A new poll reveals that 40% of Americans believe that the earth was created ten thousand years ago, and that human beings and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. An absolute majority of Republicans claim to believe that.
What are we to make of this? On the face of it, this seems to means that there are perhaps one hundred twenty million mind-numbingly stupid, soul-crushingly ignorant people in America. It appears to mean that when you walk down the street in a city or town that voted Republican in the last election, every second person you pass is mentally incapable of adding a column of figures or following a recipe or reading a newspaper.
But common sense tells us that this cannot be so, because these same people drive school buses, run supermarkets, manage large companies, perform delicate surgery, fix computers, teach school, write novels, run heavy machinery, and sort mail at the post office. They handle bank accounts, earn college degrees, dress themselves each morning, and even succeed in speaking recognizable English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, or some other natural language. So what on earth is going on? I have a hypothesis that I think explains the facts, and gives us some insight into the results of opinion polls of this sort.
Like all people, I live my quotidien life in a rather circumscribed sphere, a sphere in which I function with reasonable efficiency and intelligence. It is the world of my household, my family and friends, my job [if I have one], and the assortment of mechanical objects that I operate on a daily basis -- my stove, my microwave oven, my telephone, my computer, my car. I manage my bank account, pay for things I buy with my credit card, on occasion travel to another city by airplane or car. In this world, my beliefs and expectations are constantly being tested by experience, and I make repeated corrections to adjust for errors in those beliefs and expectations. If I think that I can get to the supermarket by turning left when I exit the front door of my condominium building, I will very quickly learn that I am mistaken, and that in fact I must turn right to get there. Since I do not like wandering aimlessly, looking for the supermarket, especially when it is cold, as it is right now, I pay attention to what experience tells me, and turn right the next time I go to the store. If a preacher or a televangelist or a political rabble-rouser tried to tell me that the supermarket is to the left, and that turning to the right reveals me to be an apostate or a follower of the Antichrist, I would give him [or her] short shrift.
But I also carry about with me a complex mental construction into which I fit a vast number of beliefs about things that rarely or never turn up in my immediate experience and quotidien life. I believe that the solar system came into existence four and a half or five billion years ago. I believe that life arose first in a unicellular form [or perhaps even without clearly defined cells], and evolved slowly, with many world-wide die backs, to its present complexity. Having read some books on the subject, I can probably conjure up, if called upon to do so, some array of evidence and arguments in support of this belief. But even though as a boy I used to go to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and look at what purported to be fossils, I have never actually been on an archaeological dig. The closest I have come was a brief visit to a famous site in South Africa called Makaponshut, from which I surreptitiously stole a microlith sticking out of one face of the cave wall. [I trust the statute of limitations has run on that crime]. I believe that the earth is an oblate spheroid, but I have never gone up in a space capsule from which I could see that shape with my own eyes. I did indeed watch the television images of the first man to walk on the moon, but then I have also watched many episodes of Star Trek on television, and I have no direct way of telling which of the two was fact and which fiction.
Now, there really is nothing in my direct experience that confirms or disconfirms these wider structures of belief, in the way that my belief about how to operate a car or a microwave or how to find my way to the supermarket is directly confirmed or disconfirmed by my sensory experience. So if I choose to reject what I have been told by teachers and television specials and officially proclaimed experts about the age of the earth and the processes by which the world in which I live came to be, this refusal will have not the slightest effect on my daily life. To be sure, if the world really was created ten thousand years ago, then the scientific rationale for the medical treatment I receive when I am sick collapses. But that does not alter the fact that I will receive the treatment, for -- contrary to my secret fantasies -- patients are not required to forswear Creationism before receiving antibiotics or radiation therapy.
My explanation of the fact that 40% of Americans embrace Creationism is this: That rejection of science is their way of giving the finger to those high-brow better-than-thou educated liberal types who in a thousand ways flaunt their social, cultural, and intellectual superiority. It is of a piece with the body-piercing and tattooing and rock music and outrageous hair styles that served an earlier generation of rebels as visible, irritating ways of challenging authority.
Are there consequences to this rejection of scientific truth? You bet. But those consequences are sufficiently distant, complex, and unconnected to immediate experiential confirmations and disconfirmations so that in the short term, there is no price to be paid in daily life for embracing absurdities and superstitions. Let us recall, after all, that most of the people in the world, for most of history, have professed religious beliefs that flew in the face -- that fly in the face -- of the evidence, and yet they have managed to function on a daily basis reasonably well.
I take polls about people's beliefs as being thermometer readings of their degree of alienation, not as measures of their cognitive functioning. Still and all, it does make me nervous, when I leave the bubble of Chapel Hill, to realize that I am surrounded by masses of religious nuts.