Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ardi Ar Ar: The Answers of Answers

This is one of the hardest things for progressives and liberals to wrap their open minds around. Fundys, or so the reasoning goes, are all bible-thumpin' snake-handlin' Gamma-Minus types. They might be fit for serving us our food on the few occasions we find ourselves in a small town where our dining options begin and end with Dennys, but they're otherwise not worth our while.

Here, progressivism makes a rather significant error. Fundamentalist Christians are not idiots. They are also not bad people, any more so than the rest of humanity. Some of the most gracious and welcoming folks I've had the privilege to know have believed in the literal inerrancy of scripture.

The issue here is not one of intelligence. Case in point: Ardi.

Ardi, in the event you didn't hear about her last week, is the name given to a recently reconstructed early primate, who dates back 4.4 million years. Her discovery adds some interesting new twists to the dynamics of human evolution, as these fossilized remains are considerably older than the previous record holder, Lucy.

Upon reading about this new find, I immediately thought to myself: "I gotta see what Answers in Genesis says about this." Answers in Genesis lies at the intellectual heart of Young Earth Creationism, that strain of Christianity that is so vested in the literal inerrancy of Scripture that it feels compelled to assert that the universe is just a tick over 6,000 years old.

The day the findings were released, Answers...well...it didn't have any answers. It hadn't quite figured out the angle. It was working on it. Come back tomorrow.

The next day, the response was up, explaining why the discovery of this fossil was actually meaningless and should be of no concern whatsoever to Young Earth Creationists. The argument was coherently structured. It was well written. This was not the work of Sarah Palin without her ghostwriter.

It was, instead, the work of someone trained in rhetoric and practiced in the art of debate. I did forensics for a while in high school, and the core skillsets required to take apart the case of an opponent are strongly in evidence in the answers of Answers.

First, find the weakness. Here, things aren't great for Creationists. The paleontologists who unearthed Ardi are competent scientists, and their work has been extensively peer reviewed. It is an exciting, game changing find, one that may indicate a different evolutionary tree for homo sapiens sapiens than we'd previously anticipated. But a competent rhetorician can work around facts, which are only one tool in the toolbox of human argumentation.

Here, Answers chooses to use two things to it's advantage.

First, science is not presuppositional, and you'll invariably find dissenting opinions. To build a countercase, you have to find seeds of doubt and develop them. So Answers dug around in publicly available articles from National Geographic, and then selected some quotes that appear to indicate some issues. Not a single one of the scientists quoted would suggest that Answers in Genesis is correct on this issue, but that means nothing. Doubt is all that matters.

Apparently, these fossils are ancient and fragmented and fragile. Could they be so damaged that reconstructing them results in flawed conclusions? Hmmm. Of course, this line of argumentation doesn't relate at all to the ancient, fragmented, and fragile scrolls that provide the written foundations of Scripture. Totally different things. Totally.

Second, you know your audience. Most of us are not biologists and archaeologists. We just don't have the ability to critically assess the data. To develop a case against it, evidence is not necessary. Just the aforementioned doubt. In that sense, what Answers is doing is less like science, and more like the law. Like a prosecutor working in front of a jury, the only thing required is to discredit and subvert the witnesses of your opponent. Your job as a prosecutor is not to find the truth. Your job is to prove guilt. The "truth" is whatever serves your case.

Years ago, that's why I stopped doing forensics in high school. I could never find the enthusiasm to argue for something when I found the evidence for it flawed. It felt like I was engaged in a carefully constructed deception.

The challenge I have with creationists and literalists does not lie with their intelligence. It's their wisdom. Being able to discern the greatness and wonder of God's work creation requires a deeper connection with the First Book. By refusing to accept the witness of the earth and the heavens, they inadvertently discredit the core message of the Bible.

It's the distinction between idiocy and folly.