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The Stubbornness of Their Ignorance

Jonah Lehrer in the The New Yorker laments the stubbornness of public ignorance on scientific matters, especially evolution. The percentage of Americans who believe in versus doubt or reject Darwinian theory has stayed impressively stable for thirty years. The proportion of those agreeing with totally unguided, randomly driven evolution now stands at a meager 15 percent. Lehrer ponders this, and draws the predictable conclusion that doubters are the victim of our own limited brain power:

Such poll data begs the question: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?

A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance. As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue. For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there's the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don't seem to be evolving.

This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin.

He concludes with an invitation to readers of The New Yorker to feel a comforting pity for the unsophisticated majority:
It would be so much more convenient if the laws of physics lined up with our naïve beliefs -- or if evolution was wrong and living things didn't evolve through random mutation. But reality is not a mirror; science is full of awkward facts. And this is why believing in the right version of things takes work.

Of course, that extra mental labor isn't always pleasant. (There's a reason they call it "cognitive dissonance.") It took a few hundred years for the Copernican revolution to go mainstream. At the present rate, the Darwinian revolution, at least in America, will take just as long.

The problem with this analysis is that we are familiar, from long experience, with a no less impressively obdurate ignorance on the part of Darwin's believers. No doubt there are plenty of people who reject Darwinism on the basis of a gut response alone, who never have taken the time to probe the evolution controversy and who fail to realize that it has two sides, both of which have a case to make.

But many -- no, I take that back, almost all -- the public Darwin defenders I can think of give evidence of having meticulously insulated themselves from knowing what the other side says.

Forget for a moment about who, Darwinists or Design advocates, is actually right. If you took a sample of ID folks and a sample of Darwin people, specifically those who have felt confident enough in their views to write about them for publication, and then quizzed each group about what arguments their opponents offer, there's no question that those from the ID community would know better what their opposites in the debate say.

Just look at ENV as a convenient illustration. We strive to keep up with toughest challenges, such as they are, from evolutionists. Now look at the competing Darwin blogs. Guys like PZ Myers & Co. concentrate their fire on naïve young-earth creationists. Jerry Coyne and his colleagues in the Darwin-defending business are careful to stay unaware of the very serious challenges to Darwinism from ID.

Of that large portion of the media that remains committed to Darwin and never misses a chance to lash out at doubters, most are so utterly ignorant of the terms of the debate that that they cannot even distinguish intelligent design from creationism and use the terms interchangeably. You can point out their error again and again, but they never seem to understand.

It's common sense that human beings are hobbled by prejudices of all kinds. You didn't need a study in a scientific journal to tell you that. The beginning of wisdom, surely, is to recognize your own ill-founded preconceptions and areas of stubborn ignorance. To that project of self-enlightenment, the community of Darwin defenders is uncompromisingly resistant.