Political Animal


June 11, 2012 3:06 PM Science Denial Is a Large and Growing Problem

By Ryan Cooper

Darwin, via

Kevin Drum isn’t happy with the latest talk around the long-running evolution belief survey, and people wringing their hands over the fact that nearly half of American’s espouse a recent creationism view when it comes to humankind:

Come on. This 46% number has barely budged over the past three decades, and I’m willing to bet it was at least as high back in the 50s and early 60s, that supposed golden age of comity and bipartisanship. It simply has nothing to do with whether we can all get along and nothing to do with whether we can construct a civil discourse.
The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.
And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

I think this goes too far. For starters, saying evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology is to say that there is no 10th grade understanding of biology, at all. Evolution is the single most important concept in biology, the idea that changed it from a random collection of facts to a real scientific discipline. Biology without evolution is akin to physics without math, and denying it is akin to denying heliocentrism.

Furthermore, I say a lack of wide understanding of evolution is hurting the country, most obviously in the form of antibiotic resistance. Industrial feedlots grow their animals stewed in powerful antibiotics to shave their operating costs, which is leading to bacteria evolving past them and resistant infections cropping up in humans. It’s a classic case of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, which are tough to overcome in any case, but an understanding of evolution makes the situation immediately and alarmingly obvious, while disbelief can cloud the situation. Witness hack “scientists” at Liberty University, who publish work quibbling with the details of the evidence and thereby muddy the conversation. I’m not saying that’s the only factor, but surely if 80 percent of the country had a strong understanding of evolution, it would be easier to horsewhip the FDA into outlawing antibiotic use in non-sick animals.

More fundamentally, science denial in general is growing like gangbusters on the right, most obviously with respect to climate change. All the denier techniques now in common use among people like Jim DeMint—hysterical accusations, the fog of bogus but science-y sounding data, incessant TV appearances of the few deniers with actual credentials, taking things out of context, character assassination, repetition of debunked talking points, etc.—all these were perfected in the trenches of the evolution-creationism wars. It’s no accident that global warming denial found such fertile ground on the right.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • boatboy_srq on June 11, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Teaching dogma as truth is harmful - even in the higher-level study of dogma.

    Case in point: my university required two semesters of religious study for all undergrads. No doubt it was intended by the trustees to carry Bible Study into collegiate life for all students. Theology taught the course material as a more - um, enlightened, reading of The Book.

    We were somewhere in Kings, I think, beginning the day's material with a verse constructed as "And then [insert figure in narrative] went to [insert place in narrative] and [insert action performed by person in variable 1 at place in variable 2]." I no longer remember who, where, or what was done. I only remember this much because five minutes into the lecture, one of my classmates raised his hand. The professor stopped, and the dialogue went like this:

    Prof: Yes?
    kid: Why?
    Prof: .... What?
    kid: Why did he do that? (quotes verse again)
    Prof: It doesn't say: it just tells us that he did it.
    kid: Well, then, where does it say?

    What followed was five more minutes of the kid scanning through the entire OT looking for chapter/verse to explain why the initial verse's actions were performed, and the prof responding with some more erudite version of "It just ain't in there, kid."

    Now, this was a college sophomore who asked this question.

    If a religious-based education can produce this kind of ignorance about Scripture, how much more can an religious-inspired education produce about more tangible subjects?

    Captcha: erfdon Scriptures,. How appropriate.

  • Edward Witten on June 11, 2012 4:38 PM:

    I would say that -- unlike, say, the theory of relativity -- evolution is one of the great
    scientific ideas that tenth graders actually can understand, and hence it is a shame not to teach it.

  • Hedda Peraz on June 11, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Flat Earthers/Snake Handlers/God Fearing Warming Deniers know deep down that they are not equipped for life in the modern world. And haven't been since Grandpap made his own whiskey and "homespun" was what your clothes were made out of.
    So they band together in local clans and listen to snake oil peddlers (AKA Jim Demint) who separate them from their disability checks.
    "Disability" Now THERE is an appropriate term. . .

