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Is belief in evolution a good predictive tool?

January 25, 2014

[Warning – a long post that uses yet another tendentious sports analogy. Read at your peril.–PK]
A reader questions both creationists ability to do physics and Wilt Chamberlain’s tennis and skeeball skills:

I may not immediately peg creationists as bad at Math but their belief in creationism is surely enough fodder for me to question their ability/willingness to conduct themselves in other experimental disciplines, such as physics. Similarly, I wouldn’t automatically assume that Wilt would’ve been bad at tennis but I probably wouldn’t have invited him to play skeeball.

Just for kicks, I Googled ‘physicists reject evolution.’ A flew clicks got me to this page. You’ll find quite a few physicists if you read through the bios. John Baumgardner even has a Wikipedia page. None of this means that you can’t “peg creationists as bad at Math.” But it does mean, as I’ve said before, the existence of people like Baumgardner means we’re talking about general trends rather than absolutes. Gaussians rather than delta functions.

And of course we shouldn’t assume Wilt would have been bad at tennis or amazing at skeeball. But that’s the point! Consider the reverse. Imagine you knew nothing about Wilt but saw him play skeeball. Would you assume he’s terrible at basketball based on that observation and nothing else? How does skeeball ability relate to basketball ability? How does belief in creationism relate to physics ability?

I think many of my readers use belief in evolution as a predictive tool. That is, knowing whether someone believes the theory of evolution allows us to predict performance in in math, chemistry, general reasoning, etc. Now that basic logic may be fine. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with using predictive heuristics. I’m just not sure we reflect on its limits in this case.

Let me use another sports analogy to try make my point, and especially because I know Maher knows football much better than I do. At the NFL Scouting Combine, college football players undergo physical and mental tests for professional coaches and scouts. The results are used to help determine who will succeed in the pros. I see three take-aways relevant here.

First, no one casually accepts the test results. Because isolated tests don’t always translate to the organized chaos of a football game, success at the combines is perfectly compatible with professional failure. And so teams conduct extensive research to determine what a Wonderlic score means in terms of an NFL career. They refine their models constantly. We don’t have an analogous body of research for creationists, which we need to draw any firm conclusions. Belief in evolution may be a good predictive tool. But then again it may not be. And even if we had good data, we should be as skeptical of intelligence predictors as we are of those in sports. We should be just as circumspect about isolated test results.

Second, and even more importantly, we don’t eliminate anyone based on these outcomes alone. Whatever their scores, we give them a chance and keep an open mind. How much poorer would our sports experience be if we judged solely on the NFL combines? This is what I’m getting at with creationists. We know at least some people who reject evolution succeed in science, just as some people with a low Wonderlic score succeed at quarterback. So why allow ourselves to be so biased by a single belief? Why not give them a chance?

To push this point a bit more…players’ college football careers are weighed at least as heavily as combine scores. That is, their performance in a similar environment matters at least as much as contrived tests. So if we’re trying to predict physics success, shouldn’t we look at their performance in physics class at least as much their belief in evolution?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we discard all predictions when get the chance to measure NFL performance. At that point no one cares what happened in college or the combines. Players are no longer judged by past metrics. That doesn’t happen with creationists. Some world-class scientists and engineers don’t acknowledge their faith because they’re afraid of judgment. I personally know some of them. No one says: “Clearly your belief in creationism didn’t prevent you from getting into Stanford. So why should I care?” We don’t consider evangelical Christians in terms of their accomplishments, but we should. Just as with sports, we should forget our initial predictions when confronted with how creationists actually live their lives. Who cares what someone thinks about evolution if he can separate Siamese twins?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    January 26, 2014 7:59 am

    Good points

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