It Does Matter What People Think About How the World Works

By Sean Carroll | June 4, 2007 12:51 pm

It was an embarrassing moment in the first Republican presidential debate when the participants were asked, “Does anyone not believe in evolution?”, and three candidates — Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Mike Huckabee — raised their hands. Embarrassing for those three, obviously, but also for the Republican party, in which they are far from unrepresentative, and for the United States, that anyone would even think to ask such a question of serious candidates for the highest office in the land.

One of the candidates, Sam Brownback, felt the need to amplify his position in a New York Times op-ed piece. He appeals to many favorite creationist weasel words, invoking the distinction between “microevolution” and “macroevolution,” but tries not to come off as completely anti-science. Nevertheless, the heart of his argument is stated clearly at the end of the piece:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

In our scientific understanding of the universe, man does not reflect an image and likeness unique in the created order. Humanity arose by the same process of natural selection as all the other species. Calling it “atheistic theology” doesn’t change the fact that it’s how the world works, according to science.

Eugene Volokh asks whether it really matters what a presidential candidate thinks about human evolution. He tentatively argues that yes, it does matter, but I think it’s a lot more cut and dried (but still interesting) than he makes it out to be. There are really two issues: first, has science established beyond reasonable doubt that humans evolved purely through natural selection, and second, if it has, does it matter whether a presidential candidate rejects that particular scientific understanding? Yes, and yes. But the intriguing follow-up is: what about other untrue beliefs that candidates might have?

In case you haven’t heard: yes, science has established beyond reasonable doubt that humans evolved via natural selection. Volokh confuses the issue by asking whether Brownback’s beliefs are “provably false,” and (correctly) concluding that they are not. But scientific propositions are never provably true or false; that’s not how science works. We accumulate more and more evidence in favor of one theory and against all competitors, until we reach a point where the only people left who refuse to accept the theory are cranks. Natural selection is firmly in that category; there is no scientific controversy about its truth. To draw a somewhat subtle distinction: I personally do not think that belief in an ineffable touchy-feely Aristotelian Unmoved Mover kind of God is in the crank domain. I think it’s wrong, and based on a set of deep philosophical and scientific mistakes, but not crackpottery in the same way that attributing crucial aspects of human evolution to a meddlesome anthropomorphic Designer would be.

Which brings us to the second and more interesting question, of whether this particular kind of mistaken belief should bear on one’s fitness as a presidential candidate. I think it does, for a reason that our experience with the Bush administration has made especially relevant. Denial of the standard scientific explanation for the origin of human beings is a particularly dangerous kind of mistake: one based on a decision to put aside evidence and deduction in favor of wishful thinking, and an insistence on a picture of the universe that flatters ourselves. The kind of reasoning that leads one to conclude that we can’t explain human evolution without invoking a meddlesome God is the same kind of reasoning that makes people think that cutting taxes will decrease the federal deficit, or that the people of Iraq would throw candy and greet us as liberators. (I’m sure that liberals are just as susceptible to such a fallacy, but it’s the conservative versions that are currently getting us in such a mess.) It’s a refusal to take reality at face value, in favor of a picture that conforms to what we want to be true.

The interesting part of Volokh’s question is, what about the Virgin Birth? By ordinary scientific standards, belief that Jesus had a mother but not a father is at least as unlikely as belief in a divine role in human evolution. Should we hold such a belief against presidential candidates?

That’s actually a realy tough question, and I’m going to weasel out of it a bit myself. On the one hand, everything I just said about human origins applies just as well to the Virgin Birth — belief in it is dramatically non-scientific, and prompted largely by exactly the kind of mythological self-flattery that leads to skepticism about the efficacy of natural selection. In other words, belief in the Virgin Birth is exactly as “wrong” as belief in creationism. So I can certainly appreciate the argument for holding such beliefs against presidential candidates.

On the other hand, I think the status of these two questions are different, in at least two important ways. First is the role of each question as a foundational part of modern science. Evolution is a crucial ingredient in how we understand Nature and our place in it; to deny it is to deny a bedrock principle of science. The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, is a localized miracle that nominally happened a long time ago. If someone wants to believe in that particular isolated violation of the laws of nature, I won’t go along with them, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as denying natural selection as the correct explanation for the origin of human beings.

Second, the status of evolution has taken on a unique political role in our culture. Evolution is the particular part of science which has come under the most concerted attack by the forces of irrationality, who have attempted to undermine science by calling into question the teaching of evolution in public schools. This is now a political and cultural question, not just a scientific one; it’s no accident that debates over creationism and intelligent design are essentially confined to the United States (although sadly spreading). For a presidential candidate to take a public stance against evolution by raising his hand at a televised debate is a profoundly political act, allying that candidate with the forces of superstition against the forces of science. The question of the Virgin Birth just doesn’t have that status.

