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.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

31 thoughts on “Belief”

  1. I think the reason this particular debate is so tiresome is that the “operational definition of ‘belief'” is different for either side. Belief in a particular scientific theory means that one thinks it has predictive value. As one who believes in evolution, I believe the theory is a good guide for understanding how life changes, and what we might discover about our past.

    However, religious ‘belief’ seems completely different, akin to what one might mean when saying “I believe in capitalism”. There isn’t a question of whether or not capitalism exists or not, but rather — whether or not it is a force for good in the world — is it something to be supported or vilified?

    If you see the debate in these terms, it is easy to understand why there is so much emphasis on “purpose” in the NYTimes pieces. For many, the Creation story isn’t about ‘truth’ so much as it is about laying a foundation for a search for meaning. Meanwhile, Science is happy to avoid meaning entirely in its search for truth.

    Personally, I don’t see any contradiction at all in embracing the scientific truth of evolution whilst believing that the spiritual path offered by Christianity is both good and fulfilling. Of course, I also believe that Creationists are bonkers. But mostly, they are harmlessly bonkers. I don’t think religious doctrine is preventing most religious people from seeing the truth about climate or environmental issues or whatever — it is simply that they have no reason to care about those things more than the hundreds of other topics or activities (TV, sports, drugs (legal and illegal), gossip, family, etc.) that are more likely to claim their attention. Certainly that is a failing, but it is a very human failing.

  2. Consider that most parents get talk to their children at some point. “Daddy the scientists say there is evidence that we evolved from …. ” or ” there is evidence that CO2 we put in the atmosphere is warming the planet…” And the actual comeback from the side you are talking about is: thats not what I/the bible say, the scientists are lying and there is no such evidence. This is the basis of the creationist as PhD scam and the denialist scam in climate science. It is in biblical language “bearing false witness” about plainly observable evidence and about the intentions of those who study. Even common parents have to play in the scam to confirm their biases. And it is teaching their children and themselves that there is no validity in “looking at the evidence”. If you think there no personal economic consequences to learing not to look at evidence first then ….I have some oceanfront land in arizona to sell you…

  3. Michael,

    As you say, this probably isn’t the place to do this fishing…I would also say with respect that you may not be the right fisherman (no pun intended). To engage in this debate in a productive way one has to understand both science and Christian theology pretty deeply. You know the former and not the latter, as evidenced by the fact that you seem to think that there is some contradiction between the Bible and accepting climate change or cosmic rays, or between being a Christian and not throwing yourself to your death from a height (Dare I say “mount”? Would many readers here get it if I did? Probably not) or that you think religious people have similar health statistics because religious beliefs do not influence health (lifespan is in fact years longer because religion affects health in a profound way by substantially decreasing smoking, drinking and drug use — Elizabeth Gifford and I have a review chapter on this if you want to see it, the effect is more robust than social class, family history, race, ethnicity, genetic load, prevention programming etc.).
    Why these debates are generally unproductive I think is that many people understand one side of them and have only a surface understanding (sometimes combined with antipathy) to the other. It’s not genius to say that isn’t a good basis for debate. But I bet there are website out there for people who are both deeply versed in theology and in scientific method, and there are probably some good debates there.

    1. Keith,

      I have no deeper understanding of theology than Michael does. But I think you are missing the point.

      The problem is not a discussion among those who have such understanding. It is the influence on political and other matters, like education, of those who take the simpler, literal-minded, unquestioning fundamentalist stance. They are vastly greater in number than the serious theologians, have vastly greater influence in the public sphere, and do active harm when their views influence policy matters.

      I have occasionally seen statements from the professors, claiming that it is unfair for religious thought to be branded as ignorant on the basis of its more publicized foolishnesses. But that foolishness is what affects us. They are not entitled to shrug it off.

    2. Keith, not “Christian scientist”, Christian Scientist (adherent of Mary Baker Eddy’s church). Also: right, all sorts of Christians, and pious others, have no problem with the scientific method or its results. Catholic teaching, for example, has no problem with evolution and US Jesuit schools, at least, have a long history of distinction in geology. And I don’t see a contradiction between being a serious scientist and taking what you turn up as evidence of the nature of God.

      1. I get you on Christian Scientists with a capital S, my misread, sorry. Their beliefs nonetheless give them profoundly different health — much lower alcohol and tobacco use but also much lower health care utilization, both things consequential even if their net effect is to cancel either other out on average.

