Friday, March 09, 2007

Creationists Aren't Stupid

I once made a comment in a thread talking about a friend of mine who is a Young Earth Creationist (people who read Genesis literally and thus believe the universe is only 8,000 years old), saying that he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. Another reader responded with "Then you need to find some smarter friends".

A lot of people in the creationism debate have this same attitude, that clearly anyone who rejects the idea of an old universe is not just mistaken, but clearly mentally deficient. Some of that is just old-fashioned name-calling, denigrating your opponent like any two kids in a schoolyard brawl. But whatever the cause, the attitude that "If you disagree with me you're an idiot" is foolish and inaccurate, and we ought to stop doing it.

Because I stand by my statement that my friend the Young Earth Creationist is one of the smartest people I know. And here's why I say that.

This guy got an almost perfect score on his SAT when he went to college. He graduated with top marks from one of the best liberal arts and sciences schools in the country. He's a polymath and has unbelievable mental recall, storing everything from childhood phone numbers to the exact values of every rare US coin in history. He's got an intuitive feel for numbers that's pretty amazing. He's started multi-million-dollar businesses, asks penetrating questions, and researches topics of interest exhaustively. He has an incredible knowledge of US history as well as the Byzantine Empire. He was a key player on his university's debate team and can argue just about any side of an issue and by the end of the day have you thinking he's right, only to swap to the other side and convince you he's right on THAT one as well.

In short, he has every attribute of brilliance, except for his belief that the Earth is only eight thousand years old. Does that one failure negate everything else and make him an idiot?

Lots of the leaders of the creationist movement have advanced degrees, up to and including Ph.D.s. It takes a lot of work and at least minimal intelligence to achieve that academic level. No, it doesn't confer infallible genius, but it's also difficult to say that someone who's done it is simply a moron. They've got to have something on the ball that your typical resident of the local mental institution doesn't.

No, these people aren't stupid. They're wrong on the facts, they're willfully blind to dissenting information in many cases, they are as capable of lying and distortion and mistaken ideas as anyone, but they're not necessarily idiots just for dissenting with something you believe to be an objective, fundamental truth.

Calling them stupid is easy, but ultimately it's a cop-out. The thought that someone who's as smart as you could come to a conclusion that's so clearly wrong is frightening. It makes you doubt your own understanding, making you wonder if maybe being smart isn't as reliable a guide as you'd hoped. "If smart people can believe something so foolish," the internal thinking goes, "then what if I -- also a smart person -- believe foolish things as well? But surely that can't be, therefore ... he's an idiot!"

I think Michael Shermer does a great job in "Why People Believe Weird Things" exploring different ways intelligence can be used to protect wrong ideas once they've become internalized. In some respects the greatest strengths of a smart person become subverted, "turned to the Dark Side" as it were, marshaled to protect an idea that should have been shot down by them at the very beginning. But the very fact of their intelligence is what makes disabusing them of the wrong idea so difficult.

What he doesn't do -- and this is something I think those on "our side" of the discussion would do well to emulate -- is to dismiss them as "stupid". That kind of reflexive stereotyping precludes rational discussion rather than facilitates it. It's a lazy shortcut, a childish name-calling, and it's also factually untrue. For people who pride ourselves on honest, objective rationality, we can do better.

These people aren't stupid, they're just wrong.


miz_geek said...

Excellent point.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I just wrote a post on YEC's. I didn't call them stupid either.

TGA said...

I agree they are not stupid, but they are at leat one or more of the following:

-Highly gullible
-Been brainwashed for years
-Authoritarian followers

That last one is something I discovered recently. It describes a segment of the population who believe anything someone they see as an authority (parent, church leader, government), and who have the capability to compartmentalise their mind in order to forgo logic and evidence. You can find out more on this here:

Jeff Hebert said...

My YEC friend has looked at all the evidence, and has decided that the Bible is more reliable than any scientific evidence that could ever be found. He decided this because the consequences to his faith if that is not true would be catastrophic, and he is unwilling to have his faith destroyed. He has no use for Christians who do not believe Genesis is literal truth, because in his mind the logical and theological difficulties posed thereby far outweigh the difficulties posed by science to the young earth theory.

He's looked at the evidence, weighed the damage each position would take on his faith, and has decided to go with the explanation that poses the least risk to his religious beliefs.

Looked at in that way, it's actually pretty understandable. My problem with it, of course, is that it isn't true that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and any God that would require me to believe it to prop up my faith in Him is not a God I have any interest in worshiping.

I came across another explanation for people like him that I think fits pretty well. It was from Robert Sapolsky's speech to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and he says:

What is schizotypal? It's a more subtle version of schizophrenia. This is not somebody who's completely socially crippled; they're just solitary, detached: these are the lighthouse keepers, the projectionists in the movie theaters. These are not people who are thought-disordered to the point of being completely nonfunctional; these are people who just believe in kinda strange stuff. They are into their Star Trek conventions. They're into their astrology, they're into their telepathy and their paranormal beliefs, they're into--and you can see now where I'm heading [laughter]--very, very literal, concrete interpretations of religious events.