Happily, I was not really hesistating over whether to throw my support to Brownback, Huckabee, or Tancredo, so the question is somewhat academic for me. But I do believe, in the face of all the contrary evidence provided by the current Administration and its die-hard supporters, in the existence of intelligent and principled conservatives who might be in favor of limited government and perhaps an aggressive foreign policy, but would like to try to base their decisions on evidence and reason. Those people are going to have to make some tough choices; the modern Republican party has chosen to ally itself with people who don’t believe in the real world, and that choice is going to have consequences.

  • wolfgang

    > he kind of reasoning that leads one to conclude that we can’t explain human evolution without invoking a meddlesome God is the same kind of reasoning that makes people think that cutting taxes will decrease the federal deficit

    This comparison of supply-side economics (and the Laffer curve), with the debate about evolution was a bit too quick for my taste…

  • Brian

    Sam Brownback’s comments remind me of those attributed to Caliph Omar when he ordered the destruction of all the books and scrolls in the great library at Alexandria in 1642. “They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”

  • Steuard

    I have generally considered questions like “did evolution occur” and questions like “did the virgin birth occur” to be fundamentally different things. (For the record, my answers are “Yes, of course” and “No, probably not”, but that’s not the point.) Belief in “isolated” miracles seems exceedingly difficult to disprove: a God who tweaks natural processes on a few rare occasions isn’t the sort of hypothesis that lends itself to scientific study (unless you happen to be able to make well-documented scientific observations during the intervention itself). On the other hand, beliefs like creationism aren’t just about one or two miracles but the day to day (and century to century) behavior of nature. That’s what science is all about, and believing in constant miraculous intervention is tantamount to rejecting the scientific method altogether. I suppose that’s just reiterating part of what you’ve said above, but it’s the part that’s most important to me.

  • Brian

    The date erroneously entered as 1642 in my last post is actually 642.

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  • Malte

    I’m not happy with this ‘believing’ business. A scientific-minded person should surely not believe in evolution (or inflation, the big bang, or anthropogenic climate change) until she’s satisfied she has enough information about it. My biological education was never all that great, I could say, and it’s seriously rusty. It would be daft to say I believed in evolution without at least flicking through a decent book about it, or hitting Wikipedia for half an hour. Politicians, and the rest of us, ought I think to refuse to ‘believe’ things. There are better ways of describing what we think we know.

  • Maoz

    > he birth of Jesus, on the other hand, is a localized miracle that nominally happened a long time ago

    Couldn’t one then make the argument that the creation was also such a localized miracle that happened a long(er) time ago? Evolution retains its status as a natural law (with ample scientific evidence), with God only setting up the “initial conditions” so to speak….

  • Wanderer

    Espousing common descent and being a good president are orthogonal.

  • Matt

    Speaking of how people believe the world works, would Sean care to comment about the article that just appeared in Slate online magazine about how finding the Higgs boson will somehow completely destroy all of particle physics…?

  • Haludza

    >Espousing common descent and being a good president are orthogonal.

    Surely you mean that you think that there is a component of ‘good president’ orthogonal to ‘espousing common descent’?

    Malte, surely it’s enough to construct ‘belief’ based on the spread of opinion amongst leaders in those fields (who’re very clever and have thought about these things for a long time)? Most people trust that a doctor knows how to treat them well or that their microwave has been made by people who know how to make them work- how is the other kind of trust about ideas in science any different?

  • Eugene

    Brian #3

    Actually that tale about Caliph Omar decreeing the destruction of the Library is probably false.

    Whatever, it is though, the real destruction occured at 391, in the decree of Emperor Theodosius I. Why did he do it? Because it is considered “pagan”.

    The Library lost most of its collection in 391.

    (There is of course a lot more story behind this simple Christians-being-anti-science explanation, mostly to do with the fact that at the time there was a huge power struggle between the different sects of CHristianity…but that’s another story).

  • Brian

    “…mostly to do with the fact that at the time there was a huge power struggle between the different sects of Christianity….”

    The Lord plays solitaire?

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    The whole argument would be somewhat more impressive if any but particularly fringe candidates had said they didn’t believe in evolution.

    The point about taxes seems flawed, given that the Laffer curve folks would argue they have experimental verification.

  • Brian

    The question sure wiped the smile off McCain’s face.

  • TimG

    I agree with pretty much everything Sean wrote above, in particular the sentiments that (1) disbelief in evolution shows a willingness to allow “wishful thinking” to supercede impartial evaluation of evidence (2) that’s an incredibly dangerous trait for a government leader to have, and (3) it’s a lot worse than just believing in isolated “miraculous events.” (Although for what its worth, I don’t personally believe in that sort of miracle either.) The reason it’s worse isn’t just that politicians are actively working to inflict these wrongheaded ideas on American school children. And it isn’t just that evolution is a more important scientific theory than “all humans have two biological parents.” It’s that it’s *easier* for people to believe in the virgin birth. I can show you lots of evidence that human beings have two biological parents, but if you claim there was a single exception to the rule two thousand years ago, there’s no way I can gather evidence from that specific event to prove you wrong. You’ve made an untestable claim, so you’re guaranteed never to have to face any direct evidence to the contrary. Whereas, the “theory of evolution” is a set of testable ideas about numerous events occuring over millions of years. To deny that is much harder — it requires a willingness to overlook a mountain of evidence to the contrary. What’s worse — people in the intelligent design camp actually claim that their belief in a “designer” is founded on the evidence. In contrast, I think you’ll find very few people who would claim that their reson for believing in the virgin birth is that scientific data supports this idea. In short: Belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is much worse than belief in spite of a lack of evidence. And seeing evidence where there is none is perhaps worst of all.

