“Darwinism”: A “marketing problem”?

Longtime readers of this blog may recall Pat Sullivan, Jr. He first popped up as a commenter here two years ago, when I first dove into applying skepticism and critical thinking to the pseudoscientific contention that vaccines in general or the thimerosal preservatives in vaccines cause autism. He’s a true believer in the mercury militia and, even to this day, posts on his blog about the unsupported belief that vaccines cause autism somehow. Eventually, he “outed me”–and no doubt will do so again when he notices traffic coming in from this post (yawn). In any case, I haven’t really thought about him much in a year and a half, if not longer, except for the occasional mention of the joy he took in reposting the rabid mailing list message “outing” me, simply because–well–he isn’t really worth thinking about that much.

Until now.

You see, Pat is also a creationist. He probably won’t like being called that, but it’s basically true. He’s posted his “skepticism” about “Darwinism” on multiple occasions and has made no secret of his sympathy for “intelligent design” creationism. From my perspective, it all goes to show that woo begets woo and that people prone to credulity towards one form of pseudoscience tend to be prone to credulity towards other logical fallacies and pseudoscience. After all, Phillip Johnson, one of the “luminaries” of the ID movement is also an out-and-out HIV denialist, and a certain denizen of William Dembski’s blog, besides being a creationist, is also a global warming “skeptic” and has promoted self-experimentation among cancer patients with an untested (in humans, at least) chemotherapeutic agent outside the purview of the FDA. Then, of course, we have Pat, who not only believes in ID, but also that mercury causes autism and all sorts of dubious claims about mercury amalgams. He’s also–surprise! surprise!–a global warming “skeptic.”. (Is anyone seeing a pattern here?) Despite all that, Pat actually made an interesting, albeit disturbing, observation about the pseudodebate between ID creationism and evolution. But first, you have to understand where he is coming from:

I am a marketing guy for the most part. I look at most things from a marketing perspective. Can it be sold? Will people understand it? Is the message right? Is the product right? Is it positioned correctly against it’s competitors?

Viewing Darwinism versus Intelligent Design I often think that ID has a definite marketing advantage over Darwin. It is just much simpler to understand, true or not. Don’t underestimate the power of that. When people are faced with a choice, one they understand versus one they don’t, they readily pick the former. I think this is one major reason that in spite of many decades of Darwinism’s total control over the education process, some 66% of people polled (US Today/Gallup) believe “Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

Certainly the propagandists at the Discovery Institute seem to be of the same mind as Pat. After all, they do no scientific research about ID. Zero. Nada. Zip. Instead, they devote their considerable resources and energy to what is in essence a massive marketing effort to “sell” the public on their “product,” namely ID creationism (or, failing that at the very least, a hostility towards the dreaded “atheistic Darwinism”). It’s also eerie the way that Pat seems to nail one reason why ID persists despite the simple fact that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the theory of evolution is one of the most successful and powerful theories ever conceived. A lot of it is marketing, but not just by the Discovery Institute. It’s marketing by religion, mostly fundamentalist religion, that tells its adherents that evolution can’t be true. It should also be remembered that this “marketing,” when it comes from Pat, is being used to sell a wide variety of supplements with not a lot of evidence to support their efficacy.

But let’s get a bit more of a feel of where Pat’s coming from:

What interests me as a marketing observer is this; after tens of thousands of exposures to the Darwin marketing “message” only some 34% of people buy the message. And with almost NO exposures to the contrary message except in Sunday school and mom and dad, 66% of people believe we were created by a designer. Personally, I believe the main reason this is the case is the ease with which people look at the world and readily conclude it looks designed. The arguments to the contrary just are really hard to follow.

In other words, because Pat can’t understand evolution, it must not be true. OK, I’m oversimplifying a bit, but that does seem to be his basic message. He also seems to underestimate the influence that parents and religion have. “Almost NO exposures to the contrary message except in Sunday school and mom and dad”? In most children’s lives in this country, in any list of the top three influences on their lives, those two (parents and church) would be there. They’re more than enough to guarantee that it’s evolution that’s at a disadvantage, particularly since many schools are not even teaching much evolution in biology classes anymore. What puzzles me, though, is why he finds the “arguments to the contrary” to be “really hard to follow.” Are they that hard? Actually, they aren’t that hard to understand if an average person with an average intelligence puts forth an honest effort. It’s not “elitism” to say so, given that the concepts at the core of evolutionary theory are pretty basic.

