A Steaming Pile by Any Other Name . . . .

All you marketing types certainly understand the importance of packaging. Seems the undiscerning shopper will often fork over his or her hard-earned money for any steaming pile of crap if it’s wrapped in a colorful wrapper or sealed in a fancy box.

Well, our old friends, the creationists (particularly the Discovery Institute), apparently keep a team of marketing gurus on the payroll these days; the idea being that packaging will help sell their particular steaming pile as science.

A Brief History

In the pre-Marketing Department days of creationism, the product was bare. It was fully exposed. It was unwrapped, and easily seen as the steaming pile it is.

But soon, creationists and the ignoranti began branding the product they wanted placed on the Science shelf next to Evolution and Abiogenesis as “Creation Science”. And lo, the undiscerning shopper was impressed. The packaging was rudimentary yet engaging, even if the product itself still steamed mightily and attracted big, green-headed flies.

Fortunately, a group of consumer advocates that we’ll call real scientists unwrapped the product in court, exposing Creation Science as no science at all, and things were good again for the consumer. The undiscerning shopper was safe.

However, after regrouping, and after an intense marketing brainstorm, the creationists struck again. This time they marketed their supposed science product as “Intelligent Design”. And the undiscerning shopper was blown away. The packaging was mesmerizing. It had the word “intelligent” right in the name, so it just had to be good, even though the product still fiercely steamed and the “intelligence” was difficult to scrape off your shoes.

But again, the consumer advocates, the real scientists, stepped in and showed in court that Intelligent Design was not very intelligent, and that it absolutely did not belong on the same shelf as any real science.

Again, the world seemed safe for the consumer.

Unfortunately, the creationist marketeers were undaunted, and they soon decided to implement a new strategy. They felt a celebrity spokesperson with some slick new rhetoric might be able to distract shoppers from all the pesky facts and evidence that make things like evolutionary biology real science. And fortunately for them, Ben Stein was available and willing to take the job.

Yes, Ben Stein would get word to the consumers via a hastily produced theatrical infomercial. 

The bad news is, Ben Stein is a C-list celebrity at best, and his slick new rhetoric had everyone asking, “Ben, are you bloody stupid or something?”.

You see, in the infomercial, the sales pitch was all dressed up as a plea for “academic freedom”; the premise being that mainstream science is stonewalling any dissenting opinions about the origins of life and the development of species. According to Stein-ists, established science is simply not allowing fresh voices to be heard.

Well, perhaps even the undiscerning shopper, with his or her limited knowledge of how science works, knows that science is not a democracy. We can’t change the law of gravitation because there are those who espouse the existence of underground earth gods with suckers instead of objects with mass bending space as the cause of gravity. It would be a very bad idea to stop using medicines when we are ill because some people favor bad spirits inside the body instead of germ theory as an explanation for why we get sick. And we should not stop using the brakes on our cars because some people believe the hand of god can stop us from slamming into the side of a mountain. Science doesn’t care who favors what. It is not affected in the least by popular explanations for things. It only concerns itself with what the evidence suggests.

The bad news is, not everyone can grasp this simple notion.

Same Old Stuff

Many undiscerning shoppers are still endorsing Ben Stein’s fabricated and defunked marketing smoke screen. Even with the colossal failure of his infomercial, there are those perpetuating the “war for academic freedom”.

Our old friends at the Discovery Institute are calling for an Academic Freedom Day. They are asking students everywhere to to use Charles Darwin’s birthday (Feb. 12) to speak out against censorship and stand up for free speech by defending the right to debate the evidence for and against evolution.

Now, this is dangerous, because there are a lot of undiscerning shoppers out there to whom this approach seems reasonable. They may not be able to perceive this bit of misdirection from the creationists. Free speech, no censorship, and the right to debate are important endeavors. No one will argue otherwise. But undiscerning shoppers may not understand that free speech isn’t the same beast in relation to science as is it in relation to our inalienable rights. They may not understand that there is no evidence against evolution, only minor gaps here and there in very specific areas that in no way weaken the overall concept. Yet the packaging on this steaming pile would make it seem as though academic freedom is in jeopardy.

