Saturday, April 06, 2019

Why you should care about what a YEC thinks

I've had a number of people contact me off-line to tell me that they, like Don Geddis, are not at all interested in this whole YEC thing.  This response was typical:
I am [a] European, and I am sure you, at least from a general and abstract point of view, understand that the USA are not the World, and that some of the things  that seems so important to you, are just the construct of what the USA culture, politics, history etc ... but are just, to people from other backgrounds one of the many USA weirdness (as I am sure there are European weirdness, Swedish weirdness etc.). 
IMVHO, YEC and the need to argue with them, is one of those.
I actually didn't realize until I did some research prompted by the above correspondence that YEC is indeed a uniquely American phenomenon.  I was under the impression that it was world-wide, and in fact there are a lot of non-American non-Christian creationists in general (most Muslims are OECs).  But young earth creationism does appear to be uniquely American (and Christian).  I didn't know that.

But all this is not about YEC per se.  This is an exercise in trying to find common ground with someone with whom I vehemently disagree, and to see if I can learn some lessons from the experience that generalize to other domains.  I ended up partnering with a YEC in part because that just happened to be the kind of person I could find who was willing to engage with me.  I would have happily done this with a Muslim or a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness (I've actually had a few conversations with Witnesses and found them to be quite knowledgable and intellectually honest.  But it's a very small sample size.) but it turns out to be really hard to find people willing to engage in this sort of thing, and even fewer who are willing to be intellectually honest about it.  (If you want to volunteer, please let me know!)

I happen to think that it's a good thing that I'm doing this with a YEC in part because the scientific evidence against YEC is so overwhelming.  Figuring out how an intellectually honest person can sustain such a belief is, I think, interesting just in and of itself.  It is not a simple matter of "cognitive dissonance" as Don Geddis has glibly claimed.  Cognitive dissonance simply means "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes."  In other words, CD is just a label for the phenomenon, it's not an explanation.

Whoever you are, American or European, religious or not, the world is full of people with whom you will vehemently disagree about something.  Responding to that by retreating into enclaves of like-minded people is not going to produce good outcomes in the long run.  This planet is only so big, and at some point you are almost certainly going to have to interact in some way with someone with whom you vehemently disagree.  The world will be a better place if more people learn how to do it without resorting to violence.  Even if you don't have to deal with Islamic State in your back yard, there could be other religious fundamentalists closer to home.

If you happen to be religious, you might want to follow this exercise (or even engage in it yourself) because it turns out that atheism is on the rise in the U.S.  Atheists now outnumber evangelicals -- narrowly at the moment, but the trend is solidly  in our favor.  (If you're a social conservative, which is strongly correlated with being evangelical, things are looking particularly grim for you in the long run.)  You might want to get to know us better, and in particular, find out why we "choose to reject God's grace", and why we nevertheless do not in fact rape and pillage despite having no apparent moral compass.

Finally, if you're a Christian but not a YEC (I'm looking at you, Publius) then you have a theological difference that you might want to try to resolve.  At the very least, you differ in the interpretation of Genesis.  Are you sure you understand YEC hermeneutics (never mind the science) well enough to definitively rule it out as a possibility?  Because if you can't, then it's possible that you're making a mistake that will impact your prospects of salvation.

Just sayin'.

8 comments:

Weregoat said...

I am afraid that I wasn't very clear in my comment (the quote posted is mine).

Let me try to answer your post, at length and clarify what I tried to communicate.

It's not really about not discussing things in general. But there are things that have a sense to discuss, and things that at this point, for me at least, are not, and have been settled (often a long time ago).

Let me try to switch to "flat Earth", as is probably less controversial, but IMHO the same issue.

IMHO, there isn't really anything new that I am going to learn from a discussion with someone that believes that the Earth is flat that I may care about or that I cannot learn somewhere else.

I mean, if you are interested in how beliefs are formed and held against facts and objections, or how they are formed etcetera, there is plenty of literature on that.

And, similarly, I doubt that anyone believing that the Earth is flat would be able to improve on my knowledge about the shape of the Earth.

Lakatos, Khun, Popper, Scientific knowledge, Knowledge at large, Epistemology, Philosophy, blah blah, and all that... sure. But, again, what are the probabilities, if you want, that someone that believes that the Earth is flat has stumbled on something that escaped hundreds of scholars before?

In other words, IMHO, there is nothing for me to gain in term of knowledge that is worth the frustration to have such a discussion.

I don't hate flat Earthers, I don't try to impose on them my conviction about the shape of the Earth; I guess if I were to meet one at a party and the subject is raised I would listen and voice my disagreement, but I would certainly not try to "educate" the other (apart maybe suggesting some sources to consult if they are really interested) or expect to expand my understanding on it.

That's not necessarily true for every subjects. There are issues where I don't have a clear enough idea to dismiss alternatives, or where by itself the matter is interesting in itself; there some knowledge is to be gained by discussing it.

It's not about not being intellectually open, but about being a bit selective on your source of intellectual stimulation, so to speak.

Weregoat said...

I go back to YEC to make another point, now.

You are wrong that YECs don't exist outside the USA. We do have YECs in Sweden, for example; it's just that they are basically harmless (like flat Earthers). They don't have any influence on politicians, or the cultural discourse; as far as I know there is no danger of evolution or geology being scrapped from the school curricula here (there are issues with private schools IMHO, but I don't think that the teaching of evolution is at risk).

So, for me, they are just an "intellectual" phenomenon, something that, as I wrote above, I don't think I can learn anything new from (at least not anything I am interested in at the moment).

Not so, I understand, in the USA, where they do have some (much?) power and influence. So you might want to debate them on that ground, as I might want to engage on other subjects that are relevant to me.

