Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 20, 2010

Glenn Beck, Evolution, Global Warming & Tea Parties

Glenn Beck said some dumb, but unsurprising, things about evolution:

How many people believe in evolution in this country? I’d like to see. I mean, I don’t know why it’s unreasonable to say this. I’m not God so I don’t know how God creates. I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet. Did evolution just stop? Did we all of sudden — there’s no other species that’s developing into half-human?

It’s like global warming. So I don’t know why it is so problematic for people to just so, I don’t know how God creates. I don’t know how we got here. If I get to the other side and God’s like, “You know what, you were a monkey once,” I’ll be shocked, but I’ll be like, “Whatever.”

First, Glenn Beck is an adult convert to the Mormon religion. Therefore if he is exalted to godhood he could create a universe of half-monkeys/half-men for kicks. Second, note the details of Beck’s background. He was raised Roman Catholic, and secular for most of his adulthood, before coming to the Mormon church. None of these affinities entails a rejection of evolution. You are probably well aware that the Roman Catholic church has made its peace, broadly speaking, with evolution. And there’s nothing about secularism which necessitates a rejection of evolution. But what about Mormonism? This is the peculiarity. Mormons are broadly sympathetic to Creationism, but there’s nothing in the religion’s teachings which imply this as being the orthodox position. This is why Mitt Romney can robustly support the teaching of evolution. So what’s going in?

In The Creationists Ronald L. Numbers reports survey data from BYU students which shows a radical drop in acceptance of evolution over 50 years. I think what you are seeing is the mainstreaming of Mormons culturally, and, their identification with conservative Protestants for whom rejection of evolution is a significant aspect of their rejection of modernism. Still, I don’t think that this cultural dynamic can explain all of this shift among Mormons, or Glenn Beck’s specific view. Nor do I think it can explain the robust resistance which conservative Protestants exhibit toward integration of the fact of evolution into their model of reality .

As a younger man I encountered individuals who expressed nearly the exact same views as Glenn Beck. When I was a thirteen my closest friend at the time expressed skepticism of evolution couched in Beckian terms; i.e., it was ridiculous on the face of it that man derived from monkeys. My friend was from a moderately liberal family politically who were nominal Roman Catholics (his stepmother was a self-identified feminist). He was above grade level in math, though not exceedingly so (there were three levels, he was in the second-tier). When my friend expressed his skepticism I was totally shocked, as I’d never considered that anyone would reject evolution. I was familiar with the idea from my early elementary years because of my fascination with dinosaurs, and I took it as a given as a background fact of the universe. This being in the pre-internet age I looked up the survey data in The World Almanac and was surprised to find that the public was split down the middle when it came to acceptance of evolution!

I think the root of my friend’s skepticism, and that of Glenn Beck, has to do with our psychology and the intuitions which we bring to the table. This thesis is articulated well in Paul Bloom’s argument that we’re wired for Creationism. Humans have an intuition about essences, and the idea of evolution contravenes our expectation of invariant essences. The image of the grotesque chimera which Beck brandishes is a pointer to this reality, and Beck isn’t alone in his incredulity.

So how does it come to be that half the American public accepts evolution then? (as well as say 80% of the population in Japan) I think the two classes of variables of note are individual dispositions (intelligence, aversion to conformity, level of education) and group wisdom. Here’s a quick & dirty from the GSS using the EVOVLED variable in a logistic regression.

Variable B P-value
POLVIEWS 0.25 0.000
BIBLE(Literal vs. Non-literal) -1.34 0.000
WORDSUM -0.05 0.144
GOD 0.64 0.000
SEX 0.40 0.001
DEGREE -0.16 0.003
AGE 0.02 0.000
Pseudo R-squared = 0.260

Don’t take the values above too seriously. Please. But it does show you the determinative power of Biblical literalism in predicting whether you are likely to be a Creationist or not. Intelligence in terms of vocabulary actually tends to go away in this treatment when you control for other factors which are correlated with intelligence (Biblical literalists are less intelligent). GOD spans the range from atheist to those who know that God exists. Interestingly sex has a stronger effect than education (women are more likely to be Creationist). Political ideology has an impact, but once you control for religion it is far weaker (conservatism is correlated with Creationism). In the same range as education. These data would tend to support the contention that group identity markers are now more important than individual variables like education (or the two are confounded together in such a way that there’s no juice to be gained at looking at individual variables separate from group identity).

I decided to post on this topic because of a conversation I recently had with Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas. We were talking about the correlation of Creationism and anti-Global Warming with politics; specifically the right-wing association of both. I made the argument that there were deep qualitative differences between the two. Creationism is a shallow but broad belief, rooted in intuitions and imbued with symbolic valence. Is man a monkey or an angel? The stance toward Global Warming is different, and more explicitly a function of proximate politics and tribal identity (whether you’re an “expert” on either side of the scientific question, please admit that most people haven’t dug into the scientific details and simply go along with the cultural and political authorities whom they trust). Unlike Creationism Global Warming has concrete near-term implications. I am aware of the contention that rejection of the science of evolution kicks the legs out from under practical fields such as medicine, or, that the inferences that necessarily lead to evolutionary theory are entailed by the same axioms which lead to other practically relevant domains. Nevertheless, for most people medicine, pharmaceuticals, and science in general, are “black box” affairs. If they work, they work, and the philosophical issues are not particularly relevant to them. Anthropogenic Global Warming, and the specific public policy responses which people believe would be prudent to make in response to the validity of the hypothesis, are much more concrete and immediate. Thirty years from now we will not be discussing Global Warming, thirty years from now we will probably be discussing evolution.

But back to Josh.  He decided to do some structural equation modeling with the beliefs of the Tea Party segment of the electorate as predicted by demographic variables. Controlling for background variables he did not find that Tea Party identified Americans were any more, or less, Creationist than they should have been (they’re disproportionately religious conservatives, but they’re not more Creationist than you’d expect from that). On the other hand, they do tend to reject anthropogenic Global Warming to a greater extent even when Josh controlled for background variables. I think this tends to support my contention that the evolution controversy will be with us for a while, and to some extent is sui generis. Both because it as at some remove from immediate policy implications outside of the domain of education, and, because of the deep cultural and psychological soil which Creationism can take root in. It is more than just politics, and so not an necessarily epiphenomenon.

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