Sagan Beats Dawkins. In Related News, Education Overcomes Superstition
    By Massimo Pigliucci | June 23rd 2013 01:06 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary


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    I have been doing public outreach for science since I originally moved to Tennessee in 1996. It has been a fun ride, and I’m sure it will continue to be that way for many years to come. But two of the first things I learned when debating creationists and giving talks about the nature of science were: a) nastiness doesn’t get you anywhere; and b) just because you have reason and evidence on your side doesn’t mean you are going to carry the day.

    Hence, my sympathy for the mild mannered approach of Carl Sagan as evident in, say, The Demon Haunted World, or The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and my dislike of the more in-your-face take of those such as Dawkins, as fun as the latter may be for the in-crowd. Up until recently, however, I could only back up my preference with reasons of personal taste and anecdotal experience. Not any longer, now there is hard data.

    A recent paper in PLoS One by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens explored the reasons why people prefer Intelligent Design type “explanations” to science-based ones such as evolution by natural selection. The authors carried out a series of experiments using an established technique in experimental psychology, known as “priming.” Before exposing subjects to, say, a writing by Michael Behe or Richard Dawkins, the researchers asked them to imagine and write about either their own death or some dental pain. Subjects were then given a short passage authored either by Behe or by Dawkins — neither of which was explicitly addressing religion — and were asked what they thought.

    Subjects who were primed to imagine their death prior to reading the passages were inclined to like Behe better than Dawkins, and to accept ID accounts over evolutionary ones. The inference being that — as we all suspected — people are drawn to creationism out of emotional fears of personal annihilation, not by reasoned discourse.

    Here is the first kicker, however: when the researchers also gave subjects an additional reading, from Carl Sagan, the results were different. In the short passage, Sagan was explicitly arguing that scientific explanations of natural phenomena do not have to detract from meaning (yes, I know that Dawkins also writes about this, but much less forcefully and convincingly, I think). The Sagan piece had the effect of countering Behe’s, even among people who had been reminded of their own mortality. Pretty neat, heh?

    But there is more. An additional experiment was carried out by focusing on undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, instead of the broader samples from the general population examined previously. Even after thinking about death, these subjects still favored biological explanations over Intelligent Design, and they even liked Dawkins better than Behe. It seems that education might trump people’s fear of mortality enough to make them understand that science is more sound than religion when it comes to explaining the natural world.

    The bottom line is that we now have some of the first experimental evidence that: a) coupling scientific accounts of the world with more philosophical reminders of where meaning in life comes from, and b) simply teaching science, are effective ways to alter people’s perception of the evolution-creation debate.

    Think about it: this means that an injection of philosophy and good science education actually makes a difference! Our efforts are not wasted, especially if we can remind ourselves of what should be obvious: people are attracted to pseudoscience not just because they don’t know enough science (though that is certainly the case), but because they find enhanced meaning in the mysterious.

    Paul Kurtz famously called it the transcendental temptation, and a strong temptation it is. The trick is to counter it with tools that cut deep enough into its emotional roots, not just addressing its surface appearance of rationalization.

    Reposted from Rationally Speaking, May 16, 2013


    Bobby Knight
    The evolution vs. creationism debate is fundamentally very silly. Three comments:
    1) Evolution is a fact of life.  If someone doesn't believe or understand that, ask him whether he has ever heard of methicillin-resistant staph aureus. (MRSA) That's just one of millions of examples.

    2) If you don't believe in God, that's okay. Just be prepared to be surprised after you die.

    3) For God's sake, don't teach religion in a science class. Many Americans are dumb enough already. Teach religion in a religion class. Teach science in a science class.
    John Duffield
    Bah, Dawkins. He always made out he was promoting rationaiism, but all he was ever promoting was himself. We get a lot of that. Here in the UK we've had a steady stream of "white knights" railing about alternative medicine. The public are cynical about  them now, not because alternative medicine is any use, but because not one of them ever railed about patient care. Thousands of people went into hospital with a minor ailment and came out in a body bag. None of those self-appointed guardians of public interest said anything about it. Because all they were ever trying to do was "do a Dawkins". Find a nice soft easy target, get your name in the paper, get on TV, sell books, further your own ends. People are cynical about them now, and about Dawkins. 

    By the way, I think religion is bunk. If you're talking to somebody religious, then if you're feeling mean, throw them this for a curve ball: OK, so you believe in heaven, what happens when a baby dies?  
    I am quite baffled by your findings. I have embedded myself in the evolution/ID debate for many years. The longer I look at the thing, the more convinced I am that naturalistic evolution is not adequate to explain biology -- not even close. I need not ponder death to get me there, but reason and data alone.

    Maybe the naturalistic science educated crowd is already familiar with knowing and things being mundane.
    Being able to calculate things is very interesting and gives a sense of control.
    Being affectionate to the mysterious removes control but the rituals give it back. (They pretend to give control.)

    Also you learn that it's natural to die, species that do sexual reproduction die.

    I meant to say that species that do sexual reproduction, inclusing mammels the members of it die.
    And the next generation is the next iteration of the organisms, you live on in your children and it's okay there are members that don't have children or die prematurely.
    Your immune system kills living things each day.

    John Hasenkam
    Nice timing. Just today I mentioned to a friend that Dawkins, the self proclaimed Grand Priest of Empiricism, seeks to change peoples' behavior but demonstrates no evidence to indicate he has made an effort to understand peoples' behavior. Rather he relies on his intuition. Very hypocritical of Dawkins because he betrays the fundamental principle of science: if you want to change something make some attempt to understand it.  
    Brian Cox in Britain will do more to dissuade religion and for similiar reasons to Sagan. He demonstrates excitement and enjoyment of science. His goal is not to dissuade religious belief but to celebrate science. Attacking beliefs can often entrench beliefs. So if you had a choice to invite either Cox or Dawkins to party which would you choose? The man with the beaming smile and exuberant enjoyment of science, or the man whom you would rightly fear might offend some guests because odds are there will be people at the party who do have religious beliefs? Essentially: bees to honey.