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Changing Creationist Minds

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How do we convince people to accept basic facts that seem to be at odds with their belief systems? That’s a question I talk about a lot here, and usually the news isn’t great. There have been many studies suggesting that facts don’t actually matter — for instance, if you want to convince someone that vaccines are safe and necessary, you’ll probably have less luck explaining the science to them and more luck showing them photos of children dying of polio. People tend to make emotional decisions about their views, and logical arguments don’t do very well talking people out of emotional decisions.

That’s depressing news for people like us, who like to think that the best way to make decisions is based on facts, not feelings, so that’s how we like to argue. With facts. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t tend to work.

The good news is that a new study offers a glimmer of hope. Researchers at University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey of 1100 Americans in which they quizzed people not just about whether or not they “believe” in evolution but actually what they know about the theory of evolution. They also asked about their belief in God, in God’s role in the evolutionary process, and about their political views. And unlike way too many psychological studies these days, they didn’t just survey college students. They asked a demographically diverse sample of Americans to get a true read on the state of evolutionary knowledge in the US.

First, the bad news: Americans are idiots. 68% of respondents failed, meaning they got fewer than 60% of the answers right.

But now, the good news! Understanding evolution was correlated with accepting it as true. The people who did better on the test tended to be the people who accepted evolution, regardless of their religious or political feelings. The researchers seem confident that this means that if we increase general knowledge of evolution, that could mean that more people will accept it as true.

Here’s the bad news again, though: correlation doesn’t equal causation. It may be that these people accepted that evolution was true first for other reasons, and then became more knowledgeable about it because of that, or were more open to learning the details of it.

It’s certainly something we could test, though, by sitting creationists down and forcefully teaching them the answer to “if humans came from monkeys why are there still monkeys” and seeing if acceptance of evolution increases. I gotta say that despite this study, I’m pessimistic, due to the overwhelming existing research showing us that facts just don’t really mean that much when it comes to changing opinions. But hey! My opinion is open to changing if the facts are convincing!

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