Asking questions in Darwin-skeptic media

It is particularly interesting to note that Asking Questions is the second-most regularly occurring message variable articulated by all three antievolutionist organizations. Additionally, of the total Asking Questions incidents, rhetorical queries represent all but one of the cases of this code expressed in Darwinskeptic mass media. The single example of Intention Questions is found in an Answers in Genesis article, which asks readers whether they would consider purchasing subscriptions to Answers magazine as gifts for their friends and family.16 Hence, the antievolutionist materials examined here are permeated with manifold instances of erotema, hypophora, and anacoenosis rather than self-predictive questions. Institute for Creation Research media exhibits the lowest Asking Questions incident rate in comparison to the other Darwin-skeptic organizations, while AiG’s Answers magazine boasts the greatest number of occurrences per 1000 words. Even so, this message variable is still an important factor in ICR’s Acts&Facts articles.

Rhetorical questions, fear, and conspiracy theories

The assorted ways that this variable is articulated throughout Darwin-skeptic media is presented in Figure 4.2. As the figure reveals, rhetorical inquiries can be subcategorized into three broad classes, described as negative, neutral, and positive questions. These subgroupings are qualitatively delineated according to each question’s context and apparent objective. Negative questions are those that match up most closely with Aristotle’s advice on using rhetoricals in order to criticize an enemy or adversarial idea. Such queries interrogate the strength of a rival’s claims or introduce uncertainty concerning the motivations of an enemy. An article by ICR’s Lawrence

Antievolutionist Asking Questions

Figure 4.2 Antievolutionist Asking Questions

Ford illustrates this negative usage, as it first involves Ford explaining to Acts&Facts readers, “A few years ago on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the entire science faculty of SMU refused to sit down, behind closed doors, with scientists from the Intelligent Design Movement to dialogue about science.” He then asks, “What were they afraid of? Were they not confident enough in their own understanding of scientific data to enter into a friendly discussion about the evidence? What about examining evidence and analyzing data to discover truth?”1 Positive rhetorical questions, on the other hand, are inquiries designed to affirm a communicator’s message, while neutral questions are those demonstrating no obvious negative or positive contextual intentions.

Neutral questions are the least common variety of rhetorical query found throughout ICR’s Acts&Facts. These questions are commonly used as expository devices, helping Institute for Creation Research writers to introduce topics or move from one subject to another within sequential, nonnormative descriptions of data. For instance, in an article describing the human reproductive system, the author states, “A high concentration of the male hormone testosterone in the testes is essential to make normal sperm,” before asking readers: “Where does it come from?” This question simply aids in shifting the author’s discussion from one idea to the next, perhaps stirring up audience interest in the process.18 There are no directly observable positive or negative implications found in the immediate context of such inquiries.

While neutral questions appear relatively intermittently throughout Acts&Facts articles, ICR materials are saturated with negative erotema, hypophora, and anacoenosis. These often appear within attacks against an opponent’s understanding of biblical scripture, and they are articulated to provoke uncertainties regarding the sincerity of an adversary’s religious faith. An article by John D. Morris that criticizes the proevolutionist organization BioLogos is representative of this trend. In the piece he states, a “well-respected and well-funded group of scientists claiming to be Christians and Bible-believers have joined forces to teach that the Bible and evolution agree.” According to Morris, the BioLogos viewpoint, “which is essentially identical to the atheistic view, twists and shreds the Bible and is wholly improper for a Christian.” He then completes this denunciation with the following, subversive rhetorical question: “I don’t have the authority to question anyone’s salvation, and am not doing so here, but isn’t this how the Bible describes false teachers?”19 In a similar appraisal of evolutionary creationists, who are described as “exalting the words of men over the Word of God,” ICR’s Ford asks, “And when these men and women are hailed as leaders in the Evangelical world - as progressive, as sophisticated, as harmonious, etc. - what does that say about the present state of Christianity?”20 Ford likewise discharges a procession of rhetoricals in a December 2010 article reflecting upon the meaning of Christmas:

So why do so many ‘Christians’ and ‘churches’ waver on the fundamental doctrines of the Bible? How can they deny God the power and might to create the world in six days? Why do they deny the detailed account of a flood that covered the entire world? When will they realize that they are treading on dangerous ground by turning God’s inerrant and inspired Word into a supposedly flawed book of myths mixed with history?

