Katha Pollitt has an article in The Nation about the recent poll that shows remarkable consistency in the percentage of Americans who reject evolution. She notes that the numbers don’t even change for those who are college graduates, which is pretty depressing. So is this:
Why does it matter that almost half the country rejects the overwhelming evidence of evolution, with or without the hand of God? After all, Americans are famously ignorant of many things—like where Iran is or when World War II took place—and we are still here. One reason is that rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it.
I had a conversation with a guy recently on a Google+ hangout who was repeating creationist talking points on the subject. One of his arguments was that we’ve never observed the creation of a new species. He’s wrong, of course, we observe it pretty regularly. And I asked him if he had ever done a search of the scientific literature to find instances of observed speciation. He didn’t know what speciation is, nor had he ever bothered to look for anything about the subject other than creationist websites and pamphlets.
I’ve always been baffled by people like that. They really must think that virtually every biologist, geneticist, geologist, etc, in the world have been fooled by something that seems to obviously false to him — without ever bothering to educate himself on the subject at all. He has transcended mundane ignorance for virulent ignorance, substituting a bunch of platitudes for actual knowledge and giving himself the illusion that he knows what he’s talking about. But he doesn’t. And this tendency is not limited to evolution and creationism; it’s how most people reach conclusions on most subjects.
So why does it matter? Pollitt quotes a couple old friends and colleagues in the creationism battles:
Patricia Princehouse, director of the evolutionary biology program at Case Western Reserve University, laughed when I suggested to her that the Gallup survey shows that education doesn’t work. “There isn’t much evolution education in the schools,” she told me. “Most have no more than a lesson or two, and it isn’t presented as connected with the rest of biology.” In fact, students may not even get that much exposure. Nationally, Princehouse said, at least 13 percent of biology teachers teach “young earth” creationism (not just humans but the earth itself is only 10,000 years old or thereabouts), despite laws forbidding it, and some 60 percent teach a watered-down version of evolution. They have to get along with their neighbors, after all. In Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, a new law actually makes teaching creationism legal. “No one takes them to court,” Princehouse told me, “because creationism is so popular. Those who object are isolated and afraid of reprisals.” People tend to forget that Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes trial; until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 1968, it was illegal to teach evolution in public schools in about half a dozen states.
Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and practicing Catholic who is a leading voice against creationism, agrees with Princehouse. “Science education has been remarkably ineffective,” he told me. “Those of us in the scientific community who are religious have a tremendous amount of work to do in the faith community.” Why bother? “There’s a potential for great harm when nearly half the population rejects the central organizing principle of the biological sciences. It’s useful for us as a species to understand that we are a recent appearance on this planet and that 99.9 percent of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct.” Evangelical parents may care less that their children learn science than that they avoid going to hell, but Miller points out that many of the major challenges facing the nation—and the world—are scientific in nature: climate change and energy policy, for instance. “To have a near majority essentially rejecting the scientific method is very troubling,” he says. And to have solidly grounded science waved away as political and theological propaganda could not come at a worse time. “Sea-level rise” is a “left-wing term,” said Virginia state legislator Chris Stolle, a Republican, successfully urging its replacement in a state-commissioned study by the expression “recurrent flooding.”
Belief in creationism is a symptom of a larger problem, which is, as Pollitt says, the dismissal of evidence that conflicts with one’s religious beliefs. And that causes serious damage to both our public discourse and our public policy.