  • nigel

    No real scientist “believes” in evolution because it isn’t a belief system, its just a factual, predictive model that works. You can’t “believe” in a scientific model because it isn’t a faith-based system. Nobody should substitute current scientific theories for belief systems. Belief or disbelief should be reserved for things which can’t be checked, like religion, fairies, etc.

    Popper’s idea is that scientific theories are always being challenged by evidence. If you start “believing” a theory, you will sooner or later stop checking it, and it will become a religion. Although it won’t be completely useless if it has survived tests in the past, it might not be complete and may give false results when extrapolated too far. There’s always an outside chance that most of the evidence (like fossils in sedimentary rocks) were planted by God or the Devil as a cruel joke.

    Obviously the original proponents of a new theory need to act as though they actually “believe” it (or nobody else will be likely to listen to them), but for an established theory, you don’t want to “believe” it true too much; instead, you want to keep trying to falsify it. You learn more by doubting, checking and testing a theory, than by blindly “believing” it just because it is fashionable to make science your religion.

  • RPM

    Echoing what other people have said, one does not believe in evolution (or any other well established scientific theory); one accepts the evidence in favor of it. And the emphasis on natural selection in your post, Sean, reflects a common misunderstanding of biological evolution: special creation is not an attack on the role of natural selection in evolution; it’s an attack on common descent.

  • Sean

    I don’t understand the reluctance to use the word “belief.” I believe that 1+1 equals 2, that my office is located in Pasadena, and that the observable universe is billions of years old. There’s no reason to redefine “belief” to mean “belief without evidence.”

  • Sean

    And I believe that finding the Higgs boson will not destroy all of particle physics.

  • Eugene

    Brian #12

    Honestly, I have no idea what you are alluding to.

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  • Chris W.

    Actually, Nigel, there is an outside chance that the consistency of any scientific theory with the available evidence is a cruel joke. I think this is part of what Einstein was getting at when he said that “the Lord is subtle, but he is not malicious”.

    If one starts to suspect that the successes of, say, Newton’s theory of gravitation and his laws of motion are just some sort of conjuring trick, and the dynamics of our solar system (for example) could inexplicably change tomorrow at the whim of some deity or demon, one can no longer do science. Fundamentally, this is what seeking the laws of physics is about—finding an invariant core underlying observable phenomena, notwithstanding their evident variety and apparent arbitrariness.

  • Brian

    Just my, perhaps odd, sense of humor. Since God, apparently, always sides with the righteous, I guess he would have to play both sides of the table when the different sects collided in battle. I’ve actually done this sort of thing a few times myself, playing both sides of a chess game when there was no opponent available. Well, there you have it – for better or worse, funnier or dumber,….

  • Paul

    Brian #2 and Eugene #11: The assertion that Omar destroyed the Library is probably untrue. But while the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus seems to be well-documented, it’s not clear that the Serapeum library still held many volumes at that time. It may have been burned earlier during Roman attacks on the city.

    Helen Quinn wrote a good reflection on the use of the term “believe” in the February 2007 Physics Today. The problem essentially is that when Sean says he believes that the observable universe is billions of years old, he interprets “believe” as “regard the vast preponderance of the evidence to support the idea,” while the public at large interprets it to mean something closer to “regard as an article of faith.”

  • Jugalator

    Quote: “Man was not an accident”

    Hehe, yet more of evolution ignorance… Evolution isn’t about “accidents”, it’s about the opposite. Accidents imply something bad happened, or something unintentional, but traits improve and evolve when they’re beneficial and often because of environmental needs.

  • Neil B.

    I think Sean erred in philosophical judgment when he said, “To draw a somewhat subtle distinction: I personally do not think that belief in an ineffable touchy-feely Aristotelian Unmoved Mover kind of God is in the crank domain. I think it’s wrong, and based on a set of deep philosophical and scientific mistakes, but not crackpottery in the same way that attributing crucial aspects of human evolution to a meddlesome anthropomorphic Designer would be.” The trouble with that point is that the idea of something more fundamental than this (or any collection) of “universes” being real, and somehow being “behind” or generating the universe/s, is not based on philosophical or scientific mistakes. At best, higher philosophical theology of the sort done well by Paul Davies (for example in The Mind of God) makes a compelling argument based on foundational first principles and conceptual “reverse engineering” of the sort of world we find ourselves to be in. Of course, such reasoning accepts what science says happened throughout the universe’s history, and begs to differ only with minimalist interpretations of what that all comes from and is “all about.” I don’t even see how scientific mistakes could be defined at the highest level of interpretative deduction and speculation, so let’s take a look at the best philosophical arguments (of the sort that indeed, Aristotle could appreciate, since based on pure reason rather than traditions of teachings and revelations.)

