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Austin Cline

Are Creationists Liars? Fact and Truth as a Minimal Ethical Standard

By August 13, 2009

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The final arbiter of any argument or disagreement has to be the truth the facts about reality. Difficulties in learning, understanding, or applying facts means that many disagreements can't be settled by simply pointing to some impersonal truth sitting on a table, but that's no excuse to seek out and rely on truth. Facts must precede and determine ideology and beliefs, not the other way around, but there are frequent and blatant examples of people doing just the opposite. One easy and common example of this are the creationists.

Larry Hamelin writes:

It seems clear that the right-wing "intelligentsia" (well, they can at least write with correct grammar and spelling) is immeasurably deeper in lies and bullshit than the left-wing intelligentsia. But just as the moderate religious discard their best argument against the zealots, extremists and fundamentalists, so too does the left-wing intelligentsia discard their best weapon against the conservatives and reactionaries by failing to hold themselves to as high an ethical standard of factual truth as do scientists.

I first noticed this lack of ethical commitment to the truth about seven or eight years ago on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (now the Freethought and Rationalism Discussion Board). It was astonishing and infuriating to me that we couldn't explicitly call creationists liars, even when they manifestly lied about facts trivially available to the general public. We could not according to the policy be absolutely certain they were knowingly or intentionally misrepresenting the facts. But that policy is nonsense: we cannot ever be absolutely certain about much of anything, and after a certain point negligence is just as ethically objectionable as malice.

This raises an issue that I've had to deal with myself a number of times: when is it legitimate to call a person a liar? This is a serious accusation so it shouldn't be made lightly it shouldn't be used simply because one is frustrated with an annoying person who has little intellectual skill and/or who is using dishonest debating tactics. Stupidity and unreasonableness aren't the same as lying.

Narrowly defined, lying is the presentation of a falsehood as if it were true when one knows that it is not true. Strictly speaking, then, it's not lying if you present a falsehood as if it were true when you really don't know that it isn't true. However, as Larry Hamelin asks, when can we ever know for sure what a person "really" does and does not know? This could almost always be used as an excuse for almost any liar and that's not really acceptable, is it?

Larry Hamelin raises another very important point: there are facts which are easy to learn and comprehend. Can there really be honest disagreement over and ignorance about such things, or can we legitimately conclude that anyone actively promoting the opposite of such facts are just liars? Let's ignore evolution for now and consider some other fact that's trivially easy to learn and comprehend: the area of rectangle is calculated by multiplying the length and the height.

I choose this because it requires a bit of active thinking and effort to learn (as opposed to "fire burns"), everyone should have learned it in schools, and everyone can easily verify it over and over at home with only the most basic math skills. I'm sure there must be a better example, but this is the best I can come up with right now. So, if a person denies the above fact, I see four possible explanations:

  1. They are genuinely and sincerely ignorant of it.
  2. They learned it, but did not and/or do not comprehend it.
  3. They comprehend and accept it, but deny it to others.
  4. They comprehend it, but deny it to others and to themselves.

Option #3 is the classic example of lying, narrowly defined. The first two shouldn't be lying at first, but once the fact has been pointed out and (if necessary) explained, they stop being honest reasons for denying the truth. Then again, if you know enough about the subject and care enough about the subject to actively deny an easily learned truth about that subject, why should we believe that you could be ignorant about that truth for honest and legitimate reasons?

This brings us back to Hamelin's point about facts that are "trivially available to the general public." How to calculate the area of a rectangle is trivially available, so how can someone credibly claim to care enough about it to assert a falsehood about it, but not have cared enough to have tried even a little bit to discover the truth? I don't think they can, but if they did try and have a mental age above, say, 10, then they understood it and if they understood it, then they are presenting as true something they know and understand to be false.

Consider how this appears in the context of evolution: if you care enough to actively deny that evolution is true, it's just not credible that you could have legitimate reasons for not knowing what the definition of evolution is and comprehending what it means. If you care enough about evolution to argue against it but don't care enough to go to scientific sources for the scientific definition of a scientific definition, then the best that can be said is that you are displaying a willful disregard for the truth.

