Evolving Thoughts

The more things change..

I have decided that I am sick and tired of the antievolutionists. When I got into this game about 15 years or more ago, I thought that if we just argued and presented information about what evolution really is, and what it means for modern thinking, people would move away from attacking evolution in order to bolster their religious agendas.

I was wrong. Very wrong. Information isn’t what makes people change their minds. Experience is, and generally nobody has much experience of the facts of biology that underwrite evolution. The so-called “deficit model” of the public understanding of science, which assumes that all they need is more information, is false. Of course, people in the field of science communication knew that long ago. It took me some time to get to it myself, is all.

Anyway, the reason for this post now is that the indefatigable Joe Cain, at the University College, London, has been digitising a short-lived journal from the 1920s and 1930s entitled Evolution: A journal of nature, which was published in response to the Scopes trial and subsequent antievolutionary movements by fundamentalists (which had only just been named a decade or so earlier). He includes a number of (copyrighted, hence not shown here) political cartoons of the period, and the sad thing about them is that most of them could be published today and still be relevant. It’s amazing how much is the same.

Comments

  1. #1 John Pieret
    September 2, 2007

    I understand Galileo had the same problem. Fortunately for us, some things have changed … for the moment.

  2. #2 Scott Hatfield, OM
    September 2, 2007

    John, you’re probably just too nice to want to attack anyone, personally. But, I have to say this, sometimes what the people in the middle need to see is not so much an experience of biology, but of corruption. They need to see that creationists, as a group, are liars.

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    September 2, 2007

    Scott, I don’t think this is true. When people have a strong attachment to their social group, almost no evidence of corruption or incompetence will convince them otherwise. Think Bush and ordinary Republicans – he’s their guy, and no amount of evidence will change their minds.

    I have argued elsewhere [see here and here and here] that so long as direct experience doesn’t offset inferences made from authority, people will continue to believe what they are told.

  4. #4 bad Jim
    September 2, 2007

    Creationists are aware of the science, to some degree or another, and even they hold science in high regard. They just won’t let it change their beliefs.

    If our goal is ensure a modern scientific education for our children, we need to sell it by emphasizing its practical benefits. If instead we want everyone to understand the world, we somehow have to get them to give up the beliefs that stand in the way.

    Linnaeus assigned us to the order of primates back in the 1740’s, but in 21st century America the very thought is objectionable. We’re not animals!

    We need to find a way to sell fearlessness to the sort of people who buy dangerously top-heavy vehicles that make them feel safer. Changing our society in ways that actually make them safer just might help, but it might turn out that the atomized suburban lifestyle is the problem, which isn’t something quickly fixed.

    That presidents and evangelists are already self-parodying doesn’t seem to dim their appeal, and they are generally forgiven their trespasses.

    Let’s at least set an example by being fearless freethinkers, enjoy ourselves and embrace a generally generous agenda. It may not do everything we want, but it’s not a bad way to live, and maybe at least our friends and family will think we’re cool.

  5. #5 Thony C.
    September 2, 2007

    He includes a number of (copyrighted, hence not shown here) political cartoons of the period, and the sad thing about them is that most of them could be published today and still be relevant. It’s amazing how much is the same.

    What goes around comes around.

  6. #6 Sam the Centipede
    September 2, 2007

    Science is based on logical thinking but it’s a mistake to think that logical thinking is how science is actually done or how beliefs are constructed. Logic is the last step, not the first, and we use logic very little in our daily lives. We make most of our decisions emotionally. Walk or take the bus to work? You might rationalise your justification for the answer (“it takes 10 minutes longer if I walk but it’s a nice day and I’ll enjoy the fresh air”) but you make the initial decision by gut feeling (“I feel like walking today”) and “post-process” that into rational argumentation. So it is with science too — never under-estimate how much is done by feel, even if it’s justified by logic.

    Most non-scientists (in the widest sense) just don’t use logic much, they use emotion, prejudice, delusion, whatever suits them. Logic is a thin veneer on top of our emotional (animal) minds, and creationists don’t let this veneer stick to their solid wooden heads.

    What I can’t get comprehend though is the lack of self awareness of creationist motormouths and their sometimes outrageous dishonesty. I hope I would be self-aware enough to know when I was being absurd in insisting that so many apparently intelligent people must be lying with no plausible motive. Perhaps that’s why they have to rationalise it into conspiracies to persecute them and their stupidity?

    But when creationists knowingly quote mine into misrepresentation, do they not know that this is as dishonest as if I said “the bible says clearly ‘thou shalt … kill'” based on the selective removal of the word “not” from the, er, harrump-th commandment?

    Does their delusional behaviour in clinging limpet-like to nonsensical ideas force them to erect a wall of self-righteousness, justifying everything they do as pure and condemning everything their enemies they do as evil?

    Sunday rant over…

  7. #7 etbnc
    September 2, 2007

    A few years ago I became interested in persuading my fellow humans to take a greater interest in sustainable ways of life. It’s a bit of a challenge. Our culture has about ten thousand years of inertia behind it that sometimes seems to resist steering.

