I'll Trade You An Evolutionary Theory For Your Creationism
    By Josh Witten | January 12th 2011 04:41 AM | 24 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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.


    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).


    Summat weird going on.  The following article appeared a couple of days ago on Science 2.0:

    Witten gave up

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gerhard Adam
    People have the annoying habit of acting on their beliefs.
    This is a natural process of how people think and applies to scientists as well as anyone else.  Science is based on the belief that there is obtainable evidence to understand the world, while religion and other belief systems use other criteria.
    Evolution has all the evidence.
    This is only relevant based on your own belief system.  If you believe that knowledge is scientifically obtainable by examining evidence, then this will be convincing.  On the other hand, if you believe that this evidence is only incidental to how the world was created it will not be.

    I had a physics professor ask a question on the test once regarding relativity in which he asked;  "Without using mathematics, why do you believe relativity to be true?"

    The same question can be phrased for any number of scientific queries, and if we remember that our acceptance is ultimately based on what we consider to be "evidence", this definitely places a different perspective on why some ideas are convincing and others not.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The point being that even in the case where one belief has overwhelming evidence on its side, "correctness" is often not sufficient motivation to get people to change their minds.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but that's the point.  There can never be enough "evidence", since that represents the axioms that are the basis for someone's belief.  In other words, science takes the view that the world must be considered without regard for any external agency and therefore that everything we learn is possible through observation and experimentation.  We accumulate our "evidence" based on those ideas.

    Someone else may argue that all the "evidence" we see is simply "planted" by some divine being and we are merely examining the artifacts from that act of creation.  Certainly there are philosophical arguments that can be advanced to suggest that such a position is more implausible than the former, but it isn't going to be evidence-based.

    In other cases, it becomes a bit easier to handle (such as young-earth creationists), because they are no longer advancing a belief, but are attempting to convert that belief into tangible "evidence" that is supposed to be able to withstand scientific scrutiny.  In those situations, the issue is more clearly defined, since it is now subject to testing and validation. 

    In short, there is a difference between a belief and any attempt to convert such a belief into a "fact", since logic, consistency, and evidence become important.  This is one of the more powerful elements of science, is that it isn't simply a matter of having evidence for one particular piece of information, but all the different disciplines support each other and create a web of consistency that makes it much more difficult to penetrate when something like "young-earth creationism" is introduced.  Basically one can never disprove a belief, but when someone attempts to prove a belief, then they are also attempting to make that belief into a scientific "fact" which has stricter requirements for evidence.  So while it may even be correct that evidence is "planted" by a divine being, there is nothing new or predictable for such an assertion, so it fails in providing any greater explanatory power than the original scientific proposition being examined.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The point of the article is that being "right" is not sufficient to convince people to change their minds.
    Congratulations, happy to see you finally understand. You may now attempt the next baby steps:
    1) Apply it to other issues like the vaccine debate.
    2) Also come to understand that if the 'right' side nevertheless insists on vitriolic rhetoric a la insolence and PZ even directed against people like C. Mooney who are actually on their side, the only result is dangerous polarization undermining rational discourse and a strengthening of the enemy.
    This particular analysis does not apply very well to the vaccine issue for several reasons:
    1. Being anti-vax is not tied up with a person's social community identification nearly to the degree that religion is, with the minority exception of people that are anti-vax for religious reasons.
    2. Where religious beliefs about creation have few short-term negative consequences, anti-vaccine positions can have very serious, immediate consequences for the individual and their community.
    3. Decisions about vaccines are, for most, driven by what people think the evidence says. Both sides generally believe that they are dealing with the same kind of evidence, namely scientific and testable. No one is defending Wakefield on "multiple ways of knowing" grounds. They defend the (non-existent) quality of his work.

    That being said, it is very important to how to present an argument in a way that compels others, not just in a way that demonstrates the "correctness" of our position. This includes trying to understand why particular beliefs appeal to that person.
    understand why particular beliefs appeal to that person
    Exactly. Put yourself into the mental shoes of those who ask for more safety and care regarding vaccines and see that "This particular analysis does" indeed "apply very well to the vaccine issue". This starts with the community identification (being alternative, natural, good to nature and the cute animals like all friends and family and the green party members or spiritual people that may make up the whole circle of friends).
    vaccine positions can have very serious, immediate consequences for the individual and their community
     - especially if your kid should become autistic ten minutes after vaccination against sweaty feet and the rest of the community does take such as all the evidence it needs.
    Decisions about vaccines are, for most, driven by what people think the evidence says. Both sides generally believe that they are dealing with the same kind of evidence, namely scientific and testable. No one is defending Wakefield on "multiple ways of knowing" grounds. They defend the (non-existent) quality of his work.
    This is why Gerhard is exactly right about what is taken as evidence in the first place being the issue. You take the scant hospital records that, if they supported your enemy, you would simply say are no more than the usual flaky hospital records, and Jenny takes instead the careful interviews that a trusted scientist like dear Andrew had with the very parents involved, who surely know much better than some doctor bought by the bad pharma-mafia or some lazy nurse. That is "multiple ways of knowing" and "quality of work" right there.

