Why Do Smart People Reject Evolution?


What Gives?

Rafi Letzter, a science writer for the Business Insider, asks this question in a piece titled Why So Many Smart People Don’t Believe in Evolution. He begins with oft-repeated stats: only fifty percent of American adults believe in evolution, and most of those folks believe that G oversees the process. Othersbelieve in various strains of creationism that move on a sliding scale from Intelligent Design to the belief that G created everything in six literal days and buried fake fossils to fool all but true believers. Letzter comes to the question honestly: he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community where “schoolteachers laughed off dinosaurs and space travel as fairy tales.” (Space travel? I didn’t know that this was controversial among the conservatively religious.) He eventually left the community and admits that it bothers him that people who appear to be so genuinely smart as his Orthodox teachers can reject what evidence shows to be true. How and why do they do this?

Two Papers Help to Explain it

To answer his question, he refers to two papers. The first, published in 2015 and titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief, careened through the Internet a few years ago to ‘prove’ that the non-religious are smarter than the religious. Whatever proof means in this context, the authors asked people these questions:

Imagine a widget. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

Next, think of a bat and ball. Together a bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Now think if a patch of lily-pads in a lake. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

(See Letzter’s piece for the answers.)

Letz_O'ReilyNote two things: one is that for each question, an intuitive and seemingly obvious answer – a gut feeling – pops into most people’s minds. It does to me. The other thing to notice is that this intuitive, gut-feeling answer is wrong. The authors argue that less religious people will stop and challenge themselves, to take a minute to see if what they are thinking aligns with facts. Less rigorous thinkers, they say, are more willing to accept what appears obvious. The paper’s authors addressed evolution directly finding a correlation between those who scored lower on the test and those who don’t believe in evolution. They posit that these people are more comfortable with what ‘seems’ right. These are folks who might say, ‘Everything I see is made by someone, so the world and animals must be created.’ Though the paper was trotted out to the internet to the consternation of the faithful, the authors ‘urge caution in interpreting…the implications of the present results.’ They recognize the difficulty of generalizing about all peoples based on their one paper. I think it’s more nuanced. When I read it, I stop every time to calculate the cost of the ball and bat. It’s what I do. I like this stuff. My wife would hardly read the paper, let alone worry about the questions. To me, it’s a paper that concludes that ‘scientists like to do science stuff.’

But Letzter isn’t happy about the paper. He feels the paper “attempt[s] to marginalize and dismiss the perspectives of religious people.” He looks to a study by Dan Kahan and Keith Stanovich (here) that argues that people with finely honed reasoning skills are more skilled at being reasonable. If that sounds circular and obvious to you, then you must have finely honed reasoning skills. I think this is an appropriate response. Some level of mathematical thinking is needed to answer the three questions posed above. To conclude that people with some level of algebraic skills are better able to answer algebraic questions is circular. More work is needed to parse the differences between a religious and secular mindset.

Letzter reels like a drunkard through the science vs. religion question in his wrap up. Regarding Kahan and Stanovich’s paper, Letzter remarks that:

“It’s a more challenging argument to accept if you’re a person who sees science as our only effective tool for extracting something like objective truth from an uncaring and chaotic universe – and who fears the consequences of rejecting it. It’s far less comforting than telling yourself  ‘Oh, well those people are just dumb.’ “

Truthy and Scientism


Letzter makes a common mistake imagining that science seeks ‘objective truth,’ Truth with a capital T. It doesn’t. Science describes nature. And any truth revealed by science is only as strong as the next piece of evidence. Many scientists are religious, and almost all are just fine with others being religious. What should be irksome to Letzter is when the religious deny evidence a priori because of religious views. This is the real issue with creationism. Science researchers routinely battle over evidence: it’s part and parcel of the scientist job description. Religious folk can, and do, join the fray, but to engage science, they must argue with evidence, not with the tenets of their faith, sans any evidence. Letzter notes that Kahan and Stanovich describe certain people as ‘more skilled at explaining to themselves why they shouldn’t – or should – accept a verifiable scientific claim”. What kind of upside-down logic extols the virtue of not accepting a ‘verifiable scientific claim?’

Letzter goes on.

“We should be skeptical of anyone who publishes a study explaining why people who disagree with them are less clever.”

Yes. Agreed. We should be skeptical. We should always be skeptical. But this research isn’t about being clever. It’s about people who hold on a belief in the face of opposing facts that argue otherwise. The question isn’t whether evolutionists are more clever than Orthodox Jewish teachers – I don’t even know what that means – the question is, why do the Orthodox hold on to beliefs contrary to facts? Science doesn’t seek to marginalize, but why shouldn’t we marginalize the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old when everything other than one interpretation of one religious book tells us differently?

