Ethics Evolution Intelligent Design

Understanding evolution without believing it?

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Why People Believe What They Do
Scientific American April 10, 2009

On Scientific American’s Science Talk, Steve Mirsky interviews cognitive psychologist Tania Lombrozo from the University of California, Berkeley detailing some surprising data on understanding of vs belief in evolution. Particularly amazing is Steve’s positing: “So it may be justifiable to say, “Here’s what we understand about evolution as a science. We don’t care whether you accept it; we just want you to understand it.””

. . .Lombrozo: Sure. So I think one of the most surprising findings has to do with the relationship between understanding the basics of evolutionary theory and accepting it as our best account of the origins of human life. So most people, I think, [or] in particular scientists, tend to think that if people reject evolution and in particular evolution by natural selection, it’s because they don’t understand it very well; they don’t really understand what the theory is telling us. But in fact, if you look at the data from psychology and education, what you find is either no correlation between accepting evolution and understanding it or very, very small correlation between those two factors, and I think that’s surprising to a lot of people and in particular to educators and scientists.

Steve: Yeah, it was surprising to me when your data were presented. So what [does] that mean for, you know, education in the country? What should people be thinking about if they have a desire to have evolutionary theory be more accepted by more people?

Lombrozo: I think it has a couple of consequences. So, one of them is that any kind of educational intervention that increases people’s understanding of evolutionary theory is not necessarily going to have a consequence to whether or not people accept evolution. I think that’s surprising, but it also raises a lot of complicated ethical issues; whether or not it’s even appropriate in the classroom for teachers to be trying to deliberately influence students’ acceptance of evolution as opposed to whether or not they understand it. We normally think about the role of education as being one to communicate basic concepts, to communicate scientific theories, not to actually change whether or not people accept a particular theory that might conflict with their relative views. So I think it raises some complicated issues there.

Steve: So it may be justifiable to say, “Here’s what we understand about evolution as a science. We don’t care whether you accept it; we just want you to understand it.”

Lombrozo: I think that’s the way a lot of people think about education, and I think that’s a way to sidestep some complicated ethical issues about whether or not it’s appropriate to present ideas that could conflict with people’s beliefs. On the other hand, people’s policy making decisions, their medical decisions and a lot of other decisions might depend not only on whether or not they understand evolution, but on whether or not they accept it. So in some sense, I think the public has a lot at stake in whether or not people accept evolution; but I am not sure the best way to proceed given these kinds of findings about the dissociation between acceptance and belief. . . .

See full interview

11 Replies to “Understanding evolution without believing it?

  1. 1
    Clive Hayden says:

    Imagine that. These folks find it hard to believe that there are people who understand evolution but still reject it. Well, by their own standard, since evolution explains everything, even our cognitive abilities and our beliefs, these people evolved to not accept it or not understand it, and vice versa. Why the surprise? They should be looking at what it is in evolution that makes people reject evolution. I know, it gets weird quickly. But maybe their own belief in evolution is itself a result of evolution. In which case, was it really chosen to be believed, or did they just evolve a belief provided an evolutionary framework which produced it? And is their surprise itself an evolved trait? Is all and every abstraction of thought and emotion a result of evolution? If some are, like religious beliefs (so the evolutionary psychologists would have us believe), why not all others? If not all others, then whence comes the rule of precedence in judgment? From evolution yet again? If the judge is also on trial, how can there be a valid verdict? If all standards of belief and knowledge are evolved traits, how can there be a trait that judges all other traits that isn’t itself being judged? Do we use one standard in judgment of all other standards? And why should we listen to that one? Is there an even higher one judging that one? An infinite regress of standards? Presumably this is impossible. Where does the rot end? It’s best not to let the rot begin.

  2. 2
    Joseph says:

    For me, anyway, it was learning more about “evolution” that caused me to have my doubts about it.

  3. 3
    O'Leary says:

    I find these people astonishing.

    In the first place, it is flatly untrue that they just want people to understand evolution, not accept it.

    If that were true, Lombrozo’s findings would evoke little surprise or interest.