    The anthropic character of the universe is a good starting point. First, a well-put anthropic principle is not the pointless tautology, that of course outcomes must be consistent with starting conditions (i.e., our being here must accord with the original laws.) That doesn’t explain why there wasn’t any number of possible lifeless universes, without observers existing (whether anyone would be there to say so being rather irrelevant to most astute thinkers.) Hence, the real point is, the “horizontal” question: why a universe like this (favorable laws AND outcome regarding life) or not, rather than the phony “vertical” question, of the outcome (life) being consistent with the starting conditions/laws, which of course it would be.

    The interesting thing is, as any reader of the Tippler and Barrow classic The Anthropic Cosmological Principle knows, that the range of suitable laws is very narrow indeed (like the required value of the fine structure constant.) Hence, why is “the universe” like that, if not “designed” for life? There are lots of avenues there, like multiple universes with different laws such that we find ourselves in one of the few that are suitable etc. However, once one can believe in multiple universes with “different laws”, then where does it end? The modal realists have made the cogent argument that “all logically possible” universes should “exist”, since no clear logical reason can be given for selection and reification of some and not others. Indeed, they make a cogent case that the idea of “existing” as some special material state other than the platonic mathematical world description is circular, indefinable, and not logically coherent — can you define it clearly? (I know Tippler got a bit tipsy, but that problem does not make the point false — no ad hominem!

    If so, then the problem is actually even worse, because then all possible worlds really means all possible descriptions. If so, one has a vanishing Bayesian probability of finding oneself in a world that continues to be lawful instead of one of the infinitely more that were like this up to this point and then begin to diverge. Why? Because of all the changes from then on to different laws and variations and distortions of laws that can be described, and indeed the entirety of what behavior can be described after that point which certainly includes a gigantic set of chaotic futures, etc.

    Hence, I think there really needs to be a manager of some sort, to ensure placement in effect of observers like us in a world that really has laws, since logical possibility is just too inclusive. Think of that as you wish. (Not to mention, our having experiences etc., but that gets into consciousness issues and I am just making the argument relating to physical conditions and our being here.)

    A thinker can’t really pretend to engage this issue unless basically conversant in issues like modal realism and Bayesian back-engineering of the chances of being in such and such straits now versus the conditions of the future, etc. Finally, for those who complain that we should have some proof or provability of ideas like God etc:
    (1.) The ideas, like logical positivism, you would use to make that point are themselves metaphysical presumptions (I have fun asking, if the statement of LP itself or other logical axioms are “analytical” or “synthetic.”)
    (2.) Self-contradiction and neglect of inconvenient applications. What is the operational definition of, “Things continue to exist while not being observed.”? No matter what “self-evident” basis you try to evade that with, it is going to involve some presumption about the universe, not the ability to observe what isn’t being observed. Then there is the Russell problem of the reality of the past (since all we ever have is something existing now, even the light that hits us now from distant things etc.) and so on.

    I won’t claim to prove God’s existence, but the question isn’t a little sandbox exercise that “rationality” or “science” can just blow off.

  • Jason Dick

    On belief in evolution:

    The key word here, I think, is not the word belief, but rather the word “in” that connects it with evolution. Belief in something presumes some sort of trust in that something. More importantly, however, I think it tends to connect it with religion, an area where science is sure to lose. Of course, this is all about semantics, but the question is, what sort of picture is most strongly presented when one makes a statement like, “I believe in evolution.”? It seems to me that in the religious person’s mind, this statement implies, “I believe in evolution, instead of God.”

    Therefore I think it would be best to emphasize, whenever possible, the distinction between science and religion. I don’t think we should say that we believe in a scientific theory. I think we should say, if we must use the word belief, that we believe that said scientific theory is valid or accurate. Thus we are no longer claiming to trust the theory, as one trust in God, but instead stating that we merely think it’s correct.

  • Jason Dick

    Re: Neil B.
    You can’t use a Bayesian probability estimate without having a theory of the probability distribution of universes in the first place. And if you do have such a theory, but come up with our universe being impossible, then that merely says that particular theory is wrong (since our universe exists).

  • MedallionOfFerret

    It’s not just evilution, though evilution is the point of attack currently (a winning attack, I might add). It’s anything that does not support the Bible interpretation. Take, for example, the work of Copernicus and his followers–look at for just one example.

    So you have faith in the methods of science? Well, here’s a take on the modern telescopes. From

    “Old telescopes brought far away things up close. Old cameras faithfully took pictures of things just as they were (albeit inverted).

    “Not any more! Space Age computer-programmed simulation technology in the service of NASA has changed all that. Leaving camera development for later, here are some strange features of Space Age Telescopes in use in the late 20th century and presently.

