It Does Matter What People Think About How the World Works

It was an embarrassing moment in the first Republican presidential debate when the participants were asked, “Does anyone not believe in evolution?”, and three candidates — Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Mike Huckabee — raised their hands. Embarrassing for those three, obviously, but also for the Republican party, in which they are far from unrepresentative, and for the United States, that anyone would even think to ask such a question of serious candidates for the highest office in the land.

One of the candidates, Sam Brownback, felt the need to amplify his position in a New York Times op-ed piece. He appeals to many favorite creationist weasel words, invoking the distinction between “microevolution” and “macroevolution,” but tries not to come off as completely anti-science. Nevertheless, the heart of his argument is stated clearly at the end of the piece:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

In our scientific understanding of the universe, man does not reflect an image and likeness unique in the created order. Humanity arose by the same process of natural selection as all the other species. Calling it “atheistic theology” doesn’t change the fact that it’s how the world works, according to science.

Eugene Volokh asks whether it really matters what a presidential candidate thinks about human evolution. He tentatively argues that yes, it does matter, but I think it’s a lot more cut and dried (but still interesting) than he makes it out to be. There are really two issues: first, has science established beyond reasonable doubt that humans evolved purely through natural selection, and second, if it has, does it matter whether a presidential candidate rejects that particular scientific understanding? Yes, and yes. But the intriguing follow-up is: what about other untrue beliefs that candidates might have?

In case you haven’t heard: yes, science has established beyond reasonable doubt that humans evolved via natural selection. Volokh confuses the issue by asking whether Brownback’s beliefs are “provably false,” and (correctly) concluding that they are not. But scientific propositions are never provably true or false; that’s not how science works. We accumulate more and more evidence in favor of one theory and against all competitors, until we reach a point where the only people left who refuse to accept the theory are cranks. Natural selection is firmly in that category; there is no scientific controversy about its truth. To draw a somewhat subtle distinction: I personally do not think that belief in an ineffable touchy-feely Aristotelian Unmoved Mover kind of God is in the crank domain. I think it’s wrong, and based on a set of deep philosophical and scientific mistakes, but not crackpottery in the same way that attributing crucial aspects of human evolution to a meddlesome anthropomorphic Designer would be.

Which brings us to the second and more interesting question, of whether this particular kind of mistaken belief should bear on one’s fitness as a presidential candidate. I think it does, for a reason that our experience with the Bush administration has made especially relevant. Denial of the standard scientific explanation for the origin of human beings is a particularly dangerous kind of mistake: one based on a decision to put aside evidence and deduction in favor of wishful thinking, and an insistence on a picture of the universe that flatters ourselves. The kind of reasoning that leads one to conclude that we can’t explain human evolution without invoking a meddlesome God is the same kind of reasoning that makes people think that cutting taxes will decrease the federal deficit, or that the people of Iraq would throw candy and greet us as liberators. (I’m sure that liberals are just as susceptible to such a fallacy, but it’s the conservative versions that are currently getting us in such a mess.) It’s a refusal to take reality at face value, in favor of a picture that conforms to what we want to be true.

The interesting part of Volokh’s question is, what about the Virgin Birth? By ordinary scientific standards, belief that Jesus had a mother but not a father is at least as unlikely as belief in a divine role in human evolution. Should we hold such a belief against presidential candidates?

That’s actually a really tough question, and I’m going to weasel out of it a bit myself. On the one hand, everything I just said about human origins applies just as well to the Virgin Birth — belief in it is dramatically non-scientific, and prompted largely by exactly the kind of mythological self-flattery that leads to skepticism about the efficacy of natural selection. In other words, belief in the Virgin Birth is exactly as “wrong” as belief in creationism. So I can certainly appreciate the argument for holding such beliefs against presidential candidates.

On the other hand, I think the status of these two questions are different, in at least two important ways. First is the role of each question as a foundational part of modern science. Evolution is a crucial ingredient in how we understand Nature and our place in it; to deny it is to deny a bedrock principle of science. The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, is a localized miracle that nominally happened a long time ago. If someone wants to believe in that particular isolated violation of the laws of nature, I won’t go along with them, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as denying natural selection as the correct explanation for the origin of human beings.

Second, the status of evolution has taken on a unique political role in our culture. Evolution is the particular part of science which has come under the most concerted attack by the forces of irrationality, who have attempted to undermine science by calling into question the teaching of evolution in public schools. This is now a political and cultural question, not just a scientific one; it’s no accident that debates over creationism and intelligent design are essentially confined to the United States (although sadly spreading). For a presidential candidate to take a public stance against evolution by raising his hand at a televised debate is a profoundly political act, allying that candidate with the forces of superstition against the forces of science. The question of the Virgin Birth just doesn’t have that status.

