Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Scientists, Heads, and Hearts Part Two

I wish to continue a discussion of Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. His points are particularly relevant to evolution. Randy’s point is that many defenders of evolutionary science have been focusing on getting out the facts of evolution, as if these facts would convince evolution’s opponents. The anti-evolutionists have been able to, often deceptively, reach into people’s hearts. They say, in effect, “Be afraid, be very afraid, of the chaos that scientists tell you is in the world. Instead, believe us when we tell you about the Intelligent Designer that has everything under control, which means you can stop worrying about it.” Wow, this sounds good even to me.

But anti-evolution emotions can make facts bounce right off. I see it in my students: they hear me talk about how we carry old leftover genes from our evolutionary ancestors right in our chromosomes, as clear as any evidence can be for evolution, but this information finds no binding site on their brains and slips off like a cat trying to climb a pane of glass. They don’t know what to think about it, so they don’t. They aren’t stupid. They just can’t easily deal with the cognitive dissonance, and a few moments after class is over, they are thinking about something else.

Olson does not think that it is unreasonable to try a stunt or two to get past people’s emotional barriers. I agree. After all, I dress up like Darwin and make appearances all over Oklahoma (see the photo). One time, my assistant wheeled me into a classroom on a gurney, and I rose from the dead to give a lecture. I then told about Charles Darwin the person, who suffered a lot of agony and really struggled with religious beliefs. He was not trying to destroy people’s faith and champion the survival of the fittest. He believed in survival of the fittest, but he didn’t like it very much—it killed his daughter. I have had people tell me afterwards that one of the most meaningful things about my classes and presentations was not the information, of which I provided enough, but the fact that they got to know Darwin the person, who was not the monster that Oklahoma schools and churches portray him to be.

Let me know more of your experiences.

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