Merchant of evidence

As I’m getting in some great reading and time away from direct teaching this summer, I’ve continued pondering how I can help this coming school year’s students become more acclimated to the world of creation realities and more innoculated to successfully navigate and not be taken in by the so-identified “merchants of doubt” (one of the typical labels now for those who use a few carefully selected ‘evidences’ to pedal an unsupportable ideology that ends up requiring ignorance and denial of everything else.)

To that end, I’m trying to think of some good memorable catch phrases or themes to help promote and cultivate these attitudes of persevering attentiveness and curiosity in high school students. Feel free to contribute ideas of your own here.

A couple of ideas of my own to start off with…

Question to always be asking: Is this consistent with most of the bodies of evidence you know about?
Or … Is it consistent with what the majority of informed and relevantly educated people accept as reasonable?

Another: Is the piece of proposed evidence before you anecdotal? Does it fly in the face of actual studies that take large bodies or samples of evidence into careful statistical account?

Does the proposed ‘fact’ you are considering raise more questions than it answers?

Another bit of advice: While curiosity should always be in place, it need not mean that every issue must always be treated as “still open” or “unresolved”. Just because a flat-earther accuses you of not spending your time studying their videos or materials doesn’t mean they’ve automatically ‘scored’ anything in their favor. This, and many more things are so reasonably settled and beyond doubt, that you can move on with confidence to spend your curiousity energy on other more productive things.

Remember: science isn’t about ‘proof’. It’s about accumulated evidence. Probability and confidence. It’s a spectrum. Nothing - not even conspiracy theories will be at 0% or 100% on that spectrum. But many would be so low in probability - so close to zero - that only a foolish person would base any of their life decisions on it. Many are so close to 100% (gravity, laws of motion, germ theory, etc.) that one would be foolish in the extreme - even soon dead - if living in denial of them.

Related: Merchants of doubt are not guilty of too much skepticism. They are guilty of not having enough of it. Their selective skepticism is only in play when considering the mountains of evidence that ‘the establishment’ has accepted. Their skepticism is suddenly nowhere to be found when they consider their comparatively tiny collection of anecdotal considerations that fit their narrative. It’s okay to sometimes be more skeptical and sometimes less. But this should be in proportion to the quantity and quality of evidence you are forced to ignore in order to make a narrative work. Skepticism is a real and necessary friend of truth, but don’t let it prevent you from also accepting with proportional confidence, that which successfully explains so much. As G.K. Chesterton noted, a mind should be like a mouth; Open - yes - but so that it is also able to close on something nutritious.

What other things could be added here? Or critiques / corrections for any of this?

I’m thinking that the whole tobacco establishment fiasco is probably a safe enough case-study (in a conservative Christian school) for what typical ‘merchants of doubt’ are always trying to do. “Well, what about my Aunt Flo who was a chain smoker and lived to the ripe old age of …?” And so forth.

Questions for any would-be merchants of evidence: what is the quantity and quality of your wares you have available when you wish to persuade friends / family about something?

  • Which do you know about?
  • Who or which do you personally trust?

How about the FizzBuzz Principle?

If someone is making a claim that contains egregious, deal-breaking errors and falsehoods that you are easily able to fact-check, you can safely assume that the aspects of their claim that are above your pay grade will not be any better.

Named after a coding test, based on a children’s game, that is commonly given to candidates for software development jobs at a very early stage in the process to allow the recruiter to short-circuit the interview process at the initial phone screen and spare the company the expense of an on-site interview. The idea is that if they can’t handle the easy stuff then there’s no point in wasting time on the more difficult stuff.

In the context of checking claims about science, you can look for things such as claims that can be falsified with nothing more than a back-of-the-envelope calculation with only high school maths, or that can be falsified with nothing more than a quick Google search on your mobile phone, while they are speaking.


Would need to be careful with this one, though! Your Google search isn’t the same as somebody else’s. Or at least this is my understanding … If I’ve been frequenting a certain subject a lot, don’t Google algorithms show me a different list of “top results” than they do somebody else who has a different slate of internet hangouts? Maybe I’m wrong about that and all Google searches (given an identical input) will give an identical output (in terms of what it presents to you first.) Is it just in social media where algorithms are actively feeding you according to your interests?

