Evolution-Denialism: It’s About Feelings, Not Just Facts

An HBO video clip entitled “If the Bible said 2+2=5 provoked strong reactions on all sorts of Internet forums.  As one Facebook origins discussion group commenter wrote: “That’s the level of intelligence we are dealing with!”   Not really.  At most, intelligence is only a secondary factor.Yes, most evolution-denial arguments are mind-numbingly stupid. Yes, evolution-deniers tend to be less educated, certainly less science-literate, especially in the “hard sciences”. Nevertheless, science education alone rarely solves the problem as the sound bite in the HBO clip should make very clear. Ultimately, science denialism is never about facts. It’s about feelings. Wherever you find denials of science, you will find fears of the implications of that science. And because the denialist is ideologically driven, he/she usually assumes that scientists are ideologically driven. So the when the average Young Earth Creationist is asked why she denies evolution, she will often respond with the Argument from Negative Consequences fallacy: “The scientist wants to use evolution to remove God from our society.”

I have found it very interesting to probe further when someone (usually a creationist) expresses all sorts of suspicions and even contempt towards scientists. I’m amazed how often they will say something like “Scientists always think they know everything!” I respond with, “Really? I’ve known a great many scientists, both in academia when I was a professor and in industry, and from knowing them as colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Not once have I ever heard a scientist say or even imply in any way that he/she knew everything. Considering that they would be out of a job if ever they thought all science discoveries had already been made, your statement would defy common sense.”

So I would inevitably ask the person: “Can you name the scientists who think they know everything? And where did you meet them and what was the context where their know-everything claim arose?”As one would imagine, the people who make such statements rarely have any personal experience in the sciences, whether in academia or industry, and most of the time I have to push them to get an answer—and it all comes down to their reacting to some public statement, video, or article where a particular agnostic or atheist scientist (their description) of the celebrity variety (think Richard Dawkins or Neil Degrasse Tyson) made a condescending statement that they took as a personal insult to their religious views and intelligence.

One soon realizes that the people who say “scientists think they know everything” are the kind of people who don’t make such declarations as pronouncements of fact but as expressions of their emotions. So I’ve found that rather than attack the ridiculous nature of the statement (which even they will often admit is factually incorrect, even if reluctantly), I make more progress by addressing the FEELINGS which explain and dominate their position. Those who affirm The Theory of Evolution and billions of years and who try to explain the scientific terms and details to the uninformed tend to be individuals who are direct-to-the-point people who consider one’s feelings about a scientific concept irrelevant at best (and moronic at worst.)

So when dealing with the evolution-denialist, the educator often faces a cross-cultural experience and a clash of personality types. Therefore, when dealing with evolution-deniers, we should never forget that, even though explaining the actual science is very important, it is rarely the cause of their denial. We must always look for the real obstacle: the denier’s feelings. Whether those feelings are based on fear that their much cherished religious traditions are in danger or because they fear that the science may have moral-ethical implications they consider harmful to society, you will rarely find that scientific or logical arguments explain their opposition. As a result, scientific and logical arguments rarely remove that opposition. Accordingly, you will rarely find denial of the science without opposition to the science.

That is yet another reminder that denialism will never be solved by information alone. I deliberately chose the word “solved” to emphasize that, in general, we should try to oppose and remedy the wrong ideas, not the individual. Obviously, that can be difficult to do. For most denialists, we must address the feelings before the facts will make any difference to them.There’s nothing new or especially profound in what I’ve written. Nevertheless, educators and those who care about science education should never lose sight of why Americans are divided on the science of origins. Unfortunately, for every creationist determined to confuse evolution with atheism, there seems to be a nearby atheist or even an rabid anti-theist determined to reinforce that false equivalence. This only serves to bolster the creationist view that The Theory of Evolution is ultimately a declaration of war rather than an incredible thorough and useful explanation of how life on earth diversified into such a wonderfully complex and beautiful biosphere.

Like all conflicts involving large groups of people, reason calls for knowledgeable and tactful ambassadors, who know how to bring the various parties together on the basis of what ideas and values are shared in common.  (For example, everyone agrees that knowledge and education are important.) Instead, the very same “celebrity spokesmen” for science who are best known for fighting against Young Earth Creationists on The Theory of Evolution are also outspoken critics of the Bible and even theism in general.  Ask any creationist who represents The Theory of Evolution in the contemporary debate on the world stage and they name Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neil Degrasse Tyson.  Ask any creationist who champion’s atheism, ideologically-driven science, and anti-Bible rhetoric, they cite Dawkins, Nye, and Tyson.  (The fact that some or all of the aforementioned call themselves “agnostic” when pressed doesn’t matter. Creationists hear “atheist”, especially when Dawkins comes across as anti-theist and the other two use much of the same rhetoric–or, at least, to a Young Earth Creationist they sound the same.)

