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On “using” evolution and expertise

September 11, 2014

I was all set to write a post asking what it meant to “use” evolution. But then a commenter went ahead and did it for me, and added some smart thoughts on expertise to boot! I’ll try to write more soon, but in the meantime, think about this:

Regarding the dualism of the Pakistani doctor, is it possible that the evolution that he accepts and the evolution he rejects really are two different things? Perhaps the “evolution” that he accepts is an understanding of how mutations occur in his patients and how deleterious mutations in the human genome can accumulate if they were not selected against, and how micro-organisms mutate and adapt to their environment, and the specific problems with over-prescribing particular anti-biotics. Whereas the “evolution” he rejects is the assertion that modern humans and modern chimps are both descendents of a common hominid ancestor. The modern synthesis proposes that the same process that produces superbugs today also produced modern humans over the past 6MY. But the evidences for human evolution (fossils, for example) are different than the evidences for superbug evolution and less accessible to a dr. in daily life than the evidences for superbug evolution. And though these two things are both “evolution,” they are conceptually distinct. In other words, I’m wondering whether it’s possible that the evolution the Pakistani Dr. accepts and the evolution he rejects are actually two different ideas in his mind, rather than the same idea accepted in one context and rejected in another. I just don’t know if that hypothesis has been explored.

A further thought I had about this, given the role that authority plays in our beliefs, is this: I’ve often heard it wondered why creationists easily accept the pronouncements of scientific authority on topics like the melting point of steel, how far away Andromeda is, how closely cell towers should be placed to get good reception, or how far an English swallow can carry a coconut, but then when it comes to how old the earth is, they are suddenly skeptical. It’s sometimes stated as, “they implicitly accept evolution everytime they use their satellite TV or drive over a bridge, but then they turn around and say men and dinosaurs lived at the same time!” But it seems to me that there is a difference in accepting an expert’s best guess as to what is going on in the present, and accepting his explanation about what happened in the past, or what he thinks is going to happen in the future. You bring your car to a mechanic and he says, “I can see your transmission is about to go out.” and you believe him. But when he tells you how he thinks it happened, or what he thinks is going to happen next, you think well, he might be right, but there’s also a chance that he might be wrong.

Creationists (or those who doubt global warming, to pick another topic Professor Kahan has studied) don’t necessarily doubt the ability of credentialed experts to make careful measurements and report their observations and explanations with reasonble integrity. But isn’t it natural to have a different standard of what it takes to be convinced regarding an explanation of what happened in the past or a prediction of what’s going to happen in the future? We’re used to relying on authority, but we’re also used to the idea that even a pretty reliable authority is probably not infallible, and might be more reliable in one area than another. So the inconsistency of believing someone on one topic but not another isn’t really an example of KD or at its core really inconsistent or irrational, is it?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    September 12, 2014 2:15 am

    He’s right. I commented earlier, but those are not the same evolutions, neither in form, presentation, or connectedness. In fact, I think we should stop using the term evolution for everything. It was much better when people used to say macroevolution and microevolution for instance.

  2. Tim permalink
    September 12, 2014 7:18 am

    Thanks, Praj, I like your smart thoughts, too. I appreciate what you’re doing with this blog and the motivation behind it.

    Victor is right about there being a number of distinctions between macroevolution and microevolution, but the reason they’re both covered by the same blanket term is the modern synthesis theory is that the essential mechanisms in both cases – mutation and natural selection – are the same. Given that, it’s not unreasonable to lump them together. But I wonder whether a study has been done on how many people accept microevolution as likely true but disbelieve macroevolution? That might provide clues on how better to teach evolution (if it is indeed necessary to teach it).

    Also have you seen this interesting article? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/3512686/Children-are-born-believers-in-God-academic-claims.html
    (my apologies if it’s considered inappropriate to put a link in the comments)

  3. September 12, 2014 2:08 pm

    Great title for a blog, and am very appreciative that you are asking this question. Also, per Kahan’s work and your own observations, it’s clear that in certain bounded domains humans can indeed operate and function well either without a competent knowledge of evolution, or, even under the view that evolution is not true.

    However, I take a broader view that Evolution, the fact of it and the relative recency of its discovery (150 years is in many ways a short time period in the human species timespan), poses special problem for human emotions, and our habitual reasoning and thinking. In other words, I think it’s no accident that you are asking the question, posed in the title of your blog. I think it’s very much the time, right now, to probe more deeply into the effect that the fact of evolution has on the human psyche. In addition, I think that there is no fact that compares with Evolution, in that it combines an enormous pile of evidence that was initially hard to come by, and, in its explanatory power to solve the mystery of our existence.

    But I am less convinced about some of the answers–early answers–you have produced so far (at least in my perusal of your posts). On the contrary, I think there’s alot of evidence mounting that cultural acceptance of evolution correlates well with better policy choices about education, health, safety, and public spending choices. And yes, it’s hard to draw bright lines of causality in this relationship. However, what we know is that the more collections of human beings accept scientific methods to solve human problems, such trends are encouraging of further acceptance of such scientific solutions. And, conversely, where collections of human beings deepen their embrace of faith and myth, there also you will find fertile ground for the growth of additional faith and myth.

    You need to reckon with some of the social data that emanates from those states or countries where evolution is broadly accepted (and likely not merely accepted but understood to a level of literacy) to inform better the answers you produce–per the question posed by your blog.

    Thanks for you work!

    G

    • Tim permalink
      September 13, 2014 7:47 am

      Gregor, What would be an example of evidence that cultural acceptance of evolution correlates well with better policy choices? I think your suggestion of looking at social data is reasonable, do you have any pointers to someone who has started down that path?

    • September 14, 2014 3:30 pm

      Thanks for the nice comments Gregor. Really appreciate it and especially your insistence that we approach these questions rigorously and with data. And so I echo Tim’s question…can you elaborate on what you mean? And do you think there’s a meaningful difference between “acceptance” of evolution vs. understanding it? Kahan’s research has shown that people who claim to believe evolution don’t understand it any better than the people who don’t. So is it merely “believing” that produces the better policy outcomes? If so, how?

      I’ll try to respond in greater detail in a response. But thanks again for engaging.

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