    “Whether small or huge, mirrors are the heart of a telescope. The image one sees is determined by the mirrors that reflect it. Look at the caveat on the rear-view mirror on the passenger side of your car. It has this warning: “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”. Think what can be done with this simple principle in making close stars appear far away! But that is child’s play compared to distortions of reality that NASA is using in its space telescopes! The new NASA computerized telescopes embody “conical foil X-ray mirrors…affixed in a Broad Band X-Ray Telescope” and “spherical mirrors and a field flattening lens” and “pyramidal mirrors” and “parabolic mirror’s effects” and “aluminized mylar thermal covers…over the mirror aperture” and “reflectivity tests on sample foils” and “tests on small mirror segments” and “back scattering from adjacent reflectors”…. “Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG)…allows us to simulate perfect mirrors”…. “reflective and refractive materials are used for the mirrors and lens…to make a real world simulation”…. “CSG…computer code…CONSTRUCTS 3D worlds”….

    “These kinds of contrivances (and an alphabet soup of other telescope features) are designed and computer programmed to produce simulations. They are employed on the Virtual Newton Telescope, the William Herschel Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, etc. (Hubble repairs in Dec. ’99 included “the installation of a new ‘brain’…swapping its old computer for a new one.” Now we can oooh and aaah at the simulated images programmed into it to prepare us for the pre-planned super dazzling virtual reality “discoveries” of evolving life forms from “out there”. Reports of Hubble discoveries “as distant as galaxies 10 billion light years away’ (Give us a break, please!) are products of pre-programmed Saganesque hallucinations, i.e., lies. Viewing computer prepared objects produced by funny mirrors and spectroscopic ultra violet tricks may be cool, but it ain’t real.”

    Why do astronomers go through all this hanky-panky effort? Because they are “…eager to carry out NASA’s mission to remove God from the Origins business.” Yes folks, those secular liberal evolutionists at NASA are using Your Tax Dollars for nothing more than to turn you away from God’s understanding and grace.

    So, maybe it does matter if presidential candidates–and senators, congressmen, governors, cabinet heads, foundation heads, and science graduate students–believe that interpretation of the Good Book provides the primary basis for actions in the human sphere.

    Uh–the “evidence” for the Laffer Curve is a little more suspect than that for the Copernican model, and the Curve itself may not be a curve, but chaos. See any article on the neo-Laffer curve. The assumption that Ronald Reagan’s military buildup caused the collapse of the Soviet Union has substantial problems also. Don’t believe all you read.

  • Yvette

    Well said.

    One of the oddest phrases in modern-day debates that I’ve heard is when people ask one another “do you believe in evolution?” My problem here is that a scientific theory is not really something to believe in or not, and of course it doesn’t matter either way anyway. As a result, I often think that people who are scientifically minded do a disservice by answering simply by saying “no, I do not” because it implies that evolution is an on-par belief with religious one, ie there is an option of choosing to believe in it or not like we all choose a certain religion.

    Of course, the main problem with this in my mind is once you can pick and choose your evolutionary science it implies that it’s perfectly alright to pick and choose your other facts as well, and if you happen to “believe” the evolution ones I will just agree to disagree if I happen to not “believe.” And I think that suspending your understanding in such a way is not something I personally want in the next president of the United States.

  • Alex Nichols

    re:#2 Burning of the Library of Alexandria

    Wrong date, wrong perpetrator, wrong religion. If anything the Muslims were responsible for preserving ancient scientific writings.
    The library was burnt by Christian monks around 400, led by St Cyril.
    The female patron of the library, Hypatia was slashed to death with seashells (quite a poetic, if nasty end) and thousands of manuscripts burnt. This is quite well attested to by several sources.

    Whatever one thinks of religion, it has to be admitted that the Inquisition had a long record of being opposed to scientific progress and that many of the scientific thinkers of the Renaissance were distinctly non-conformist in their religious and political views, Gordiano Bruno, Galileo etc…

    There was an interesting play on BBC4 radio some months ago called the “Church of the Cosmic Cheese” ,based on a work by Carlo Ginsburg.
    He based his story on the records of the Inquistion which condemned an an Italian Miller called Menocchio. He refused to accept religious teachings and developed his own cosmology in which the universe was likened to a cheese with lots of holes in it. Perhaps an early manifold concept?

    I suspect he was no idiot though and seems to have been strongly against priestly authority and developed strongly egalitarian ideas.

    there’s a fuller description of Menocchio here: –

  • chris

    after reading your nice debuking of an anthropomorphic Designer i really wonder how you feel about the antropic principle :-)

  • Pablo Contursi

    MedallionOfFerret (#29): Are you kidding? Are you on drugs?

  • Alex Nichols


    ‘Are you kidding? Are you on drugs?’

    Uh, no….

