The New Yorker
Last month, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and a presumed Presidential candidate, delivered an address at Chatham House, an international-affairs think tank in London. For Walker, the point of the address was to bolster his foreign-policy credentials. That’s probably why the last question—“Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution?”—took him by surprise. “I’m going to punt on that one,” he said.
It’s obvious why politicians avoid the evolution question. A large fraction of the population—including more than fifty per cent of Republican voters—doesn’t believe in it. But politicians aren’t the only ones who punt. When it comes to questions that confront religious beliefs, many scientists and teachers do it, too. Recent studies—including a comprehensive national survey by researchers at Penn State University, in 2007—show that up to sixty per cent of high-school biology teachers shy away from adequately teaching evolution as a unifying principle of biology. They don’t want to risk potential controversy by offending religious sensibilities. Instead, many resort to the idea, advocated by the late Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”—separate traditions of thinking that need not contradict one another.
“Non-overlapping magisteria” has a nice ring to it. The problem is that there are many religious claims that not only “overlap” with empirical data but are incompatible with it. As a scientist who also spends a fair amount of time in the public arena, if I am asked if our understanding of the Big Bang conflicts with the idea of a six-thousand-year-old universe, I face a choice: I can betray my scientific values, or encourage that person to doubt his or her own beliefs. More often than you might think, teaching science is inseparable from teaching doubt.
Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists. It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens.
Last year, writing in the Times, the political scientist Brendan Nyhan explained how “identity often trumps the facts.” We would rather reject evidence than change our sense of who we are. Knowledge is comparatively helpless against identity: as you grow better-informed about the issues, you just get better at selectively using evidence to reinforce your preëxisting commitments. A 2014 Yale Law School study, for example, demonstrated that the divergence between religious and non-religious peoples’ views on evolution actually grows wider among those who are familiar with math and science. Describing Nyhan’s work for this Web site, Maria Konnikova summarized his findings by writing that “it’s only after ideology is put to the side” that the facts become “decoupled from notions of self-perception.” One conclusion we might draw is that we ought to resist ideology in the first place. If we want to raise citizens who are better at making evidence-based judgments, we need to start early, making skepticism and doubt part of the experience that shapes their identities from a young age.
Picture: Malate269 (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons