05/10/2012 02:32 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2012

When It Comes to Anti-Evolution Arguments, Americans Need to Be More Cynical

It is common for pundits to lament the cynicism of the American public with regard to politics and culture. Sometimes, though, the real problem is a lack of cynicism. An example is the perennial conflict between evolution and creationism. Let me explain.

In my new book Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, I recount some anecdotes from a decade spent circulating at creationist conferences. In one large conference I sat in an audience of close to two thousand people, listening to a speaker explain how modern mathematics, in the form of information theory, could be used to refute evolution and prove the existence of God. The talk was jargon-filled and would surely have been incomprehensible to anyone without significant mathematical training. Nonetheless, the audience lapped it up and even gave a standing ovation at the end. This notwithstanding the fact, and I say this as a professional mathematician, that the speaker's argument was utterly nonsensical.

Another time, in a more intimate setting of roughly thirty people, the speaker's chosen weapon was probability theory. Once again the audience was simply delighted by a collection of objectively poor mathematical arguments. I know from long experience as a math teacher that even bright, motivated students struggle to understand the concepts presented so glibly by the speaker. The audience, however, seemed convinced they were thoroughly on top of things.

Still another time I attended a small session in which a different speaker whipped out the usual jargon and equations for the purpose of impressing a non-mathematical audience. After extensive symbol manipulation he produced a small number that was said to represent the probability of evolving some complex biological structure. At this point one earnest audience member, affecting an impressively serious facial expression, said, "When scientists encounter a number this small" -- he paused here, as if marveling at just how small the number was, then he continued, "... what else can they do but stare at it helplessly?" During the ensuing question period I suggested that scientists might prefer to challenge the assumptions on which the calculation was based. I pointed out several places where the speaker's assumptions were, forgive my bluntness, ridiculous. The other fellow took his own advice and just stared at me helplessly.

I mention these particular examples because they involve my own discipline of mathematics. Creationists, however, are perfectly happy to hold forth on a wide variety of subjects, including physics, biology, paleontology, genetics, anatomy and others. People study for years to become experts in any one of these disciplines, but this does not deter creationists in the slightest.

Most of my fellow audience members were true believers. The speakers were telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. Many times, though, I tried to place myself in the position of a fair-minded person lacking any formal training in science or mathematics. How would they react to these speakers, with their casual use of jargon and unflagging confidence? I suspect most people would say to themselves, "I do not have the training to understand the details of the speaker's argument. I know, however, that I certainly wouldn't stand before a crowd and simply pretend to know something about science . So I will give this fellow the benefit of the doubt and assume he has some decent point to make."

It is an understandable reaction, but misguided. The creationists have no decent point to make at all. Their scientific arguments are entirely false. They are not even interesting. And that is why I say Americans need to be more cynical.

The occasion for these remarks is a law recently passed in Tennessee. The bill singles out several scientific subjects, including evolution, as being areas that create controversy. The text of the bill says things like, "Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." How delightful! Who could oppose presenting science objectively or exploring both the strengths and the weaknesses of evolution?

But it is a sham. The only controversy surrounding evolution is the one manufactured by religious demagogues trying to circumvent the separation of church and state. That creationists have an endless supply of pseudoscientific gobbledygook in their arsenal does not reflect badly on the soundness of evolution. This law has nothing to do with protecting academic freedom, and everything to do with concealing a religious agenda beneath a cloak of science.

Be cynical. Be very cynical. The other side certainly is.