    This demonstrates the extent to which Darwinism has become a cult, whose members simply can’t imagine that much of the world simply doubts the Big D and that one reason might be that we find the D-ists’ evidence paltry and unconvincing. Cf Cambrian explosion.

  4. 4
    GilDodgen says:

    I’m like Joseph. I accepted the claims of Darwinists when I knew little about the theory. Once I became educated in the details, and thought about it critically and analytically, I decided that it was simply not credible.

  5. 5
    SpitfireIXA says:

    I told my Mom when I was 12 that I didn’t want to go to church because Christians don’t believe in dinosaurs (my life goal was to become a paleontologist).

    It took a long, involved process of education over two decades to ultimately reject Darwinism.

  6. 6
    Clive Hayden says:

    “On the other hand, people’s policy making decisions, their medical decisions and a lot of other decisions might depend not only on whether or not they understand evolution, but on whether or not they accept it.”

    What medical decisions would hinge on whether someone accepts evolution? This essay from C.S. Lewis comes to mind:

    “So in some sense, I think the public has a lot at stake in whether or not people accept evolution…”

    What do you reckon Lombrozo means by this speculation? Does he mean that we will have a new type of society, a public that has changed, once people accept evolution? I wonder what sort of policies and medical practices he has in mind in light of accepting evolution… The above link should help articulate the outcome of that sort of acceptance.

  7. 7
    tribune7 says:

    This is scary.

    It should be obvious to one and all what is being attempted is the establishment of a religion and there is no concern for science.

  8. 8
    DLH says:

    As O’Leary said: “This demonstrates the extent to which Darwinism has become a cult,” Note particularly:

    Steve: Yeah, it was surprising to me when your data were presented. So what [does] that mean for, you know, education in the country? What should people be thinking about if they have a desire to have evolutionary theory be more accepted by more people?

    The distinction between evolution being “understood” vs being “more accepted” is the difference between Government establishing a secular religion, vs proper science developing models and theories.

  9. 9
    Clive Hayden says:

    So I looked Tania Lombrozo up on google, and found this write up titled:

    “The Psychology of Teleology, To Understand Public Resistance to Evolution You Have to Think like a Child”

    An excerpt:
    “Why do many people find a theory so persuasive to others so hard to accept? Berkeley psychologist Tania Lombrozo, who is interested in why people find certain kinds of explanations more or less compelling than others, may have insight into at least part of the answer. Her research suggests that some theories, like evolution, may be difficult to accept because they are at odds with a human default for understanding the world in terms of design.”

    In other words, humans evolved to believe in design. That’s a rather weird and schizophrenic evolutionary process, dontcha think? Maybe we also evolved to believe in evolution, and maybe we evolved to believe in neither or both. Again, whence come the discernment between competing evolved beliefs? One has to be true and the other false, right? But if the taproot (evolution) is giving false beliefs, why should we trust it in any other regard? How can we step outside of evolved beliefs to judge evolved beliefs when all judgments come from, and are made by, evolved beliefs? Any claim that a false belief evolved is an attack on all beliefs, even that belief. The knot comes loose when an evolutionist tries to pull it tight. This is why I love the sport of evolutionary psychology, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel (which I would never do, I have more respect for fish than I do evolutionary psychology).

    She claims that “The results support the idea that adults and children have the same sorts of cognitive mechanisms at work, and that adults are just overriding the explanatory default [teleology in nature] with background knowledge,” says Lombrozo.

    She desperately needs to read Orthodoxy, in particular chapter IV, The Ethics of Elfland before she begins to discredit teleology by her philosophy:

    “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense…

    In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince…

    Granted, then,that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.”

    It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.

    I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist…

    This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales –because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance…

    All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

  10. 10
    avocationist says:

    First mistake, she assumes people who don’t accept evolution theory only do so because it interferes with some belief or views. Yet the many millions of religious people who accept evolution show that to be false.
    I have gone to the above link, and gone to their contact page, and asked what sorts of medical decisions might be affected by whether someone accepts the theory of evolution.

  11. 11
    Clive Hayden says:


    If you get a response to that question, please, please post it here as a comment, I would love to see the answer.

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