In any case - probably all sides (but especially the right) will not trust Google by itself as an “arbiter of all truth”. And I know you’re not suggesting they should - but just rightly showing that quick internet searches (Fizz buzz) are one good and easy tool to use among many (and never in isolation or as robustly definitive - iow, a good place to start, but not necessarily stop if you have interest and energy to delve further.)

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My first question is often:
What is the motivation of the person making the claim?
Correlating questions
What are they selling? Are they making money off this? Are their goals in step with mine?


Another aspect of merchants of doubt which might be harder to detect is that they have decided something is true/not true and are setting out to prove/disprove it. I have read papers which seem to be a little too specific in responding to a particular idea of someone else. If a paper is essentially titled “Dr. X is wrong about Y,” it is a likely sign that the author is really setting out to prove or disprove something that he has already decided is true or not true in spite of any evidence.

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They do indeed, and perhaps this one does need to come with a few caveats: sometimes the results from Google can be unclear on a particular matter. But there are other occasions when they are much more clear cut. If someone claims that something doesn’t exist (such as transitional fossils) and you type that something into Google and get back page after page after page after page after page of examples, they had better have a very good explanation as to why all of those results that come back are not transitional fossils after all.

FizzBuzz isn’t just about Internet searches. The whole point is that it’s easy if not trivial to check by some means or another, that it requires only a very rudimentary understanding of the subject to do so, and that it gives a very clear-cut indication that they are wrong.

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Mervin, I was a secondary high school teacher. Major/minor in Industrial Techology and Design. Im a very mechanically minded individual who is more at home immersed in dirt, grease and oil than a white lab coat.

Even from the above professsional experience, when i read your post i immediately recognise that you do not understand the problems individuals encounter with unbelief. Its not a conflict with science and theology about age of the earth or whether tue flood was global…that isnt the main problem.

It is shortsighted to continue to make the claim, individuals lose faith becasue YECers are promoting unscientific views…that is not only complete nonsense, its not evej supported statistically (as is proven by my other thread here re: the Gallop Poll Survey).

The fundamental issue is, despite all the hsitorical evidences of the Old Testament (ie times, dates, people and places) individuals dont believe Christ can come in the clouds of heaven and take us back to heaven. It has nothing to do with YEC as such but rather a rejection of the bible story in its entirety. The common argument is, if most of the bible is nothing more than mythical tales aimed at forming moral and ethical principles…heck, why do we even need God for that?

Even the bible tells us specifically why individuals lose their faith (and/or reject it)…unbelief.

Its not unbelief in the constrasting interpretation of science between YEC and Old Age Earthism, its a loss of faith that Christ died on the cross to save us from the wages of sin amd will returj from heaven to redeem us. It seems to these individuals a stupid childish fable.

A famous example of an individual i often use as peoof of my claim here…research Dr Bart Erhman!

No Adam, you are the one who is missing the point here.

The point is that, as I’ve said over and over and over and over again, interpretation of evidence has rules. Honesty has rules. Distinguishing fact from falsehood has rules. The whole point of this discussion is to gain some understanding of how to help others to apply the rules when they may only have a rudimentary understanding of them.

It’s as simple as this. If young earthists do not want to be told that their views are unscientific then they need to stick to the rules. As it stands, they don’t even acknowledge them, let alone stick to them.


Thanks, everyone for insights, clarifications, and even pushback so far …

Regarding the thread title “Merchant of evidence”, I was obviously playing off the already popularized phrase “Merchants of Doubt”. But hopefully we’re not necessarily being “merchants” of anything - but I’d aspire rather to be a “Curator of evidence” - or as a teacher more likely a “tour guide” of evidences as they’ve come to light. And a good tour guide will call audience attention to important and relevant things.

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This is an interesting and frustrating question, Merv. There are a number of things that will continue to make it challenging for your students to deal with “merchants of doubt” (a term that’s new to me).

  • It seems like EVERYONE is a merchant of doubt these days, telling us whom we cannot trust and why. There is SO MUCH to evaluate all the time, it’s overwhelming. Easier to go with:

  • Young people are going to stick with the people they trust – usually parents, pastors, teachers in the church, teachers in their school… – do you see the problem here? If the people that kids trust are directing them to sources that they feel are safe, the kids are going to be in the same place they are now.