Schizophrenics have a whole lot of trouble telling the level of abstraction of a story. They're always biased in the direction of interpreting things more concretely than is actually the case. You would take a schizopohrenic and say, "Okay, what do apples, bananas and oranges have in common?" and they would say, "They all are multi-syllabic words." [laughter] You say "Well, that's true. Do they have anything else in common?" and they say, "Yes, they actually all contain letters that form closed loops." [laughter] This is not seeing the trees instead of the forest, this is seeing the bark on the trees, this very concreteness.

What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.

The description of schizotypals fits my friend perfectly. I mean, I got chills reading it. I am disturbed by the prospect of putting some kind of mental condition label on this kind of thinking, though, because I again think it's too facile, too easy, but I also can't deny that there's something that definitely seems to fit.

vjack said...

Name-calling in any context is unlikely to be productive. Shermer's book is a good read because it reminds us all that this isn't about intelligence. I frequently have to remind myself of this when encountering academically talented Christians.

The way I sometimes look at it is that they are choosing to apply their intellectual ability selectively to certain spheres of their life while refraining from doing so in others. Overly simplistic, but helps me avoid the name-calling.

normdoering said...

It's true that sometimes you'll run into a very accomplished creationist, as for example Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon, who is getting a lot of criticism on Panda's Thumb at this time.

But let's not forget that sometimes you will meet a creationist who really is evidently just stupid.

A Blog from Hell

Bob said...

Some creationists are very intelligent. Some creationists are very stupid. They all have one thing in common, an incurable mental disease. It doesn't matter if people are extremely polite to them or if people call them sick in the head. There is no evidence, no matter how powerful, that will convince creationists they are wrong. There is no cure for their problem and there never will be a cure.

Jeff Hebert said...

If being a creationist is a mental disease, then what isn't a mental disease? That's like saying anyone who's a Republican or a Democrat is mentally ill, or anyone who likes The Who, or pretty much any other worldview that disagrees with yours. It undermines the utility of the concept of mental illness and tells us nothing in return.

Creationists have decided that the theological "truth" of the Bible is more important than the naturalistic truth of science. They believe the two are mutually exclusive, and they've chosen to go with creationism. This doesn't make them stupid or retarded, it just means they have chosen to base their worldview on a completely different set of standards than you or I have.

Again, labeling people with inappropriate names doesn't teach us anything, doesn't lead to understanding, and is ultimately a cop-out to rational thinking. See creationists as they are, not as you wish them to be in a simplified, binary world where you are right and everyone else is mentally defective. You're not going to find a lot of wisdom down that road, though of course it's your right to travel it.

Abie said...

Vjack : Sapolcky isn't calling anyone believing in God mentally deranged, in fact he explicitly doesn't say that. (le speech is about reliious belief in general, not creationism).
I think Jeff just happened to read this as an apt description of his particular YEC friend. I'm convinced most YEC don't fit this description.
So I don't see any name calling here, but then again, I might have missed a sybtlety.

Jeff : excellent point, excellent post.
I just found your blog via the Festival of the Godless, and I'm glad I did.

Bob said...

If being a creationist is a mental disease, then what isn't a mental disease? That's like saying anyone who's a Republican or a Democrat is mentally ill...

This doesn't make them stupid or retarded, it just means they have chosen to base their worldview on a completely different set of standards than you or I have.

Creationists chose this worldview despite massive evidence it's false. Even when this evidence is patiently explained to them, they continue to deny reality. Whether or not you want to call it a mental illness, they definitely have a serious problem. They're not just a little bit wrong. Their claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is the same as claiming New York City is just a few feet from Los Angeles. This is not the same as being a Republican or a Democrat. I still say it's a mental disease.

Unfortunately for creationists and unfortunately for the reputation of the USA, there is no cure for this disease or problem or whatever you want to call it.

Sheldon said...

I would like to weigh in against the idea that YEC or extreme religiousity is a "mental disease".

Instead, I would like you all to consider the word IDEOLOGY and its adjective form IDEOLOGUE.

Now we all have ideologies. However, some people become committed ideologues, whether its political or religious or something else. I think an ideologue refuses to allow disconfirming evidence from threatening their ideological system. And an intelligent person is especially skilled at defending their ideology both to themselves and their opponents.

Anyway, that is how I frame this problem.

Anonymous said...

I joined Mensa and found quite of few of its most intelligent and well-educated members have beliefs that I consider irrational; psychics, astrologers, etc.
I was quite surprised. I have to rethink my skeptical approach to such topics.

Akiro Nagano said...

I wonder if there's something to be said for the little fellows who completely and utterly believe something that science is attempting to prove false.
There's really not enough belief these days to go around. And if it turned out that despite all our postulating and theories (yes, theories) that we wave around the Creationists were actually relatively right, we'd all look pretty foolish right about now.

One can be bitter and resentful and hate them for believing something that we don't, or perhaps realise such blind faith isn't necessarily indicative of gullibility and brainwashing, but rather a group of people who choose to believe something they feel to be right regardless of what is put in front of them daily.
It takes a weaker man to submit.

Anonymous said...

Your friend is stupid. Actually mentally deficient sounds better. Your friend is mentally deficient.