About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Is Palin a creationist?

Sarah Palin, John McCain’s choice for Vice President should he win the November elections, is a worrisome character from the point of view of science education. It is hard to tell whether Palin herself is a creationist or not and, frankly, that’s far less important than the policy positions she holds in the matter. (Though, of course, having a Vice President who is deluded about basic aspects of reality would not be exactly reassuring. Oh, right, we already have had something along those lines for the past eight years, though Dick Cheney’s most dangerous delusions were not about who created the world.)

An article in the Anchorage Daily News dating back to when Palin was running for governor of that state (hmm, a mere two years ago, talk about experience and being fit to be commander in chief), reports her response to a question during a debate about teaching creationism. Here is the full quote:

“Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject -- creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.”

Now this is disingenuous at best. Education is not about having “kids debate both sides,” since most kids would probably conclude that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe (after all, the sensorial evidence is overwhelming in favor of the flat-earth, Ptolemaic system). Education is, at its core, about two things: a) We want our students to have access to the best of what humanity has produced, be that in science, philosophy, literature, economics or what have you. b) We want to provide students with the necessary tools to engage in critical thinking and serious analysis of whatever claim comes under their scrutiny.

According to criterion (a), “teaching both” isn’t going to cut it, because creationism is simply not even in the ballpark of the best ideas ever produced by humanity. On the contrary, it is superstitious nonsense that harks back to an earlier era of ignorance about how the world works. But things aren't much rosier for creationists under criterion (b) either, despite all the talk about “teaching the controversy.” Learning critical thinking is not a matter of being exposed to a “fair and balanced” view of everything and be told “you decide.” Rather, it proceeds through learning about logic, about assessing evidence, and about the many ways in which human senses and reasoning abilities can fail us if we are not on guard. If students really do assimilate all of that, just one look at creationist claims would make it painfully clear that they don’t need to be further entertained.
Unlike Mike Huckabee (who is also now campaigning for McCain), Palin was at least smart enough not to outright claim that she does not accept evolution. The former governor of Arkansas plainly stated that “I believe god created the heavens and the earth,” and that he “wasn’t there when he did it, so how he did it, I don’t know.” These are lines straight out of the Institute for Creation Research talk book, which explains why “Left Behind” author Tim LaHaye said during the Republican primaries that Huckabee was “the most electable candidate who shares our commitment.”

And therein lies the problem: exactly what are Republicans committed to when it comes to science and education? To raise a nation of ignorant bigots whose understanding of the world is no better than that of a tribe of ancient middle eastern people wandering around the desert thousands of years ago? To allow individual states to decide just how misinformed about science their citizens can be? That way if you are from Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi or a variety of other places along the Ignorance Belt you can keep falling behind in quality of life and ability to compete in a world where science plays an increasingly central role in our lives. Now, there’s a platform worthy of LaHaye and his readers.

These are questions that Mrs. Palin and Mr. McCain have to answer to voters before the November election. But considering that they disagree about some of those answers, perhaps the two should first get better acquainted and straighten things out a bit. They’ve got two months to do it.


  1. I am totally agree, if we expose children early in theirs life to a lot of nonsense, it is possible that growing up with this make they impossible to think critically after.

  2. Spot on! Palin has also made her thoughts on a number of other important questions publicly available during her 2006 campaign.


    She is against abortion, and in favor of the "teach the controversy" mantra.

    I particularly dislike this whole "both sides of the story" thing. There are NO two sides in this story when it comes to the scientific community. If the National Ignorants Association (or whatever) wants to challenge a scientific idea, so be it, go ahead and do it. But do not expect us to take you seriously without any form of evidence, and do not expect us to impose your ignorance in the public education system just because you happen to have a contradictory belief!

    PS. Huckabee's stupidity is just out of this world

  3. On the other hand, we have a creationist president now, and all signs indicate that the content of education is primarily the province of the states. But having a president who doesn't understand basic science and therefore can't make informed decision about, say, global warming, is clearly bad, bad, bad.

  4. I really liked the part about stating quite soundly that critical thinking is not about seeing two sides of a one-sided argument, but about using logic to discern the truth.

    Very true.

  5. Apparently Palin is also against comprehensive sex education, and in favor of "abstinence only" sex education. And now we hear that her seventeen year old unwed daughter is pregnant! This is too rich!

    Cal, any thought on your supermom now, running off to be vice president and neglecting her young baby with Down Syndrome?

  6. Clearly most people asking to "teach the controversy" have an unacceptable anti-science agenda. This is particularly frightening in politicians, since the heart of science is to evaluate reality based on evidence.

