Posted by: Dan | November 17, 2006

Cognitive Science of Anti-Evolutionism

From Trends in Cognitive Science:

The current debate over whether to teach Intelligent Design creationism in American public schools provides the rare opportunity to watch the interaction between scientific knowledge and intuitive beliefs play out in courts rather than cortex. Although it is tempting to think the controversy stems only from ignorance about evolution, a closer look reinforces what decades of research in cognitive and social psychology have already taught us: that the relationship between understanding a claim and believing a claim is far from simple. Research in education and psychology confirms that a majority of college students fail to understand evolutionary theory, but also finds no support for a relationship between understanding evolutionary theory and accepting it as true [1,2]. We believe the intuitive appeal of Intelligent Design owes as much to misconceptions about science and morality as it does to misconceptions about evolution. To support this position we present a brief tour of misconceptions: evolutionary, scientific and moral.

This strikes a tone very similar to this past Summer’s Evolution and Design course by Allen MacNeill. In particular, it’s similar to the conclusion of one of the course’s students, Elena Brouddus, that humans are predisposed to perceptions of purpose and teleology in a way that easily generates false positives: A tendency toward teleology: Why we see purpose in the natural world. (.pdf version)

Lombrozo and colleagues also conclude, however:

A proper understanding of evolutionary theory and its consequences requires more than a few lessons in biology. It also requires lessons from philosophy of science about what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test, and lessons from moral philosophy about the difference between empirical claims and moral claims. Perhaps this is what ought to be taught alongside evolution in America’s public schools.

That sounds about right, and I completely agree – I think, for instance, that certain members of Cornell’s IDEA club exhibit gross misunderstandings of science and its underlying philosophies and what constitutes testable predictions, to start with.

(HT: Chris)



  1. Speaking of the IDEA Club, it’s been very quiet over at their blog recently. Perhaps they grow weary of repeating the same lies.

  2. Indeed, hasn’t been the same this semester without them around to screw up basic deductive reasoning.

  3. It is a shame that psychological research is so fractured, the amount I read that comes from just one field (e.g. evolutionary, cognitive, developmental) without looking further. I wish more people new about Claire Graves work. Without dismissing the complexity of the situation his ECLET model does provide a good insight into why this happens. Essentially a large number of people’s values and beliefs are those that their authority figures tell them to accept. Thus someone can dogmatically believe in creationism, and also dogmatically believe in evolution. Having an empirical value system allows for a genuine appreciation of and investigation into evolution. Even less appreciated is that it seems that having dogmatic values is a necessary step towards genuine empirical ones; We need a structure within which to investigate. Once we start investigating the structure itself our values evolve to an even more complex system; relativistic and pluralistic – the work of Einstein, Godel and Jacques Derrida being good examples. Read or see for more info.


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