Science Denial Is a Large and Growing Problem

Darwin, via

Kevin Drum isn’t happy with the latest talk around the long-running evolution belief survey, and people wringing their hands over the fact that nearly half of American’s espouse a recent creationism view when it comes to humankind:

Come on. This 46% number has barely budged over the past three decades, and I’m willing to bet it was at least as high back in the 50s and early 60s, that supposed golden age of comity and bipartisanship. It simply has nothing to do with whether we can all get along and nothing to do with whether we can construct a civil discourse.

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.

And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

I think this goes too far. For starters, saying evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology is to say that there is no 10th grade understanding of biology, at all. Evolution is the single most important concept in biology, the idea that changed it from a random collection of facts to a real scientific discipline. Biology without evolution is akin to physics without math, and denying it is akin to denying heliocentrism.

Furthermore, I say a lack of wide understanding of evolution is hurting the country, most obviously in the form of antibiotic resistance. Industrial feedlots grow their animals stewed in powerful antibiotics to shave their operating costs, which is leading to bacteria evolving past them and resistant infections cropping up in humans. It’s a classic case of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, which are tough to overcome in any case, but an understanding of evolution makes the situation immediately and alarmingly obvious, while disbelief can cloud the situation. Witness hack “scientists” at Liberty University, who publish work quibbling with the details of the evidence and thereby muddy the conversation. I’m not saying that’s the only factor, but surely if 80 percent of the country had a strong understanding of evolution, it would be easier to horsewhip the FDA into outlawing antibiotic use in non-sick animals.

More fundamentally, science denial in general is growing like gangbusters on the right, most obviously with respect to climate change. All the denier techniques now in common use among people like Jim DeMint—hysterical accusations, the fog of bogus but science-y sounding data, incessant TV appearances of the few deniers with actual credentials, taking things out of context, character assassination, repetition of debunked talking points, etc.—all these were perfected in the trenches of the evolution-creationism wars. It’s no accident that global warming denial found such fertile ground on the right.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.