    But as someone who teaches evolution to college freshmen, "teaching the controversy" is one of the most effective pedagogical technique I have found. Students' minds are not empty vehicles to be filled with whatever we teach them, instead they have all kinds of often bizarre preconceptions. Unless we challenge and directly address those preconceptions, students will not absorb scientific ideas that contradict them. In the classroom, we need to explicitly deal with creationism, intelligent design and whatever level of philosophy the students can handle regarding the nature of science. We also need to do this in a respectful way that makes it clear that students do not need to give up faith and religion to believe in evolution (although they will need to give up more extreme forms of literalism). Without this attitude of respect, I find that teaching evolution is a lot less effective. So as a tactical matter, I find myself, to my initial surprise, discussing theology as well as science in the biology classroom, because without it my teaching of biology is ineffective. Many students respond well to this approach, and make their peace between science and religion in the process. Not discussing creationism when teaching evolution to an audience that initially believes in it is like pretending that the pink elephant really isn't sitting in the room, and doesn't win over any hearts and minds.

    Of course, I know this isn't what proponents of "teaching the controversy" intend. But we need to be careful how we fight this battle, and maybe it is time to steal some language back from the anti-science crowd. If we can make standards on "teaching the controversy" mean critically tearing apart ID as a means to teach evolution, then we can divert this slogan. The slogan is very successful due to its plausibility to the naive, perhaps it is better to reclaim it for our own rather than fight it.

  7. S "Cal, any thought on your supermom now, running off to be vice president and neglecting her young baby with Down Syndrome?"

    Don't know where you're coming from, Sheldon, but I am LIKE REALLY envious of her for having five children. I enjoy my kids immensely. My hub and I agreed on having five before we wed - my husband changed his mind after three.
    (but I also had a moderate health concern after the 3rd).

    I still think that having MORE children shows that we (a) have hope for the future. It also makes it rather clear (b) that we are still having sex. So you’re not like ecstatic that the GOV of AK is ‘fertile Myrtle’? LOL I am.

    You're such a stick-n-the mud, dude. lighten up.

    S "Apparently Palin is also against comprehensive sex education, and in favor of "abstinence only" sex education. And now we hear that her seventeen year old unwed daughter is pregnant! This is too rich!"

    People make up their own minds, sex ed or not. Sex ed does not prevent pregnancies, self-will and determination do. Non-abstinence programs just spread a lot of STDS.

    And incidentally, my parents did not even get married till I was three. And tho I certainly do not consider that an ideal, that is just what some people do.

    Do you really insist that Gov Palin make all her girls THINK just like she does? If she did, you'd have problem with that too. So I don't respect or understand your gloating about this at all. For all that you claim to believe in, it looks particularly silly and hypocritical at this point.

  8. Joanna,

    good point, I too "teach the controversy" in my introductory college courses. But as you say, this is not at all what Palin and friends mean by it...

  9. "But as you say, this is not at all what Palin and friends mean by it..."

    Of course not.

    Johanna is suggesting basically that one teach science minus other possibilities or reasons for science. Gov Palin is not suggesting such a thing. She is all-inclusive on the matter, while you guys are CLEARLY being "unyielding legalists". It would seem that if one can accept all the people and all the potential variations of lifestyles that can be imagined, there is no reason ON EARTH to not make room for varied views on science. That is, unless the former will not make enough room for the latter.

    And that is the real problem, isn't it.

    It's the "science of the moment", (and that is easy-believism) not the science of the long term or eternal. And it basically boils down to "give me a science that allows me to do as I please" or else. Some people, like Gov Palin, expect a little more from themselves and others.

  10. there is no reason ON EARTH to not make room for varied views on science

    Exactly, on science. Got it yet?

    And obviously you know nothing about sex education and its effects (or lack thereof). But giving you the info is pearls to swine, so I'll stop here...

  11. Bad sources on sex ed remain just that, "bad sources". Hearing it from a teacher who is not bright or mature on the subject is simply no better than hearing it from your second grade pal. Actually worse tho, because your child will take him as an authority on the subject regardless.

    Sure, some of the technicalities will likely be less vague than if your pal tells you about whatever. But in the end, how is it better if the teacher happens to have an immoral world view? Do you really want your kids invited into a world of experimentation when they are 8, 9, 10 years old?

    Most parents would do a better job in explaining life to kids if encouraged to do so. And the parental approach is less likely to inspire unchecked experimentation by elementary and early high school age teens. It would be a real drag to have syph and chlamydia by age 11, wouldn't it? A teacher who is living promiscuously while teaching sex ed can TOTALLY cause that to happen.

    So who are you gonna trust?

    Years ago I worked for the Special Olympics. I had not worked very long for this particular org, when a fed agency had to sweep in and arrest most of my bosses. Turns out, they were filming all of us gals working. They had already kidnapped someone (I believe) and I avoided kidnapping by refusing a ride home from one of my bosses.