  • LaFollette Progressive on June 11, 2012 4:40 PM:

    This is a good response to Drum. The problem is much bigger than evolution in and of itself.-The problem is that evolution denialism is a leading indicator for a broader rejection of academic expertise, in general.

    A democratic polity that resists expert opinion, is one that is highly vulnerable to phony-populist narratives that play to their own sense of self-importance, and tell them the truth is whatever the monied interests with the biggest megaphones want them to believe.

  • Blue Girl on June 11, 2012 4:47 PM:

    Here's the thing about science . . . it goes on being true whether you believe it or not, and in spite of what some dull-witted preacher or politician who doesn't have the faculties to understand it says.

    Captcha says "mershod himself" -- I say that's his business as long as he isn't hurting anyone else.

  • PaminBB on June 11, 2012 4:56 PM:

    This biologist agrees with you, Ryan. Evolution explains a lot, and the more we learn, the clearer things get, despite the protestations of the know-nothings and their enablers.

    One quibble - the anti-science tactics were first pioneered with Big Tobacco fighting accumulating medical evidence.

  • neil b on June 11, 2012 4:59 PM:

    I tend to think fairly highly of Kevin, but this:
    "The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology."
    is not true. Evolution makes the subject sensible, it frames it and makes sense of the relationships between things.

    Note also, the increase by 6 percentage points in last couple years of those who believe "God recently created humans in modern form." Hmmm. It's part of that teaparty resurgence.

    Haha, craptcha "denudation" - when Adam and Eve put on those fig leaves I guess ... BTW their children had to marry each other, makes you wonder about the later intolerance of sexual "oddities."

  • Mary on June 11, 2012 5:03 PM:

    I agree with part of the discussion: I work in genomics, and creationism has no bearing on the cutting-edge work going on right now. However, I do remember holding my breath during the Bush administration while submitting a grant with the words "evolutionary relationships" in it.

    Unlike stem cells, I think the evolution drama is mostly an educational system issue + battlefront. However--like stem cells, it's a proxy for non-scientific thinking and religious pushback on research.

  • ocularity on June 11, 2012 5:09 PM:

    I agree that there's more going on here. When a semester's-worth of teaching can be explained away with one Sunday's-worth of fundamentalist preaching, a kid will develop a lifelong contempt for knowledge. That goes beyond just mistrust of experts. They resists accumulating knowledge themselves.
    Too cool for school.

  • Mitch on June 11, 2012 5:14 PM:

    @Blue Girl,

    But it certainly matters when the child is raised to believe a bunch of mythological nonsense. That's precisely where Jihadists originate. Truth is, unfortunately, irrelevant if half of the population not only disbelieves it, but also heaps upon truth mountains of scorn.

    "THIS is the truth," says the cleric (whatever his title/creed), "And if you do not believe this truth and do everything that we say to a 'T' then you will be doomed to pain for all time. You will hate who we tell you to hate, you will think what we tell you to think. You will remain meek and humble - and don't worry about suffering in this life. You'll be rewarded plenty in the next. Follow us and have Eternal Life. Ignore us and know torture forever."

    I come from an extremely religious family (Southern Baptist Fundamentalists) and was raised in precisely this environment. And I feel, frankly, that Biblical Literalists are nearly all Rubes. They are nearly all VERY easily duped by bankers, politicians, employers, con men and other manipulators. I only say "nearly all" as a caution; every single one that I know is, indeed, a Rube.

    It's no coincidence that the Literalists are the who are most likely to vote against their interest. By keeping the focus of their believers on their petty world-view, they are able to convince people do do nearly anything. They want to keep people's concept of humanity and the universe (and themselves) small, that way they are more likely to hand over their dollars to the collection plate, or had religious authorities more and more power.

