Posted By on December 15, 2006

“Mock the Belief, Respect the Believer”

Alternative title: “Cody Makes a Mountain out of a Molehill”

.: Recently I’ve been having fun in the photos section of the Facebook group I Wish I Were Your Derivative So I Could Lie Tangent To Your Curves!. As is evident from the group’s name, the pictures are mainly math-oriented, but the rule for photo submissions is “vaguely math/science/logic/game theory/physics/general academia related pictures are great,” so there is a lot of leeway with what one can post.

.: So far I’ve gotten away with posting my biochemistry comic, my White Ninja Comic, my Politically Incorrect Guide to Math, and this charming picture of a Klein Stein, among other similarly themed images.

.: However, I seem to have overstepped the boundaries of good taste with my picture of the Creation Evidence Trailer and the Creation Science mural of planetary mitosis. The first picture had a caption that read “Creation Science: like real science, only more trailer-like” and the second picture’s caption read something along the lines of “Creation Science: how else does one explain planetary mitosis and intergalactic spirogyra?”

.: My pictures were removed by the group’s admin after several people had already left positive comments. The admin left a comment of her own declaring that academics sometimes have different opinions and that we should be respectful of all people, regardless of their beliefs. I think the her approach in this situation is misguided.

.: For starters, there’s the entirely subjective but easily defensible claim that the two photos in question are, indeed, disturbingly hilarious and therefore fit in quite nicely among all the other pictures. Second, I think anyone who subscribes to a view that hasn’t been intellectually respectable for over a century deserves to have their beliefs held up in public and ridiculed. A chemist would laugh at anyone today who maintained a fervent belief in the phlogiston theory of combustion, or at least he would shuffle awkwardly towards the nearest exit as the excited phlogistonist began handing out cheaply xeroxed tracts to everyone in the room.

.: Third, I maintain there’s a difference between respecting someone and respecting their beliefs. Granted, that difference may not be clearly seen by the people whose beliefs are being mocked, but what recourse do we have when careful reasoning and considered dialog has failed to convince people so obvious a truth? Humor has that nifty quality to it that can sometimes push people to reevaluate their most deeply-held views. I think it’s simply effective to mock patently silly beliefs in this manner, stopping short of mocking the persons themselves.

.: If someone confessed to me that they believed the entire universe came into existence around the same time that the Egyptians began farming on the banks of the Nile, it would be intellectually disrespectful of me not to correct them. Now, you may object at this point and claim that I wouldn’t mock that person to their face, and you’d be correct: given that situation as described, I would be respectful and considerate in my explanations towards that person.

.: But a facebook group dedicated to math and science humor is an entirely different venue. Expecting the same level of respect there is like expecting the Daily Show to be considerate of the people whose views they lampoon. I shouldn’t have to point out that people who read science humor should, at least in theory, have a basic understanding of science to get the jokes. If a die-hard creationist happens along and gets their feelings hurt because the best their theory can offer is a pathetically small trailer of non-evidence and bad planetary murals, why should we care? Nothing is going to change their beliefs, and they’ll be equally offended by any place that teaches proper science anyway. Such is their fate.

.: But what if, instead of a die-hard creationist, the visitor is a moderately intelligent person who simply doesn’t know enough about the issues? Consider the possibility that they’re a political science major, and they don’t know the first thing about DNA or what a mutation actually is. A boring explanation of shifting allele frequencies and punctuated equilibrium isn’t going to persuade them very much. But if they see the shoddy creation evidence trailer and equally shoddy mural, along with all the ridicule heaped upon it by various commentators, they’ll probably come away from the experience thinking less of the whole “creationism” thing — and this is a good thing.

.: The academic issues surrounding creationism have been sorted out a long time ago; the results are unanimous: creationism is bunk. There is no “academic” difference of opinion here, unless your definition of academic is broad enough to include the likes of diploma mills which offer Ph.D programs in Truthology.

