What may be the most unenlightening collection of pop epistemology, or theolosomethingorother, ever somehow commanded space in the NYT this week, beginning with totally wooly noodling by a self-proclaimed creationist that somehow got six more people to outgas on it. The operative question is framed as “believing in” science (and its big-bang, old-universe, evolutionary branches), or a literal interpretation of Genesis.
What, I wonder, is the operational definition of belief in a debate of this kind? As a devout Bayesian, and allowing for all the tricky heuristics and biases of rational process, I give “how you bet” priority over “what you want to be heard saying”. The problem is that we practically never have to bet on science or the Bible. Where in daily life does anyone get to act in a way that will work out much worse, or much better, if science is right and the Bible wrong on this stuff? Even Christian Scientists‘ health statistics are about the same as everyone else’s, because we all have the same plumbing keeping the sewage away from the drinking water, the same FDA keeping bad stuff out of the food, the same EPA keeping poison out of the air, etc. (On the other hand, we do not see even a few Christian Scientists leaping off tall buildings on the proposition that the physical world is not real…)
I don’t see creationists doing much of anything whose payoff would be much higher if the scientific model were wrong, nor do I have occasion to commit any real resources conditional on the science being debated here. I do bet my life regularly on some propositions of Newtonian mechanics, and I act politically in ways that only make sense if science has the better story about how things really are. But for almost all of daily life, believing science or believing the Bible’s story is mostly posturing and asserting and pretty much inconsequential.
This is a problem for that political stuff, which is extremely consequential for all of us, especially (for example) as regards climate. It’s unfortunately really easy to skate through life ‘believing’, in the inconsequential way I describe, that God made the world as per Genesis, planting things that would fool us into thinking they are fossil creatures for His own reasons, and never face a real contradiction with facts on the ground–as you would, quickly, if you ‘believed’ the acceleration of gravity on earth to be, say 3.2 ft/sec2. You can tell Siri you don’t think Maxwell’s equations have anything to do with an iPhone all you want, and she will still do her tricks. So it’s really easy to ignore all the science that doesn’t affect how you cross the street, which is most of it, and act as a citizen in ways that are profoundly dangerous for everyone.
I don’t cross paths with creationists. When I do, if the occasion admits, I’m dying to just find out where they get off the train: “do you believe DNA directs the development of organisms from seeds and eggs? Do you believe there are cosmic rays? That they occasionally muss up DNA so a creature is a little better making offspring that others of its species? That a series of “more offspring” in a replication process would make the whole population more like the more fecund version, sort of like the Orthodox becoming a larger and larger fraction of the Israeli population?” If you answer yes to all these, you’re really saying evolution is not only real but could not be otherwise. If you don’t, I’m more than a little curious to know why you stopped at one point or another. If any readers have the answer to this, I’d love to know it, though RBC readers are probably not the pond I should be fishing in.