        And yes of course on Christians supporting science, indeed some of the greatest science ever has been done by the devout (And not just Christians, contra Dawkins there are some brilliant Muslim scientists). A reason it is critical to understand theology in these debates is that many people on the “Christian side” (if that is the right term) do not. The amazing documentary “Jesus Camp” pointed out how a political movement fused faith and anti-climate change rhetoric. Some Evangelicals thus misunderstand their own faith — they think its main tenants are (1) Gun control is wrong (2) There is no climate change and (3) Kill all gays. The best way to deal with that is to understand theology better than they do, as they have been mislead (once could of course just condemn them, but that makes them dig in their heels, and I want them to undig them).

        1. The best way to deal with that is to understand theology better than they do, as they have been mislead (once could of course just condemn them, but that makes them dig in their heels, and I want them to undig them).

          How would you go about that? Religion is, pretty much by definition, not falsifiable. Christianity is no more wrong or right in an objective sense than Satanism; and Leviticus 20:13 in particular is pretty compatible with a “kill all gays” doctrine (if you want to argue that the New Covenant overrides the Old Testament covenants, let me point you to Matthew 5:17). Furthermore, various Christian sects, unsurprisingly, interpret the bible in different ways (e.g. the non-trinitarian belief system of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and that’s just people that at least have a modicum of agreement on their sources. There is no objective test for either the truth or falsehood of any given religious doctrine.

          There is no requirement in any purely metaphysical construction that the outcome matches our modern ethics. There is no reason why, if there is a god, he wouldn’t be closer to Philip Pullman’s vision or that of Star Trek V or the rather cruel version of the Old Testament.

          You’re welcome to try to convince them anyway, but as they say, you can’t nail a pudding to a wall.

          1. I were going to characterize the successes I have had so far in this area, I would say it’s been partly exigesis and partly respect and a willingness to listen. A belief in common humanity probably has helped too.

          2. That is fine, and it’s great that you have success convincing them, but that is not the same as saying that they are misled or misunderstand their own faith. There is no single correct way to read the bible (as evidenced by the large number of Christian sects or even theologians within the same faith disagreeing on rather fundamental things). Convincing them that your interpretation is superior does not imply misunderstanding on their part or that they have been misled (presumably by people whose belief in their own interpretation is just as sincere as yours).

            But I’m an agnostic [1], so the idea of speaking of truth or falsehood in the context of a religious argument is something that fundamentally doesn’t make any sense to me.

            [1] To be clear, I have no principal objection against religion; it’s important to many people as a source of strength or to deal with difficult issues (such as human mortality), and as long as they leave me in peace, I have no intention of trying to talk anybody out of their faith (even if it weren’t likely to be a fruitless endeavor).

          3. But I’m an agnostic, so the idea of speaking of truth or falsehood in the context of a religious argument is something that fundamentally doesn’t make any sense to me.

            Fair enough.

      2. “I don’t see a contradiction between being a serious scientist and taking what you turn up as evidence of the nature of God.”

        I see a contradiction, because what you turn up is not, scientifically speaking, evidence of the nature of God. I see no contradiction between being a serious scientist and having faith, which you acknowledge not to be based on science, that what you turn up is evidence of the nature of God.

    3. you seem to think that there is some contradiction between the Bible and accepting climate change or cosmic rays

      I’m not seeing where you get this. He’s arguing that creationism is incompatible with science. You seem to conflate creationism with “the Bible,” which, of course, creationists themselves do, but nobody else. Are you a creationist?

    4. True, it was known before Newton that it was a bad idea to throw yourself from a height, and that stones do not turn into bread; it was known also that things, when dropped, fall. Everyone knew that apples fall from trees, but no one before Newton knew that the moon was falling. Non-believers in Newton will exercise the same degree of prudence if they believe that it is the nature of heavy bodies to move toward the center of the universe, this being the center of the earth.

      Similar considerations apply to those who look to general relativity rather than Newtonian forces acting at a distance; the curvature of space-time predicts the motion of a body a hundred stories high when it loses its supports.

    5. “To engage in this debate in a productive way one has to understand both science and Christian theology pretty deeply. You know the former and not the latter, as evidenced by the fact that you seem to think that there is some contradiction between the Bible and accepting climate change or cosmic rays, or between being a Christian and not throwing yourself to your death from a height”

      There is no one thing called Christian theology — you’re operating under the “No True Scotsman” rules of internet debate, trying to claim as “real” Christian theology the parts you like and not the others.

