Jerry Coyne reviews Genie Scott’s talk at the Imagine No Religion conference. It’s mostly positive — Genie always gives a thoughtful talk — but there are obvious points of disagreement.
In the talk, Genie said several times that if you want to change people’s minds—about either climate-change denialism or evolution—the most effective way to reach them is through someone who has a similar “ideology,” be that religious or political. In other words, to make a creationist Christian accept evolution, the best way is for an evolution-accepting Christian of the same denomination to convince them that evolution isn’t inimical to their religious beliefs. (That’s what the “Faith Project” of the NCSE is about.) I suppose this wouldn’t work very well for fundamentalist believers, since no other fundamentalists accept evolution!
I vaguely recall some psychological research showing that people are more convinced in the “lab” under such circumstances, and certainly Dan Barker, in his talk, began his road to apostasy by pondering statements by fellow Christians. But I’m still not sure Genie was right.
I’m not so sure either. I don’t think it’s true that the person doing the convincing has to share the same ideology — it’s messier than that. And what do you know, I had just read a very good article on why people persist in believing things that just aren't true. I suspect that the psychological research Coyne vaguely recalls is the work of Nyhan and Lewandowsky.
False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected.
It’s the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people’s beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior. For example, when women are asked to state their gender before taking a math or science test, they end up performing worse than if no such statement appears, conforming their behavior to societal beliefs about female math-and-science ability. To address this so-called stereotype threat, Steele proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Steele’s research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.
Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.
Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. “People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves,” he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts—it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.
I think the simpler version of that is that if you’re trying to persuade a religious person to accept the truth, you can’t come at it with the approach, “Religious people are stupid. You must accept evolution, or you are stupid.” They resist. They don’t think of themselves as stupid, so they immediately know you are wrong. Or alternatively, they immediately identify with religion, and what they hear you saying is confirmation that religious people do not accept evolution, therefore you have just told them what position a good religious person must accept in this argument.
To address this concern does not require that the evolutionist also be a Christian. I don’t usually go all barking attack dog on creationists, one on one, either — the art of persuasion involves finding common ground, and then showing that to be consistent with their own values, they should recognize that one position is wrong. (Note that the sole value some Christians hold is that the Bible is authoritative and literally true — I can’t really find common ground with them, they’re too far gone. But the majority just have vaguely sympathetic feelings for God and church — they can be reached.)
Coyne also has some ire for the theistic evolutionist perspective, as well. So do I. I think it distorts the science in an ugly way. It’s effective with some soft creationists in the same way the approach I mentioned in the last paragraph works. You find common ground: “I believe in God, too!” Then, unfortunately, to bring them around to your side, what you then do is produce a mangled, false version of evolution — “It’s guided by a higher power!” — in order to get them to accept “evolution”. A gutless, mechanistically compromised version of evolution.
No thanks. Darwin’s great insight was that you don’t need an overseer guiding evolution — that local responses to the environment will produce efficient responses that will yield a pattern of descent and diversity and complexity. To replace “intent was unnecessary” with “God provided intent” does deep violence to the whole theory, and completely misses the point.