When ‘the reason for the season’ is torn away from the pages of the Bible, why should we be surprised that Christian teachers - some calling themselves Evangelical - describe God as an evolutionist? May God have mercy on them!21

These examples reveal how negative rhetorical queries are prevalent in creationist discussions of proevolutionist Christians. Such cases correspond with instances of the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect canvassed in Chapter 5, while also coinciding with attempts at inciting fear. Although Arousal of Fear (Table 2.2) is not one of the seven most frequently exhibited persuasive cues in antievolutionist media, it is worth noting that these religiously associated questions are frequently structured to prompt foreboding about what might happen to Christianity if the Bible were to become less respected in churches, or to America as a nation if the next generation of Christians were to carelessly accept evolution. This is intimated in an article that asks whether conversations hosted on BioLogos’ online forum are “Civil conversation or dangerous discourse?” Ford explains with hypophora: “Civil? To a certain degree. Dangerous? Absolutely . . . this is dangerous conversation that preys on the uninitiated Christian in the pew.” He then asks, “Do you want your children to be subjected to ‘Bible curriculum’ authored by a theologian who doesn’t believe that Adam and Eve really existed or who suggests the Bible has errors?”22

Communicating unease about the potential mishandling of scripture animates many other negative rhetorical questions whose unspoken answers point to Young Earth Creationism as an obvious solution to these evoked fears. Such appeals are also of note because the arousal of emotions, including evoking feelings of anxiety, has been found to increase the tendency of people to share fear-stimulating messages with others.23 Furthermore, in view of cultural cognition, people seem inclined to experience negative emotions such as fear with reference to how particular threats relate to their own cultural values. If a potential risk is deemed a threat to the cultural values entwined with an individual’s social identity, then a fear response will be consistent with the threat itself.24 In the case of Darwin-skeptic rhetori-cals and fear appeals, evolution is cast as that which endangers fundamental American Evangelical Christian values, ranging from the trustworthiness of scripture and the prospering of Christianity to the flourishing of the United States as a nation. Against this background, even when they are assayed outside of their immediate context, the following sample of questions helps detail how ICR’s writers are attempting to elicit trepidation:

  • • “If you cannot open your Bible and believe that ‘in the beginning God created . . then how will you trust any other miracle described in the Bible?”25
  • • “How can a Christian believe Christ’s words and then reject Moses’ words?”26
  • • “Why would anyone even pretend that Genesis 1-11, or any part of Genesis, is Hebrew poetry?”27
  • • “Why does Dembski reject a plain reading of Genesis and of Romans 5:12?”28

Negative rhetorical questions also accent critiques of the data supporting biological evolution and the many scientists who approve of it. Hence, Acts&Facts writers often document evolutionary claims, and then leave readers with questions about whether enough reliable evidence exists to support these scientific precepts. “But where is the evidence that they evolved at all?” asks J. Morris after discussing the theory of punctuated equilibrium.29 In an article by Brian Thomas, which considers hypothetical models of human evolution and Australopithecus sediba, he asks incredulously, “All those precise alterations by randomly occurring natural forces in only 77,000 years?”30 In another of Thomas’ articles, he reviews evolutionary theories regarding the origins of wood and then wonders, “But which came first, the extra carbon dioxide required to build the woody pipelines, or the woody pipelines required to gather the extra carbon dioxide?”31 In the context of the piece, the unstated answer is that no one can truly know.

Other negative rhetoricals target the integrity and academic competencies of proevolutionists. This involves suggesting that scientific ‘elites’ commonly practice deceitful activities to keep troubling empirical evidence a secret and to avoid criticism. In this manner, an article considering preserved soft dinosaur tissue and dinosaur-bird evolutionary models enquires, “But did the data demonstrate a dinosaur to bird transition, or was it possibly manipulated in the spirit of academic politics?”32 A different piece of writing addressing the same topic suggests that the evolutionary science community “has a dirty little secret regarding the manner in which that research is handled.” The writer explains that this furtive activity involves discarding or hiding data that is incongruent with evolution. The author’s allegations, which also coincide directly with the Scarcity Principle (Chapter 5), are emphasized in two successive rhetorical questions: “How will anyone really know what dinosaur DNA sequences look like until uncensored data from dinosaur bones are published for public scrutiny? And how will such data be published at all if ‘embarrassing’ research results are routinely discarded as anomalous, simply because they didn’t ‘look like chicken’?”33

