While we like to suppose that the human intellect discovers the truth about things, and then we follow that truth, the fact is that it rarely works like that. What tends to happen is that our subconscious mind – our hopes, fears, desires and needs – suggest to us a particular way of looking at the world: and then our intellect jumps in to find reasons WHY.
I was just reading (ok, LISTENING to) Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink” – an excellent and engrossing book. He describes an experiment where a group of “speed daters” were surveyed about which of a list of qualities were the most important in a prospective partner. Was it physical attractiveness? Honesty? Wit? Common interests? After the test, they had their “speed dating” experience and were asked to rate each of the people they met on these qualities, as well as to pick the ones they were interested in getting to know better. As you might have suspected, the participants weren’t very good at predicting the people they would be interested in. They might have SAID they wanted a person who was honest and shared their interests, and then picked someone who didn’t rate high on those qualities at all, but was very physically attractive or witty. What’s more, when they were given the same survey a week later – their criteria had changed. If they had been attracted to a witty person, for example, they now rated “wit” as the most important criteria. Their intellectual criteria, in other words, were at the mercy of their subconscious desires, not the other way around.
This is just as easy to do in the creation/evolution argument. We all know that there are atheists who would be happy to listen to any evidence for evolution – even BAD evidence, because it helps them defend their worldview. And we all know there are believers who would be happy to listen to any evidence for creation – even BAD evidence. People will praise to the skies the work and credentials of complete hucksters, if the hucksters tell them what they want to hear.
Fortunately, just as there are checks and balances in government, to counteract the human tendency to abuse power – there are checks and balances in science, to counteract the human tendency to intellectually deceive ourselves.
ONE of those checks is peer review. The intellectual work of a scientist must be presented to a community of observers trained in the same field, who all have a vested interest in their own particular view and their own particular work. If there are glaring errors, these people will see it if anyone can. In particular, if the work of a scientist challenges the current understanding of things, his work is likely to be carefully scrutinized by other researchers with a vested interest in the current understanding of things. Peer review means that a scientist will be motivated to avoid the embarrassment of publishing nonsense. On the other hand, if the new idea elegantly explains problems that others in the field have been wrestling with, and helps them further their own work they will be motivated to give it a good hearing, and the originating scientist will be motivated to present the idea. Peer review is a protection to prevent our brilliantly adaptive intellects from inventing explanations that only serve our own needs and interests. They must serve the needs and interests of a broad community. This makes them more likely to be “true” in the sense of providing useful general principles.
But another and perhaps the primary “check” on a bad scientific idea is its predictive power. It’s very easy for our brilliantly adaptive intellects to invent ideas to explain any set of facts we come up against. It’s quite another thing to invent ideas that explain the facts BEFORE we encounter them. The “speed daters” in the experiment above were very good at inventing plausible reasons WHY they were attracted to certain people based on certain qualities – but not so good at predicting in advance what qualities would attract them. Only a person who correctly understands their own deepest motivations could accurately predict who they would be attracted to. Similarly, only a scientific theory that is in touch with some important aspect of the truth can make accurate predictions.
In my opinion, Creationism, particularly young-earth Creationism, is revealed by both these scientific “checks” to be largely a case of ad-hoc intellectual justification. Only a small handful of scientists see any merit in it. Is this simply a case of clinging to a justification for atheism? I don’t think so. Many scientists who accept evolution are believers. In fact, of the scientists who are believers, more of them believe in evolution than don’t. Remember also that Darwin’s theory had to originally win over the support of scientists who were almost entirely believers, and against massive public opposition. It could do this only because of its great explanatory power and predictive value.
As for predictive power, young-earth Creationism is, in my opinion, a complete disaster. Time and time again creationists have been forced into elaborate justifications to account for additional facts as they arise. None of these justifications may sound intellectually implausible on the surface. But the fact that the need for such justification arises again and again – not just in evolutionary biology, but in geology, physics, and chemistry, is telling. According to a young-earth creation scientist, nothing is as it seems. Transitional fossils aren’t really transitional. The geological column doesn’t represent a long sequence of deposits. The principles of radioactive decay can’t be trusted. The speed of light might have changed. Apparent genetic relationships have convoluted alternative explanations. Any exceptions invalidate the general rules. This is not evidence of the predictive power of Creation Science. It is, rather, evidence of the rather amazing power of the human mind to deceive itself.
And for what? To reconcile the facts to one particular interpretation of an ancient Hebrew text – a text which has generated quite a number of alternate interpretations? Of course, at this point, it’s much more than that. There is a whole group-ego structure built around this particular interpretation, and to a member of this group, any challenge to it is not simply an issue of scientific fact. It is a direct attack on the identity of who they are as a person and as a member of the group. They cannot concede any point against it without giving up some part of themselves.
This is not to say that it can’t work the other direction. In spite of the benefits of healthy skepticism, for example, I can’t help thinking someone like the Great Randi has more than an academic interest in maintaining his skeptical point of view, and that encountering a real psychic would challenge him on a level far more fundamental than simply intellectually.