ironic thing is that we don't have to abandon truth to win the contest of verbal gymnastics. We just need to be more clever, and more aggressive, in re-framing the debate. For example: Reed repeatedly looked into the camera with his earnest expression and said "Jim, it's only about academic freedom! Why can't we hear people with other views and then make up our minds?" Carville responded, predicably, by ranting about how we "have to teach hard, cold science", and how "all scientists agree about evolution". In doing so, he appeared to validate Reed's view that scientists are dogmatic, and that science is a closed club with no room for dissent. This is exactly how the religious zealots want people to see us!

What if, instead, Carville had replied thus: "Ralph, we believe in academic freedom. Academic freedom only works when it is linked to intellectual honesty. The day a creationist comes to us with an argument that is intellectually honest, we will welcome them into the classroom. Until then, what you are advocating is faith, not science."

Or thus: "Ralph, I am glad you raise the topic of academic freedom. Because that is what Christians like Charles Darwin did not have when they first began looking for evidence of God's grand design. When Darwin was forced by the facts to admit that God might be working through something like evolution, he risked his life in the process. And people like you have never stopped trying to drown out the message. So don't lecture us about academic freedom."

If our spokesmen were to stop being so defensive, and take the zealots on with their own hatchets, the zealots would not be winning. Unfortunately, this is not a matter of taste. It is a matter of our national future. Countries like India and China are poised to run us over in the most brutal fashion, and they are using education to do it. How are we going to compete if we can't convince our own kids that investigation, questioning and thought are legitimate ways to get answers about the world?

Instead, in America, science has been painted as religious dogma. How ironic, since it was once the deconstructionists on the Left who claimed that the scientific method was all an artifact of peoples' prejudices and social conditioning, and that there are no facts. The Right used to hate that kind of thinking. Yet, here they are today, using clever turns of phrase to portray scientific consensus as a totally arbitrary choice, subject to social prejudice and up for a vote. The difference is that the deconstructionists never influenced anyone outside their own weird little echo chamber, while the religious zealots are undermining a key foundation of our nation's strength. We owe it to our children to do a better job of defending their future.


Anonymous Ed said...

Carlos - once again a well written and lucid argument. Religious rhetoricians are masters in the game of manipulating an audience. I've sat in charismatic meetings analyzing their use of rhetoric, from ethos to pathos to logos, and believe me, they know now to hold an audience.

May 09, 2007 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Brandon said...


You are on point with noting that the religious right is winning the rhetorical battle. To put this in another light, one need look no further than the abortion debate that, for some reason, still rages on in this country.

The "pro-life" segment has brilliantly framed their point of view as one that protects life and health. It is explicit in the title they have given themselves (pro-life). Meanwhile, the liberal side of the coin has chosen the foolish tagline: "pro-choice". This was poorly conceived from the start! What reasonable person is going to subordinate life to choice?! I can't simply "choose" to end someone's "life". Such an idea would be ridiculous! Now, 30 years later, the pro-choicers are locked into their losing argument, and it is starting to become obvious in the courts just how much of a loser it is!

Not unlike your suggestion to Mr. Carville, what if the liberal argument on the issue of abortion was phrased more like: how can we assign a right to life for something that isn't alive, and doesn't even have a central nervous system? The pro-life argument fails at the outset! You don't even need to arrive at the choice issue if there is no life to protect.

Instead, the liberal side has tossed money into the garbage can, hiring worthless lawyers who have backed them into a corner that we are seeing they may not be able to climb out of. No matter what anyone thinks, this issue is not one that can be won by appealing to "a woman's right to choose", as compelling a notion as that may be for some to latch on to. Instead, the only winning argument for the (in-need-of-new-name) "pro-choice" side of the abortion coin is that there is no protectable right to life that exists.

Carlos, you are dead on with pointing out this rhetorical gap between liberals and conservatives. What I want to know is, why don't the liberals get it? and when are they going to wake up? Hopefully it happens before abortion is completely illegal, Darwin's Origin of Species is banned from school libraries, and American women are required to wear Burkhas whenever they go outside the house.

-Brandon Stroy

May 11, 2007 10:27 AM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

Good points, but I would not characterize this as liberal vs. conservative. True, most of the bible-thumpers in these debates call themselves "conservative", but they also love big-brother government, which is not a traditionally conservative view. And liberals have their own history of wacked-out anti-science nonsense--you don't meet conservatives who think that crystals can make them smarter or that bee pollen is better than chemo for treating advanced cancer.

In the battle for rationality, we must be prepared to take on all comers. Liberal wackiness has been so marginalized that it is not much of a threat these days. But that could change!

May 11, 2007 11:09 AM  
Anonymous ed said...

Maybe the pro-choice folks can change to pro-eternity to capture the Paul Ehrlich ideas and the current global warming concern. They say the population will double by 2080. In all my travels and now memories of youth, there certainly has been massive changes that are forever. More people = more energy = more stife and conflict to come. I used to think that a less then 2.0 birth rate would be good, but now, maybe 1.0 for a couple is best.

May 12, 2007 7:27 AM  
Anonymous Eric S said...

I liked the comment in a What's New mailing. If Creationism were correct then both humans and dinosaurs were created on the 6th day and somehow they managed not to eat each other. I'll have to ask the next Creationist I run into about what it was like on that 6th day. So Jurassic Park was a true representation of life back then?

My next door neighbor, a devout anti-religious spokesman, has a son who is a born again Creationist. What a drag. I've completely given up in trying to convince the too many Creationist that they are wrong. My goal is small, just make sure my son knows that Science is important and there are people who "don't have their head on straight."

June 23, 2007 12:47 AM  

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