This is the latest round in a fascinating debate in recent days between William Saletan of Slate and Sean McElwee in Salon. Can you be a creationist and also be a scientist? McElwee says no; to be a creationist to have made up one’s mind and become committed to a particular belief despite the evidence, and thereby resistant to any possible additional evidence. That is not science, which is always provisional and open to new evidence.
Saletan disagrees, basically on practical grounds. The fact of the matter is that millions of people in the US (and a couple other countries, like Turkey) believe the world was created just some 10,000 years ago – despite, or most likely in benign ignorance of, mountains of evidence indicating otherwise – and yet manage to lead functional lives as office workers, engineers, lawyers, even doctors. But probably not as scientists.
(There’s an interesting sidebar about whether creationist beliefs are related to myths about vaccines. Wouldn’t be surprised.)
I would say in principle McElwee is right – a creationist scientist’s thought processes should be suspect – but in practice Saletan is probably right. Creationism is just one example of how religious ideas continue to flourish: people compartmentalize their religious beliefs away from the necessarily rational means they must have to engage the world on a daily basis. You can work a job, raise kids, live and die, and never care about what the evidence indicates about the size of the universe, the age of the earth, or the mysteries of quantum mechanics. Creationism is just one example, of many many, religious beliefs about the world without a shred of real world evidence in their support. To most people, that doesn’t matter. To a scientist, it *should* matter.
There’s a parallel debate recently about ‘accommodationism’ between Jerry Coyne and others, including Phil Plait. This is about whether, at any level, science and religion are compatible. As with the above debate, they’re both probably right, but within different contexts; but I’m not exploring that issue here.
Coincidentally, today, here is a new essay by a real scientist, Sam Harris, who is actively interested in new evidence and open to changing his mind:
I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.
Also coincidentally, physicist Sean Carroll is about to participate in a debate, tonight, with Christian apologist William Lane Craig, about God and cosmology. I doubt I’ll have a chance to watch it, but I’m sure the best bits will be posted and blogged around the web.