Blinded by Science

I have some friends who believe in the possibility of paranormal activity.  While we disagree, I am fascinated why people believe the things they do, particularly when their beliefs conflict with objective evidence and facts.  There are a lot of things in this world where subjectivity, such as doubt, opinion, or faith are good enough to make sense of the world.  Social scientists refer to this as “multiple realities”, where our sense of what is valid and accurate depends on how we make sense of the information we are given or events we experience.  Consequently, several people can be given the same information or even observe the same thing and come to vastly different conclusions.  And this is made more difficult in the current environment, where information is quickly communicated, without fact checking, so that evidence can be distorted or fabricated.

However, sometimes there is a singular reality in which there is consensus, particularly among experts in the field, about the evidence and facts.  This is especially true in the “hard” sciences, such as math, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, where certain fundaments are considered true and inarguable, such as the planets revolve around the Sun and you can’t turn water into gold.

One such topic where the facts are incontrovertible is evolution.  About 98% of scientists agree that humans evolved over time.  And according to two recent surveys, by the Pew Research Center  and the Gallup organization, between 55% and 81% of Americans also believe in evolution.  These Americans either accept the purely scientific explanation that evolution is due to natural selection or they believe natural selection is God’s tool for guiding evolution.  Either way, that accept that life in general and mankind in particular did not just appear in the Garden of Eden.  That’s considerable progress for a once controversial issue.

Why the different results between the two surveys?  A lot depends on the survey methodology – who you survey, how you’re able to contact them, and how many people are included in the process.  For example, even if you construct a random sample, if that sample happens to include a lot of people with a college degree then you’re likely to have more respondents who believe in evolution.  However, there was also some congruence.  For example, both surveys found that religiosity influenced peoples’ beliefs; the more often you attend church the more likely you won’t believe in evolution.  This is true even for those with a college degree.

There are several reasons why people accept or reject evolution.  My wife once had two sisters in her class (she taught high school English) and when she asked them a question one said, “I don’t know” and the other said, “I don’t care.”  Likewise, when asked about evolution, a small percentage of respondents replied they just don’t know.  That may be due to not having sufficient information to form a judgement or perhaps not being interested in the subject and not thinking about it.  Either way, it is an honest answer.

Some people say they don’t believe evolution is real because it’s “just a theory.”  The problem here is with word usage.  In common vernacular, a theory is an assumption, conjecture, or hypothesis.  I have a theory that school yard bullying has increased during the past four years since Trump took office.  That’s a hunch, a feeling, that needs to be tested and measured to determine if it’s true or not, i.e. it’s a hypothesis.[1]    

In science, a theory is “an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments and testing.”[2]  Well established theories in the natural sciences include the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, and the theory of evolution.  In each case, there is no question that these phenomena exist, although scientists may still be trying to understand how they work.  Thus, when someone says they don’t believe in the theory of evolution, what they mean is that they don’t have an adequate understanding of science.

A third reason some people do not believe in evolution is because they think it conflicts with the Bible.  If you ask them what part of the Bible it conflicts with, they can’t tell you and that’s because the Bible says nothing about evolution any more than it addresses electricity, cars, or the International Space Station; the concept of evolution did not exist when the Bible was being written.  Some people will point to Genesis, where God created the heavens, the earth, and all living creatures in just a matter of days.  However, as theologians and biblical scholars point out, we don’t know how long one of God’s days was or the mechanisms he used to create life.[3]  That last point is why so many religions do accept evolution as fact, i.e., if scientific evidence points to evolution as the way life originated and changed, then evolution through natural selection must be the process God used.

Disagreement between scientists and those whetted to a literal interpretation of the Bible began shortly after Darwin published his On the Origins of Species in the mid-1800s and it has continued unabetted since then.  There is nothing wrong with people disagreeing on their perception of reality, as long as one does not interfere with the other.  That’s where things can get dicey, because it may be harmful to reject the evidence. 

Evolution is a fundamental principle of biology.  It explains how living organisms change, survive, and thrive.  Consequently, medicine, as a biological science incorporates evolution to help explain biological processes.  For example, sepsis is a life threatening condition caused by the body’s response to (bacterial or viral) infection, which if left untreated can result in organ failure and death.  Since their development in the 1930s and 1940s antibiotics have been the first line of treatment for sepsis.  Unfortunately, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics because they are evolving as a survival response.  This greatly worries medical researchers because as antibiotics become less effective, mortality due to infection will increase.    

The same is true for viruses which can quickly evolve and change to survive. That’s one reason we need a new seasonal flu vaccine each year and one reason researchers are concerned that we may need to constantly modify a COVID19 vaccine to stay ahead of it.

Lysenkoism is a good example of how rejecting scientific evidence, in this case evolution through natural selection, can have devasting consequences.  Trofim Lysenko was a Russian agronomist who rejected evolution and genetics as a way to hybridize and modify crops, for example to cultivate them so they could grow under varying weather conditions.  Worse, he was able to convince Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union to politicize his unscientific methods.  Stalin purged many scientists who disagreed with Lysenko, sending them to labor camps or executing them.  And when Lysenko’s methods were used in the fields, crops failed leading to famine and starvation for millions of Russians.[4]  

Today, we see a similar process as Trump mishandles the COVID19 pandemic.  He refuses to take a strong stand on CDC recommended precautions including wearing a mask and maintaining social distance and he has made unsubstantiated claims about development of a vaccine.  He has demeaned his scientific advisors and claims to know more about the virus than they do.  This has contributed to an increase in confirmed cases of the virus and deaths.

I accept evolution as settled science, but I like to read about the evolution debate because I’m fascinated by how people form opinions and beliefs, particularly when those beliefs conflict with the evidence.  As noted above, this comes up often, such as how people have been accepting or rejecting information about COVID19 from the CDC, the extent that nearly a third of Americans still don’t believe in climate change even when they personally experience extreme weather events caused by climate change, or why they reject universal health care when in fact they would benefit from it.  

It’s okay to have your own ideas and you’re free to believe in whatever you want as long as those ideas don’t hurt me or others who disagree with you.  If you believe in astrology and want to waste your money to get your palm read that’s no concern of mine.  But when you deny facts and evidence which impact my safety (such as not social distancing and not wearing a mask in public spaces), then science and reality do indeed matter.

[1] One study did find a link, but it’s just one study and not a body of evidence to confirm the hypothesis.


[3] I’ve always appreciated how the passage in Genesis in which God says, “Let there be light and there was light” is a nice metaphor for the Big Bang.


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