Now, of course we should strive for academic freedom. There should never, under any circumstances, be a shortage of new ideas being introduced. In the humanities, in social studies, in the arts, and in other subjective areas, academic freedom is supremely valuable. New ideas and new ways of thinking are how we continue to advance.

But remember, in science, new ideas are only as valuable as the evidence that supports them. If there is no evidence to support them, all ideas —whether new or centuries old — should be discarded. And if you do not discard unsupported ideas for stronger, more probable solutions, you are no longer doing science. You are no longer doing science, and you are misrepresenting academic freedom by claiming you’re being denied it.

Packaging superstitious thinking in a shiny academic freedom wrapper to have it recognized in a science classroom is dishonest. It distorts what academic freedom actually is. It sells the strength of the scientific method short. And it re-enforces the fact that your pile of nonsense is steaming and should be washed into the soil with all the other bullshit.

So, on Darwin’s birthday, take some time to explain to an undiscerning shopper what academic freedom really is. Or just sit in the corner blinking, if that’s your preference. Whatever the case, be sure not to support the Discovery Institutes’ marketing campaign.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Maybe we should say, “OK, fine. We’ll do that if you allow all the Apocrypha, as well as all the religious texts from every religion worldwide, to be placed in your Bibles. ;-)

  2. For Darwin Day, I plan to take my kids to the Fernbank Museum and take them through the parts that explain the beginnings of the universe and evolution. The best that I can do right now is raise my kids not to fall for steaming piles of green, festering goo.

  3. Upon listening to a Science Friday on NPR* a few months ago I heard a guest who unabashedly denounced intelligent design and the misdirection of academic freedom in one of the most articulate ways I’ve ever heard. In his oratory he described the rigors and standards of science and the importance for theories to stand on their own merits and how intelligent design utterly fails in this respect. One of my favorite lines from the show was essentially saying that to have politicians promote and uphold theories that are incapable of standing on their own is not academic freedom, but rather academic welfare. I find this line incredible useful when debating ideas of “academic freedom” with creationists as it instantaneously shows the emperor to be wearing no clothes. Also those who promote “academic freedom” in creationism (and in certain liberal arts subjects) also tend to be against social welfare so it really backs a punch.

    *totally an aside but is it just me or is NPR Science Friday’s quality really going down hill lately. I feel that I really started to get into science news and other Science podcasts (SETI and SGU) that the quality had really started to falter. I can’t tell if it’s because I have become more sciency and realized Science Friday is dumbing it down or if it really has gotten worse.

  4. As I have suggested over at Phil Platt’s place, maybe we should support the teaching of ID as an absolute quid pro quo for teaching contraception and STD prevention in all Abstinence-Only classes. “Teach the Controversy!”

  5. @Old Geezer: I would love to see that.

    @skepticalhippie: I’ve not heard the NPR Science Friday show. Could it be that it’s targeted at less educated people and you’ve out grown it? i.e. It’s done it’s task, you can move onto the more “adult” shows now…

  6. @skepticalhippie:

    One of my favorite lines from the show was essentially saying that to have politicians promote and uphold theories that are incapable of standing on their own is not academic freedom, but rather academic welfare.

    Nice! That’s very well put. I had not heard it before, but I think, since I speak and write about this subject often, I will incorporate that concept into my own rhetoric.

  7. @Old Geezer:

    teaching contraception and STD prevention in all Abstinence-Only classes. “Teach the Controversy!”

    That’s a point we should be making anyway. Any response you get can be turned back at them verbatim with regards to creationism.

  8. As has been observed before, those that back the Intelligent Design “controversy” only want THEIR version on THEIR truth exposed. No others need apply.

    Yet they never seem to see the irony or contradiction of their appeals to “fairness” and “academic freedom.” They think that “fairness” only cuts the way THEY want it to cut. Unfortunately, the blade of “fairness” is far sharper than they realize and if they are not careful, they may accidentally slit their own throats with it. :-D

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