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On lines of causality

September 15, 2014

Yet again a commenter has provided some fantastic insights. I encourage you to read Gregor’s thoughts on my last post. For now I’d like to discuss these paragraphs:

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 a lot 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…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. [Emphasis added – PK]

Although I’m skeptical of Gregor’s claims, I appreciate the insistence that evidence matters. I do, after all, spend much time and effort critiquing and debating the evidence that rejecting evolution is harmful.

But even if I’m wrong, and even if you could establish some lines of causality, it’s important to acknowledge they will inevitably be provisional and speculative. The number of variables are too large and the system too complex to ever confidently claim that belief in evolution causes better (by what metric?) policy outcomes.

In which case we’re left with, at best, a very, very faint line. And it’s not at all clear what we would do with that evidence. It’s especially unclear how we should use it to respond to individuals who don’t believe in evolution. We’re in the realm of trends and generalizations that I addressed about 10 months ago. Forgive me as I quote myself:

Imagine we produce data showing that in the aggregate belief in creationism correlates with (just to pick one) poor mathematical reasoning. How should we respond to this evidence? How should it affect what we think of individual creationists? What about the language used when discussing them as a group?

Consider the debates surrounding gender and science ability or race and crime. When it comes to these issues, liberal Americans (i.e. my social circle) relentlessly insist that individuals can’t be judged by group averages. We often ruthlessly question the data itself. We look at historical context. We recognize the pernicious impact of sloppy language and crude generalizations, and we angrily denounce them. We caution against basing laws or policy on these data.

And you know what? That’s how we should respond! I’m very happy we do so. If we value consistency, shouldn’t we at least try to adopt the same approach with respect to creationists? Why don’t we?

I humbly submit that we must respond to any alleged lines of causality in this manner: by remembering to treat people as individuals.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    September 17, 2014 7:45 am

    I appreciate your stance regarding the goodness of the liberal value of respecting people, in general, regardless of what group they may hail from, and resisting the impulse to judge someone’s ability or lack thereof in any particular area based on their group affiliation. I agree with you.

    I think, related to the topic of prejudices against creationists, and lines of causality between rejection of evolution and other outcomes (academic, scientific in general, prediction of policy choices along a number of lines, or larger social outcomes), there are a number of different interesting questions, and I’m curious as to what research has been done to get at the answers. I’ll say something more about this, but it may take a minute to formulate a good question. I might have to look through some of your earlier posts to see if you’ve already pointed to something that may have some answers.

  2. Victor permalink
    September 20, 2014 3:56 am

    Looks like you’re generating good conversation. All I will say is that Gregor has could points, that the problems you are addressing or the data we’re referencing is not necessarily true everywhere. The other difficulty in this conversation is that every time I read a post and then read comments and replies to that post, I am actually not sure what people mean when they say or write “evolution.” Sometimes I wonder if people in the same conversation are referring to the same thing. Regardless, it would be good for you and Gregor to compare notes or just to define this elusive term “evolution” before then comparing country data on countries where “evolution” is aligned with literacy levels (that would be interested in high literacy countries like Cuba or North Korea).

    Regarding averages, I have two responses. First, of course, you cannot pre-judge someone according to an average. You shouldn’t pre-judge them at all (this is beyond the context of averages). It’s like profiling. Secondly, averages are better in some situations and worse in others at describing central tendency. Remember, that there are three measures of central tendency in classical statistics–mean, mode, and median. And in many cases the mean is horrible at giving you the central tendency. You have to use what is best in each case or even work to develop new models of central tendency if you want to describe the central tendency of a group in regards to thought, action, description, or belief.

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