That never stopped ID creationists like Pat, though, from saying otherwise:

The concept of “irreducible complexity” put forth by Dr. Michael Behe in his book “Darwin’s Black Box”. I read the book and it was very easy to follow. He uses the concept of a mousetrap to get his point across. I came across a rebuttal to Behe’s concept written by longtime Darwinist Dr. Ken Miller, author of “Finding Darwin’s God”. Now I am not a scientist but I probably would not be considered stupid by most people. (For sure some though!) I read his entire rebuttal of Behe’s work. I don’t follow the logic of it at all. It is too complex. I find that generally this is true of most stuff I read by Darwinist’s rebutting ID stuff. I really try to follow their arguments and find myself bewildered. As a marketer this explains why most people simply say, “it looks designed, it is designed, next question”.

Actually, Pat is not known for his intellectual firepower, at least when it comes to science, and I can attest to his difficulty with basic scientific concepts, particularly when it comes to examining the evidence regarding whether vaccines cause autism. He misses the gist of the problem anyway. It is not a problem with intelligence that limits the ability of most people to “understand” and accept “Darwinism” as the theory that best explains the diversity of life and how new species evolve. There are many explanations of evolution that are quite simple to understand. The basic concept of natural selection is not difficult to grasp. It may be true that the scientific (as opposed to the pseudoscientific and ideological) controversies over “Darwinism” can devolve into discussions of minutiae, but the basic concepts of evolution by natural selection are accessible to the educated layman. Resources include Kenneth Miller’s website, Talk.origins, and Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom. Heck, I was just looking over the latest issue of Skeptic. It included in its Junior Skeptic section explanations of evolution geared towards children. The information is out there and framed and targeted at a general audience of nonscientists, if only Pat would bother to look. To paraphrase The X-Files, “The Truth is out there.”

My guess is that, like most people who have a problem with evolution, doesn’t want to understand. He wants to believe that there is an “intelligent designer” out there intervening in evolution. He wants to believe in irreducible complexity, the dubious (at best) concept that there are biological structures that are too complex to have evolved without the input of a “designer” (a.k.a. God, even though ID propagandists are careful not to admit that their Designer is, in fact, God). After all, saying “God did it” when encountering a problem is easy. Figuring out the mechanisms by which a complex structure may have evolved is hard. Indeed, Pat gives his game away with this truly idiotic comment:

…don’t you find it interesting that there is NO recorded history prior to less than 10,000 years ago? If man has been around millions of years why the heck did it take so long to learn to write? Most kids are doing it by 2nd grade! Man evolved enough to suddenly figure out how to record his thoughts just a few thousand years ago? Hmmm.

Truly, this is the most ignorant thing I’ve ever seen Pat say or write. Here, he’s sounding not like an ID adherent, but more like a Young Earth Creationist, a position that is truly untenable. Even Michael Behe doesn’t buy into such silliness. As for whether or not humans prior to 10,000 years ago had Just look at the cave drawings and early evidence of religious ritual, and you’ll see that ancient humans had a pretty high degree of abstract thinking ability. Writing was just the culmination of that ability.

But I digress.

Although Pat routinely shows his utter ineptitude in understanding science, be it evolution or evidence-based medicine, he does make a point that does, as much as I hate to admit it, have a grain of truth to it. Evolution does have a “marketing problem.” However, contrary to Pat’s facile explanation, it’s not just because ID is so simple to understand, nor is “Darwinism” at such an overwhelming advantage when it comes to being taught. It should be, given that there really isn’t a scientific controversy regarding ID versus evolution. Yes, I know that just saying that “God did it” is far simpler than getting into the nitty-gritty of scientific explanations, but that’s not the only reason creationism is winning hearts and minds. The reason people like Pat have so much trouble “understanding” evolution is because they don’t really want to understand it and don’t like what they perceive to be its implications.

As long as the U.S. is so drenched in fundamentalist religion that it cannot accept a scientific theory that has overwhelming support, evolution will be seen as an interloper that threatens the religious consensus. It also reveals one reason that I’ve always suspected that people embrace pseudoscience, be it creationism, HIV denialism, or global warming “skepticism,” rather than science: They simply don’t like the consequences of the science.