Back in 2009, Pew Research released a research package on public opinions about evolution in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Just last month, a friend on Facebook posted the headlining chart from that package, and a lively debate ensued.
The tone of the folks posting this chart (I saw it on several walls) was one of exaggerated dismay, e.g. “A depressing — but unsurprising — revelation about Mormons.” The fact that the result fit so neatly alongside myriad preexisting cultural skirmishes should have been a major indicator that the results were unreliable, however. Lots of people argued that the question was poorly worded, primarily because it seemed to set up an unnecessary dichotomy between evolution-without-God and creationism-with-God, thus precluding the middle ground of evolution-with-God. This criticism is legitimate, but it also serves as another big, red, warning indicator. If the responses to a survey question ostensibly about a scientific theory fall neatly within established cultural narratives, then we have good reason to be very skeptical that the survey illuminates the topic it purports to cast light upon.
In this case, the superficial narrative is that the survey reflects attitudes about evolution as the origin of human life. The first thing to note is that there is essentially no cost to affirming or denying this belief. If the truth is that evolution really is the best explanation for the origins of human life here on earth, what’s at stake for being wrong about that? Essentially nothing. What’s the benefit of being right? Again: nothing. There’s no action you can take that will help you exploit your assessment of the truth.
Contrast that with the simple question of what the weather will be like tomorrow. Knowing the truth about that kind of information will help you make informed decisions about how to dress and whether or not you need to allow extra time to defrost your car. Things like “being late to work” or “getting wet in chilly November rain” have a direct (albeit small) cost and so you have clear incentive to learn the truth and behave accordingly. Not so with academic questions about events that unfolded eons ago with inhuman slowness.
So if the survey isn’t really about evolution per se, what is it about? It’s basically a roll call to see where people stand on the perceived cultural war between religion and science. This is why, unsurprisingly, the results to the evolution question are pretty much the mirror image to the question of average weekly church attendance.
Other than a switch between mainline Protestants and Catholics (and the lack of Buddhists and Muslims from the second results), you could basically tell where a denomination would rank on the evolution question by church attendance and vice versa. Now, you could interpret that as just meaning that religiosity is correlated with scientific ignorance, but I just don’t think that makes sense. No one really believes there was a literal snake in the garden because that is in any sense an intrinsically meaningful question (one way or the other). People assert or reject those beliefs as a means to some other end. There’s no other explanation for the fervor with which folks will defend unknowable and insignificant propositions.
Folks who embrace strong, anti-scientific rhetoric are flaunting their disregard for the world’s estimation of their IQ and burnishing their loyalty for all to see. They are signalling to their fellows, yes, but it’s more than that. They are enacting a narrative of persecution and using the scorn that comes their way to validate their sense of importance and role in a larger narrative. The folks on the other side of the fence, those who mock the anti-science crowd, are displaying their sophistication and cosmopolitan nature. Once again, they are signalling to their fellows and strengthening social bonds, but they are also paying the cover charge to see themselves as participants in some grand endeavor. Instead of taking the role of a stalwart band of besieged disciples, however, they are playing the part of foot soldier in the ongoing march of progress. Mocking those who seem ignorant is a cheap price to pay for feeling like you’re part of the rising tide of enlightened reason. (Especially if you bear the burden of a near total lack of relevant scientific expertise.)
I’ve written before about fictitious beliefs, including how they are used to alleviate cognitive dissonance and also the danger of conflating emotion and conviction. This is really just another example of the same thing. The cause is simple: people respond to incentives. And, since belief is a kind of action, this means that our beliefs also respond to incentives. By embracing certain beliefs, we can join an ideological tribe and invest our lives with stolen meaning. Like parasites, we risk nothing. Like addicts, we gain nothing.
What can we do about this? We can practice having no opinion on things that don’t matter. Practice cultivating friendships with people who don’t share our cultural signals. Practice scrutinizing our incentives. Practice being skeptical of the consensus that surrounds us.
There is no silver bullet. There is just a never-ending struggle to fight the gravitational pull of the path of least resistance, not just in what we do, but in what we believe. In what we perceive. It’s a struggle worth making, however, because the alternative is so ugly. Whether it’s the assumption that conservative Mormons are too dumb to understand basic science or the assumption that “invariably liberal Mormons do not read their scriptures every day,” the lazy, comfortable, and convenient answer should always be viewed with the deepest suspicion.