With regard to media persuasion, it is worthwhile noting how such rhetorical questions connoting that researchers are covertly doctoring data, and that Young Earth Creationism is the victim of a corrupted scientific enterprise, feature the same types of assertions found in most conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories have been described as efforts “to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.”54 Well-documented examples include anfractuous claims that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were orchestrated, or at least permitted to happen by high-ranking officials within the US government, as well as declarations that pharmaceutical companies are actively concealing causal links between childhood vaccinations and autism.55 Crucially, such theories have proven to be tenaciously persuasive, even if they are frequently disregarded as mere falsehoods. Researchers have offered several functionalist explanations for the popular appeal of conspiracy theories and the pervasiveness of conspiratorial ways of thinking. For instance, conspiracist ideation has been said to stem from feeling disadvantaged, dispossessed, powerless or voiceless, as well as from a shortage of sufficient information needed to explain why events have occurred.36 As Victoria Pagan has noted, conspiracy theories meet the “challenge of the lack of knowledge with a preponderance of explanation.”37 When seemingly inscrutable phenomena occur, such as terrorism or diagnoses of autism, conspiracy theories can ameliorate feelings of helplessness, offering some level of understanding and perceived control.38 Experimental psychological research has helped corroborate these ideas by revealing that when individuals sense an upsurge of disorder in world affairs, accompanied by a reciprocal downturn in personal control, they are more inclined to compensate with reparative beliefs in conspiracy theories. In this way, conspiracy theories “enable individuals to focalize diffuse threats to their perceived control by linking together apparently random negative events in a direct causal chain tracing back to a clearly identifiable enemy.”39

Conspiratorial narratives are also thought to aid individuals by protecting their self-esteem when trying to make sense of failures in meeting goals.40 Such conspiracist accounts can provide re-empowerment after defeat, rationalizing personal underperformance as the result of malicious actors rather than one’s own shortcomings. Moreover, such theories seem to harness people’s distrust of official sources of knowledge, including governments and academics, especially because political collusion and conspiracies have certainly occurred in the past. The Iran-Contra affair, the Watergate scandal, as well as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and MKUltra tests in the United States, for instance, reveal incidences where publics were misled regarding state machinations. Added to a potential lack of trust is the problem that people are not often equipped to verify the claims made by experts because the complex knowledge required to truly gauge the reliability of specialists is frequently inaccessible. Therefore, citizens may already be suspicious of experts because the animus of researchers and politicians has been exhibited before, while the average citizen does not maintain the required training to substantiate or deny the expertise of those making conspiratorial claims. Fittingly, conspiracy theorists often tell audiences not to rely upon contentions made by officials and specialists trying to guard the establishment, but on the soundness of their own experiences and senses, as well as the experiences of trustworthy laypeople like themselves. Why merely accept that the Earth is a sphere because certain elites and their state-imposed educational dogma tell us that the Earth’s shape is a globe, when we and our acquaintances can perceive that it is plainly flat? This too is a form of empowerment, allowing people the impression that they are challenging the status quo, as well as the sense of being in possession of special, concealed knowledge. Furthermore, this scarce knowledge also “satisfies people’s need for uniqueness,” since people’s desire for uniqueness seems to increase the acceptance of conspiracy theories in certain individuals, especially when it is perceived that only a minority of a population support the theory in question.41

Efforts to further map the allure and cognitive bases of conspiracy theories have also included studying the influences of reflexive heuristics and persuasive psychological schemas. In this regard, studies have coupled con-spiracist ideation with teleological thinking, which involves ascribing ultimate purpose to natural occurrences, as well as people’s tendencies to infer that effects are caused by self-seeking intentional actors.42 Such proclivities can feature personal attribution biases, consistently leading people to affix the origins of events to the aims and actions of protagonists. Described as “one of the most fundamental social cognitive processes,” the schema operates contra situational attribution, which would instead entail looking to situational factors lying beyond people’s personal motives and intentions in order to explain circumstances.43 Such cognitive propensities are also linked with what is known as the fundamental attribution error. Rather than considering situational explanations, people are inclined to favor dispositional inferences of behavior, and assume that people’s personalities correspond to their actions.44 In line with these attribution biases, conspiracy theories persuasively involve blaming the artifice of insidious actors. Such assertions occur throughout antievolutionist media claims that insist self-interested academics are hiding data and playing politics to undermine the true scientific facts supporting Darwin-skepticism.