    In all these cases: If you argue like PZ, disrespecting insolenzia, ERV, ... you will only confirm your enemy's believes, harden the fronts, pour fire on the flames. Step one: stop using "anti-vax". You might as well scream "communist" or "terrorist".
    1. Does the anti-vaccination movement have a superior, honest term for their position that will be widely recognized? After all, communists will often admit to being communist. The real question is why do you hate communists?

    2. While one maybe able to show these two issues being on an intellectual continuum, but they are not identical. Key is the fact that personal beliefs on vaccines affect people outside of their decision, while on creationism this is only a factor when people try to transition their beliefs into policy.

    3. Unlike creationism, non-committed individuals actually take the spurious claims made by the anti-vaccination movement seriously.
    1) Refer to them as "the in my eyes unreasonably much scared about safety of vaccines" or some such - I am sure you can come up with better and shorter. Not sure what you misunderstood about me and communists, but lets not get sidetracked. Let me assume, for constructiveness sake, that indeed you are honestly convinced Jenny and Bill Maher are "anti-vax" (rather than you consciously using the term as a rhetorical means to polarize the debate and get your soldiers fired up). The fact is, Jenny and co firstly do not feel they are anti-vax (i.e. not against all vaccines in general), and secondly, even if they were (i.e. they consciously lie), the wider public still falls for their so assumed deceptions, i.e. they assume the issue is not anti-vax, but an honest concern about that the vaccination schedule is too much at too small time intervals and so on, and that at points safety is compromised more than acceptable and even necessary. Hence, your "anti-vax" charge is not taken seriously, worse, you are perceived as a polarizing asshole ignoring the facts. Nobody listens except for whoever is already your loyal soldier.

    No need to tell me why you are not an asshole (even Jenny thinks she is a good girl), because the salient point, the very one that you make in your post above and in your comment that I commented on, is that the evidence is not what convinces.

    Key is the fact that personal beliefs on vaccines affect people outside of their decision
    I know precisely what you mean and part of me agrees. Nevertheless, there is the part that has seen enough of this fucked up world and its dishonest science, politics, medicine and so on, that I have to insist that such a position is on a rather slippery slope. I really do not want to be forced, not even by indirect pressures, to gulp too much of what the always super bright in hindsight idiots push down our throats. Some solutions are unethical and also plainly stupid, and if so, we need to look for other solutions and intermediately maybe even live with problems a while longer. There have been too many by science blessed solutions that are worse than the problem. (I do not mean 'other solutions' instead of any vaccines at all, no need to scream "anti-vax", I mean it in the sense of the comment over here)

    3) Few non-committed take true anti-vax seriously. If however you refer to people concerned about the safety of certain aspects of the involved issue, take them seriously. I also take 'ether crackpots' seriously and do not call them anti-Einstein. I tell them, yes you are right, the standard model is an ether and there are superluminal velocities without causality violation. And then, after they know they finally have a friend and are all ears, I can show them that this all leads directly to Einsteins theory. I am convinced that if you tried such an approach with Bill Maher, you would be able to turn that guy into a PR machine on your side.
    Anti-vaccination information not only influences the decision making of non-committed parents, but exposes innocent children to disease by increasing the number of susceptible carriers in the population. A key difference here is that, with creationism, the personal beliefs (without policy changes) do not translate into damage to third parties.

    Individuals like McCarthy have not shown any reasonable level at which they might accept vaccines. In fact, it is not clear what they are for, other than infectious diseases. Lest you think that is hyperbole, their own statements indicate individuals firmly believe that the risk from vaccine preventable infectious diseases is less than the risk posed by the vaccine.  

    I have seen Bill Maher presented with strong evidence in a non-hostile manner. No effect, possibly due to Maher not accepting the germ theory of disease.

    To continue separating how we deal with individual, personal beliefs, it is also entirely appropriate to embrace different strategies for dealing with harmful beliefs in people you know personally and those of pubic figures trying to influence others.
    exposes innocent children to disease by increasing the number of susceptible carriers in the population.
    Yes and the poor old immune compromised pregnant grannies yadiyadiyada - I told you "I know exactly what you mean ..." - trust me, I do. McCarthy and reasonable - well she is anyway not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Not sure what you mean by "seen Bill Maher presented with strong evidence in a non-hostile manner", but I fear it is again going back to what Gerhard tried to convey concerning what holds up as evidence to whom: e.g. throwing your "strong evidence" (probably peer reviewed research) at somebody who doubts the impartiality of the whole pharma research mess, especially in front of an audience, is not necessarily perceived as a "non-hostile manner". For non-hostile one needs to agree on that the exchanged ideas are in fact evidence, not missiles disguised as such.
    embrace different strategies for dealing with harmful beliefs in people you know personally and those of pubic figures trying to influence others.
    They are both humans and believe to be good. Moreover, you are on a science blog, disrespecting insolence is on the most influential science blog platform - so if you two collaborate, you are also highly public figures and can force Bill down to engage into an argument, i.e. he becomes "people you know" in a matter of two weeks if you wanted to. Then take him seriously as merely trying to reduce potential harm and he will be more than willing to even have (much less threatening) personal exchanges. Just think about what you could achieve in the long term with Bill on your side instead of pushing such people into defensive digging in. The most difficult in this plan? Getting insolence stopping to come into his trousers all day about the basically useless BJM A. Wakefield bashing.
    Me thinks you overestimate the impact of this blog.

