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Creationists and scientific thinking

October 9, 2013

noHarmNoFoulCome on ref! It’s not a foul if no one got hurt.

Forbes’ Alex Knapp explained why people who reject evolution cannot reason scientifically:

if [politicians] hold ideas about the world around us that are fundamentally at odds with scientific evidence, then that will ultimately infringe on their ability to make reasoned judgments about a host of issues where the economy touches technology.

It’s important to note that Knapp’s entire argument rests on this sentence. It’s a common line of reasoning:  creationists shouldn’t be trusted because they can’t think rationally or logically anywhere. Knapp may be on solid ground if this analysis were true.

But suppose for a second that rejecting evolution does not infringe on your ability to reason elsewhere. Suppose that it is possible be irrational in one area of your life but perfectly rational in others. As long as rejecting evolution in and of itself is harmless, then why should anyone care? Why get so excited?

So a few discrete, empirical claims lurk behind the politics and emotions: Does rejecting evolution really affect your analytic thinking outside biology? Is there a connection between how we think about this and other topics? How would we know? What scientists or experts should we turn to for answers? It may be that your belief on the age of the Earth has deep consequences for your ability to analyze a policy brief, write computer code, or solve differential equations. Or it could be irrelevant. I’m sure we’ll all agree that feelings and desires don’t matter when it comes to such questions. Only data matter.

Let’s first look at a concrete example. In condensed matter physics alone, there are enormous differences between experimental labs and theoretical ones. A world-class theorist would not necessarily succeed as an experimentalist. Even in a single field, skills from one domain don’t easily transfer to another. More generally, scientists in psychology, decision-making, neuroscience, and education have all studied cognitive transfer. If you search for terms like ‘domain-specific knowledge in decision making’ or ‘transfer of cognitive skills’, you’ll repeatedly come across sentences like “considerable research and controversy have surrounded this issue” and “superior [decision-making] performance [is] a complex function of existing knowledge”. I’m not an expert, but my reading of the research does not paint a clear picture.

This is something we should all reflect on. Scientists–and everyone else–make explicitly empirical claims here. Without hesitation or equivocation, we assert that rejecting evolution has very specific consequences for your cognitive ability. But we don’t have the evidence to back up these claims. Even worse, the data that do exist suggest we are wrong! Suppose a detailed study proves that believing in creationism has no impact on reasoning ability writ-large? Would that change our opinion of creationists? Why or why not?

Two final points. First, isn’t it a bit hypocritical that scientists do not present any evidence to support our claims? What would we say to other groups who make bold assertions without data? I’m not staking a hard position on the state of the data. I’m simply noting that it is non-existent in our arguments.

Second, and more importantly, note that I’ve focused on creationists rather than creationism. That’s not an accident. Perhaps more than anything else in this debate, we must remember that there are real human beings involved. Abstract ideas are easy. People are hard. Don’t forget that.

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