    „What we witness in the spring of 1321 is the idea of the great conspiracy, the notion that external enemies can ally themselves with persons in our midst in order to undermine the entire social structure. This idea had an overwhelming impact in the period under review. In 1348, for example, Jews all over southern France were massacred after being accused of spreading the Black Death. Early in the fifteenth century, this conspiracy model re-emerged, though in a different guise. This time it was the practitioners of the Black Arts who were supposed to be behind the veiled attack on Christianity. They were no longer in league with the Muslims, but with the Devil. Conspiracy had thus become omnipresent. It could no longer be linked to a specific section of the population; and it was no longer rooted in human conflicts, but on the contrary in the absolute struggle between God and the Devil. With this, a mainstay of the belief in the existence of a Witches’ Sabbath was firmly in place. The effects of that belief were to make themselves felt throughout the whole of Europe for more than two centuries afterwards.
    The rumours spread so rapidly and systematically that spring that it could not possibly have been by chance. Some central authority must have taken steps to spread the charges. The idea of a conspiracy was thus in itself a conspiracy. From the sources available to us it is reasonable to conclude that it was persons at the centre of power in France who were behind it all. The accusations may, of course, have originated at a local level, but their dissemination was encouraged and directed from a central source.”
    Interview with Carlo Ginsburg
    (Plus a better description of Menocchio than previous link I posted)

  • Lab Lemming

    About the second and more interesting question- Do you think that the wishful thinking problem is an issue unique to conservatives, or is it simply inevitable hubris from having inordinate unchecked power for so long. That is to say, if the Liberals held all branches of government for years and years, and cowed the opposition with their propaganda and strategising, would they be any less susceptable to wishful thinking?

  • mollishka

    I think we can safely assume that none of these three candidates will be elected. But will their having taken a public stance on this “issue” ultimately harm, help, or be irrelevant to the Republican candidate come November 2008?

  • Ken Graham

    The interesting part of Volokh’s question is, what about the Virgin Birth? By ordinary scientific standards, belief that Jesus had a mother but not a father is at least as unlikely as belief in a divine role in human evolution. Should we hold such a belief against presidential candidates?

    That’s actually a realy tough question, and I’m going to weasel out of it a bit myself.

    I just wanted to try my hand at this, but I’m not thinking specifically about the virgin birth, but general belief in god.

    Basically, to believe or disbelieve anything that is not in one’s experience is foolish. Neither option gets people anywhere. At the end of the day, one person’s belief will come up against another’s and a dispute will ensue. But still, no one knows one way or the other. So, yes, we should hold it against them. But, consistency demands that we hold it against someone who disbelieves also.

  • island

    Natural selection alone does not account for the evolution of life, nor does it account for practical environmental enablement. A creationist would be perfectly justified to call the following copout on science… “atheistic theology”:
    “Evolution of life on earth was governed, primarily, by natural selection, with major contribution of other evolutionary processes, such as neutral variation, exaptation, and gene duplication. However, for biological evolution to take off, a certain minimal degree of complexity is required such that a replicating genome encodes means for its own replication with sufficient rate and fidelity. In all existing life forms, this is achieved by dedicated proteins,
    polymerases (replicases), that are produced by the elaborate translation system. However, evolution of the coupled system of replication and translation does not appear possible without pre-existing efficient replication; hence a chicken-egg type paradox. I argue that the many-worlds-in-one version of the cosmological model of eternal inflation implies that emergence of replication and translation, as well as the major protein folds, by chance alone, as opposed to biological evolution, is a realistic possibility and could provide for the onset of biological evolution.”

    An evolutionary scale appeal to anthropic selection and the multiverse… HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

    Speaking of crackpots and zealots

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  • Brian

    The main problems I have with certain politicians revolve not so much around whether I think their beliefs are right or wrong as around dichotomies such as cruelty vs. kindness, service vs. domination, intolerance vs. tolerance. I do not think these qualities are so much produced by the belief system as rationalized in terms of the belief system.

  • Garrett
  • island

    Crap, I got to laughing so hard that I forgot to make my main point:

    The paper that I quoted proves why it is important that we **periodically** vote-in clueless right winged candidates who have mistaken religous beliefs about evolution, or anticentrist liberal fanatics that dominate science will throw the real baby out with the bath-water, because their antifanatical tendencies are equally detrimental to science, and must be counterbalanced in order to prevent either form of insanity from runaway unchecked*.

    *FYI: That’s an anthropic coincidence.

    The fact that none on either side will even willingly recognize the point that I have made, and then act on it by questioning their fearless leaders’ unjustified dogma, only proves my point. Silent denial is a too familiar symptom of the disease.

    The fact that liberals are so convinced that they’ve got all the facts on their side, so they don’t need to know the meaning of the word, “compromise”… only proves why they can’t get a candidate into office to save their rightous lives.

    I would expect no different election results this time round than the last two because of this, and after it’s all over, then we’ll once again find liberals trying to convince themselves and each other that they need to try harder to convince the rest of the population that they are right, rather than to face the fact that the truth actually lies somewhere closer to the middle.

  • Neil B.

    Jason Dick, #28

    You can’t use a Bayesian probability estimate without having a theory of the probability distribution of universes in the first place. And if you do have such a theory, but come up with our universe being impossible, then that merely says that particular theory is wrong (since our universe exists).

