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Christine O'Donnell and Rush Limbaugh: A Match for the (Dark) Ages

10/11/2010 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rather than merely being amused by Christine O'Donnell's astounding scientific ignorance, we need to recognize the consequences such ignorance has for society.

First, the context. O'Donnell has made the claim that evolution is a myth and backed up her contention with the question, "Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?"

Now the consequences. Political conservatives, wanting to support O'Donnell at any cost, are rushing to her defense and they're attacking evolution in an attempt to show just how knowledgeable she is. Consider how Rush Limbaugh inserted himself into the fray on her behalf recently. He sets up his main point using his brand of "humor."

If we came from the apes, why are there still apes? How come the gorillas that are still there got left out of the deal? How did some of us become advanced humans and King Kong is still out there as King Kong? I know what she's saying. It's a matter of choice. Obviously some gorillas did not want to become humans because they didn't want to get blamed for destroying their own habitat.

Then he moves on to make the claim that really interests him:

I know that evolution is Darwin. There are two guys, there are two guys who've probably done more to screw up the human race on balance, I mean, it's probably a tough thing to single out two guys out of all the people who have been destructive of the human race, you gotta put Hitler up there and so forth, but Hitler's efforts were finite, there are two guys whose work goes on and on and on, that continue to have everything all screwed up. One was Darwin, the other was Freud.

Let's look at Limbaugh's statements before moving on to the obvious question: Why should we care what someone like Rush Limbaugh has to say about a topic he obviously knows nothing about?

While it's obvious that Limbaugh and his brand of creationists are living in the scientific dark ages, the fact is they have also positioned themselves fully within the dark ages of creationism. In other words, even the most rabid of modern-day creationists, the young earth creationists who assert that the universe was created on or around 4004 B.C., disavow the kind of argument that Limbaugh and O'Donnell are making.

For instance, Creation Ministries International, an extreme creationist organization that was divorced from Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis (the creationist museum-cum-theme-park group) a few years ago, have a web page entitled "Arguments We Think Creationists Should NOT Use." The web page actually divides the arguments into two categories: those which "definitely" should not be used and those which are "doubtful, hence inadvisable to use."

In the definitely do not use category, we find the question, "If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes today?" You can readily see why this question can offer no support for creationists by thinking about your extended family for a second. You and your fourth cousin both exist today even though you both came from a common ancestor a number of generations back. The same is true for humans and other primates.

So, even the most rabid of modern-day creationists recognize that this issue is a non-starter and yet Limbaugh and O'Donnell have opted to take a position even more extreme than that of the extremists. The rabid antipathy people like these two have for Darwin is typically because of their perceptions of the political implications that they believe stem from evolutionary theory.

As I've written before, from social Darwinism to the assertion that evolution leads inexorably to atheism, these claims are both ridiculous and demonstrably false. Even more to the point, though, political implications derived from a scientific theory, even if correctly derived, cannot possibly undermine the scientific validity of the theory. Only data can do that - and the inane questions posed by Limbaugh and O'Donnell do not constitute scientific data.

So, why should we care what these people think? The answer is simple. Science literacy is important to society and when public figures of their sort make assertions that are completely illiterate confusion reigns.

Science literacy means being able to recognize the difference between an idea that is scientific and one that is pure nonsense. It means understanding that science is dependent on formulating falsifiable hypotheses rather than making unverifiable claims. It means being able to distinguish between a repeatable pattern, and thus knowing something about the future, and a single coincidence.

Science literacy means that we collectively can opt to spend our limited resources fighting diseases productively rather than buying elixirs and potions that make unbridled promises. It means that we can opt to vaccinate our children against deadly diseases rather than put their health at risk because some among us are deniers. And it means that we can make rational decisions about how we can best preserve and protect the environment in which we live rather than pretend we are apart from it.

Indeed, the extreme view of creationism espoused by Limbaugh and O'Donnell have far larger consequences than might at first seem obvious. Their view threatens to redefine the nature of science and return us to a time where ignorance and superstition were far more important than data and knowledge.