Mixed emotions over PZ Myers' condescending response to a 12-year-old child's email supporting creationism[1], reminded of a very interesting conversation I had with my father at a dinner this holiday season. Lemons and lemonade, people.

During our conversational meanderings, we touched on the debate between creationism[2] and evolution. We did not directly discuss the political/social issues surrounding the teaching of evolution in schools[3]. Rather, we discussed the difficulty of convincing individuals that evolution is right and creationism is wrong.<!--more-->

People have the annoying habit of acting on their beliefs. This leads to headaches, like the efforts to teach intelligent design in schools, which require Eugenie Scott to be awesome on a regular basis. So, if we don't want to keep fighting efforts to force creationism into science classrooms, or have evolution taken out of them, we do need to address individual beliefs.

I am used to a scientific discussion of the creationism/evolution debate. From this standpoint, there is no debate. Evolution has all the evidence. Unfortunately, it seems that the "this is the scientific consensus, believe it, monkeys" argument stopped working in the 1960s.

My father, on the other hand, is not a professional scientist, he is a businessman. He makes a living by getting something from one person in order that he might give that something to someone else. Generally, people prefer it when you exchange something that they find equally or more useful, like money, for the item they are giving you. When one exchanges something of less value for the item being taken, we call stealing (or taxation). In my experience, people are not fond of being robbed (or taxes, on them).

Bringing this simple economic perspective to my thinking about creationist beliefs has forced me to reconsider my whimsical take on the eventual acceptance of evolution[4].

Can we reasonably expect people to give up their belief in creationism without offering something of equal or greater value in return?

From the perspective of someone ensconced in academic research, it is hard to imagine that there is a cost to denying creationism[5].

But, what if you are a creationist? Let's say that you are a member of Biblical literalist church, one that adheres to young earth creationism. The perceived costs[6] of giving up your creationist beliefs become quite significant, such as potential alienation from family, loss of friends, damage to business contacts, exclusion from community events - essentially the destruction of your entire social network. Oh, yeah, and your previous beliefs may create the lingering fear that you are now damned for all eternity.

Would you be willing to risk all that over a point of scientific accuracy that seems to have little immediate relevance to most people?

In contrast, the immediate costs of maintaining creationist beliefs are harder to define. Creationism may completely lack evidence, and its teaching may undermine critical thinking skills. In the long-term, undermining the critical thinking skills, especially of our children, is certainly a long-term cost. Just because such a cost is unacceptable for our society does not mean that it will be so for individuals.

While we may be offering the best scientific answer to explain the diversity of our world, we are not simultaneously offering to replace what they risk losing. Some people will courageously take the leap into a more scientific worldview, but we are probably safe in assuming that those folks are the exception, not the rule.

Let's look at the situation in reverse. What if you were asking me, a professional biologist, to give up evolution in favor of creationism? I could expect to lose the respect of my peers, maybe my current job, almost any future prospect of a quality position, and my wife would think that I am an idiot - the list goes on an on. I like to think I'm willing to change my mind in the face of the evidence, but, based only on the expected costs, the leap to creationism would require some extraordinary evidence showing greater costs of not changing my mind. I'm thinking of extraordinary evidence along the lines of a visitation from the Creator complete with a guided tour of the evolution wing of Hell with a sampler platter of the eternal tortures in store for the unrepentant. In that case, I might think about it.

Evolution wins court cases, but not hearts and minds. In considering how to change individual beliefs, being right isn't always enough.

NOTES

  1. Contrary to some opinions, this was not an example of good teaching. It was insulting to a kid who has no reason to know better and simply preaches to the choir. The enthusiastic encouragement of the PZealots is a rival for patheticness.

  2. I'm going to use the word creationism throughout this post as its broad usage for a wide variety of theories that posit a deity that implemented creation of the universe through a variety of means, including intelligent design.

  3. While not a professional scientist, my father is a fan of science and fully supports the teaching of science (i.e., evolution) in science classrooms.

  4. You simply cannot ask me to treat a particular anniversary as especially important because it is a certain multiple of the number of fingers possessed by the modal human[7].

  5. A similar argument can be applied to religion/atheism.

  6. Whether the cost is actually incurred is irrelevant. The perception of cost informs the decision.

  7. That's right, the modal human. Most humans have ten fingers, but not all of them do. Why not use the average human? I suspect that the number of people with fewer than ten fingers (such as folks that work with farm equipment) is greater than those with more than ten (such as Count Rugen) skewing the mean slightly[8] below ten. While the median would certainly return the correct numerical answer, it would capture the concept less precisely.

  8. Rounding is for commies.

  9. Front page image is from the Vittskövle Church fresco, c. 1480 (Public Domain).