      “A belief in common humanity probably has helped too.”
      There are plenty of people who have interpreted Christian theology to mean precisely that we do NOT have a common humanity — there are the saved and the damned, or there are the children of Shem and the children of Ham. (Or the Afrikaans version of Dutch Calvinism I grew up with which fuses both of them…)
      Likewise you might not like Dominion Theology, but it’s as “Christian” a Christian theology as any other, and it can lead you pretty easily to a place where climate change is more or less irrelevant — either god is making it happen because he wants to, or it isn’t going to happen because he’ll stop it.

      The pattern of pretty much ALL Christian history until the 1600s or so is a belief that things happen (or don’t happen) because of “sin” and related matters, and the way to avoid catastrophes (or bring them on) has to do with the nature of the moral laws that are passed by society, and rigorous enforcement of those laws.
      A Pat Robinson who claims that natural weather disasters in America are caused by god being angry with porn and gay marriage, and that America needs to spend more time worrying about its sex life and less time worrying about energy, is part of a long long Christian tradition, not some weird 20th century fluke.

      You seem to confuse “Christian theology” with some very specific deist branch of Catholic or Anglican theology, a clockwork universe branch that has god the creator set up the universe then never intervene again. But snake handlers, for example, are operating off a more or less coherent and even “legitimate” Christian theology, as are the talking in tongues crowd, and for these people god intervenes all the time, every day, in auto accidents, in cancer, in who wins wars or football games. For these people, causality in the world happens through obtaining the approval or not of god, NOT through “mere” scientific law.

  4. Trying to reconcile one particular religion with science is the hobbyhorse of people who feel guilty for no longer believing their parents’ bullshit. I guess I’m lucky that mine never tried to tell me that cosmological fairy stories were real.

  5. But for almost all of daily life, believing science or believing the Bible’s story is mostly posturing and asserting and pretty much inconsequential.

    Why don’t oil companies hire creationist geologists? (My standard retort on this subject.)

    1. But if The Creator put all those dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith didn’t He put all that oil there for the same reason? (As well as to make the righteous billionaires to boot.)

    2. Another practical consequence arose in the 1980s when a neonatal surgeon at Loma Linda transplanted a baboon heart into an infant with a fatal heart defect, explaining that he did not believe in evolution, which would predict that the heart would be rejected due to the great evolutionary distance between the two species.

      SFAIK this experiment has not been repeated in the quarter century since.

  6. I think the average person, myself mostly included, would have a difficult time defending established scientific, consensus views against crackpottery. They’re just often so damn good! So what we do is to place our “faith” in scientific consensus – that there are thousands upon thousands of serious people out there who study this stuff for a living, who have spent countless hours, days, weeks and years reading the literature and grappling with the theory. Occasionally what was accepted as established science is overturned, but only very rarely.

    So as a rule, we must generally accept the expert consensus except in cases where we are ourselves experts; there’s nothing more reliable. From this principle, we must dismiss: vaccine paranoids, 9/11 truthers, creationists, gmo paranoids, one world governmenters, climate change deniers, homeopaths, etc.

    It may seem cavalier, to dismiss so much out-of-hand, but what else is a layperson to do epistemologically?

    1. I would say that this is obviously right, except that the phrase might imply a criticism I do not intend. Obvious as it ought to be, too few people get it.
      To recycle an example I have used before, if some crackpot insisted that in 1791 the President of the United States was not George Washington, but, rather, Timothy Pickering, what could most of us say? Have we examined the documentary record? Have we spent any time at all examining the evidence supporting our view that George Washington was, in fact, the President? Aren’t we just recycling what the meainstream “experts” say? The crackpot will no doubt be conversant with a great deal of often obscure factual information about late 18th-century America (such as who the f##k Timothy Pickering was), and will be able to refer to a vast collection of scraps of documentation we will have no way to refute. Yet we would, in all our ignorance, be amply justified in writing off the crackpot as a crackpot for precisely the reasons Eli says we should. Maybe we can leave a small corner of our mind open to the possibility of a President Pickering, but even that is a stretch.

  7. For the piecewise proof of evolution, creationists will react like any person reacting to persuasion attempts.
    If the person arguing is very convincing, there are two possibilities:
    1) they are correct
    2) they are a very effective con-artist.

    If you are not strong in science, you may not be able to discern 1, and given the huge amount of liars in our world, 2 seems like a great choice for a Bayesian human.

  8. It is a tragedy that the contemporary “debate”, if you can call it that, in the USA on science and religion is considerably less sophisticated than that in Britain in say 1860. Liberal Christians then accepted, following Archdeacon Paley of the watchmaker argument, Hutton´s convincing evidence of the antiquity of the Earth, and a little later Cuvier´s and Buffon´s evidence of evolution. These facts were incompatible with Biblical literalism – which is absurd anyway from the internal evidence of the many contradictions in the Bible, including between the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Young Earth creationism was widely seen as plain wrong then and it´s merely ridiculous now.

