Well some profs say, in this recent academic push poll (“Death Anxiety Prompts People to Believe in Intelligent Design, Reject Evolution, Study Suggests,” ScienceDaily, March 30, 2011). They did an experiment that they say demonstrates it:
Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.) have found that people’s death anxiety can influence them to support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory.Existential anxiety also prompted people to report increased liking for Michael Behe, intelligent design’s main proponent, and increased disliking for evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
The lead author is UBC Psychology Asst. Prof. Jessica Tracy with co-authors Joshua Hart, assistant professor of psychology at Union College, and UBC psychology PhD student Jason Martens.
Published in the March 30 issue of the journal PLoS ONE, their paper is the first to examine the implicit psychological motives that underpin one of the most heated debates in North America. Despite scientific consensus that intelligent design theory is inherently unscientific, 25 per cent of high school biology teachers in the U.S. devote at least some class time to the topic of intelligent design.
An extract from Carl Sagan provided the missing teddy bear, absent in Dawkins, to help people accept Dawkins’s materialist atheism. Personally, I think the most remarkable part is that the push pollers even did the study. I can remember when ID was supposed to be dead, then a threat, then a menace, then more of a menace, then … better get out the thesaurus we are in the repetition zone …
Anyway, some comments landed on my desk, including one from one from psychologist Jack Cole on what it means and one from Mike Behe, advising that, in the test passages for this study, something he had not written was attributed to him (surprise, surprise):
Cole, a practising psychologist and Uncommon Descent moderator, notes:
The fear of death is not actually measured in this study, but is in fact inferred. The measure of mood in the study actually showed an increase in positive mood after thinking about one’s own death. It is not explicitly stated, but this is inferred to be more of an unconscious process. From the study authors:
Finally, MS had no effect on negative mood, t(119) = 1.43, ns; but slightly increased positive mood, t(119) = 2.00, p<.05, consistent with previous research . Indeed, MS manipulations tend to have little impact on explicit affect, but effects emerge occasionally, as was the case in Studies 1 and 3 here. However, entering positive affect and negative affect as covariates in all five studies did not alter any results.
Also, the multiple studies might support a conclusion more along the lines of “thinking about one’s own death associated with affirming a meaningful worldview.” Because the natural science students were more likely to like Dawkins after the same exercise. If they are going to have a distorted headline (as in the press release), they could have just as easily have written, “Death Anxiety Prompts Natural Science Students to Believe in Evolution, Reject Intelligent Design, Study Suggests.”
I think it’s natural that a person would be prompted to think about the bigger picture (origins and the hereafter) when considering their own death and to seek meaning. But I think the study’s authors implicitly (or perhaps explicitly) want to suggest something irrational is taking place. I don’t think it’s irrational at all to affirm a worldview that provides more meaning. Even if it is anxiety about death that prompts consideration of the bigger picture and meaning, I’m fine with that. Sometimes anxiety is a good thing which motivates people to consider certain things and is, in part, the mind’s way of tagging something as being important.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the data or methodology of the study that I can see. The problem comes in the biased inferences and the political/theoretical lead up to presenting the study’s results. The conclusion that can be drawn from the study is certainly something many supporters of ID have long known, that the ID perspective supports a more meaningful worldview. And when most people are prompted to think about the bigger picture of their lives, they are better able to appreciate that fact, regardless of their religious beliefs.
One might add that asking students (not likely to die any time soon) to “imagine their own death” is going to produce many instances of imagineering. One would learn more from doing the experiment in a seniors home that features a n almost complete turnover every five years …
But while we are here, re the curious incident of the Behe text extract:
The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174-word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.
Behe contacted us to mention
Below are the texts attributed to Dawkins and me that were read in the psycho study (from the supplemental material). They are not single quotes, but pastiches of passages. Worse, in the case of the passage attributed to me, although the first sentence is from the beginning of DBB, and the last two sentences are from the latter portions of the book, the middle sentences are from the Foreword to “Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, by me, Bill Dembski, and Steve Meyer. I did not write the forward to that book (I think someone at the publisher’s did), so those are not even my words.
This is science?
No, it isn’t. It’s push polling. Dr. Behe. It doesn’t matter what you actually wrote. Next, they’ll produce a hologram of Dr. ID and attribute whatever they please to it.
Passages Used as Stimuli in Studies 1, 2, 4, and 5:
Dawkins-Evolutionary Theory passage:
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows how simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people. Darwin provides a solution, the only feasible one so far suggested, to the deep problem of our existence. . . Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun. Many evolutionary transitions are elegantly documented by more or less continuous series of gradually changing intermediate fossils. Darwinian evolution shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well. The full implications of Darwin’s revolution have yet to be widely realized. Darwinism encompasses all of life—human, animal, plant, and bacterial. Darwinian evolution, as one reviewer has observed, is the most important natural truth that science has yet discovered. No serious biologist doubts the fact that evolution has happened.
Behe-Intelligent Design Theory passage:
Darwinian evolution is being pushed to its limits by discoveries in biochemistry. Over the last fifty years, discoveries in biology, physics, astronomy, and cosmology, suggest that life and the universe manifest signs of real design. Further, many evolutionary biologists have acknowledged fundamental problems with Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the complexity and apparent design of living organisms. As a result of both these developments, many scientists and philosophers now think that the universe and life appear designed because they really were. These scientists advocate an alternative theory of biology and cosmological origins known as the theory of intelligent design, or, simply, design theory. Design theorists believe that scientific evidence actually points to intelligent design. This result, of cumulative efforts to investigate life at the molecular level, is so unambiguous that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The observation of the intelligent design of life is as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun or that disease is caused by bacteria.