    When I took up that challenge I realized it would involve persuasion on a scale that was new to me. Because I have an engineering background it seemed natural to assess the tools and techniques available to persuade other humans. For me the hardest part of that assessment was the process of accepting and internalizing the information I found. I discovered my schooling and my professional training had created habits that impeded my ability to persuade my fellow humans. My schooling and professional training taught me a mental model of other people and a mental model of the culture around me. That mental model was really, really good at making me feel smart and competent and generally pretty good about myself. But that mental model offered nearly zero ability to effect long term, lasting change.

    I swallowed hard, and thought hard, and I decided to prioritize my values. I asked myself whether the outcome I wanted — long term, lasting cultural change — was more important to me than preserving my mental model of my role in the world. That was uncomfortable, and it took a while. But when I decided the outcome was more important to me than my old mental model, it became easier for me to look for a new mental model, one that better matched the priority of my values.

    For me that’s made my task easier. It’s made the work more satisfying and more rewarding. The challenge remains, and it remains difficult. But it’s easier for me to keep working at it now that I’m less distracted by a mismatched mental model.

    That’s been my experience. And, yes, I do think personal experience is an important component of persuasion. I know it’s no fun to see one’s effort work poorly. But I’m confident the information is available to us to figure out the tools, the techniques, and the mental models that might work better.

    Cheers

  8. #8 Occam's Trowel
    September 2, 2007

    John, if you’re measuring your success based on the behavior of people who seek media coverage, you’re not going to find it there. The media circus is about rhetoric, about creating the appearance that you’re defeating your detractors, and it selects for the kind of people not interested in being convinced.

    One of the qualities that a lot of conservative non-scientists hold dear is loyalty — and our scientific value of holding every theory provisionally seems to run counter to that value. I think that the struggle might be furthered by helping them to understand that what they should be loyal to is a higher value.

    As frustrating as this struggle is, I still believe that it’s worth our effort.

  9. #9 Stephen
    September 2, 2007

    I’m sure we’re all sick and tired of the anti-evolutionists, and it took most of us a lot less than 15 years to get there. Even in the Netherlands they still stick their heads up from time to time.

    As to information not changing peoples minds though, I think the case is still unproven. Of course if you’re talking about the creationist ringleaders you are clearly right. But my impression is that most creationists are still deeply ignorant of biology. One doesn’t know whether information would change their minds, as they’ve so far managed to avoid exposing themselves to it. I have had one or two small successes with information myself though. The question is, at a time when many people have the attention span of a grasshopper on amphetamines, how do you get them to actually pay any attention to the information that is available?

  10. #10 RoseColoredGlasses
    September 2, 2007

    It might help to think of people as being of two basic kinds, the honest and the dishonest. The dishonest use lies to do what they do, requiring them to lie to themselves, lie to others, and lie to each other. In short, cheating is intrinsic to their functioning.

    No amount of talk about fair play is going to help a cheater stop cheating. He WANTS to cheat. Anything you give him he may try to use deceptively to further his cheating.

    If you try to reason with the cheater about whatever he’s cheating on at the moment, you’ll never get anywhere. Your problem isn’t the lies that he tells: it’s that he’s lying.

  11. #11 Jimmy Little
    September 3, 2007

    “I have argued elsewhere [see here and here and here] that so long as direct experience doesn’t offset inferences made from authority, people will continue to believe what they are told.”

    I think even that’s too optimistic — True Believers will continue to believe regardless of experience. It’s one of the marks of the true believer…

  12. #12 Coin
    September 3, 2007

    When I got into this game about 15 years or more ago, I thought that if we just argued and presented information about what evolution really is, and what it means for modern thinking, people would move away from attacking evolution in order to bolster their religious agendas… The so-called “deficit model” of the public understanding of science, which assumes that all they need is more information, is false.
    You seem to be conflating “the public” with “creationists” here. Of course understanding the subject better has no effect on the people attacking evolution; the people attacking evolution are doing so because of their agendas, not because of the facts.

    What better understanding of evolution controls, meanwhile, is the extent to which those attacks are able to gain any influence.

  13. #13 John Wilkins
    September 3, 2007

    I think, and this is what I argued in the links and forthcoming paper, that people aren’t born creationists. They become them because they are surrounded by those who are. A basic rule of human bounded rationality is to believe what those around you do unless some experience trumps it, but this applies early in their conceptual development. The later that experience applies, the less likely it is to change their minds. Some will, but only a few.

    I do not conflate “the public” with creationists, but the difficulty of evolutionary thinking getting into the public mindset indicates that most people are unable to adopt it for similar reasons. The Western heritage is the great chain of being, and most people think in those terms because they have no personal reason to think otherwise. Creationists are only one extreme of the spectrum here.

    The ringleaders are able to compartmentalise their thinking – most of them are in fact honestly creationist. A few are scamming the rubes.