    Yep, and that’s what shows my whole point! It should have been clear that my argument (original by me in that particular form, AFAIK) was a reductio, not a promulgation and defense, of the rationalistic idea of unfettered possible universes (without “someone” to manage them…) If you assume unfettered possibility, then we have no realistic chance of being here in this world. I looked at the very general nature of such ideas, not a “particular” theory example.

    Since we are here in such a world, that idea must be wrong. The idea disproved is the only one that can be parsimoniously derived from pure, a priori concepts of possible existence. Otherwise, you have to introduce contrivances to overcome thoroughgoing modal realism and pick out a universe such as ours for being “real,” and explain the violation of the existential application of the principle of sufficient reason.

  • Richard

    People who feel that the broader public needs to hear what scientists have to say about these issues should check out, which is working to rally broad opposition and resistance to the mounting attacks on science and scientific thinking which are unfolding in the United States.

    The Defend Science statement has so far been signed by over 1900 scientists and members of the scientific community, including several Nobel laureates and many members of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Their basic aim now is to run the Defend Science Statement as an ad in major newspapers, reaching millions. Right now people are raising funds to get it printed in USA Today, whose broad general readership needs to know that the vast majority of scientists are strongly opposed to attacks on evolution and the science of global warming, to name only two of the most important issues we face today.

    Excerpts from the statement have already been published in the New Republic, and the Minneapolis StarTribune has printed an editorial ( in defense of science and in support of the Defend Science initiative.

    Sean’s post is great — but we need to reach the general public. Please sign the Statement and donate whatever you can!

  • Dave

    I think that it is important to have leaders who understand and accept basic scientific principles, such as evolution, but this is not really sufficient. It is also important to have leaders that know better than to use prayer or some other “communication from God” as a substitute for a rational consideration of government policy and actions. President Bush certainly appears to use prayer as a substitute for a rational discussion of his Iraq policy, and it has been an absolute disaster.

    I agree with Sean that the acceptance of “the virgin birth” is a bit different from evolution. While it seems unlikely that Jesus was really born of a virgin, there really isn’t much hard scientific evidence against the possibility that such things could occur in very rare occasions. Certainly, they can occur in other vertebrates, it is not impossible that there might be some very rare way for this to occur in humans. Of course, even if it was possible, that would not imply that this was the case for Jesus. I suspect, however, that there is a simpler reason why such father-less pregnancies are so common in mythology and religion….

    Anyway, virgin birth differs from evolution in that it is not an interesting scientific question, so scientists have little motivation for studying it. If you really, really want to, it is not too hard to believe that this was some freak occurrence that doesn’t violate the laws of Nature. And few, if any, scientists will find it worthwhile to seriously challenge this point of view.

  • John

    It’s important to understand where this whole intelligent design thing came from. Coincidentally, at UC Davis yesterday we had a very nice colloquium from Francis Slakey, Associate Director of Public Affairs for the American Physical Society, who pointed out that this is a highly orchestrated, and very well bankrolled PR campaign. One of the main driving forces behind this is Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire who brought us the Contract With America, the Arkansas Project (nothing short of a right-wing coup attempt), the Swift Boat campaign, and much more. Through the so-called Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, part of the Discovery Institute, they are attempting to beat the doors down on every state school board and wedge in the teaching of intelligent design as a parallel theory to evolution.

    This was eye-opening for me, and these people need to be outed. The media have bought it wholesale – they make money from this controversy, and want to keep it alive.

  • Haelfix

    Cutting taxes has historically acted as a Keynsian stimulus and raised federal revenues and hence in principle could slash the federal deficit assuming spending stays in line. But it surely isn’t a 1-1 or causal relationship, and I don’t know many people who argue otherwise.

    But I loved McCain’s face when he was asked that question as well. You just know deep down he wanted to say something like ‘Everyone who believes in creationism is a gdamn idiot’, but since he has to pander to those voters to have even a slight chance of getting elected he had to put on that befuddled cautious aire.

    I don’t know, I hate singling the Republicans out alone for unscientific thinking. They certainly have that far right wing christian base who are so obviously out of whack, but its not like the far left is free of the absurdities either. The conspiracy theories, dubious economic theories, the anti nuclear stance and the weird social constructionism mumbo jumbo comes to mind. But it seems to me ever since Clinton pushed the party to the center, things have gotten better for them and more centrist rational.

  • Yvette

    True, Haelfix. I caught the Democratic debate a few days ago, and was amazed that Hillary Clinton was quoting Barry Goldwater at one point! It is quite an odd world where something like that happens… which indicates, I suppose, just how much the parties have shifted just recently.

  • Yvette


    Watching the Republican debates, and McCain just said everyone should be taught all theories or some such. How nice.

    And Huckabee kindly said he’s “not sure” if the universe is 6,000 years old. Someone else talked about this but I’m not sure who it was…

  • ManDownUnder

    TimG, #15

    Belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is much worse than belief in spite of a lack of evidence. And seeing evidence where there is none is perhaps worst of all.