Happily, I was not really hesitating over whether to throw my support to Brownback, Huckabee, or Tancredo, so the question is somewhat academic for me. But I do believe, in the face of all the contrary evidence provided by the current Administration and its die-hard supporters, in the existence of intelligent and principled conservatives who might be in favor of limited government and perhaps an aggressive foreign policy, but would like to try to base their decisions on evidence and reason. Those people are going to have to make some tough choices; the modern Republican party has chosen to ally itself with people who don’t believe in the real world, and that choice is going to have consequences.

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65 Responses to It Does Matter What People Think About How the World Works

  1. wolfgang says:

    > he kind of reasoning that leads one to conclude that we can’t explain human evolution without invoking a meddlesome God is the same kind of reasoning that makes people think that cutting taxes will decrease the federal deficit

    This comparison of supply-side economics (and the Laffer curve), with the debate about evolution was a bit too quick for my taste…

  2. Brian says:

    Sam Brownback’s comments remind me of those attributed to Caliph Omar when he ordered the destruction of all the books and scrolls in the great library at Alexandria in 1642. “They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”

  3. Steuard says:

    I have generally considered questions like “did evolution occur” and questions like “did the virgin birth occur” to be fundamentally different things. (For the record, my answers are “Yes, of course” and “No, probably not”, but that’s not the point.) Belief in “isolated” miracles seems exceedingly difficult to disprove: a God who tweaks natural processes on a few rare occasions isn’t the sort of hypothesis that lends itself to scientific study (unless you happen to be able to make well-documented scientific observations during the intervention itself). On the other hand, beliefs like creationism aren’t just about one or two miracles but the day to day (and century to century) behavior of nature. That’s what science is all about, and believing in constant miraculous intervention is tantamount to rejecting the scientific method altogether. I suppose that’s just reiterating part of what you’ve said above, but it’s the part that’s most important to me.

  4. Brian says:

    The date erroneously entered as 1642 in my last post is actually 642.

  5. Pingback: Cosmic Variance: Republican candidate beliefs in creatism...a problem for democracy? « Identity Unknown

  6. Malte says:

    I’m not happy with this ‘believing’ business. A scientific-minded person should surely not believe in evolution (or inflation, the big bang, or anthropogenic climate change) until she’s satisfied she has enough information about it. My biological education was never all that great, I could say, and it’s seriously rusty. It would be daft to say I believed in evolution without at least flicking through a decent book about it, or hitting Wikipedia for half an hour. Politicians, and the rest of us, ought I think to refuse to ‘believe’ things. There are better ways of describing what we think we know.

  7. Maoz says:

    > he birth of Jesus, on the other hand, is a localized miracle that nominally happened a long time ago

    Couldn’t one then make the argument that the creation was also such a localized miracle that happened a long(er) time ago? Evolution retains its status as a natural law (with ample scientific evidence), with God only setting up the “initial conditions” so to speak….

  8. Wanderer says:

    Espousing common descent and being a good president are orthogonal.

  9. Matt says:

    Speaking of how people believe the world works, would Sean care to comment about the article that just appeared in Slate online magazine about how finding the Higgs boson will somehow completely destroy all of particle physics…?

  10. Haludza says:

    >Espousing common descent and being a good president are orthogonal.

    Surely you mean that you think that there is a component of ‘good president’ orthogonal to ‘espousing common descent’?

    Malte, surely it’s enough to construct ‘belief’ based on the spread of opinion amongst leaders in those fields (who’re very clever and have thought about these things for a long time)? Most people trust that a doctor knows how to treat them well or that their microwave has been made by people who know how to make them work- how is the other kind of trust about ideas in science any different?

  11. Eugene says:

    Brian #3

    Actually that tale about Caliph Omar decreeing the destruction of the Library is probably false.

    Whatever, it is though, the real destruction occured at 391, in the decree of Emperor Theodosius I. Why did he do it? Because it is considered “pagan”.

    The Library lost most of its collection in 391.

    (There is of course a lot more story behind this simple Christians-being-anti-science explanation, mostly to do with the fact that at the time there was a huge power struggle between the different sects of CHristianity…but that’s another story).

  12. Brian says:

    “…mostly to do with the fact that at the time there was a huge power struggle between the different sects of Christianity….”

    The Lord plays solitaire?

  13. Charlie (Colorado) says:

    The whole argument would be somewhat more impressive if any but particularly fringe candidates had said they didn’t believe in evolution.

    The point about taxes seems flawed, given that the Laffer curve folks would argue they have experimental verification.

  14. Brian says:

    The question sure wiped the smile off McCain’s face.

