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Monday, December 20, 2010


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.


Chris said...

It's an interesting hypothesis, but how does it rectify with the fact that these statistics are unique to the US when juxtaposed to all other industrial countries.

What turned me off from the religious teachings of my church, and Mother, was exactly the inability of it to conform to my daily experience.

Miracles never occurred.
Prayers went unanswered.
Criminals often benefited themselves.

There just came a point where the quotidian (the word you used) of my life, couldn't mesh with the abstract teachings; atheism was the logical answer to this failure, and reading scientific research a mere corollary. Essentially, I was an atheist prior to exposure to science.

Murfmensch said...

The culture war was declared too soon. There are many places one cannot thrive if one declared oneself a creationist. Schools are one of them. Most mass media delivered strong contempt.

Belief in the equal worth of gays and lesbians (and in the permissibility of their preferences) is another cultural marker.

To be clear, I believe in evolution and GLBT equality. I worry about the consequences of the alienation that is clearly growing among those whose leaders keep asserting the irreconcilability of their faith with such commitments.

Murfmensch said...

BTW-- I just want to stress that Dr. Wolff has laid out a very good description of what is out there in irrational belief. It rings true alongside my experience growing up within the Arkansan Religious Public Sphere.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If Richard Dawkins is to be believed, the figures are pretty appalling in other countries [although not as bad as for the US.]. I think the answer lies partly in the excessive religiosity of the US, and partly in the worsening class divisions. But to some extent, this is a mystery to me.

Scott said...

David Friedman wrote a blogpost a while ago entitled "What Should Count as Nutty?":

Highly relevant to this discussion

English Jerk said...

Every time I open an umbrella in class to illustrate a point, nearly every student in class gasps with horror. Bad luck, I guess. I repeat the exercise every semester.

ADG said...

I love the header. You are right too. May I say this, I will:


Maciek said...

Are there statistics that say how many people believe in Santa Claus? We’ll see soon

Maciek said...

Are there statistics that say how many people believe in Santa Claus? We’ll see soon

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But there is direct confirmation of his existence! Children write letters to him, and he brings them the presents they asked for. How much more evidence do you need?

David Friedman said...

Good piece. It might even be right.

john c. halasz said...

If the poll is correct, then it just shows that religious believers don't know the Bible. The world is actually 6000 years old.

Cobb said...

I think all of this goes to show how little of our education in the first world is actually practical. Whenever I read of how stupid Americans are, I instantly think of how intelligent they actually need to be. It is a question central to the matter of progress and the degree to which the learned population is actually willing to profit from their relative advantage.

It certainly stands to reason that if the washing machine, for example, had never been invented and people had to wash their clothes by hand, they would have much less free time to educate themselves idly. And I believe this to be the case for most of the conveniences we enjoy, more recently Google, Wikipedia and even Wikileaks.

I happen to be reading Jonathan Swift and he has me in stitches in his telling of the absurd projects of the Laputans. How long indeed is the history of invention for the sake of convenience, and how long have people been privileged to avoid the unavoidable grief of hard won experience by dint of their intellectual indulgences.

I fail to see exactly what knowing the age of the planet does to improve one's life other than to mark one as one of the learned elite. Such intellectual trivia is often nothing more than the evangelical baggage of colonizers and missionaries.

Keep Gapminder in mind. So what exactly do people who have two orders of magnitude more income than the third world average actually need to know?

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

I don't think it's fair to only go after religious people. In my experience most people who believe in evolution and in a Solar System that is billions of years old aren't able to explain why and if you really press them they'll say something like "my science teacher told me". In other words, they accept evolution and a billions of years old Solar System based on authority, which is exactly what people who reject these doctrines do.

So try to get past self-deception and ask yourself honestly "If I were raised in a small Baptist community in the Bible Belt and my preacher, parents and other high-ranking members of the community taught that humans and dinosaurs lived together and that the earth was 6,000 years old, would I believe it too?" If your answer is anything short of an unequivocal "no" then don't be so quick to judge or name-call.

Chris said...

Scott, I grew up in a rather similar setting to what you just described. And I was unequivocally an agnostic by the the 5th grade, and an atheist by high-school. And it had nothing to do with science. I only began to read up on evolution, astronomy, etc, after high-school.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Scott, I am not sure you quite understood the thrust of my comment. My point was precisely that most of what we believe is taken on authority [or faith, if you wish] -- not only big ticket items like the age of the earth, but even such everyday things as what the capital of North Carolina is [where I live], or whether my car will run on anything other than gas from a pump. If I grew up in the circumstances you describe, I might or might not accept the Creationist story, but if I chose to reject it, that would be a dramatic and emotionally important moment in my life, which my rejection of it now is not. Airplanes fly and television sets work, so obviously someone knows something about how they do that, but I sure don't [save in a rather general and theoretical fashion]. I sometimes ask myself this question: If a plane I was in crashed in the Kalahari desert, and I was the only survivor, could I resurrect or invent the skills that the Zhu have who live there, so that I could live, as they do? Almost certainly the answer is no. If I had to, I could not dig up iron ore and turn it into usable metal, and yet nothing could be more fundamental to my entire way of life. I could not even produce a usable stone axe from stones I found on the ground.

This is why one hundred twenty million perfectly functional people can go through life believing absurd things.

David Friedman said...

You write:

"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."

I got curious, and went looking for your poll. Assuming it's the recent one from Gallup, you are badly misreporting the results:

"a full 40% of Americans still believe that God created humans in their current form 10,000 years ago, according to the latest Gallup poll."

So 10,000 years is for the creation of humans, not, as you reported it, for the creation of the earth. Inconsistent with the paleontological evidence but not with the geologic evidence.

And, so far as I can see from news stories on the poll, it had nothing at all about humans coexisting with dinosaurs.

Were you referring to a different poll?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nope, I was just misremembering what I read quickly. My apologies, and thanks for the correction. By the bye, my more general point still stands. Also, I would bet that if you askede that 40% how old they think the world was when God created human beings ten thousand years ago, you would very definitely get answers in the millions, let aqlone billions of years. But that is neither here nor there -- I did indeed report the poll incorrectly.