12 June 2009

Demons and Eden

Australian professor Christopher Ryan gave "a fifty minute lecture, but it only took one utterance to provoke one of the students to launch a three page complaint to the sub-dean:"

"In the past, say Eliminative Materialists, numerous folk theories have bitten the dust, under the advance of science: the celestial sphere theory of astronomy, the phlogiston theory of combustion, the demon theory of disease, the creationist theory of speciation. All were once seen as the truth; all are now historical relics."

It was that last example that was the offending one. My complainant did not appear to favour the demon theory of disease – which is reassuring in a trainee doctor, but she was outraged at my suggestion that the creation theory of speciation was dead. It may be relevant that the complainant was from North America.

The sub-dean took the complaint seriously (as he should) but there was (of course) no suggestion I should alter my lecture in the future.

Creationists have not had near the influence in Australia that they apparently have in the US. I had briefly thought this throw away line might provoke some response, but I did not anticipate the vituperative attack that it inspired.

An interesting question is why creationism is a hot button issue, while the demon theory of disease is not. The demon theory of disease permeates the New Testament, is used by Jesus and his apostles and was one of the core doctrines passed down to the apostles according to the New Testament. It remains valid doctrine in multiple denominations of Christianity to some extent.

I recall no time at which Jesus mentions the creation story, and it doesn't figure prominently in the Bible after Genesis, a book itself attributed by tradition to Moses who comes along thousands of years after the creation story. It is curious then, that creationism, and not the demon theory of disease, is the hot button issue.

Most likely this is because creationism has less practical application for non-scientists, and so exacts less of a cost for being wrong about in real life. The relevant importance of the issues illustrate the mechanisms that lead to "folk theory surviving in the face of advancing science," or not, depending upon the theory.