Letzter concludes by slipping into the canard of scientism: the Talmud scholars from his childhood, with extreme powers of persuasion, can convince themselves that what they believe is right even in light of facts that argue otherwise. “Oddly enough,” writes Letzter, “that’s the very same route that leads many secular people to place their faith in science.” I’m not sure what he means, nor am I ever sure what ‘placing your faith in science’ means.

For many people, facts are subservient to faith, culture, and family. We don’t fight wars over scientific facts. We fight them over religion. We fight them because our brother was beaten up by those other people. We fight them because G told us that we own this part of the planet.

“What a scary thought’, he concludes. On that, we agree.

My Experience

A few thoughts about Letzter’s piece.

First is that he assumes we all agree on who smart people are and what they believe. His article is about the leaders and teachers of the Orthodox community where he was raised, but doesn’t’ define what makes them smart. In the same vein, I can talk about people who read Latin like I read English as smart. It doesn’t necessarily follow. I work with lots of smart people, too. People who can recite the most arcane regulatory document form 1964 off the top of their heads. But, you know what’s weird to me? When you step away from academics, these people, almost to a one, argue all day long about politics, the president, religion, year-round school, or whether or not bell-bottomed jeans looked good or not. Is smart the ability to recite facts or an ability to, somehow, see past facts, to see how facts fit together into a whole? There are lots of people who would strongly argue that any belief in a primitive, middle-Eastern He-man G, by definition, makes you something other than smart.

LetzterRichard Feynman tells the story of being accosted in a motel where he was staying during the space shuttle hearings by a group of Orthodox believers. They pulled him aside in an elevator and wanted him to agree with them that ‘electricity’ is really ‘fire.’ Confused, he asked them to explain. They argued that electricity, the thing that gives light and drives the elevator, is really fire captured in wire and transferred from place to place in wires like a hose. I don’t remember what answered he gave, but his question in the story was similar to Letzter’s: how can people believe this stuff?

Sometimes – not often -I’ve had people tell me that biologic evolution as it’s taught in colleges is simply untenable, impossible. They argue that, just like a study of Irish poetry, the conclusions you are expected to arrive at is a given. You take evolution class to learn what to believe about evolution. The goal is to teach you what the in-crowd believes a priori. Your grade matches your level of adherence to the story. If you want to be one of the in-crowd, if you want a job or research money, then you need to align with the religion of evolution. But, almost to a person, in deeper conversation, these folks argue for a god, and that god moved in a way that leads to modern humans. This is certainly possible, but I’m not sure what kind of evidence we would see, what kind of ‘signature.’ G – terrifyingly transcendent – would not have to leave any signature if they didn’t want to.

There are at least two paths here. One is to accept natural evidence as we understand. In this case, evolution is probably the most studied and documented theory in science. Any one of its building blocks can be argued against, but it is almost certainly a building block in another scientific idea. Thus, when you mess with biology, you mess with geology, cosmology, physics, and everything else. Facts don’t exist in a vacuum.

The second path is that you can believe what your book says in an a priori fashion. If you are Hindi, you believe that the earth and universe are created and destroyed in a continuous cycle. It can happen, and I won’t say it doesn’t. Jews, Muslims, and Christians believe in the Pentateuch stories. Not just as worthwhile stories, telling truths about humanity, but as textbooks that record actual records. For this reason, I give a hat tip to the folks at Answers in Genesis. I’ve heard Ken Ham speak – I’ve spoken to him on the radio though he wouldn’t remember – about G, the Bible, and science. Well, his view of science. He argues, consistently, I think, that he doesn’t care what science says or what so-called evidence points to. The real question to Ham is, what does the Bible tell us. What the Bible says is a question open to a thousand interpretations, but not to Ham. He argues that maybe science tells us that the earth and universe are millions or billions of years old. So what? The Bible tells us this other thing, and it’s not incumbent on G to explain to us the difference. I don’t agree with his position regarding almost anything in science but have to respect his theological position.

Conversely, I can’t help but think that other groups try to put science and theology together to make it a working whole. Old-earth creationism does, this, I think. Perry Marshall with Evolution 2.0 does this and, in fact, most Christian groups with a hope of gaining any footing in modern culture do the same thing.

But that’s another story, outside the bounds of evolution…


For further reading, check out these books:

Faith Versus Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne . Good reading. Coyne leans strongly to the atheist corner, and all of his arguments come from the vantage. The science, as always, is superb.

Science and Religion, A Historical Introduction, Gary Ferngren (Editor)

Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett. A veritable college education in consistent thinking.

The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Richard Feynman. Thoughts about, what else, the meaning of it all, by one of the smarts humans to have graced the planet. Maybe. My perspective…

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