As if they were trying to make things worse, Dawkins, Nye, and Tyson all have appalling track records for pompously pontificating outside of their fields of training, expertise, and experience.  (See Professor Tertius’ Laws of Presumptuous Pontification.) Each has recklessly displayed their ignorance of history, philosophy, religious studies, and–most unfortunately of all in terms of having any kind of credibility with creationists–Biblical studies. In so many of those instances, their ignorance was at its worst when engaged in one of their most petty, ideologically-driven, entirely unnecessary tirades concerning topics upon which creationists are far better informed. Creationists responded much as most people do in such situations: “If this arrogant elitist can’t even get his facts straight about ____, why should I trust what he says about evolution and origins?”

Who within the science Academy exhibits the knowledge, the charm, and the rhetorical skills of an ambassador?   Who can and does stand for the very best ideals of the scientific method in seeking out explanations for our world and conveying that understanding to the general public without taint of ideological agenda?

Nobody.
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(c) 2015. Professor Tertius & the Bible.and.Science.Forum at Gmail.com.
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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Evolution-Denialism: It’s About Feelings, Not Just Facts

  1. That’s a very perceptive piece. I recently suffered an extremely negative blog review for a book of mine in which I laid out for kids/young adults the evidence for such sciencey stuff as evolution and an ancient earth, while also presenting the evidence against hokum like faith healing and therapeutic prayer. The blogger, without attempting to engage in any way with the arguments or evidences, simply said: “I happen to disagree about this, this and this.”

    I was absolutely baffled by the reaction until I realized that, as you describe, the blogger was incapable of judging issues on the basis of facts or evidence: so far as she was concerned, her feelings were paramount. Since I’m a facts’n’evidence kind of guy, the worldview she expressed, even once I’d worked it out, was essentially incomprehensible to me. You’ve managed to formulate my conclusion far more coherently than I could have.

    Thanks. Your essay has supplied useful tools for me for when I next confront science denial!

    • Thanks for the feedback. Your response is a reminder to me that it is often some of my simplest casual observations which resonate most with readers. I’ve dealt with the facts versus feelings conflict for so many years that I don’t always stop to consider that I observe it much more often in my work than does the average academic in a field where primal emotions aren’t so ubiquitous.

      My favorite personal anecdote on this very common human foible arose where one might not have expected it. (And that probably helped make it memorable.) It was a Board of Directors meeting of a non-profit organization. There was an interesting mix of people who had been asked to join the Board due to their keen minds and very successful business savvy versus others who got their solely via their family money and names. For many years only the latter group controlled the organization and only in recent years had the sharp businessmen and community leaders joined in governance. Needless to say, the two groups tended to see many things quite differently. Often it was the classic “wise management versus we’ve always done it this way” conflict.

      Eventually the pragmatic, fact-based, decision-making executive style came to a head with the change-nothing, go-with-the-flow conservatism in the form of a 40-something, business wizard Joe versus Homer, the slow-moving, slow-talking octogenarian whose grandfather had founded the organization. Homer had been on the Board from its beginning and for most of that time had been the chairman whose decisions were rubber-stamped by everyone else. Joe finished his five minute long, very structured, factual, objective presentation of the very few advantages versus many clear disadvantages of the board annually addressing a particular issue by a traditional set of policies and procedures. Joe ended with, “For these reasons, I see no other rational alternative than the Board ending this policy and considering the revised procedures you see before you in the handout.”

      When nobody commented, Joe looked over at an incredulous, dazed-looking Homer and asked, “Homer, do you understand what I’m saying?” Homer painfully looked down at the handout and then slowly looked up again. After a few seconds silence, Homer quietly but clearly said, “Yes. I understand. You are saying that you don’t like me.”

      In my youthful naivete, I had assumed that after such a detailed, well-presented, fact-based, well-outlined visual presentation, there would at most be a few questions about some details and then the Board would adopt the new policy. Now I know better. I was part of the group of fact-based decision-makers whose career tracks reflected that personality trait, while the older board members were there for reasons of tradition, loyalty, and even sentimentality. The personality types could not have been clearer. As we gradually got them to verbalize their thoughts, they were accustomed to making their decisions based on one consideration, almost exclusively: “How do I feel about this decision? How would other people feel about me if we make this decision?”

      To Joe, facts spoke volumes. Yet, all Homer could “hear” was “Joe doesn’t like me and that is why he wants to override my past decisions of running this organization.”