Someone practicing a willful disregard for the truth is only failing to narrowly fit the definition "presenting as true something you know is false" because they don't care what's true or false. They are presenting as true something they want people to believe regardless of whether it's true or false. This is wrong for the same reason that lying is wrong: they are disregarding what is true or real in favor of what personal needs, preferences, or ideology require. A willful disregard for the truth is as much a lie as a deliberate falsehood and it may be worse in some ways.

And that brings us to option #4, perhaps the toughest of the group to categorize. Is a person "lying" when they have been informed of some fact and comprehend that fact, but deny it even to themselves? I think we might reasonably argue that it is if it involves a willful disregard for the truth, so the question I have is whether there are any other reasons why a person would deny even to themselves something they know and comprehend?

August 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm
(1) Jason says:

Your 4 possible explanations of denial falls in line closely with Richard Dawkins’ classic line about coming in contact with someone who claims to not believe in evolution. Dawkins says that person is either ignorant (No. 1), stupid (No. 2) or insane (No. 4). He also adds the possibility of wicked, which would be No. 3.

August 13, 2009 at 3:20 pm
(2) fauxrs says:

It probably varies from christian to christian, I think calling some christians liars (as it pertains to evolution/creationism) would be too charitable, since it implies that they are capable of rational thought and understanding of science in even an elementary manner. However if I had to judge all christians by the sort one might see posting in Austin’s blog I would be forced to conclude that;

1. Christians only know what theyve been told about evolution/Darwin/Biogenisis and to them it is absolute fact, not requiring any further research.
2. Christians believe it is the Athiests who are lying about evolution when they relay facts about same. So there is no need to independantly verify said facts. since they are contrary to what theyve been taught and therefore lies.

Obviously this is not the case with all Christians, for there are some who have no issues with evolution at all, but for the evangelicals, the born agains and the young earthers I really dont personally believe that they know they are in error, quite the contrary I believe they think their facts are the ones that are irrefutable and that the ones they hear on sites such as this are the lies.

I dont know how you converse with such a person.

August 14, 2009 at 12:26 am
(3) Mike says:

I disagree with your definition of lying. I think a better way to define “to lie” is to use a definition similar to the “intent to deceive” standard used to define the legal concept of fraud.

With the intent to deceive standard, a lie is any assertion where the asserter

(1) Presents the assertion with much greater confidence than they themselves feel.
(2) Intend to manipulate the audience.

The “greater confidence” and “intent” bits of the definition go to the core of what it is to be a con(fidence)-man, and distinguish lying from plain old hyperbole.

Basing the definition on intent/ulterior motives, also allows you to judge which lies are worse than others. Someone who lies to bilk others for money is worse than someone who foolishly makes up facts and statistics to avoid losing an argument in which they have no stake but pride; because the former knows how much harm they’re doing to the credulous.

And more relevant to your larger argument, a lie by this definition does not require that the asserter believe the inverse of their assertion.

And I find this definition fits many people’s intuitive definition of a liar — someone with a pattern of asserting things they don’t believe for ulterior motives.

August 14, 2009 at 3:32 pm
(4) Todd says:

Honest – Informed – Creationist

You can be only two.

August 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm
(5) Drew says:

Good article Austin. I need to point this out on line every week.

August 15, 2009 at 11:37 am
(6) Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

Duane Gish is the father of lies!

August 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm
(7) Zack says:

I take my father to church every Sunday morning because he is no longer able to drive himself to the fundamentalist Baptist church that he has attended for decades. It’s a little ironic that I am the only one he can rely upon to get him to church, since I have three brothers who are theists, but that is a topic for another post.

I have found that there are some advantages to having a skeptic in the pews week after week. When the pastor makes some outrageous claim from the pulpit, which is often, I point out its outrageousness and ask him to support it.

I believe this has caused him to moderate his public statements. For example, he used to be fond of declaring that he would debate “any liberal professor” about evolution. This is a challenge that has not been heard since it became apparent to him that such a debate could, in fact, be arranged.

August 16, 2009 at 9:47 pm
(8) John Hanks says:

They are either lying crooks or they are lazy cowards. They are to cowardly to conquer their fear and they are too lazy to find out what is causing it.

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