    It´s worth remembering (following Stephen Jay Gould) that Hutton and Aristotle affirmed the eternity of the Earth against the bizarre Judaic doctrine of a creation in time. Science has comprehensively confirmed Genesis here; to the embarrassment of some physicists, who are forced to save the appearances with unconfirmable speculations of an eternity of multiverses.

    The real difficulty, for Darwin and for Bishop Wilberforce and Richard Dawkins, was not the fact of evolution but the explanatory theory of natural selection, which replaced Providence by chance.

    As a would-be rational Christian, I don´t have a solution. However, the arrow of evolution on Earth is marked by increasing complexity. Gould argued that the success not only of species but of lineages and body plans is heavily influenced by chance. True, but convergent evolution (ichthyosaurs, sharks, tuna and dolphins have similarly efficient shapes) suggests to me that niche space has its own structure, filled randomly by different lineages.

    Intelligence is an asset to a species, and is likely to emerge in different lineages – parrots, octopuses, primates. Its value is constrained for the first two by their way of life, less so for primates, so it went further there. As was, for us few rational theists, intended.

    1. …not the fact of evolution but the explanatory theory of natural selection, which replaced Providence by chance.

      That is the canard tossed about by Biblicists: the God of the Universe has been replaced by chance. But it is a gross over-simplification of the case. Chance provides the raw material of variation: the environment (in the guise of Natural Selection) provides the filter. Once a fitness function is defined, climbing Mt Improbable becomes something that can be accomplished in a reasonable number of generations. Simply providing for chance to provide cytochrome-c (to pick an arbitrary example) by random selection of nucleotides on a DNA sequence (or even random selection of amino acids) yields impossibly huge expected waiting times.

      1. My statement is only correct for the initial change, now known to be mutation, caused by cosmic rays or natural radiation, which are as near purely random as nature gets. I never said the subsequent selection process is random, an absurdity. I specifically wrote that niche space has its own structure, an idea which may not be distinguishable from your fitness functions.

  9. “Science has comprehensively confirmed Genesis here; to the embarrassment of some physicists, who are forced to save the appearances with unconfirmable speculations of an eternity of multiverses.”

    Oh James, don’t embarrass yourself with sentences like this…

    I personally don’t see multiverses as a useful “solution” to understanding quantum mechanics (and have an alternative mathematical model I am working on), but no-one proposes them to to “save the appearances” or prove Abrahamic cosmology wrong or whatever. The people worrying about them are operating on a completely different plane. The issues are things like how do we reconcile a variety of experimental facts (not just “theory”) — how do explain “the collapse of the wave function” and in particular how it occurs in non-relativistic fashion?
    There is a genuine unresolved problem here at the heart of physics, but it’s a problem grounded in the clash of experimental results and existing theory, and it will, eventually, after the usual confusion, kerfuffling, and perhaps waiting for some grand poobahs to die, be resolved as a physics issue — converted into a mathematic model, subjected to experiment.

  10. A good (and serious) question for young-Earthers: do you check your 401k to make sure there are no funds going to “secular” oil companies, who are no doubt wasting their money looking for oil based on the theory that the Earth is billions of years old? Not to mention that the vast majority of drugs you take and medical professionals you interact with are positively steeped in evolution. BTW love your expression of “where they get off the train”. For the most part when people say they believe something (that their “tribe” believes), but they don’t bet that way, result from tribal loyalty signals that take the form of factual statements about the world, but really are just ways of signalling “Go team”. But because they ARE factual statements, their holders get confused, and have to find a way to repeat them without acting on them. And the rest of us get confused when they insist they believe them, but act in exactly the same manner as someone who doesn’t.

  11. When it comes to social policy, you certainly see a lot of people making bets in line with their theology. The results are not encouraging.

  12. Just seeing all this. When I read the Heffernan piece I thought the most charitable interpretation was that it was an attempt at irony — a demonstration of the vapidity of ignorance. But on reflection I see it as a ad celebration of ignorance… All that science stuff is too hard — who wants to struggle with string theory and quantum mechanics and population dynamics when we can just tells ourselves comforting stories that place ourselves at the center. So what if social science sometimes gets it wrong and isn’t as immediate self-correcting as physics that is closer to technological application and less affected by powerful interests. That’s not a valid reason to chuck the whole ambition and just sit in the hot tub of whatever narrative makes you happy. On the other hand if everyone had this relaxed a relationship to their religious beliefs presumably fewer people would die in religious conflict.

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