    If the so-called leaders at that particular "Special Olympics" could kidnap women for porn and whatnot, who are you going to ever trust to teach your kids about sex?

    The world is a dangerous place, Sheldon. Take care for yourself and your children.

  12. And as I found out this morning in the news, this stuff still goes on and so-called respectable people still lie about it. No one ever should tolerate someone mistreating their children this way.

    "CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — A man dubbed "Long Island's Favorite Magician" has pleaded not guilty to a 78-count indictment accusing him of possessing child porn and secretly videotaping a mother and her daughters.

    Robert Infantino was ordered held on $150,000 bail Tuesday. He was arrested last month. The woman, and her 10- and 14-year-old daughters, said they went to Infantino's home-office for a photo shoot and found a camera hidden in the dressing room.

    Prosecutors said they later found child pornography on a computer seized from Infantino's house.

    His attorney said cameras were deployed for security purposes.

    Said Marc Gann: "There was never an intent to violate anybody's rights, or the law."

  13. It is interesting that having a problem with evolution always equates to being "anti-science". As if evolution is all there is to science. If that's true then science is up a creek. The bulk of science gets on just fine without the burden of evolution. In fact most biology would get on fine without it too.

    The arrogance of the post and comments here is indicative to me of the real problem with "science": the massive superiority complexes of the elitists who dictate (or wish to dictate) what science is... at least in the (very limited) field of biology. Your presumed corner on intelligence is an affront to a great many people, an assault on their dignity, virtually a self-deification. This is a large part of the revulsion people have for you and your compadres, that and a fear of what their children would become if they were forced to become like you.

    Living in an "ignorance belt" location automatically makes me skeptical of the discernment ability of the poster, and his ability to see beyond his ego.

  14. Yes Stan, science is elitist. As Darwin also pointed out, at some point most people believed the earth is flat: this didn’t make it true. Truth is not determined by what the majority believes. Reason and evidence alone determine science. Evolution is the key, immensely successful organizing principle for the science of biology. The evidence in favor of it overwhelming. When someone rejects overwhelming evidence, then we label them anti-science, because they have rejected science. A person’s views on astronomy and geology (which may, incidently, also contradict scientific evidence if the person in question is a young-earth creationist) will not save them from being labeled anti-science if they reject evolution.

    My point, for those truly interested in science out there, is that I am horrified how we have been rhetorically outmaneuvered. The movie “A flock of dodos” made a deep impression on me in this respect. Here we have the anti-science crowd using rhetoric about “teaching the evidence”. That’s supposed to be our rhetoric as scientists. It’s what we do ourselves in our classrooms, yet somehow we end up on the defensive. I say move to the attack, and radically reclaim the rhetorical high ground that rightly belongs to the Enlightenment. Establish age-appropriate standards for “teaching the controversy” in a scientifically rigorous way. A requirement that all lesson plans must be consistent with the excellent judgement in the Dover case would be a good start, providing specific compliant lesson plans to help teachers would be still better. This will in any event increase the effectiveness of biology education. It would also totally disarm anti-science critics, who would have to quit their current line of rhetorical attack and start being more nakedly honest about what they want instead. “Teaching the controversy” honestly is in fact what we scientists do and want, so why allow it to become a slogan for those who wish to distort science?

  15. I believe "teaching both" approach is fair and quite constructive. Many pupils enter biology classes with strong creationist beliefs. A lot of information presented in science classes is accompanied with little to no proof due to time constraints and/or complexity of proofs. So the students are expected just to "trust" what a teacher says. Very few are curious enough to pursue further research on the issues, and if they do, they may not necessarily turn to the most authoritative sources. Similarly, religious followers are expected to "trust" what their leader says. By addressing both creationist and evolutionist viewpoints in the classroom the teacher is able to initiate critical thinking among the students without being just another person who wants to be "trusted."

  16. And what creation theory would you like to teach? Every culture of the world has a different narrative? How will they test the different versions to find out the best? Would students then be taught who, exactly, wrote the texts? When was it written? And will students be told that in order to believe the 7 day theory that he or she must then toss out all everything we were taught about geology, astronomy, carbon dating, archeology, the prehistoric world ...etc?
    And if the students believe the Bible story, will universities be required to close down departments that are still teaching how long it took to form certain rocks or the what makes an earthquake?

  17. Cal,

    I suggest you learn about a basic ecological concept called carrying capacity. Having more children does not give us more hope for the future. It gives us more problems for an already over burdened planet. Anyone who has more than 2 children are selfish and part of the problem.

    Also, sex education does reduce pregnancies. Self-will and determination are bolstered by information and knowledge that sex ed provides. Also, non-abstinence programs do not spread a lot of STDS. Promiscuous unprotected sex by ignorant people does. Abstinence only sex ed is a failed policy, just like all other conservative policies.


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