Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:

Various commenters on my post arguing that belief in creationism shouldn't be held against candidates for political office note that belief in creationism might be dangerous because it reflects a flawed attitude to scientific evidence. After all, belief in creationism (at least in the more extreme versions thereof) requires one to reject a great deal of geological, biological, and other scientific data or argue that God deliberately placed it on Earth in order to deceive us or test our faith. Indeed, I myself partially endorsed this argument when I criticized Ron Paul's rejection of evolution earlier this year, and favorably cited this article by science writer Ron Bailey, who pointed out that:

A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence. A January 4, 2008, editorial by Science editor Donald Kennedy correctly argues, "The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change?" Kennedy concludes, "I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."

For what it's worth, I thought I should point out this potential contradiction between two of my own posts. Although I hate to admit it, it's possible that I was more willing to overlook Sarah Palin's possible belief in creationism than Ron Paul's because I have more sympathy with her other political views than I did with his. This is an example of the kind of biased evaluation of political information that I have written about in my scholarly work. Studies show that people are more likely to reject or minimize negative information about candidates they favor than those they oppose. Sadly, I can't say that I am entirely immune to this tendency. My only defense is that I detected the bias myself and have tried to correct it.

The question still remains: Which of my two posts is closer to the truth? After further reflection, I think that there is some merit to Bailey's argument quoted above. To that extent, the conclusion of my last post on creationism needs to be qualified. At the same time, I still think that the difference between creationism and other unscientific or irrational religious beliefs is more one of degree than kind. Belief in the Great Flood, the Devil, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of the dead also requires people to reject extensive empirical evidence and/or conclude that a scientifically impossible event occurred on the basis of extremely thin historical evidence that usually consists of testimony by biased commentators writing many years after the fact. Certainly, we would view with great skepticism a presidential candidate who professed his belief in "miracles" supposedly committed by pagan gods that are no less well-documented than the Jewish and Christian miracles discussed above. Ditto for one who believed in ghosts, witches, reincarnation, and astrology (all of which are endorsed by large minorities of the public).

In addition, I think that Bailey and others who make similar claims err in implicitly assuming that people who do a poor job of assessing evidence in one field will necessarily make similar mistakes with respect to others. For reasons I discussed at the end of the last post, I think that people are likely to be more rational in evaluating evidence in cases where they have a stronger incentive to get at the truth.

Nevertheless, I have to conclude that belief in creationism should be viewed as a negative in a candidate for high public office. It will often be outweighed by other considerations (especially in a case like Palin's, where it is not even clear whether she really does believe in creationism or not). But that doesn't mean we should ignore a candidate's commitment to creationism completely.

The bottom line: I was probably too complacent about creationism in my last post. On the other hand, I still think that creationism has more in common with a variety of other scientifically dubious religious beliefs than many of my critics are prepared to admit.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:
  2. Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?
  3. Palin on Creationism.