.: Finally, the last point I want to make is one of visibility. I’d wager that most creationists — you’re regular John and Jane Creationist — have never thoughtfully considered the issues. This is not a blanket accusation of stupidity and shallowness among creationists. I’m merely asserting that the issue to them has never been cause for in depth consideration; creationism is simply a given. Moreover, I think it’s likely that they’ve never come across any items critical of creationism. If all I can do is raise the visibility of creationism’s vapidity in a tiny — and I think entirely appropriate — venue like a silly facebook photo album, then I think that’s worthwhile, regardless of any potential offense I may inflict.

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3 Responses to “Respect”

  1. Heather Michelle says:

    I think that where our opinions clash here, Cody, can be narrowed down to two distinct points. The first being that while you feel basic mockery is an effective tool in academic critique, I don’t see it that way. The second is that while there are creation scientists who are completely off their rockers, that is not the whole picture.
    Humour has its place absolutely, but to post a picture and simply laugh at it without actually addressing the issues or making commentary in any intelligent or insightful manner, is not productive. I agree that a good satire can be an effective way of getting those less educated to understand the same points that facts and figures communicate to the scholars, but I do not feel that that was accomplished here. What you did achieve was in fact an argument somewhere between a Straw Man argument and an Ad Hominem argument. That is, you picked to weakest part of an argument and attacked it.
    When a crazy guy on the subway says something insane about chemistry (or physics, whatever) we don’t all go “Oh, there goes a scientist” and take his opinions to represent chemists in general. Even our high school teachers, when you look back there’s always some crackpot old fool who was full of nonsense, but we don’t take their opinions to represent all of science. Somehow religion doesn’t get the same courtesy.
    I have no doubt that that particular example of “creation science” was a lot of mockability and very little of science. But that does not mean that there isn’t better creation science out there. Perhaps even good creation science. There are creationists in this world who take a better approach. Yes, there will always be those who, as you say, “have never thoughtfully considered the issues” but there are also those who are real scientists, in the midst of all the other real scientists and working with atoms and chemicals and molar masses in the exact same way but with the constant thought in the back of their minds that all of the matter came from somewhere. That maybe everything that evolution teaches is a little more believable when the thought of someone tweaking the odds is considered. There are those scientists, those academics, who believe all the same things that the other scientists believe about science, and the only difference is why. Those are the people for whom your mockery should be made a little more insightfully if at all. Those are the people for whom you should realize that somewhere someone probably has a museum of evolution in a trailer, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Even a blind pig finds an acorn every once in a while.

  2. Cody says:

    I think your first point is irrelevant. For the record, I do not feel mockery is an effective tool in academic critiques, but then this is no longer an academic issue. Creationism hasn’t been a serious academic position since the 19th century; it has been abandoned by all reputable thinkers in science.

    However, when certain beliefs are presented to the public as sensible when they are anything but, I feel mockery is appropriate. And when there’s a subject that’s been beaten to death to the extent that creationism has, I think it’s no longer necessary to explain long, complicated scientific topics every time we make a joke about it. If that’s all that’s required, I would have simply left a link to Talk.Origins at the end of the caption.

    As for your second point, I’m not entirely sure I understand who all you include under the term “Creationist” — surely Kent Hovind and Carl Baugh are creationists; they pretend their religion is science. That’s who I’m attacking. I don’t have quite the same qualms with people who think there is a creator and yet manage to keep their science and their religion separate. If your definition of “creationist” is “anyone who thinks there might be something behind it all,” then we’re not speaking the same terms. My pictures concern only those creationists who think the world is 6,000 years old.

    And you’re technically correct when you say “that does not mean that there isn’t better creation science out there.” That’s certainly true, but only in a narrow sense. What causes there to not be any better creation science out there is the simple fact that there really isn’t any better creation science out there.

    The creation trailer at Glenrose, by the way, is a major icon of the creationist movement. Every time you hear about human footprints embedded in dinosaur tracks, you can thank this preposterously silly museum.

    So, in short, I don’t feel I’m mocking anyone in particular, only a specific ridiculous belief that’s been demolished by academics over a century ago. The fact that people still believe in it despite the academic criticism it’s received is the reason for my mockery. And I think it’s well deserved.

  3. Ashley M. says:

    I think she should have left your stupid pictures up and gotten over herself.

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