how to confuse intuition with indoctrination

November 8, 2010

Life is full of surprises, but according to the Skeptical Inquirer, the widespread popular bent towards a new incarnation of creationism that prefers to be called intelligent design, isn’t one of them. In fact, says the author of a recent article on the creationism/evolution manufactroversy, to many laypeople, the idea that everything in our universe was somehow designed and polished to follow certain rules and laws is common sense. Now, writing for a skeptical magazine, Scott Lilienfeld spends a good deal of time explaining how and why common sense is often wrong and how the widespread acceptance of any idea doesn’t say anything about how factual it is without evidence attached, ultimately veering off to explain popular belief in creationism as a lack of good evolutionary tools to understand the scale of time and the statistics involved. Over the last few years, I’ve seen this argument more times than I can count, and every time, it comes off as patronizing to both the scientists it seeks to inform about the public’s opinion, and the millions of creationists who reject evolutionary biology.

First off, any scientist who has ever met religious fundamentalists knows that their obsession is to hunt down anyone who doesn’t believe the same exact interpretation of a holy book that they do, and threaten the heretic with fire and brimstone. Likewise, knowing that the United States is the most religious nation in the developed world and that high rates of religiosity tend to be correlated with a greater rejection of scientific findings which don’t back up the believers’ dearly held dogmas, and chief among the scientific discoveries rejected by many faithful is evolution, I highly doubt that scientists are really all that stunned at the popularity of creationism. The real unpleasant surprises for scientists have been how little of a spine the people in charge of setting crucial educational standards seem to have when a horde of chanting zealots barges into school board meetings to demand that their beliefs be taught as fact, and how oblivious and ignorant some school boards have gotten. When an office supervisor at Paper Pushers Inc. feels far more qualified to compose his state’s scientific and social studies curriculum then scientists and historians, and elects people just as ignorantly arrogant as him to turn education into indoctrination rather than a cognitive challenge, academics understandably get upset.

And that brings us to the second problem with Lilienfeld’s thesis. None of this is common sense and none of this has to do with how evolution equipped our minds. Is it really so intuitive to imagine that some omnipotent and omniscient being beyond all scrutiny built the universe and then narrated its wisdom to random humans, and presumably aliens, wisdom contained in holy books which are held to be the infallible world of this being because these books say they’re the words of this being, and their devotees insist that accepting every single word of these books as true is the only way the universe won’t self-destruct? Or maybe this is a construct that was shaped by millennia of evolving religious ideas until monotheism came to dominate the world and we’re given this religious worldview as the conventional wisdom? And keep in mind that the economist who coined the term conventional wisdom actually meant it as a pejorative, using it to refer to what people find convenient and agreeable rather than what’s correct and factually backed. The notion of a deity coming down from some hidden part of the cosmos to work on eyes or genomes is far from conventional wisdom as well since religion holds that the deity could just wave its hand and have its will be done. Intelligent design is just a creation tale in more palatable terms for those with some trust in science but no real interest in it, rather than intuition.

Finally, Lilienfeld does a major disservice to his argument when he says that because evolution hasn’t really equipped us to deal with complex abstraction, this is why we grasp to the supposedly intuitive explanations of biology, physics, and cosmology. While we might not have an innate feel for millions and billions, humans do have pretty good abstract reasoning. If a scientist can break down complex processes over full geologic time scales stretching for tens of millions if not billions of years, so can virtually any other human. People aren’t too dull to catch on when it comes to scientific facts and we can clearly see that when it comes to the widespread acceptance and other scientific ideas that don’t challenge fervent religious beliefs. Take geocentrism. Today, even though there are still loons who think the Earth is the stationary center of the universe, they’re almost guaranteed to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. Sure, it seems counter-intuitive that we’re walking on an oblate spheroid spinning at over a thousand miles an hour around its own axis as it’s flung around a thermonuclear furnace that weighs more than everything in the entire solar system put together, but we’ve seen the proof and have accepted this arrangement as irrefutable fact. Same goes for concepts like gravity and the atomic theory of matter. New Age mind-way-too-wide-open quantum woo aside, these facts are accepted as rock solid.

