Last March, the Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam reported on research which showed that, in one interviewee’s words, “We are really bad about putting ourselves in other people’s places and looking at the world the way they look at it.” We tend to quickly assign base motives to our opponents and lofty ones to ourselves and our allies. Vedantam concluded:
It is important to note that the[se] experiment[s] do not establish which … is true. It is possible … that everything you believe about [your opponents’] motives is true and everything that your opponents believe is false. But a number of studies suggest people ought to be cautious about such conclusions. Studies have found, for example, that people believe that those who disagree with them are less informed and that those who agree with them are better informed.
What are we to do with such insights?
Vedantam is arguing for a version of civility in which there is no such thing as evidence, in which, as he puts it, it does not matter “which version … is true.” […]
What Vedantam fails to recognize is that the purpose of civil discourse is to allow us to find the truth together. Facts matter. Matter matters. Believing, or presuming, “the worst about those who disagree” should be avoided because it is uncharitable and unjust, but it also should be avoided because it is a distraction from the consideration of the facts of the matter. The motives, feelings and attitudes of those who disagree with me are not, to begin with, the substance of our disagreement.
This is my objection to Dr. Myers take on Gallup’s poll on evolution.
Upon seeing that religious people (and Republicans) reject evolution, he stated that religion is “dedicated to delusion.” It is a classic instance of this uncharitable approach to opponents. There is no doubt that rejecting evolution is incorrect, and an institution which focuses on attacking and undermining demonstrably true things could be fairly referred to as one “dedicated to delusion.” Hence my lack of respect for organizations like the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers, to name a few.
To label religion like that is an error, though. That label, like Orac’s comment that evolution-rejecting Republicans are “either ignorant or simply care far more about what their religion says than what science says,” suggests that there is only one discourse under way. Evolution supporters root view evolution through the lens of scientific hypothesis testing, and assume that evolution rejecters are looking at the issue the same way, evaluating the evidence, and then intentionally rejecting it. There may be instances of such dishonesty, but imputing that level of hackery to half of our fellow citizens is a dangerous and dubious practice.
My reading of Gallup’s poll and my discussions about evolution with religious people all suggest that evolution rejection is not rooted in a concern for the scientific discourse, but in concerns over the philosophical implications of the science. The mechanical details of how bipedalism evolved are of little interest to most people in and of themselves. They are interesting only to the extent that bipedalism is a marker for our intrinsic humanity. Discoveries about evolving brain size, tool use, abstract reasoning, ritual burial — these all serve as signifiers of some quintessence of humanity, not as the interesting and contingent historical events that scientists see them as.
If the question we are trying to answer is “what is humanity” and “how did we acquire our unique form of existence,” the ability of science to answer the question becomes limited. The contingent process of evolution can tell us something about the path that evolution took, but whether that path was inevitable, and what philosophical consequences that might have, are questions not within the scope of biology. Those questions are of great interest to the public. The biological account of how those traits that make us distinctly human evolved are certainly related to those philosophical issues, and the public gets confused.
Part of the problem is that scientific details are notoriously fuzzy. Chris Mooney, in an editorial written with Dr. Beth Jordan describes “news headlines, presenting bewildering and often conflicting information” and they comment that “Surveying this turmoil is a weary public, unclear what to think as research conclusions seem to change and contradict one another with disconcerting frequency.” Scientists are trained to see past the fluctuating details to the solidifying structure of knowledge, but to the public, it can be difficult to see the persistent forest as trees are cut down and new ones grow. That’s why a poll in March found that 39% of the public does not think that “the scientific theory of evolution is well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community,” 13% are unsure, and a mere 49% know the truth, that evolution is as close to uniform acceptance within science as any other theory, and has accumulated a massive wealth of evidence.
Understanding what questions the public is trying to answer can help them answer the question. Rather than assume people are intentionally deluding themselves, let’s assume that we have failed to communicate, perhaps even to establish a common framework for a discussion. This doesn’t excuse anti-evolution rhetoric. As slacktivist points out, “Convictions based on evidence do not violate the presumption of innocence.”
The anti-evolutionists assume evolution is an attack on religious belief per se, and that evolution is an assault on morality and perhaps even the roots of society. By failing to recognize that evolution is a scientific claim focused on evidence, not a philosophical claim, they push the conversation onto ground other than the actual science. Some of them do so dishonestly, others just buy into it because they think everyone is talking about the issues that matter to them. Those people can be reached, if we can get them to shift the conversation. Only then will they be able to appreciate the evidence that actually exists.