Making Light addresses Ben Stein’s descent into hackery, and other such cinematic chicanery. Stein is the star of a new movie the Disco Inst. is touting. To gather interviews, the producers of the film misled various folks about the name and nature of the film, and have produced a gross misrepresentation about the way science works. Teresa Neilsen Hayden explains:

It?s not possible to produce such programs honestly. Chopping logic and falsifying arguments like that can only be done by someone who knows that he or she is doing it. To put it another way: if you know enough about the Book of Job or the Tel Dan stela to make up really effective lies about them that will fit into your preordained agenda, you know enough about them to know you?re lying.

The tricky thing about creationists, and probably the folks who misled Chris Heard into appearing in a film misrepresenting Biblical scholarship, is that they’ve found ways around that.

Consider the “creation science” movement. Through conferences and their own journals, “creation scientists” have produced a self-reinforcing echo chamber. In reading through their attempts at explaining away the evidence for evolution, it is clear that many of the authors are not writing about areas where they are well-informed. They make trivial errors (e.g., confusing similarity in a species’ common name with actual biological similarity), and repeat the erroneous statements presented by other authors. Because they assume that real scientists are all part of some evil conspiracy, they can dismiss any effort at correcting those errors out of hand. Ideas become fixed in their literature without anyone expert enough to know better ever coming close to the topic.

The Discovery Institute leans heavily on the same strategy. Paul Chien, designated as the head of their “Paleontology Research program” by the Wedge Document is a Chinese-born marine biochemist. He has childhood friends working the Chengjiang Cambrian fossils, and is heavily cited by various DI publications as an expert on those fossils. Nevertheless, he hasn’t actually published original research on those fossils, and when asked if he planned to add “paleontologist” to his credentials, he told Real Issues magazine “that’s not my purpose,” adding “I am more interested in working on the popular level.”

Among the places Chien is cited is a new textbook on evolution published by various DI fellows. As Americans United for Separation of Church and State puts it:

?Explore Evolution is a real piece of work,? Joshua Rosenau, public information project director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), told Church & State. ?Everything from the author list to the content reveals the book?s deep links with earlier generations of creationism, however hard they try to obscure that heritage.?

The NCSE, based in Oakland, Calif., defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, and Rosenau recently re≠viewed Explore Evolution for the group. He added, ?Like previous creationist works, it attacks evolution with misrepresentations and misunderstandings, but where previous generations of textbooks claimed this as evidence of divine intervention, Explore Evolution leaves that leap to students and teachers. Needless to say, we have yet to identify any criticisms of evolution in the book which do not have a long history in the creationist literature.?

Indeed, many of the arguments contain the same basic, trivial errors that you see in the “creation science” literature. Scientists call that a “shared derived character,” and it indicates common descent.

The trick to all of this is that no one in the loop is actually well-enough informed to know that what they are saying is wrong. Michael Behe’s training as a biochemist allows him to seem like an expert in the flagellum, but his research on DNA folding wouldn’t have given him a lot of time to wade into the sort of comparative bioinformatics that informs the actual research on flagellar evolution. Nor would it have made him an expert on the evolution of the immune system. He could, of course, have informed himself on that body of research, and it would have been wise to do so before testifying in the Dover trial that “There is no experimental evidence to show that natural selection could have produced the immune system.” When a pile of books and journal articles relating to the evolution of the immune system was placed in front of Behe during the cross-examination, he had to literally push the pile to one side in order to explain that “I haven’t read them.”

Teresa and the excellent slacktivist both conclude that anyone informed enough to be writing books about things like the evolution of the immune system must be well-enough informed to know when they are making false claims about the subject. The genius of these self-reinforcing communities of pseudo-scholars is that it is possible to accept other members’ claims at face value, and to allow them to take your claims at face value, and thus to diffuse the responsibility for accuracy.

You can see how this works in the rough transcripts of Bill Dembski’s recent talk at Oklahoma University. Dembski trotted out the flagellum as an example of an unevolvable structure in the talk, and during the Q&A, a professor offered to explain just how it could evolve. Dembski replied: “I have colleagues [Behe] that know this system as well as you do and I don?t need you to educate me or explain things to me.”