    There is a big difference between public and private. The goal in public is to mitigate the influence of people providing bad information, whereas in private it is about changing that person's mind. While it may be useful to change Maher's mind, it is extremely unlikely, especially for me. My sphere of influence is better served by being told why Maher's ideas are wrong. Similarly, it is also best served by telling them why the pope's statements about birth control and HIV are wrong, although it would be best if I could get his grace to agree with me.

    If there is no agreement on what constitutes good evidence, then there is no way to reason with someone. One cannot "throw out" the strong evidence, although one can present it in better ways.
    Oliver Knevitt
    Interesting article, Josh.

    The thing is is that rational arguments for evolution rarely seem to work with people so deeply entrenched in creationism, and any attempts to reason often end up like flogging a dead horse. What these people need to realise is that: if you think that creationism is an important aspect of being religious, then you have missed the entire point of religion. Why not think of evolution as a 4.5 billion year mechanism for making humans? Creationism is so gapingly false and convoluted as an argument that they should really get over the fact that its not true and sort out their personal theology.
    Except that for most people religion serves dual purposes of helping to explain their world and provide a supportive community. Precisely because creationism is bad science and theology for explaining the world, it is especially effective at defining community.
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not clear on whether you're referring to "creationism" (in general) or "creationism" (young-earth).
    Mundus vult decipi
    I do think we need to show more clarity in language.   Some of the biggest opponents of young earth creationism being taught in schools, as Eugenie Scott has repeatedly said, have been religious people - creationists, if you will - so lumping them all together as being anti-science because they believe in a supreme deity is not accurate.   Dark Energy is certainly an article of faith in the same way religious people use 'without it, nothing makes sense' reasoning.   This does not make theoretical physicists anti-science.
    This is why it is important to separate policy issues from the personal. The question that I was concerned with was what does it take to convince a person that believes god created life of the scientific explanation. How those personal beliefs are translated into a public action involves a great many other issues.
    Gerhard Adam
    The question that I was concerned with was what does it take to convince a person that believes god created life of the scientific explanation.
    That's my point though.  There is no scientific explanation at this point for how life began.  So you're beginning with a belief an individual has regarding a divine creation, but offering no alternative answer beyond a belief that an answer will eventually be found.

    That's why there is a big difference in considering "creation" in the sense that God started everything (for which there is no scientific explanation) versus those that are proposing a young-earth (which goes against scientific evidence).

    You can't claim that you're "right" if you don't actually have an answer.  I know scientists don't like to hear this, but without an answer, they are simply acting on "faith" that one will be found.  It doesn't make it religious, but it isn't scientific either.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The notes (#2) make it clear that in the article I am using creationism in a broad sense to denote those who believe that a deity guided the development of life on earth. Distinctions within this, like intelligent design and young-earth, are gradations on details like, how much, how fast, and when.
    Wow ! «(...)creationism is a bad science(...)». Don't mix science and creationisme because :

    Les partisans de ce mouvement instrumentalisent, non pas la science, mais une fausse science -la doctrine créationiste- pour servir leurs desseins de propagande (Véronique Le Ru, «Comment savoir s'est séparé de croire», La Recherche, décembre 2010 ).
    There is my poor translation : The advocates of that movement use, not the science, but a false science - The creationist doctrine- for serving their plans of propaganda.
    My 10 cents is that religious groups and courses have to be forbiden into public schools and in medias...

    Evolution wins court cases, but not hearts and minds. In considering how to change individual beliefs, being right isn't always enough.
    For science, it is enough.   We can't expect a zero tolerance result or social engineering when it comes to data.  People, being individuals, can believe in homeopathy, crystals, a 6K year old planet or that the world will end next December.   It is enough to resist a sectarian viewpoint - and that is what ID is - from being taught in schools.   The overwhelming majority of religious people are on the side of science in that regard.

    Great sentence I cited above, by the way.
    I enjoyed this article, and even moreso the commentary that followed. It IS important to note that at some level, no matter what side of epistemology you're on, we have to acknowledge some axioms, like choosing a coordinate system, to start working through problems of knowledge upon.

    I imagine several of you have already seen this, but I'd like to point out some irony to this evolution VS creationism debate by linking this article:

    If the suggestions made by Wade are true (they're at least plausible, in my opinion), then evolution has selected for the human population to be resistant to a secular worldview. Isn't life a funny thing? ;)

    Hope you guys are having a great day, thanks for the post Josh!

    Gerhard Adam
    If the suggestions made by Wade are true (they're at least plausible, in my opinion), then evolution has selected for the human population to be resistant to a secular worldview.
    It's certainly an interesting story, but it's little more than that.  This is similar to many of the problems posed by evolutionary psychology.  They all make sense in varying degrees but they fail to address the issue of now natural selection actually acted on them.    Even if we agree that such a scenario was likely, what does it mean to have a "secular worldview"?  ....
    Mundus vult decipi