    Sean, you say that science has established beyond reasonable doubt that humans have evolved via natural selection. To me, that’s a pretty sweeping and overconfident statement! Especially considering the increasing number of “real” scientists who have enough courage to question it and draw different conclusions (and it does require courage to stand against a “popular” view; examples throughout the centuries show that this generally achieves much ridicule and opposition!). I’d thoroughly recommend reading Michael Denton’s “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis,” and Dr Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box.” (Neither of them are “cranks” or “unscientifically-minded” :-)

    TimG, regarding your comments on evidence vs. lack of evidence, the point I’d make is that evolution and creationism are two opposing frameworks that are being used to interpret the same available facts, each based on different assumptions and preconceptions. It is the underlying assumptions of each that cannot be tested or proven. You can argue a compelling case that either evolution or creationism “see evidence where there is none,” so that is not really the point. My extensive reading into the “evidences” and their numerous differing interpretations leaves me to conclude that rejecting evolution as being a correct theory would not be “a willingness to overlook a mountain of evidence.” In fact, for me to accept evolution as a correct explanation of our origins would be quite a leap of faith in the opposite direction of logic and science — there are too many mental hurdles to be leaped from my assessment of the available evidence.


    “On the sixth day, God created the platypus. And God said: Let’s see the evolutionists try and figure this one out.” Anon.

  • chris

    richard, #44:

    “the science of global warming”

    you mean, that critizising a political pamphlet signed by ~250 scientists and endorsed by the un is ‘unscientific’ – even though it is not a peer reviewed publication?

    i would more likely compare this “the science of global warming” to the bible.

  • island

    Clinton pushed the party to the center, things have gotten better for them and more centrist rational.

    Let’s see, since then they’ve offered us Al Gore and John Kerry. Two extremists. Don’t see it.

  • Wanderer

    ne of the main driving forces behind this is Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire…

    Ah, yes, the liberal scaifegoat.

  • Wanderer

    If anything the Muslims were responsible for preserving ancient scientific writings.

    Which they got from Syriac Christians.

    The library was burnt by Christian monks around 400, led by St Cyril.

    The Sarapeum was destroyed by Christian monks, not the Library.

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  • JD

    On the subject of virgin birth:

    On the idea that scientific propositions are never provably true or false: this is absolutely incorrect. Hypotheses *must* be provably false; that is the primary mechanism of scientific inquiry. It is the very fact that Mr. Brownback’s statement is *not* provably false that makes it unscientific.

    On policy:
    1. cutting taxes not only *can* increase federal revenues, it quite provably has. Additionally, our economy is stronger than ever, and our deficit tiny in comparison to our GNP (as opposed to, say, Japan, which runs at 100% of its GNP as deficit.)
    2. The author demonstrates an interesting lapse in memory regarding how U. S. troops were, in fact, greeted by the Iraqis. That is, *by invitation*.
    3. I won’t even begin on the topic of liberals and wishful thinking.

    On the earlier post re: the Inquisition: The Christian Church was actually quite open to scientific and philosophical investigation, *until it ran into an idea that could not be processed from its world-view*. The Inquisition was a result of science-by-consensus, much like a 13th-century equivalent of the global-warming fearmongers.

  • Sean

    It’s amazing how those Iraqis just keep greeting us and greeting us. I don’t know why people seem fixated on all those bombs and stuff. I guess, with the budget having finally been brought into balance through the magic of tax cuts, they just need to find something to complain about.

  • Count Iblis

    I only saw small fragments of the debate. I was surprised about statements made by Ron Paul. He didn’t sound like a Republican at all when he talked about Iraq, Iran etc.

  • Count Iblis

    Fourteen year old girl says to her parents who believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus: “I’m pregnant, but I didn’t have sex.”

    Parents reply: … :)

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  • JD

    My God… it’s full of straw-men!

    Somehow a statement about “stong economy” turned into “balanced budget,” and a statment about initial conditions turned into what’s developed since.
    Talk about magic!

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  • uzir

    I wish to comment solely on the Virgin Birth.

    There are documented cases of virgin birth in the medical literature.

    A particular example is of a 15 year old girl in Africa (unable to recall the specific country atm) with an imperforate hymen, who was discovered to be pregnant when she reported with abdominal complaint. This was quite a surprise to the md, as her vagina was completely closed at the entrance.

    The specific mechanism of insemination became apparent upon interview: She had performed oral sex upon a male acquaintance, when his girlfriend discovered them and attacked her with a knife, piercing her abdomen, and thus providing passage for sperm into her inviolate womb.

    I have no comment as to how this may relate to religious matters, except to point out that the unlikely is not impossible, and statistical certainty doesn’t exist.

    I do wish to point out that we are all quite arrogant, and have faith in our own observations. Humility is no less desirable from science than from theology, in consideration of politics particularly, that most fractious of human endeavors.

    We do well who remain certain of our own fallibility.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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