“Trick or treat!” David yelled as the door opened. He held out his plastic jack-o-lantern and the lady who answered the door put a small paper bag in it.
“Thank you,” he said and turned around.
I was a little suspicious that he got a paper bag instead of so-called fun size candy. I became more so when I saw several of the bags ripped open and littering the snow –covered streets. I picked one up and saw that it contained a creationist pamphlet. Disgusted, I shoved it in the pocket of my parka. I’ll deal with it later, I thought. I have a very complicated relationship with the Halloween holiday. As a child I was often sick and not allowed to go out trick or treating. When I did go out, my friends introduced me to the juvenile art of vandalism. This was especially true in Canada where the night before Halloween is called “gate night” and everyone goes around ringing doorbells, soaping windows and generally acting the fool. As an adult, I thought the whole idea of letting kids go door to door begging for candy was a poor example.
Once I became a parent “for reals”, the situation got even more complex. Grandma always made such cute costumes for my sons. The pumpkin costume David was wearing that night was a hand-me-down pumpkin from Michael that grandma had made. Letting them only wear their costume to school seemed a waste. But the clincher was that my neighbors were genuinely disappointed and hurt that my sons didn’t come by for candy. So Kim and I relented, started passing out candy, and one of us took the boys around the neighborhood. This year, Michael was too old, but David still wanted to go out.
When we got home, I checked through David’s candy. Sure enough, the paper bag contained creationist literature. I thumbed through it and was appalled at how bad it was. As I science teacher in a fundamentalist community, I had seen a lot of creationist/ intelligent design nonsense. In fact I had a standing offer to my students and parents: I would look at any of their literature but only until I found a major scientific error. I never got past page one in fifteen years of examining evangelical offerings. But this dreck was the worst. It was of such low quality in every sense of the word as to be only good for fire starter.
Thus I ended up on the doorstep of the woman who had passed out the paper bags.
“Did you hand out this… tripe?” I asked.
“Yes, I did,” she answered in a soft voice. Her dark hair bounced as she nodded in affirmation.
“So you lure kids to your house with the promise of candy and then give them propaganda?”
“You don’t like my trick?”
“I don’t like your deceit or your scientific ignorance. I also don’t like how the neighborhood is littered with your treats.”
“But there is science in there,” she protested. “That’s the point. Science supports the biblical view of creationism.”
“No it doesn’t.”
She reached out and took the pamphlet from my hand and opened it up. She pointed to a picture of a 57-year-old “fossil”.
“Explain that,” she said.
“First of all, a miner’s hat encrusted with calcium carbonate isn’t really a fossil; it’s an artifact. But no matter, I can show you fossilized aspen leaf imprints on the sidewalk near here that are less than 10 years old. But that doesn’t make all fossils the same age. Just because you’re a woman with dark hair doesn’t mean all women have dark hair. It’s a false generalization.”
I expected her to get angry but she didn’t. We ended up having a much longer conversation than I expected or even wanted. She was very interested in the fact that I was a science teacher as well as a neighbor. She genuinely wanted to know about science and asked if I would look at other material for scientific accuracy and I reluctantly agreed.
For the next year and a half, Lynette and I had many conversations. And we both learned from each other. She felt Halloween was a pagan holiday while I pointed out its Christian traditions. She pointed out that Martin Luther started his Protestant revolution on Halloween. This was something I either never learned or had forgotten. The Catholic Church was not very forthcoming when it came to Luther. Lynette became comfortable enough that she even insisted on her son being placed in my science class because she trusted that I would respect her beliefs. And I did respect her beliefs at the time, but I don’t any more. She was on the Creation Science Institute’s mailing list and I got to see all of their nonsense. It’s more than a little depressing for a teacher that almost half of all Americans believe the Earth is 6000 years old. And CSI is a big reason for this level of ignorance.
I found that I can judge the level of deception in creationist materials by the production values. Low quality, like the Lynette’s Halloween “tricks” is easy to spot. There are glaring scientific errors; often they involve scientific definitions, rules of evidence, and poor understanding of scientific principles. Exhibit A is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is commonly used to “disprove” evolution. All it really proves is that the writer does not know the difference between open and closed systems and knows even less about what thermodynamics means.
Materials with higher production values are usually cleverer in their lies. I saw a video, for example, that attempted to disprove the famous Miller-Urey experiment. The moderator used a white board filled with the chemical symbols of the elements and compounds involved such as: H2O, CO2, NH4, etc. He then argues that the Earth’s atmospheric composition was different from what those scientists assumed. This is clever because, of course scientists have, in fact, debated exactly what the composition of the early atmosphere was.
But now came the deception. The moderator switches to another whiteboard listing the elements that he and some scientists think were present. All of the elements are listed by their chemical symbols except for water which is written out in English. He then proceeds to explain that there was no hydrogen in the early atmosphere, so naturally organic compounds couldn’t have formed in the way that Miller –Urey hypothesized. The deception is that hydrogen was present in the form of H2O. And it is this kind of bold trickery that really makes me angry.
Bill Nye said after his debate with Ken Hamm that he came away feeling that Hamm genuinely believed in what he says. While this may be true, it doesn’t alter the evidence that creationists deliberately lie, distort, and mislead their audience. YouTube has a channel called Why people Laugh at Creationists. It features such idiocies as someone holding up bananas and apples as proof of creation. The author argues that only an intelligent creator could have made fruit so perfectly fitted to the human hand. It’s true that modern bananas and apples were created, but it was by man through selective breeding rather than a supernatural being. Original apples and bananas barely resemble their modern descendants.
I have been told, by my wife for instance, that I should ignore these beliefs. That everyone is entitled to their opinions and beliefs. I agree as long as it doesn’t impact society. But Creationism has a huge negative impact on society. It robs people of their ability to think and reason. It teaches distrust of science, schools, and teachers. And it has created politicians who rely on their biblical interpretations instead of our Constitution and enlightened reason to make laws. It has created politicians who think that the existence of a snowball disproves global warming.
We have serious problems threatening the survival of our species from famine and infectious diseases to climate change. We need real world solutions not the tricks and sophistry of Answers in Genesis. Because those aren’t answers at all.