    That (above even my personal love of science, nature and the beautiful truth of evolution via natural selection) is why I feel it is crucial that children are taught science. And what is science? Simply this one sentence: If it disagrees with experiment and observaion then it is wrong.

    To end on a positive note (sorta) here's some Sagan:

    "In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed!”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

    – Carl Sagan

  • Mimikatz on June 11, 2012 5:16 PM:

    PaminBB is right--the techniques were perfected in the Tobacco Wars.

    Science denial is growing. I remember reverence for science, although maybe it was just technology, in the '50s and '60s. It was more explicit anti-intellectualism and anti-liberal expertise (epitomized by Wallace and his "pointy-headed intellectuals" in the '60s. It wasn't something one would hear from political or media figures as serious views. Nixon wasn't anti-science, for example. Now it is mainstreamed, partly for the reasons Hedda Peraz expresses but also because it is a handy weapon against regulation and serves the interests of several major economic sectors, like fossil fuels as well as tobacco and Pharma.

  • fostert on June 11, 2012 5:50 PM:

    "The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology."

    Is that like how teaching calculus only adds slightly to the understanding of physics? Fact is, even Newton couldn't do physics right until he invented calculus. I'm no biologist, but it seems biology without evolution would make about as much sense as physics without calculus.

  • arkie on June 11, 2012 5:55 PM:

    I take exception with Kevin on this point: "The fact is that belief in evolution...."

    One does not "believe" in evolution. One accepts the evidence for evolution. Evolution is not a belief system. It is the best current explanation for what we see going on around us and in the past. If evidence for a better explanation is discovered, rational people will accept that.

    And the issue here isn't that 46% of the population reject evolution. It is that 46% reject science and the scientific method that is the entire basis for the past three hundred years of progress. (See also climate change.)

    Jacob Bronowski had this to say about the famous 17th Century creationist, Bishop Ussher (he determined that the universe was created the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC): "Armed as he was with dogma and ignorance..." That is a perfect description of the 21st Century's anti-science movement - aka, the Republican Party.

  • R on June 11, 2012 6:17 PM:

    You can't understand genetics without understanding evolution, and if you can't understand genetics, what's the point? While Drum was composing his piece about ignorance, he should have consulted with a biologist to make sure he wasn't displaying his own.

    Captcha: "Promoso Healing." Well, if you don't believe that pathogens evolve to resist antibiotics, and you try to stick with penicillin, there may be no promise o' healing. Well, I tried. Oh wait -- it just changed to "eroging doctrine." That's just too easy. Your doctrine is eroding our society's evolution toward something better. OH NO -- it didn't work. Now it's "rtheens addition," and I must be in Captcha purgatory.

  • cthulhu on June 11, 2012 6:50 PM:

    I think evolution is quite beneficial to early science education and for biology in particular. The basic concept is readily understood at the high school level though it does take some detailed study perhaps best left to college to comprehend the finer points.

    I would note, however, that Ryan's example of antibiotic resistance is probably not useful. It seems these days the creationists are fine with the idea of micro-evolution which applies to bacteria, etc., they just deny macro-evolution for more complex living things, and certainly humans. And I've yet to see any religious organization claim that antibiotic resistance is some sort of scientific scam.

  • castanea on June 11, 2012 7:32 PM:

    Why don't I ever get any cool Captchas?

    Although I hold no religious beliefs of my own, I've always thought there was fertile ground for religious people of an Abrahamic bent to adopt evolution seriously as the method a deity used to create humankind.

    "He planted a seed in the primordial soup billions of years ago and watched over it as it grew into something as complex as the human brain" sounds more imposing to me than "He made Adam and snakes and dirt and so forth, all within six days."

    It also allows people who are fearful of their own mortality the chance to accept both a deity and science.

    Then again, I suppose the preachers peddling young earth creationism aren't doing so as a way of understanding the world, but merely as a way of shearing the sheep.

