Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Abiogenesis and the art of persuasion

In my previous post I wrote:

evolution says nothing at all about how life actually first arose.

which prompted Don Geddis to respond:

your words suggest the connotation that nobody knows anything.

Yes. That was deliberate (including the "suggest" and "connote" part.) The reason is that I was not attempting to write an informative piece on evolution, I was trying to write a persuasive one. These two are not mutually exclusive. Being informative often works in service of being persuasive, but not always. And IMO not in this case, at least not entirely.

Regardless of whether one is trying to inform or persuade, the cardinal rule of writing is always know your audience. The target audience for any persuasive piece on evolution has to be someone who has not made up their mind, otherwise you are tilting at windmills. There is no hope in trying to persuade a confirmed creationist, and there is no point in trying to persuade someone who already believes in evolution.

Someone who is on the fence about evolution is very likely to be young (simply because young people in general are less set in their ways than old people) and religious. Atheists, almost by definition, believe in evolution already. Because they are young and religious they are also likely to be insecure because young people in general are insecure, and because it is a challenge to be religious in this modern world without a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. It cannot be lost on even the most die-hard fundamentalist that scientists manage to get some pretty wizzy results on a regular basis with no apparent help from God. (I do not mean to say that being religious causes insecurity, only that they are correlated. Indeed, many people turn to God because of their insecurities. The causality can run both ways. But an insecure atheist, while not unheard of, is a rarer beast.)

The second important rule about persuasion is to know your competition. In this case, the competition is very, very good at being persuasive. Consider that site from the point of view of my target audience. Right there at the top of the page in BIG BOLD LETTERS is "TOP 10 MYTHS ABOUT EVOLUTION." Very hard to miss, and very hard to misinterpret. And if you dig in to the so-called "myths" they all seem, in the absence of rebuttal, plausibly mythical. Not only that, but the short, readable summaries are all accompanied by three references for convenient (but not overwhelming) follow-up. Some of those followups appear to the untrained eye very much like they were written by someone who knows what they are talking about.

I assumed that my target audience would be familiar with though not entirely persuaded by the standard creationist critiques, and that they would be of a mindset to take those arguments seriously because 1) they seem plausible on their face and, more importantly, because they reinforce the comforting worldview that God exists, that He loves them, that there is a better life waiting after death, yada yada yada. Moreover, such a person would be on their guard when they read my piece because they would have been warned that evolutionists are trying not merely to deceive them, but to lure them away from God.

So it would be a serious, borderline fatal mistake to be arrogant or to overplay one's hand, or to bring up a line of argument that was even remotely vulnerable to a creationist critique, however misguided such a critique might be. So I deliberately chose to include in my argument only elements that were already familiar, non-threatening, intuitively plausible to anyone who watches television, and absolutely rock-solid in terms of verifiability. That the earth has layers is indisputable (and indeed indisputed). That we understand DNA is not disputed by anyone except O.J. Simpson's lawyers. That there's a volcano on Hawaii making new land, and a chain of ever more eroded islands extending from there to the northwest is indisputable. Moreoever, none of these facts by themselves are directly threatening to the worldview of a young, insecure Christian.

Abiogenesis is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish.

For one thing, abiogenesis is not a theory (in the scientific sense of the word), it is at the moment still just a hypothesis. A very well worked out hypothesis. A very plausible hypothesis. But a hypothesis nonetheless. To throw that into the mix for a target audience that almost certainly doesn't understand the difference between a theory and a hypothesis and a "fact" would be counterproductive.

Second, abiogensis is much more threatening than evolution. Even creationists accept that evolution occurs; the only argument is over the extent (the false dichotomy between "micro" and "macro" evolution). So even though I find abiogenesis plausible and I'm fairly certain that something like it is in fact responsible for the creation of life, I would undermine my goal of persuasion by saying so.

Finally, I don't really care if someone believes that God created life. My goal is not to turn religious people into atheists, like Richard Dawkins would like to do. I think that is neither possible nor desirable. Religion is not the enemy, extremism and fundamentalism are the enemies. There is really only one verse in the Bible that I take issue with, and it's not in Genesis. It's John 14:6. If I can plant even a single seed of doubt in someone's head that there may be paths to salvation other than Jesus Christ then my life will not have been lived in vain.

1 comment:

Don Geddis said...

Yes, you and I have had a conflict between truth and persuasion in the past. I understand your motivation. It still makes me uncomfortable to deliberately leave an impression that is different from your true beliefs.

Still, I appreciate that it all depends on what your goal is.