For those of you who missed this show, you can fix that for a limited time only. The premise consisted of 5 young earth creationists on a televised road trip through the United States. The presenter, Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell, introduced them to a variety of scientists who explained their field and interviewed them afterward to see if the experience had influenced their outlook in any way.
Of course the show suffered from reality tv syndrome: a condition brought on by selection committees that choose participants based on the potential for drama (read “salacious gladiatorial entertainment”). Out of five people with a common belief, one was Muslim, one was a single mum with a gay child. There was bound to be fireworks. By the end the united front of five people had quickly deteriorated into 3 camps, with Jojo and Bronwyn in one, Phil and Sam in another, an Abdul representing his own. It is easy to see why there are so many denominations and I think the BBC set that up to make that very point.
The expert that really struck me was Professor Tim White of Berkeley, who introduced the group to hominid remains from a 1km thick section of Africa: he got one of the creationists to correctly sort them by their features into the same sequence they are found in the rocks, based on their morphology. He got one of the girls so agitated that she more-or-less said that the only reason she couldn’t accept the evidence presented to her was because she would then have to concede that everything else she believes is rubbish.
The other experts made good points: Professor Don Prothero made the case for the Horseshoe Canyon not being caused by the flood because flood water drains off to form straight lines; Professor Gerry Coyne pointed out that wooden boats of ark-like proportions (140m x 23m x 40m) are not made because the resulting craft would be too unstable. Their points were no more or less true than Dr. Tim’s, so why did he yield results where the others yielded hostility and argument?
It may be that Dr. Tim achieved these results by being one of the last people they met – that the young woman’s reaction was like the lid of a pickle jar that has been worked loose by everyone earlier that tried. If this were the case, one might expect Astrophysicist Michael Russell to have yielded the greatest results being the absolute last expert they spoke to, but he did not.
What did Dr. Tim do that the others did not? He greeted the Muslim in the group in Arabic; he presented things in their vernacular, or his rendition of it; he was polite and friendly in the communication of his message and he taught them by helping them discover it for themselves. Compare this to Dr. Gerry Coyne who, when challenged, started a sentence with “any reasonable person who’s not perverse…”
The creationists were reluctant students and perhaps not the easiest people to get along with: who wouldn’t snap when confronted by someone who goes into a dialogue assuming that your life’s passion is part of a centuries-old lie? It takes a very special person to be able to rise above that. The sort-of person who needs to be teaching access courses in under-privileged areas where most teachers would despair of the hostility.
All of the scientists had an interesting perspective on the situation but the way it was delivered made a much bigger impact on whether it was even considered, much less accepted, by the creationists. It may feel like they are being wilfully ignorant. I’m betting they feel the same way about you. It is very tempting to perform for the other audience: the ones who already hold your opinion who may or may not be waiting for you to drop the ball or criticise you for not being tough enough on the “other side”. We’re not here for such self-congratulatory approval, we are here to educate and, no matter how much it may feel like we’re hitting our heads against a brick wall, you’re getting through to someone for better or for worse. These are people who admire patient endurance even when they don’t practice it themselves. Keep enduring their rage and calmly presenting the evidence. The evidence doesn’t need a hot head to fight the good fight, it just needs re-asserting and demonstrating at every turn that it stands alone from agenda.
A wise woman once said: “if you aren’t taking flack you aren’t flying over the target”.