  • Steve P on June 11, 2012 8:06 PM:

    And here you see the greatest roadblock to anything resembling a national curriculum. Creation science wouldn't even get into the room where they're writing the science curriculum. The only way it can survive is for a thousand little school boards to be bombarded by a cadre of blessedly assured loudmouths able to cow craven administrators and board members.

  • Tess on June 11, 2012 8:32 PM:

    Some people believe that religion was created by man to control man. And who better to do it than the elites of the day. Extremely few people could even read during the time of the bible (or most of the great religious books), so their beliefs were naturally whatever the teachers/philosopers wrote. In those primitive times, religion may have served to civilize us....(or not.) How else do you get people to stop eating bad pork or bopping their sisters without some pretty scary stories. Ignorance and blind faith were necessary for it to work.

    The religious right NEEDS people to be ignorant and void of critical thinking as do the corporations that fill their pockets by exploiting earths resources. If young people start wondering how a God that created a universe so spectacular that it gives us the Grand Canyon and the "transit of Venus" could possibly care whether two people of the same sex want to get married....then the game is up.

    It may or may not be true that God created man in his own image, but it is certainly true that man created God in his own image. How else could we find ourselves with a God that is so small he/she fits into Pat Robertson's pocket.

  • tsts on June 11, 2012 9:46 PM:

    I think Kevin Drum is right on this one. Not accepting evolution is nutty, but it is not that consequential. I think there are two useful things to keep in mind here:

    First, science denial is not unique to right wingers. I live in the hard of Park Slope, Brooklyn, pretty much the most liberal place in the US. And I am definitely a liberal. But listen for a few minutes to the average Park Slope Coop member (google it if you don't know it) about food and health issues, and you get the impression that they are all nuts. Wonderful people, but batshit crazy when it comes to science. Homeopathy, cancer miracle cures, immunization/autism claims, it all makes sense to them. And it has no basis in science.

    Second, science denial comes in range of flavors, from dangerous to harmless. Evolution denial and claims about colon cleansing: probably not that dangerous. Denial of global warming and miracle cancer cures, on the other hand, actual have the potential to kill a lot of people. So be more concerned about those.

    There is one important difference between the right and the left, though: While many people on the left believe in such nonsense, everyone seems to believe a slightly different set of nonsense, and no candidate has to check the box on colon cleansing in order to be put on the ballot. On the other, positions such as climate change and evolution have become part of the platform that many Republican candidates have to agree to or else.

    So that does make a difference. And it also makes it easier to detect in polls, since you only need to ask two questions rather than having to probe dozens of crackpot theories. Now I just hope I can survive my next coop shift without someone bringing up their theories on nutrition, health, etc. Really painful to listen to.

  • James M on June 12, 2012 12:32 AM:

    @Tess: "The religious right NEEDS people to be ignorant and void of critical thinking as do the corporations that fill their pockets by exploiting earths resources."

    There are a lot of things about organized religion that I don't like. However, I am not sure that I agree with you that religion has to necessarily encourage stupidity or ignorance. Personally, I prefer individual spiritual activity, but I do think that religion has a legitimate (and often positive) place in society.

    In my opinion, one of the legitimate criticisms of liberals and progressives is that we are sometimes 'hyper-rational'. For better or worse, the human mind is hard-wired much like a CPU: we have to have some operating system to function. As the wise old scientist stated in the classic submarine movie: "Hell and High Water: Every man has his own reason for living and his own price for dying". Everyone believes something, whether or not it happens to be based on some major religious tradition.

    That might be one reason why progressive do so purely in elections. People are never entirely motivated by dry, rational calculations, and many people of belief correctly perceive that they are held in contempt by educated liberals and progressives. Of course we should expose charlatans and call out lies and distortions when we see them. However, making fun of religions and religious people is not going to do us any good electorally.