  14. #14 David Ratnasabapathy
    September 3, 2007

    Just to say that I learned a *lot* about evolution, geology, astronomy and science in general lurking at talk.origins lo these 15 years.

    I for one had my mind expanded, and my life thereby enriched, precisely by those anti-anti-evolutionist posts that people like you took the time to write.

    Cheers.

  15. #15 Jud
    September 3, 2007

    “I have argued elsewhere…that so long as direct experience doesn’t offset inferences made from authority, people will continue to believe what they are told.”

    How many people have personally seen the earth orbiting the sun?

    The key is to get the science to the point where proofs and/or demonstrations of evolution are so clear even to non-scientists that those in positions of religious authority will feel constrained to adapt religion to accommodate the facts, rather than vice versa. This would of course be easier if such proofs or demonstrations were within most people’s everyday experience, but it isn’t so for evolution, any more than it was for heliocentrism, or the considerably more counterintuitive special and general relativity or quantum physics.

    I am not sufficiently familiar with the histories of science or religion to know when it was that heliocentrism was no longer subject to widespread questioning by religious authorities, but I have a feeling it took longer for heliocentrism to achieve widespread acceptance than the 150 years that have elapsed since Darwin’s “Origin.” The considerably speedier acceptance of the theories of relativity and quantum physics show how rapidly even revolutionary theories can gain acceptance if traditional sources of authority don’t have interests inimical to that acceptance.

  16. #16 M
    September 4, 2007

    Um…if they were copyrighted in the 1920s and 30s…how can they all be still under copyright now? Are you sure they haven’t fallen into the public domain?

  17. #17 Fernmonkey
    September 4, 2007

    M, nothing published after January 1, 1923 will ever lapse into the public domain. Not ever. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. See Eldred v Ashcroft for more details.

  18. #18 Thony C.
    September 4, 2007

    I am not sufficiently familiar with the histories of science or religion to know when it was that heliocentrism was no longer subject to widespread questioning by religious authorities, but I have a feeling it took longer for heliocentrism to achieve widespread acceptance than the 150 years that have elapsed since Darwin’s “Origin.”

    It all depends on which religious authority you are talking about. I think most of the major protestant religions had accepted heliocentricity along with most educated people by the begining of the 18th century. Although official acceptance by the catholic church didn’t take place until the 19th century de facto acceptance also took place some time in the early 18th century. Some small christian sects “the head bangers” still reject it but these people are of course young earth creationists.

    However in making the comparison one should be aware of the fact that the scientific community didn’t really accept the Keplerian system (the Copernican was never accepted!) until around 1660 and the first real “scientific proofs” were delivered by Bradley 1729 (the earth’s orbit around the sun) and Maupertuis 1737 (diurnal rotation). When did the scientific community accept Darwinian evolution theory and when was the theory of evolution considered validated?

  19. #19 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 4, 2007

    John Wlkins wrote:

    I have decided that I am sick and tired of the antievolutionists.

    …more precisely, dare I suggest, those leading figures in the antievolutionary movement who exploit public ignorance of science and foment paranoia about the alleged threat posed to believers by atheist scientists in the interests of personal wealth and political influence.

    The best answer to them is expose them as the charlatans, hucksters, hypocrites and cranks that so many are.

    Information isn’t what makes people change their minds. Experience is, and generally nobody has much experience of the facts of biology that underwrite evolution.

    I agree up to a point. Bombarding a lay audience with volleys of data is simply a waste of time. If an audience is not interested in the first place, their only response to being told the significance of the peppered moth story is likely to be a bored “whatever”.

    This isn’t to say that the cause is hopeless. It is possible to inform and persuade, I think, but it needs to be tailored (I refuse to use the ‘f’-word) to the audience. Dry, fusty, academic prose is only savoured by dry, fusty old academics. If you want to make a tabloid audience listen you must tell them tabloid truth.

    One of Richard Dawkins’s greatest assets as an advocate is his tremendous talent for the vivid image, the magnetic metaphor that sticks in the memory. Think of memes, the title The Blind Watchmaker – let alone the book itself – the accusation that the religious education of children being a form of abuse. Right or wrong, these are persistent and influential ideas. The Elmer Gantrys on the other side have been doing this with great success for years. Dawkins is one of the few on the side of reason who have a similar aptitude. It works.

  20. #20 David Ratnasabapathy
    September 5, 2007

    Maybe it’s like pollen? Spew science articles by the blogful. Some of those posts will be quote mined by creationists; some will be read by shallow people who’ll forget when the priest comes knocking. Some will encounter thorny minds, and be strangled by their love of ignorance; but somewhere there’ll be just the right mind, in the just the right circumstances, where the idea will root and grow.

    Does the sower of seed care about the seeds that died?

  21. #21 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 5, 2007

    “Pollen” is a good metaphor – spreading the seeds of reason rather than the slash-and-burn approach to the eradication of religious belief…

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