Why do smart people reject evolution? 

Rafi Letzter, a science and culture writer for The Business Insider, asks this question in a piece titled Why So Many Smart People Don’t Believe in Evolution

He begins with oft-repeated stats: only about half of American adults believe in evolution, and most of those believers think G oversees the process. I fall somewhere into this group though I think ‘oversees’ is too strong a word. Most of the rest – evolution atheists – are given over to various flavors of creationism that move on a sliding scale between Intelligent Design and the belief that God created everything in six literal days and buried fake fossils to fool all but true believers. (Note that in research for this question, the opposite of ‘belief in evolution’ is commonly a ‘belief that humans have always existed in their present form’. This allows room for strict evolution – a change in a population’s gene pool – by creationist and Intelligent Design folks in non-human species.)

Letzter comes to the question honestly: he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community where “schoolteachers laughed off dinosaurs and space travel as fairy tales.” (Space travel? I didn’t know this was controversial among the conservatively religious.) He eventually left the community and admits that it bothers him that people like his Orthodox teachers who appear so genuinely smart reject what the evidence clearly shows to be true. How and why do they do this?

Do the math

To answer his question, he refers to two papers. The first one, published in 2015 is titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief . This paper careened through the internet a few years ago, used to ‘prove’ that the non-religious are smarter than the religious. The authors asked people these questions:

  1. Imagine a widget. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  2. Next, think of a bat and ball. Together a bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  3. Now think of a patch of lily-pads in a lake. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

(See Letzter’s piece for the answers.)

I make two observations here. One is that for each question, an intuitive and seemingly obvious answer – a gut feeling – pops into most people’s minds. The other is that this intuitive gut feeling is wrong. The authors argue that people who are less religious are willing to stop and challenge themselves, to take a minute to see if what they are thinking aligns with facts. Less rigorous thinkers – the religious – they say, are more willing to accept what appears obvious. The paper’s authors addressed evolution directly and found a correlation between those who scored lower on the test and those who don’t believe in evolution. They posit that these people are more comfortable with what ‘seems’ right. Though this was trotted out to the internet to show the general stupidity of us believers, the authors ‘urge caution in interpreting…the implications of the present results,’ recognizing the difficulty of generalizing about all people based on their one paper.

I’ve read the paper and don’t see a distinct correlation. I don’t represent all believers, but long hours of drinking lots of coffee and doing math makes me suspicious of any problem presented as so easy you can see the answer. I know it’s a trick and will do the calculation. I don’t trust myself.

I would also like to see the percentage of people who just don’t give a rat’s booty about it. My wife couldn’t be botherd to care and laughs at anyone like me who has to figure it out. She’s educated and worked in Alzheimer’s research and engineering and is as logical as they come. She simply has other interests than the rate of growth of lily pads. Of, course, these anecdotal points don’t negate the paper’s conclusion but should be addressed. I as I’m guessing the number of respondents who don’t and can’t care is high.

Use your finely-hone skills

Letzter isn’t happy about this paper either, feeling that it “attempt[s] to marginalize and dismiss the perspectives of religious people.” He looks to another paper, this one by Dan Kahan and Keith Stanovich (here) that argues that people with finely-honed reasoning skills are more skilled at being reasonable. If that sounds circular and obvious to you, then you must have finely-honed reasoning skills and are skilled at noticing finely-honed reasoning skills in others. 

For whatever it’s worth, my wife might be right here. So what? Some level of mathematical thinking is needed to answer the three mathematical questions posed above. To conclude that people with certain skills in algebra are better able to answer algebraic questions is circular. Certainly, more work is needed to parse the differences between the religious and secular mindset.  

Letzter reels like a drunkard through the science vs. religion question in his wrap-up. Regarding the Kahan and Stanovich paper, Letzter remarks that “It’s a more challenging argument to accept if you’re a person who sees science as our only effective tool for extracting something like objective truth from an uncaring and chaotic universe – and who fears the consequences of rejecting it. It’s far less comforting than telling yourself “Oh, well those people are just dumb.” 

Science seeks accurate descriptions, not truth

Besides being a jumbled word salad, he missteps here: science doesn’t seek ‘objective truth.’ Science describes nature. And any truth revealed by science is only as strong as the next piece of evidence. Many scientists are religious and almost all are just fine with others being religious. What should be irksome to Letzter – and this get’s to the gist of his paper – is when the religious deny evidence a priori based on their religious views. Researchers routinely battle over evidence: it’s part and parcel of the scientist’s job description. Religious folk can, and do, join the fray, but to engage with scientists they must argue with the evidence, not with the tenets of their faith.

Letzter goes on to say that “We should be skeptical of anyone who publishes a study explaining why people who disagree with them are less clever”. I agree, and yes, we should be skeptical: we should always be skeptical. But this research isn’t about being clever. It’s about people who hold on to belief in the face of facts that argue otherwise. The question isn’t whether evolutionists are more clever than Orthodox Jewish teachers – I don’t even know what that means – the question is why do the Orthodox hold on to views contrary to evidence? Science doesn’t seek to marginalize, but why shouldn’t we marginalize and dismiss unsupportable religious ideas that claim to trump facts? Why shouldn’t we marginalize the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old when everything other than one interpretation of one religious book – my religious book – tells us differently?

I am SO TIRED of scientism…

Letzter concludes by slipping into the canard of scientism: the Talmud scholars from his childhood, with extreme powers of persuasion, can convince themselves that what they believe is right even in light of facts that argue otherwise. “Oddly enough,” writes Letzter, “that’s the very same route that leads many secular people to place their faith in science.” I’m not sure what he means, nor am I even sure what ‘placing your faith in science’ means. I know what placing your faith in Jesus means, and there is no corollary in science, other than believing my doctor when he says that a bottle of vodka a day will eventually blow up my liver. If that’s ‘scientism,’ I’m guilty. 

For many people, facts are subservient to faith, culture, and family. We don’t fight wars over scientific facts. We fight them over religion. We fight them because our brother was beaten up by those other people. We fight them because G told us that we own this part of the planet.

“What a scary thought,” he concludes. On that, we agree.

For further reading, check out these books:

Faith Versus Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne
Be aware that Coyne is rabidly atheist and that this assumption colors all of his writing. I must say, though, that his Why Evolution is True is the best modern primer of the great theory.

Science and Religion, A Historical Introduction, Gary Ferngren (Editor)

Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett
Like Coyne, Dennett dismisses any religious thinking in his book though it’s a very good guide to thinking. 

The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Richard Feynman

For more current research analysis, try these sources:

Go here to Study Finds.

For another interesting piece by Letzter, go here for Rituals Teach us to trust our Neighbors.


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