Ending the Wedge
A recognised creationist tactic involves scoring minor victories against the teaching of evolution, and recent controversies over free schools and the Giant’s Causeway suggest it is succeeding in the UK. It’s time the strategy was exposed, says Adam Rutherford
There is a profoundly important point that is struggling to emerge from all the righteous indignation over creationism. When the news broke that three UK free schools with elements of creationist ideology had been green-lit by Education Secretary Michael Gove, the fury was stoked. In fact, the embers of ire were still glowing from the last creationist development barely two weeks earlier. That was prompted by the National Trust opening a new visitors’ centre at Northern Ireland’s wondrous Giant’s Causeway, including the slightest mention of Young Earth Creationism as a valid view of the origin of the in-fact 60-million-year-old basalt columns.
Everybody loves a few rounds with creationists, especially as their beliefs are so absurd. Creationism is not a mainstream Christian view about the origin of the universe, life or humankind. But what the righteous indignation shrouds is a subtler and more devious device: these developments represent a deeply political manoeuvring to introduce and normalise evangelical conservative Christian views in public and political life.
It’s a well-established policy called the Wedge Strategy, in active operation in the US since being secretly designed by aggressive creationists in the 1990s. The policy is not to win the debate, but merely to have it. This, creationists believe, validates their position, and erodes the robustness of the fact of evolution. This is why many scientists refuse to debate creationists, as, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins and others, “It would look better on your CV than on mine”.
I suspect that the National Trust were innocent of any agenda, but instead unwittingly fell prey to this subterfuge. To their credit, they appeared to be overwhelmed by the ire, particularly and typically from Twitter, and on 18 July issued a statement saying:
“There is clearly no scientific debate about the age of the earth or how the Causeway stones were formed. The National Trust does not endorse or promote any other view… To ensure that no further misunderstanding or misrepresentation of this exhibit can occur, we have decided to review the interpretive materials in this section.”
Well done to them for considering their error. If they correct it I will join, and encourage others to do the same, as they will clearly be a progressive and pro-scientific organisation. Further questions remain though, not least how they were lured by a creationist lobby, the Caleb Foundation, into considering their views. Caleb specifically boasted of their success in deploying the Wedge strategy into one of the National Trust’s prize assets, gloating that they:
“worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this.”
And a few sentences later, here is the sucker-punch: “This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in the UK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow.”
This is the key. The strategy is to get a foothold, and from there the erosion of science can begin to be replaced by a political religious stance. Sow a seed of doubt, and feed it patiently. Creationist arguments may be absurd, but the strategy is clever, and works. Five out of the seven Republican candidates in the 2012 nominations reject evolution by parroting creationist doctrine, particularly that schools should “teach the controversy”.
Well, we’re not in the US, and we’re much more sensible, and much less prone to creep towards the religious right. The rules are quite clear: in our lands, creationism cannot be taught as a valid scientific theory. Evolution should not be taught as a field which is mired in controversy, to which there are valid scientific alternatives.
Make no mistake: there is no controversy. The absurdities and the easily demolished assertions of creationism (and its poorly fig-leafed cousin Intelligent Design) are readily available for all online, should you want to tool yourself up to knock down each one of those pseudo-scientific canards: the inexplicable sophistication of the eye; the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagella; evolution is “just a theory”. These zombie arguments – repeatedly floored, but refusing to die – are precisely the point. They won’t go away because they are neither scientific in their origin nor their formulation. They can’t be defeated in debate or with evidence. The creationist strategy is to pretend that they are and that they can, and are therefore worth considering alongside evolution.
The certainty that I – and most scientists – have about the robustness of evolution by natural selection is not a belief, nor does it require faith. The essence of science is doubt, a formalised system for continually challenging and refining what is known. I’m not required to believe anything in science. I am required to assess what the evidence suggests is correct As it is, evolution by natural selection is the only scientifically valid explanation for life on Earth.
I’m loath to play guilt by association, but Christians need to condemn the subterfuge tactics being employed by their brethren. Creationists may share Jesus as their saviour with all Christians, but not their biblical literalism. The Wedge Strategy is wicked because it promotes deceit and back-door machinations for political ideological gain. This is what needs to be crushed, by the right-thinking faithful and atheist alike. Perhaps all this fury is inappropriate, paranoid or, as described by the Telegraph, a witch-hunt.
Perhaps. The positions of the three schools are muddied by bland and, in my opinion, deliberately vague language, but they are explicit about not teaching creationism in science lessons, as they know that this as stated policy will bring about their extinction. Nevertheless, one of the schools, Grindon Hall, published a statement [Word Doc] that includes phrases such as "the so-called ‘Big Bang’” and states that evolution will be taught as a “principle, as far as it goes”. It goes on to describe creationism as "an entirely respectable position scientifically". The head, Chris Gray, said the statement on the school's website is "out of date". He told the Guardian that it was “from a time when we were not as clear as we are now about the proper distinction as to what is taught in a science lesson and what might be taught in assembly – two different spheres”.
Does this sound like the language of someone who can be trusted to keep their boundaries in order?