      An essay about arguments of last resort had an interesting term for “desperation opposition”, that which can’t think of good reasons for being against something but which must try to appeal to feelings in a last ditch effort to get their way: the “Think about the children!” argument. As soon as read it, I realized that that is what Young Earth Creationist ministries do when they claim with a straight face, “If you tell our public school students that they evolved from animals, they will naturally start acting like animals!” Yes, Ma’am! Think of the children! If we teach the children that they are mammals, they will start metabolizing their food in such a way as to maintain a consistently warm body temperature, grow hair, and drink milk from birth! How will they feel if they are told that they evolved from warm-blooded ancestors who grew hair and produced milk for their young? Think of the children!

      Lately I’ve been fascinated by the high correlation between evolution-denial and climate-change denial. Yes, science-denial is the common thread. Yet, it is much more than that. Look at the feelings that both topics stir in Young Earth Creationist Christians, and it all makes sense.

      • I realized that that is what Young Earth Creationist ministries do when they claim with a straight face, “If you tell our public school students that they evolved from animals, they will naturally start acting like animals!” Yes, Ma’am! Think of the children! If we teach the children that they are mammals, they will start metabolizing their food in such a way as to maintain a consistently warm body temperature, grow hair, and drink milk from birth! How will they feel if they are told that they evolved from warm-blooded ancestors who grew hair and produced milk for their young? Think of the children!

        That’s very funny!

        The correlation between evolution-denial and climate-denial is certainly a very strong one; there are also weaker but non-negligible correlations with belief in cancer cures and the therapeutic power of prayer. (Other forms of woo medicine, including antivaxerism, are more spread out.) Another strong correlation with evolution-denial — at least in the US — seems to be adherence to failed economic theories, such as austerity economics and trickle-down, long after they’ve been demonstrated to be dud ideas . . . or, to be charitable, ideas that have been demonstrated not to work in practice. I suspect all of these forms of science denialism may have something to do, at least in part, with misplaced respect for authority.

    • You may find this interesting, Realthog, Dr. Georgia Purdom’s Facebook page:
      https://www.facebook.com/GeorgiaPurdom
      ….where she posted today:

      “I had to chuckle as I read about this discovery of a baboon bone found in the infamous Lucy skeleton.”
      Why did she chuckle? She evaluates evidence not by the facts but by the feelings of threat or affirmation implied towards her loyalty to a particular interpretation of the scriptures.

      There are at least a half dozen blog-worthy YEC features in her comment. In a face-to-face debate I’d ask for her definition of baboon, “ape-ness”, and “ape-woman” among other issues. I’m sure she would find a way to pretend to have a major insight because “He isn’t even recognizing the difference between observational science and historical science.” Sorry, Georgia, ALL science is based on observations and every compilation of data from every field of science involves data produced in the past– whether it be billions of years past when dealing with the furthest Hubble telescope views of galaxies or eight minutes ago when viewing the sun or a few nanoseconds ago when observing a laboratory experiment. And if others can’t repeat what is described in a scientific paper and put one’s scientific hypothesis or theory to the test (i.e., it must be falsifiable), it probably isn’t science and/or the work needs to be developed further before it can be considered science.

      Meanwhile, we all anxiously await the scientific papers yet to come from the exciting baraminology project at AIG.

      • Also, meanwhile, we still await the “creation scientists” at Answer in Genesis publishing their Theory of Special Creation and explaining (1) how their theory of “kind by kind special creation” better explains the diversity of the biosphere than does The Theory of Evolution, and (2) how a scientist could go about falsifying their special creation theory. (Is it falsifiable? How? What test do the AIG “creation scientists” propose? If they don’t know what test to use, consider that The Theory of Evolution successfully predicted years in advance what would be found once genome comparisons became possible. For example, the fusion of chromosome #2 in humans was predicted in a published article about seven years before genome maps were produced.)

      • Ah, yes, I know Purdom’s researches of old. It must be so much simpler doing science when your laboratory is only a green screen . . .

  2. My views on the Purdom etc ‘baboon bone’ reactions from ‘biblical creationists’ have been placed on the record under this blog: https://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/creationists-claim-lucy-is-a-fraud/

  3. Hang on, let me just climb back on my chair, nope, I’ve fallen again…

  4. Pingback: Even when mocking Miley Cyrus, Ken Ham embarrasses himself by exposing his ignorance of evolution. | Bible.and.Science.Forum

  5. Pingback: Young Earth Creationist Hecklers Are My Favorite Hecklers. | Bible.and.Science.Forum

  6. Pingback: “The silly Bible even errs in counting the number of legs on a grasshopper!” | Bible.and.Science.Forum

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