  • jhm on June 12, 2012 6:58 AM:

    @PaminBB, et alii: I encourage you to study the history of efforts to reduce the effects of lead poisoning, if you are interested in business supported anti-science tactics. Another good topic is the documentary Trade Secrets concerning more modern sorties by the chemicals sector.

    I thank Mr. Cooper for the well deserved pushback on Mr. Drum's untenable position. I encourage readers to scan the comments of the piece for an uncharacteristically coherent and rational discussion of the teaching of mathematics.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on June 12, 2012 8:00 AM:

    Don't be fooled into thinking that the RightWingTards have any limit to their ambitions.

    When they scent victory in shutting down abortion, they're gearing up to attack contraception.

    Evolution is just the first step in their science-denial plan. Heliocentrism is on the list, count on it.

    I used to wonder how nations could be so stupid to get themselves stuck in an economic depression. I also used to wonder how civilizations could be so stupid as to get themselves in a Dark Age. I wonder no longer. Thanks, GOP!

  • Yellow Dog on June 12, 2012 10:52 AM:

    Thank you, Ryan! Kevin is dead wrong on this, and dangerously wrong. Excellent concise explanation why.

  • cleek on June 12, 2012 2:32 PM:

    no. the cause of antibiotic over-use isn't that people don't understand evolution, it's that they Do Not Give A Shit about the potential for resistance. farmers want to get their livestock to market in as best shape as they can, using the least amount of money they can spend - and flooding the animals with cheap antibiotics is still a viable way to do that. until the antibiotics stop working well enough to justify the cost, they'll continue to use them. the effect on the ecosystem at-large is irrelevant to the need to get a product to market. all the bio textbooks in the world won't change that, because it's an economics issue.

  • veblen's dog on June 12, 2012 3:24 PM:

    I've always found it fascinating that when creationists end up in the hospital, they really, really want the benefits of modern medicine.

    Personally, since I don't want to offend their medieval Christian beliefs, I think they should be treated with medieval medicine - poultices, prayers, and leeches should be sufficient.

  • Anonymous on February 26, 2013 3:31 PM:

    It is a logical fallacy, to assume that evolution, as in all things evolved from one common ancestor, and natural selection is one in the same. Evolution, in the sense that all things evolved from one common ancestor, is about a "gain" of information in the genes, in order for it to be successful. Natural selection however, is about a "loss" of information in the genes. Yes, the word evolution, just like any other word, has more than just one meaning. Therefore, evolution in the sense that things change, is more accurate. Things do change, but not as a result of a "gain" in information in their genes. So, it is impossible for evolution to be true, as in we all have one common ancestor. There is no proof that this has occurred. Now, if you want to argue that for instance, a specific type of elephant has adapted to its environment, then we can talk about this. If we consider the different types of the elephant family, like the ones with no hair, or the ones that had hair (like the mammoth), and we put several of both types in an environment with a largely cold climate, which ones do you think will survive longer? It is likely that those with the hair would survive longer in that environment, while those without hair would die out. Eventually, all of them with long hair, would be the sole survivors, and thus, will only have babies with long hair. Because the hairless ones had died out, there would be none there, to invest their genes into the gene pool, to create more hairless ones, and this explains why one species of this elephant family would be more specific to its area. If this situation were reversed, and these same elephants were placed in a hot environment, then the story would be flipped around, and it would be the hairless ones that would survive. So my point is, this is what natural selection is. There was a "loss" of information due to those dying out, that were not suited for their environment, leaving behind only those who were suited for their environment. As a result, when you only have elephants with no hair, who only have the genes to produce more elephants with no hair, then it will only produce elephants with no hair. If you put this elephant with another elephant that has long hair, and they mate, then their offspring will likely have the ability within its genes, to produce a whole variety of elephants, long hair, medium hair, no hair, and so on. So let us not be confused. The "change" that occurs due to natural selection is about a "loss" of information, and is not the same as evolution in the sense that all things evolved from one common ancestor, because this requires all things to "gain" information, which has never been proven to occur.