It isn’t lying if you don’t know better. The IDolators work very hard to make sure that they can claim not to know better. Is it dishonest? Yes. Is it wrong, both factually and ethically? Yes. Is it lying? Maybe not. Fortunately, there’s another term we can use.

Learning The Lie” by The Hidden Cameras from the album Awoo (2006, 2:18).


  1. #1 Gerard Harbison
    October 2, 2007

    It isn’t lying if you don’t know better. The IDolators work very hard to make sure that they can claim not to know better. Is it dishonest? Yes. Is it wrong, both factually and ethically? Yes. Is it lying? Maybe not

    Catholic Christianity, at least, teaches that vincible ignorance – ignorance that could be avoided by due diligence – is morally culpable. Quoting the Catholic Encyclopedia…

    Vincible ignorance, being in some way voluntary, does not permit a man to escape responsibility for the moral deformity of his deeds; he is held to be guilty and in general the more guilty in proportion as his ignorance is more voluntary. Hence, the essential thing to remember is that the guilt of an act performed or omitted in vincible ignorance is not to be measured by the intrinsic malice of the thing done or omitted so much as by the degree of negligence discernible in the act.

    Behe, a Catholic, might want to brush up on this after he’s done with the evolution of the immune system.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    October 2, 2007

    Good fisking, but I think you are too kind to Behe.

    IMO, he’s one step away from a Bill O’Reilly and/or Ann Coulter.

  3. #3 mark
    October 2, 2007

    When we give out professional licenses, we assume the licensee does know what is correct practice. This is done to protect the public. I recall one case where the licensing board (of which I was a member) was arguing what to do about a licensee who did very, very bad work. Was he purposefully defrauding his customers? I suggested that we could be charitable and declare him incompetent, and therefore must yank his license. Unfortunately, we can’t yank Casey Luskin’s or Denise O’Leary’s license license to wank, as punditry is not a licensed profession.

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    October 2, 2007

    Revokable punditry licenses would be a nice idea.

  5. #5 The Ethical Atheist
    October 2, 2007

    Creationism is stupid as is. It bothers me. But what bothers me more is these underhanded tactics creationists succumb to in order to attack science. I can understand people being stupid. I can understand people being ignorant. And their are many of both of those types of people in the creationist camp. But some should know better. In fact, I’ll go far enough to say that some probably do know better. Those people are the worst. They aren’t stupid or ignorant, they are malicious.

    But maybe I’m just giving some people too much credit.

  6. #6 derek
    October 3, 2007

    I like “vincible ignorance”. The term I came up with myself was “negligent falsehood”, by analogy with “negligent homicide”: you might not have been trying to kill anyone, but someone died because you weren’t making a reasonable effort not to kill anyone. In committing negligent falsehood, you may not have been trying to lie, but you didn’t make a reasonable effort to find out what the truth was.

  7. #7 Gerard Harbison
    October 3, 2007

    I like “vincible ignorance”.

    I am no longer a Catholic, but I have to admit the church has done a wonderful job in categorizing sins of all varieties. In fact, the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on ‘ignorance’ has all sorts of other wonderful divisions of ignorance into various subsets, some morally culpable, some not.

  8. #8 Jim
    October 19, 2007

    The lie began with the word. And the word was… well you know who. Once we talked to ourselves, we began hearing God’s word and again, well you know…
    It is , or seems to be understandable to find emotionally agonizing pain, such as your own or loved ones impending death, debillitating and oftentimes in need of some sort of aid. Obviously Santa Claus, does not fit the bill at these times. The wretched pain and suffering of others, not seen, languishing about in third world demise, of course does not fit into this self-absorbed need for religion, unless of course the leaders can profit from missionaryisim. However, the lies being propogated by the believers, outside the realm of science is something one should attempt to understand. Man’s inhumanity to man may truly have its origins in religion, or at least such in the last 6000 years. What a shame we don’t have an ability to tell the story of the communications by hominids from about 21 million years ago. Imagine there were twenty million nine hundred ninety four thousand years, which transpired without this superstitious drivel and no scientists had to advise about atoms or adams.