Together with functionalist and causal schema-linked accounts of why conspiracy theories are persuasive, researchers have looked to notions of motivationally based information processing and ideas associated with the Cultural Cognition Thesis (Chapter 1). Namely, people exhibit biased information assimilation favoring extant beliefs and values tied to their own cultural identities and ideologies. When empirical facts threaten those convictions, identity-protective cognition can remedy worldview challenges by situating provocations within conspiracy narratives. Uscinski, Douglas, and Lewandowsky have summarized how this occurs in relation to climate change denial conspiracy theories:

When people’s worldview and identity are threatened by a scientific fact or its implications (e.g., the regulatory implications of climate change), they frequently resort to “identity-protective cognition.” Identity-protective cognition restores the person’s worldview against an attack and can manifest itself in a variety of ways, for example, by altering subjective risk perception. In the case of climate change, however, identity-protective cognition faces a particularly strong challenge in light of the overwhelming scientific consensus that people’s activities are causing our climate to change. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence, the only available avenue for circumventing the consensus was by reinterpreting its existence. Instead of accepting that this consensus emerged as the result of researchers converging independently on the same evidence-based view, an alternative explanation for its existence was put forward: a presumed conspiracy among climate scientists, who are colluding in the “manufacture” of evidence for some nefarious purpose.45

Regarding this premise, ICR’s cases of Asking Questions represents a merging of two persuasive expedients; rhetorical queries and the multifaceted cognitive-functional apparatus of conspiracy theories.

Darwin-skeptic conspiracy narratives prove to be part and parcel of antievolutionist media across the board (Chapter 5). This is perhaps unsurprising because personal attribution schemas and biased identity-protective information processing appear to “render conspiracist ideation ideally suited for the ongoing rejection of scientific evidence.”46 The functionalist roles of conspiratorial narratives may also be especially relevant in antievolutionist mass media persuasion. Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design theorists have lost control of American public-school curricula, while facing volumes of data supporting evolution, and a general failure to produce academically recognized antievolutionist research programs or peer-reviewed scientific outputs. Appealing to the collusion of scientific elites through rhetorical questions, and other suasion tactics, may help to account for these ongoing Darwin-skeptic failures by utilizing the sinewy persuasiveness of conspiracy plotlines.

Conspiratorial claims regarding the suppression of information, and the calculated dissemination of misinformation, are exhibited clearly in an ICR question asked of Christian counter-creationist Karl Giberson. The query interrogates several statements made on Giberson’s website regarding the lack of genuine scientific leaders in creationist circles:

Is Dr. Giberson ignorant of the scientific contributions of scientists such as Dr. Henry Morris, Dr. Duane Gish, Dr. Ken Cumming, Dr. Steve Austin, Dr. Andrew Snelling, Dr. Jason Lisle, Dr. Russ Humphreys, Dr. John Baumgardner, Dr. Larry Vardiman, Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith, and many other credentialed and Evangelical members of academia who are “leading scholars in their respective fields”?47

This inquiry is followed directly by yet another accusatory question, which conjointly appeals to Social Consensus (Chapter 6): “Perhaps Dr. Giberson is unaware that ‘Bible believing’ Christians in America prefer teachers who actually believe in the authority and authenticity of the Word of God, who will instruct them in truth without constantly instilling doubt about the foundational book of Christianity, the inspired and inerrant Bible.”48 Equally contemptuous questions infuse ICR’s treatment of such adversaries as Eugenie Scott of the National Centre for Science Education. In one article, Scott is berated for not “doing science or defending the evidence,” as its writer asks rhetorically, “And while many of her opponents make their living conducting actual evidence-based science research, what has Eugenie Scott contributed to the advancement of science knowledge?”49 The implied answer is that she has offered nothing of worth.