  • It’s psychologically safer to stick with the recommendations of people we trust, than to risk betraying them by going to information sources that may tell the student just the opposite of what their YEC parents and community tell them.

  • There is more at stake than the facts of science. Young people coming from traditions that tie their salvation to a particular view of creation have more to deal with than the facts. They have the fear of losing their salvation to deal with as well as the fear of being a heratic.

As a teacher of these kids, and particularly in a Christian school, where there is a stated spiritual element to the education of these kids, you will have to deal with the spiritual side and the psychological consequenses that come from your students who, outside your classroom,are being told they can’t be christians and believe the things you teach.

Not easy.


I think it was the title of a book somewhere along the line … and (without having looked that up) - I seem to recall it may have originally referred to the tobacco executives back in the day as they were in the middle of denying that smoking had anything to do with health issues. The tactic was to find and latch onto anything that might call the well-established link (between smoking and lung cancer) into question - that even if the evidence was “99% in”, they would seize on the “1%” of area where there could still be question and sell that particular doubt to the public as a reason to not take the science too seriously. They were obviously selling something - (‘merchants’), a very selective and beneficial (for them) skepticism of science (the ‘doubt’ part).

The rest of what you say is all spot on too! And this may be mistaken here for a specifically anti-YEC screed. And yes - to the extent that anything promotes known falsehoods, those should be held up to the light. But it’s far more than just YEC, I’ll propose. It’s a posture about life in general. Buying into some things seems to be a gateway drug toward other deeper conspiracy stuff - some of which will be wreaking havoc in their personal lives much like it already manifests itself in U.S. politics. Sure - you become willing to write off or despise the ‘scientific establishment’ and the ‘deep state’ today … which means that tomorrow you’re probably denying climate change, then moon landings, and it’s off to the anti-vax and flat-earthism la-la land where your delusional ‘realities’ actually have you compromising yours and possibly your family’s very much real lives just because you ‘skeptically’ gave up the most trustworthy (even though not infallible) majority of credible voices in order to (with sudden and breath-taking gullibility) follow much more dubious minority of voices into la-la land. I see it as an urgent mission (starting 20 years ago) for science teachers to be innoculating their students from falling prey to these merchants.

As a side note, in some interesting supper conversation last night, we were wondering if once most people from some certain era or event have passed on, if that opens it up for the next generation of doubters. I.e. holocaust denialism is depressingly commmon - and very few are alive for which that would be a living memory. Now we also begin to hear more about moon-landing deniers. Is it just a matter of time now, then before we start to hear about 9-11 deniers (as in - claiming it never happened!) All of those things are (I hope) only a sliver of a minority, to be sure, among educated culture. But it’s a minority that has found a megaphone and put it to screeching use. They were always there, but now they enjoy outsized and disproportionate influence (because of unprecedented access) among the growingly gullible portions of the population. A very important right to free speech has been transplanted and deliberately confused with a non-existent “right to broadcast anything at all that I want to say to all the masses”. The former, we fight for (even on behalf of all the ‘crazies’). The latter we should fight against (because of those same ‘crazies’).


My first suggestion is to help students understand the difference between data and opinion. Sometimes those can be hard to distinguish. In the same vein, always be looking to see how the data leads to a conclusion, and how the conclusions are able to explain the data as a whole.

I would also have students work on the skill of developing hypotheses. This includes constructing a null hypothesis, the conditions under which your hypothesis is not supported. You could also discuss both positive and negative controls, a good example of which is a placebo in a drug trial acting as a negative control.

One concept I would stay away from is the “do you really think scientists are that stupid” idea. While it is still a very valid point to make, it doesn’t mesh well with a curriculum that is supposed to support curiosity.

One example I would suggest is the claim that 5G causes virus-like illness. One such conspiracy fired up in 2020 (guess why). Given the publics’ lack of knowledge of how viruses work, this rumor spread widely. I even corresponded with someone who was at least considering the rumor to be true, but some facts quickly snapped things into perspective.