But when it comes to evolution, there’s just too much for too many religious fundamentalists to accept, and no matter how many times we demonstrate speciation and how mutations create new genes or brand new body structures, they’ll shout for anyone with religious bliefs to rebel against facts and to bully teachers and school administrators and board members to let them to drown evolutionary biology in their theological noise during science class. The problem is not out common sense intuition, or how evolution shaped our brains. The real problems behind the support for creationist apologetics are religious fundamentalism and cultural pressures to submit to religious zealotry over fact. And the real surprise to me is how Lilienfeld managed to equate them with the intuitive, common-wisdom based reasoning of John and Jane Q. Public.

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  • There’s a lot at work when it comes to evolution and the resistance to it, I think. It appears that the standards for teaching it in public schools varies widely, but rarely deals with it in detail, probably because of the blathering of zealous parents and churches. But putting this vague understanding against the concerted efforts of numerous religious representatives means that there’s more apparent evidence against it than for it, for many people.

    Additionally, it’s one of the few scientific concepts that is taken personally. Many people feel that there’s a certain distance between themselves and “mere animals,” a separation between animal instincts and the reasoning, moral behavior of the special occupants of the planet, humans. They don’t welcome the idea that their ancestors were beastly and that they themselves aren’t all that far away. I suspect, deep down, that this is also a defensive mechanism against the idea that they feel ignorant compared to those “ivory tower” scientists – politics has certainly latched onto this segment of the population.

    There’s also the entitlement aspect, where people feel that their emotions and conscience are indications of their immortal soul, and that whatever travails they suffer in this life will be rewarded forever after – giving that up isn’t something they really feel motivated to do. And that’s a distinct part of the issue: people think that this is a choice, that it would actually involve voting to skip the afterlife, rather than recognizing this was always an illusion and they never had the option in the first place.

    People can, and do, accept the findings of science over scripture. But it takes more effort to get them to accept the findings of science over emotion.

  • Greg Fish

    Many people feel that there’s a certain distance between themselves and “mere animals…”

    I could certainly see that as one explanation. After all, “I don’t particularly like to think I was descended from an ape” was the growl of evolution deniers all the way up to the 1970s, and in a way, it still is. But that somes from the conceit that humans are the only species with self-awareness and intelligence. We’re not.

  • Has there been an issue of Skeptical Inquirer that didn’t take up an aspect of the Creationism/ID boondoggle? And Lilienfield’s particular topic in this regard seems especially ripe for exposition. I’ve lost track of the number of citizens who have set about to explain to me how “breaking the ‘sound barrier'” creates the “sonic boom”; ” I mean it’sjust common sense. Right.?” Wrong! So damned silly wrong it should to comical. Apparently the whole damned population was weaned on 1950’s docudramas about Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1. They remember the plane vibrating so hard the rivets are backing out, and then, suddenly, “We’re thru!” and next we’re sailing in the stratosphere’s cousin of the Coral Sea. Aaah. What prattle!

    “Conventional wisdom” seems an equally appropriate target. The worst aspect of it is the pandering of persons whose gig depends on not upsetting any popular apple carts, at least not until they’ve got their money safely away. My father-in-law told the story of his friend, a decorated full colonel of infantry, who shortly after WWII was detailed to Hollywood as a studio technical adviser, because of the proximity of this easy duty to his plastic surgery team (who were reconstructing his combat destroyed face a little at a time.) He demanded immediate relief from this duty when a director told him, “I know this is not what it really looks like, colonel, but it’s what our audiences want to see.” I can go on with these anecdotes for hours, but I’ll spare you.

    @Just Al: Excellent point! I was going to mention the reluctance of many people to consider the implications of scientific proof that our nearest living relative on this planet is the Chimpanzee. But I’m thinking you’ve hit the nail on the head; they don’t want to associate themselves with their ancestry, in any regard. It’s frightening that only because evolutionary neurobiology is about to make the whole damned concept obsolete, have the psychology/psychiatry gnomes begun to weigh the fact that people are animals. We have never had , and lack this very day, a philosophy based on the fact that we are animals. What would that look like?