Noah and Dick and the right to lie

Faith & Reason: In a free society do oddballs have the right to preach unscientific nonsense? Andrew Brown considers the lawsuit which has placed Creationism in the dock.
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Is there a right to lie? No, it's not a misprint, nor an election joke. The judge has gone off to consider his verdict in the trial of the Creationists in Sydney, Australia, accused under consumer protection legislation of promoting a false belief. In law, the trial is limited to the question of whether one may legitimately describe a curious rock formation on Mount Ararat as the remains of Noah's Ark. In practice, and in the public eye, there is a question of whether it should be legal to teach ridiculous untruths, like "Creation Science".

The overlap arises because allegedly scientific claims about Noah's Ark were made in the course of a fund-raising lecture which was meant to lead to an expedition to the scene. This meant the authors could be accused of peddling false science. The essential term there is neither "false", nor "science", but "peddling": if money had not been involved, the case could not have been brought.

Simply making false statements on religious or philosophical grounds should not be a criminal offence in a civilised society, though the experiment has been often tried. In Britain, until the middle of the last century, denying the resurrection was likely to land you in jail, if you escaped the verdict of the mob; today, affirming the resurrection can have similar effects in many Muslim countries, and in China.

Making false scientific claims for money is different. Most countries have laws against the exploitation of credulity. You cannot sell a paste of ground-up anchovies and horse manure if you claim it is scientifically proven to promote hair growth and increase sex appeal. But you may sell it as an Uighur folk remedy for baldness and flagging circulation if you wish. The assumption built in to such laws is that only scientific knowledge is reliable: people who rely on Uighur folk remedies, astrologers, or racing tipsters do so at their own risk.

Such challenges usually arise on medical grounds. As far as I know, the Sydney case is unique in being argued on archaeological grounds. These, though, are a mere casus belli. Everyone involved knows that the real objection to Creationists is not that they make false scientific claims but that they make false historical claims. It is not that what they say could not have happened: the sceptic can no more prove that sacred history did not happen than the believer can prove that it did. But in point of fact there was no flood. There was no Ark. The world is billions and not thousands of years old.

It is important to remember that the grounds for believing this are philosophical and theological, not strictly scientific or historical. An omnipotent God could perfectly well have created a world which all the evidence suggested that he hadn't; in fact there would be a certain artistic elegance in the feat. Science fiction can show such a world very convincingly: the novels of Philip K . Dick almost all take place in a world ruled by a paranoid deity, where nothing is as it seems to be, and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that things are as they are in an attempt to deceive us. (Dick seems really to have experienced the world like that, and created art from his experience.) Almost everyone sane rejects such a God: but this rejection is a theological or philosophical judgement. It is a precondition of science, and not a consequence.

This raises some unpleasant issues. My own instincts on this are strictly illiberal. Common sense says that error has no rights, just as it says that Australians must fall off. But common sense, as Bertrand Russell remarked, is the metaphysics of savages. This epigram was quoted in a recent letter to the paper against Creationism, but it cuts both ways. It is a horrible wrench to admit that other adults have a right to be mistaken, and a right to transmit their foolish and erroneous views to their children. But the alternatives are even worse.

If the judge in Sydney decides against the Creationism he will be in effect be making a judgement about the philosophical underpinnings of science. It is a clearly correct decision - but it is extremely strange to find it made in a commercial court under a law more normally applicable to dodgy time share schemes, and it probably should not be made there. The right to lie turns out to be a fundamental building block of society.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely