Mike the Mad Biologist

Words as Weapons

While I’m away at the Evolution 2006 Meeting, I’ll leave you with some posts from the archive of the Mad Biologist (Intelligent Designer, I love this scheduled post thingee). This one is about the misuse of language by creationists (originally published Feb. 9, 2005).

From time to time, I get emails from people asking me about evolution (they range from the curious to dogmatic anti-evolutionists). One common refrain I hear from the anti-evolutionists is “evolution is just a theory.” This comment also pops up over and over again on widely-read blogs, such as the Washington Monthly. Now, the straightforward answer, which thankfully also shows up frequently, is that gravity, relativity, and plate tectonics are also ‘theories.’ This point is usually followed by an explanation of what scientists mean when they call a hypothesis a theory.

What gets me about the ‘just-theorists’ is that, in many cases, they’ve heard this explanation repeatedly. I don’t think they’re too dim to understand what has been said. Rather than refuting the theory of evolution by trying to undermine it with evidence, however, they continue to chant their catechism over and over, “evolution is just a theory.” Honestly, do they think repeating this mantra will convince someone who has taken the time to construct a logical argument? The only explanation is that anti-evolutionists want to verbally bludgeon their opponents into submission (which is another way of saying ‘propaganda’). In a different context, Juan Cole has called this “willful ignorance.” Willful ignorance seems to be a tactic not only of anti-evolutionists, but of many conservatives as a whole.

This is truly saddening: rather than using language to communicate, to reason, and to inspire, the anti-evolutionists use language to bully and to destroy. Words have no intrinsic meaning, or, as Seymour Hersh put it, “Words mean nothing … They are just utterances.” When words exist only to manipulate, discerning the truth–or at least, some approximation of the truth–is impossible. Instead, words become and exist only as weapons in a never-ending war of the conservatives’ own choosing.

And to think: the idea that higher complex language (and the ideas represented by complex language) are what make us qualitatively distinct from most animals is something that the Mad Biologist and the anti-evolutionists would probably agree on…

Comments

  1. #1 Joseph j7uy5
    June 24, 2006

    Willful ignorance is a tactic used by abusive, controlling persons. When used, it is a way of disrespecting the other person and invalidating his or her ideas.

    It is entirely valid, although not always fruitful, to confront the willfully ignorant person with an explication of what they are doing. Pointing out that it is not an honest form of discourse sometimes helps. Usually not.

  2. #2 John
    June 13, 2009

    It’s not limited to the left–the same semantic tactics are used by animal-rights activists.

  3. #3 John
    June 13, 2009

    That should be, “It’s not limited to the RIGHT…”

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