Acts&Facts media dedicated to attacking the theory of natural selection are also marked by the recurrent appearance of negative rhetoricals. With regard to this, ICR writers repeatedly insist that the very idea of natural selection necessitates some sort of cognizant ‘selector,’ whose existence runs contrary to evolution’s naturalistic tendencies. It is also declared that no genuine evidence to support natural selection exists, aside from the loss of biological traits, and consequently, evolutionary scientists are simply clinging to a fatuous theory. In the context of such incriminations, Acts&Facts articles ask such queries as:

  • • “Since when is the loss of a useful structure an evolutionary development?”50
  • • “Do evolutionists really recognize the intricacies of molecular machines yet attribute their origins to ill-defined forces?”51
  • • “Is it logical to attribute such overwhelmingly complicated machinery to genetic mistakes ‘guided’ by natural happenstance?”52
  • • “Does this imaginary mechanism actually ‘do’ anything? ... It might appear to be a textbook case of natural ‘selection,’ but is it? Did any selection process even operate at all?”53
  • • “Is the conclusion ‘it happens’ scientifically satisfying? Shouldn’t that raise red flags about the validity of selection? And shouldn’t researchers be prompted to look for better explanations?... Isn’t it wise to show that the use of the word ‘selection’ has never been justified, but is just the ruse to slip intelligence back into a design process after taking God out?”54
  • • “What does nature actually ‘select’ anyway?”55
  • • “If the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural selection’ is merely a figure of speech, and thus impotent, should not honest scientists put aside their passionately held beliefs and accept reality?”56
  • • “Some might interpret this event as ‘natural selection’ in action, but if that were the case, who actually did the ‘selecting’?”57

These questions underscore precisely how ICR materials use negative rhetoricals to cast doubt not only upon evolutionist data, but also upon the reputations of those who promote it.

It is evident that the inquiries listed above are typically designed as erotema. The Institute for Creation Research’s positive rhetorical questions are often structured similarly, but instead shepherd readers in the direction of Young Earth Creationist inferences. For instance, after describing how the playful behavior of animals apparently contradicts Darwinism, the author then asks readers near the end of the piece, “Could creation suffice as an alternative explanation?”’8 Elsewhere, Ford first indicates, “Now, 150 years later, Darwin’s critics are arising even among devout evolutionists who can no longer reconcile the evidence of real science with this metaphorical imposter called ‘natural selection.’” He then asks provocatively, “Is it a God-designed process, as some creation scientists have stated?”59 In like manner, Johnson uses a rhetorical question as the final sentence of an article that compares various interpretations of the word Hebrew word yom: “So consider this: Which meaning of the word ‘day’ matches the demonstrated intent of our truth-loving God to provide His creatures with true, non-misleading, understandable information?”60

These positive rhetorical questions are significantly less common than ICR’s negative variety, and they often appear within articles that attempt to reinforce creationist interpretations of scripture, implore Christians to steer clear of alternate, non-creationist hermeneutical approaches, as well as those encouraging readers to actively share creationist messages with others. In the context of such goals, ICR’s Henry Morris rallied audiences through a series of questions: “Do we really believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God? Do we believe that God speaks clearly? Do we really think that current scientific majority opinion is always right?... [W]e must defend the faith; for what would have become of us if our fathers had not maintained it?”61 In a similar tact, Johnson asks:

If we truly believe that Christ is the Creator (the ‘Intelligent Designer’) that the Holy Bible says He is, what excuse is there for not proudly proclaiming His creatorship to others? Are we ashamed to profess Him before men? Are we less confident of Genesis’ accuracy than Jesus was? Are we ingrates, unwilling to publicly own Him as our Maker? Or are we like the few who heartily received Him for who He really was and is - Christ the Intelligent Designer and Redeemer, who came to earth so that those who believe in Him can have life eternal.62

While these questions are classified as positive rhetorical inquiries due to their support of ICR’s position, it is evident that Johnson’s mention of ingrates is still not particularly complimentary. This underscores the reliably unfavorable treatment of non-creationists within Acts&Facts articles, which is a trend similarly observed across Answers in Genesis materials.

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