  1. Symptoms are tied to the presence of specific RNA sequences.
  2. These RNA sequences can not be tied to any DNA sequence in the human genome.
  3. The RNA sequences are consistent between people who show the same symptoms.
  4. The presence of these RNA sequences are transient, even though 5G exposure is constant.
  5. The RNA sequences steadily changed by a few bases over time, even though 5G didn’t change.

The idea that radio waves are constructing the same RNA molecules in many people, but only transiently, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny once you understand the genetics of what is going on. The bonus is that students can learn a lot about viruses in the process of understanding why the 5G conspiracy is false.


I’ve seen instances where a paper wasn’t titled that way but it was obvious that was the point – and then “Dr. X” fired back another paper, setting off a cycle of papers fired back and forth.

Then I encountered the same kind of loop but with books; Dr. A wrote an entire book on a subject where at least once every chapter he named Dr. B as totally wrong. I found this because I was reading a book where Dr. A was lambasting Dr. B, and found that the book by Dr. B was lambasting Dr. A and was written in response to Dr. A lambasting Dr. B. The books weren’t totally worthless; both Dr. A and Dr. B set down a lot of good scholarly work, but they seemingly just couldn’t pass up any opportunity to fire a salvo at the other.

To my delight, a couple of years after wading through those books and another by Dr. B I came across a book on the same topic by “Dr. C”, who took on both of them with measured and dignified analysis and showed how the work of each of them meshed with some work of the other – and suggested they engage in some joint endeavor.

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Except that I witnessed hundreds of university students who were raised YEC and abandoned the faith because they followed the logic their pastors presented, that if the Bible was wrong about one thing then none of it can be trusted.

Their common argument was that since the Creation accounts are scientifically inaccurate, then none of it could be trusted.
Of course where their error lay was in thinking that the Bible talks about science in the first place.

I’ve never met anyone, not a single person, who abandoned the faith because of that. It sounds solid in theory but in practice I doubt it is at all common.
This is probably the case because there just aren’t many people claiming that the Bible is just about “forming moral and ethical principles”.

The very few people I met who included in their reasons for leaving the faith the one you just wrote gave as a major reason for thinking the Gospel was stupid that so many Christians insist that the Bible is scientifically accurate – and since that claim makes Genesis look stupid, they concluded that the Gospel was stupid, too.

Ehrman started out YEC, and he became an agnostic because of what he was taught by YEC church leaders – that if there was even one error, then the Bible couldn’t be trusted. When he was doing graduate work the presence of variant readings started to nag at him because, well, weren’t variant readings errors? and they were found on every page of the New Testament!

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I thought it was a play on “Merchant of Venice”!

Same here.

I heard that from an archaeology professor, but it was “the difference between an artifact and an opinion”. His specific illustration was the habit of many archaeologists when faced with an object they couldn’t identify at all to declare it to be a “cultic object” – and the lesson was to toss the “cultic” and just record it as an object (in hopes that further work will make the significance clear; he had some examples of artifacts that sat in museums for two generations before someone finally made a connection that led to understanding).

I taught a unit on that when I was teaching freshman science; it was in such contrast to the ways they normally thought I nearly despaired!


People who “lose their faith” have many different reasons for it…but the YEC issue may be that reason for some.

In my experience in my university days, it was the primary reason by far.

the claim YEC scientists are pseudo scientists is nothing more than a secular claim of sour grapes. So your statement above is bull.

This rubbish talk about honesty is a red hearing, there are many examples that falsify evolutionary reliability and honesty. A significant one i have previously cited is the Piltdown man. That nonesense claim went on for 40 years…it is but one of many very problematic evolutionary claims.

In spite of the above, TEists still miss the point, the Bible doesnt agree with their theology or timelines…its that simple.

Bart Erhman did not become an atheist because of evolution. He is a textual expert…not a scientist. He left the faith because of what he deemed were intrinsic textual errors within the bible itself. You have this completely wrong!

Bart beleives that Christ did not rise from the dead…it has nothing to do with age of earth issues…you made that up.

How do i know this you may ask?

Well given that Bart is an non Christian supporter of the historicity of the bible narrative…there is the fasifying evidence against your claim right there!

I find its interesting you say Bart is an agnostic…from a biblical point of view he is lost …kaput (recall what revelation says about luke warm? there will be no fence sitters in heaven)