  15. TimG says:

    I agree with pretty much everything Sean wrote above, in particular the sentiments that (1) disbelief in evolution shows a willingness to allow “wishful thinking” to supercede impartial evaluation of evidence (2) that’s an incredibly dangerous trait for a government leader to have, and (3) it’s a lot worse than just believing in isolated “miraculous events.” (Although for what its worth, I don’t personally believe in that sort of miracle either.) The reason it’s worse isn’t just that politicians are actively working to inflict these wrongheaded ideas on American school children. And it isn’t just that evolution is a more important scientific theory than “all humans have two biological parents.” It’s that it’s *easier* for people to believe in the virgin birth. I can show you lots of evidence that human beings have two biological parents, but if you claim there was a single exception to the rule two thousand years ago, there’s no way I can gather evidence from that specific event to prove you wrong. You’ve made an untestable claim, so you’re guaranteed never to have to face any direct evidence to the contrary. Whereas, the “theory of evolution” is a set of testable ideas about numerous events occuring over millions of years. To deny that is much harder — it requires a willingness to overlook a mountain of evidence to the contrary. What’s worse — people in the intelligent design camp actually claim that their belief in a “designer” is founded on the evidence. In contrast, I think you’ll find very few people who would claim that their reson for believing in the virgin birth is that scientific data supports this idea. In short: Belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is much worse than belief in spite of a lack of evidence. And seeing evidence where there is none is perhaps worst of all.

  16. nigel says:

    No real scientist “believes” in evolution because it isn’t a belief system, its just a factual, predictive model that works. You can’t “believe” in a scientific model because it isn’t a faith-based system. Nobody should substitute current scientific theories for belief systems. Belief or disbelief should be reserved for things which can’t be checked, like religion, fairies, etc.

    Popper’s idea is that scientific theories are always being challenged by evidence. If you start “believing” a theory, you will sooner or later stop checking it, and it will become a religion. Although it won’t be completely useless if it has survived tests in the past, it might not be complete and may give false results when extrapolated too far. There’s always an outside chance that most of the evidence (like fossils in sedimentary rocks) were planted by God or the Devil as a cruel joke.

    Obviously the original proponents of a new theory need to act as though they actually “believe” it (or nobody else will be likely to listen to them), but for an established theory, you don’t want to “believe” it true too much; instead, you want to keep trying to falsify it. You learn more by doubting, checking and testing a theory, than by blindly “believing” it just because it is fashionable to make science your religion.

  17. RPM says:

    Echoing what other people have said, one does not believe in evolution (or any other well established scientific theory); one accepts the evidence in favor of it. And the emphasis on natural selection in your post, Sean, reflects a common misunderstanding of biological evolution: special creation is not an attack on the role of natural selection in evolution; it’s an attack on common descent.

  18. Sean says:

    I don’t understand the reluctance to use the word “belief.” I believe that 1+1 equals 2, that my office is located in Pasadena, and that the observable universe is billions of years old. There’s no reason to redefine “belief” to mean “belief without evidence.”

  19. Sean says:

    And I believe that finding the Higgs boson will not destroy all of particle physics.

  20. Eugene says:

    Brian #12

    Honestly, I have no idea what you are alluding to.

  21. Pingback: Lunatic Left » Blog Archive » The political relevance of religious belief

  22. Chris W. says:

    Actually, Nigel, there is an outside chance that the consistency of any scientific theory with the available evidence is a cruel joke. I think this is part of what Einstein was getting at when he said that “the Lord is subtle, but he is not malicious”.

    If one starts to suspect that the successes of, say, Newton’s theory of gravitation and his laws of motion are just some sort of conjuring trick, and the dynamics of our solar system (for example) could inexplicably change tomorrow at the whim of some deity or demon, one can no longer do science. Fundamentally, this is what seeking the laws of physics is about—finding an invariant core underlying observable phenomena, notwithstanding their evident variety and apparent arbitrariness.

  23. Brian says:

    Eugene,
    Just my, perhaps odd, sense of humor. Since God, apparently, always sides with the righteous, I guess he would have to play both sides of the table when the different sects collided in battle. I’ve actually done this sort of thing a few times myself, playing both sides of a chess game when there was no opponent available. Well, there you have it – for better or worse, funnier or dumber,….

  24. Paul says:

    Brian #2 and Eugene #11: The assertion that Omar destroyed the Library is probably untrue. But while the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus seems to be well-documented, it’s not clear that the Serapeum library still held many volumes at that time. It may have been burned earlier during Roman attacks on the city.

    Helen Quinn wrote a good reflection on the use of the term “believe” in the February 2007 Physics Today. The problem essentially is that when Sean says he believes that the observable universe is billions of years old, he interprets “believe” as “regard the vast preponderance of the evidence to support the idea,” while the public at large interprets it to mean something closer to “regard as an article of faith.”

  25. Jugalator says:

    Quote: “Man was not an accident”

    Hehe, yet more of evolution ignorance… Evolution isn’t about “accidents”, it’s about the opposite. Accidents imply something bad happened, or something unintentional, but traits improve and evolve when they’re beneficial and often because of environmental needs.