Friday, May 25, 2007

Yes, I'm on that again....

Back to Bloom and Weisberg and the "resistance" to science. Here's my alternative explanation of why people who believe in creationism aren't just stupid, childlike morons who resist science. First, let me direct you to Pure Pedantry, so you don't think I'm alone in this.

If it's daytime when you read this, look out at the sun or go outside if necessary. What color is the sun? Yellow? Orange if it's near sunset? Wrong. The sun is white. Would you be stupid for thinking the sun is yellow? Let's imagine you live in a remote village somewhere and you've never had a formal science education. Would you be "resisting" science if someone told you that the sun is white because the evidence says so? No, that person would have to explain/demonstrate a lot of facts about the nature of light, the refraction of light, the composition of earth's atmosphere, etc. to get you to accept that the yellow orb in the sky is really white. Why? Because you're a reasonable person.

Too many who argue for evolution simply state (roughly, of course), "Evolution is true. The evidence proves it. If you don't accept it, you're stupid." This argument is similar to, "Alien visitations are real. There's lots of evidence. If you don't accept it, you've been deluded by the government." Any reasonable human being is a Missourian when it comes to accepting something that contradicts previous evidence: Show me! (This is true even in science, where new theories that contradict current theories can be highly controversial upon first introduction. Both Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum physics were originally rejected by a skeptical mainstream scientific community.)

Absent a full understanding of the evidence for evolution, a reasonable person falls back on what is available to the five senses and basic reasoning abilities. These two things show a world that is reasonably consistent and unchanging with respect to most things. (If you think this "need" for consistency is some kind of psychological problem, you might want to read up on the principles of uniformitarianism.)

Therefore, it is reasonable for a person to assume that the universe and life forms are consistent in form through time UNTIL convinced by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Admittedly, this belief in consistency arises from inductive reasoning, which is logically invalid but nonetheless cogent and often dependable/functional.) Simply telling this person that there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary is not enough, if this person approached it rationally.

Not everyone approaches such decisions rationally, I must admit. Bloom and Weisberg are right on the human tendency to accept authority on matters where personal confirmation of facts is not possible. But this applies no less to those who accept evolution than to those who don't.

How many people who accept evolution have carefully and rationally examined the evidence? Well, considering that only 27% of the American population is scienttifically literate enough to follow a science story in the newspaper, 45% accept evolution, and accepting evolution rationally requires far more than basic scientific literacy, we can assume that more than half of those who accept evolution probably do so based on nonrational or irrational reasons. If we go further and say that people should only accept evidence they've examined themselves rather than accepting someone else's word for it based on "faith" or trust in the person's authority/reliability, we could probably assume that the majority of people who accept evolution do so for nonrational and irrational reasons.

Ironically, a person who is not fully familiar with the evidence of evolution and the methods necessary to properly interpret that evidence is behaving more rationally if he rejects evolution than if he accepts it.

UPDATE: Many who accept scienctific authority often cite the "success" of science as justification for their decision or for their belief that science is superior. This may count as a confirmation bias when one considers that while much of our modern world is evidence of scientific successes, as much as 99.8% of ideas put forth by scientists may be wrong. I put the number at 98%, but Discover Magazine's Seth Lloyd seems to disagree.

UPDATE #2: An interesting exercise: Compare Bloom and Weisberg's graph on "public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries, 2005" to the Wikipedia chart on "established churches and former state churches in Europe". Notice something? Most of the countries that have higher levels of evolution acceptance have state religions or have had them until recently.

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