But that is, for me, as with the examples you bring on, a matter more of political engagement that intellectual discussion.

I don't object to religious fundamentalism on the ground of some theological point; I do object to them trying to impose laws based on their sectarian views and on the consequences their position may have on other people (and them too, although they probably won't agree on it).

And I think you are mixing the two things with this above post. Discussing with a YEC on Reddit is not the same as acting for a more tolerant society or a true separation of religion and state (just to stick to the examples).

Maybe it's even counterproductive. Maybe you are **enabling** them, giving their arguments a relevance that they don't really merit.
There is, currently, some discussion about debating or not "sceptics" on climate change, and, I think, that some or many of the arguments for not engaging are the same for YECs.

Ron said...

@weregoat:

(That's an interesting handle, BTW).

> You are wrong that YECs don't exist outside the USA. We do have YECs in Sweden, for example;

OK, well, you're the one who told me that "some of the things ... are just the construct of ... USA culture [and] YEC ... is one of those."

And please note that the point here is not to *argue* with a YEC. There may be some argument taking place, but that's not the *goal*.

> I do object to them trying to impose laws based on their sectarian views and on the consequences their position may have on other people

> But that is, for me ... a matter more of political engagement that intellectual discussion.

Well, sure. But have you considered the possibility that this political engagement might become more *effective* (and less socially divisive) if some people put some effort into understanding their opponent's thought processes?

> if you are interested in how beliefs are formed and held against facts and objections, or how they are formed etcetera, there is plenty of literature on that.

Sure, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing useful left to discover.

(Can you give me a few examples of this literature you're referring to?

Don Geddis said...

@weregoat: I feel like you missed Ron’s point. He’s been very clear from the beginning that the scientific evidence for a very old earth is overwhelming. Ron clearly has no expectation that he will learn anything about the actual age of the earth from this YEC conversation. So your analogy about the flat earth is beside the point: Ron isn’t trying to acquire new knowledge about “the shape of the earth”. That isn’t the point.

The point is, indeed, to be “interested in how beliefs are formed and held against against facts and objections”. To which your sole comment seems to be “there is plenty of literature on that”. Perhaps you can expand on this, since that is really the entire point of the whole exercise?

@Ron: I feel like I’m getting multiple shout outs on this topic! Starting to feel a little paranoid. Not especially complimentary for me, ah well.

But as to the question of whether I merely offered a label, as opposed to an explanation: I thought I suggested a bit more. “Tribalism” is my answer. Making decisions by emotion, and then using logic to rationalize and defend them. “Compartmentalization” is the mechanism for surviving cognitive dissonance without mental anguish.

You seem to be trying to answer the question: “how did you come to this belief logically?” I don’t think that’s how people come to such beliefs. I think your quest is doomed to failure.

Ron said...

@Don:

Sorry to single you out, and doubly sorry if I'm coming across as pejorative. That's not my intent.

> “Tribalism” is my answer.

Fair enough. We've been corresponding privately about this, and I am planning on addressing it, but it's going to take a while because, as you know, there's a LOT of back-story there.

> You seem to be trying to answer the question: “how did you come to this belief logically?”

No, I'm trying to answer the question "How does a person who does not seem crazy to me come to believe in something that does seem crazy to me?" It's possible that logic plays a role in the process, but I'm trying very hard not to pre-judge that one way or the other. (I do believe that logic plays a much bigger role in the process than you seem ready to acknowledge, though.)

Weregoat said...

@Ron:

>> You are wrong that YECs don't exist outside the USA.
>> We do have YECs in Sweden, for example;
> OK, well, you're the one who told me that "some of the things ... are just the
> construct of ... USA culture [and] YEC ... is one of those."

Yes. As I said, YECs here exists, but they don't have the relevance they have in the USA. The same could be said about the importance of religious beliefs.
That's what I meant in both cases. You are interested in some things because they affect you in some way. They don't affect me in the same way, so I am not as interested as you are.

If the situation changes, I may change my approach too, but for the moment I am happy with the knowledge I have.

Remember that my involvement in all this started with me trying to explain to you why I didn't read your original post.


[Political engagement]
>Well, sure.
> But have you considered the possibility that this political engagement
> might become more *effective* (and less socially divisive) if some people
> put some effort into understanding their opponent's thought processes?

Depends.
How much understanding? How much effort? On what specific issue?
Probably not at the level you seem to be interested in, IMHO.

Also, would it be correct to generalise from Jimmy to all or even a majority of believers?

> Sure, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing useful left to discover.

No, absolutely. I was interested in it too, once. But, for me, the issue is settled enough that, again and IMHO, it's not worth going through the frustration to dig it out from believers. YMMV.

> (Can you give me a few examples of this literature you're referring to?

Examples as specific publications? No, it was a long time ago. I know they exists because I read some, and I am confident that given access to a university library (maybe even Google Scholar) you can find plenty. You probably won't find a single simple answer though. The field is quite vast and what to look after much depend on your interests and approach.

Don reference to cognitive biases seems to me quite correct (you don't agree, I see, but I think he is spot on). Psychological literature on _Denialism_ and all that may be more specific.
Stephan Lewandowsky, for example, has published a few papers on denialism (I cite him because I have found around here a paper from him and others about conspiracy beliefs regarding climate changes).

Studies about cults would probably be helpful too for the mechanisms (like the "Granfalloon") of pressure that may have some influence on the acquisition and retention of the beliefs against reality. I know there is a study about the "Unification movement" of Sun Myung Moon for example (that I have read).
After all Festinger work was based on a UFO cult, if I remember correctly.

You can also try out the anthropological approach on the function and origin of religion; the works of the like of Geertz, Malinowski, Durkheim may be relevant to what you are interested in (again, long time, I assume there are more recent works worth reading. It was just to indicate that literature exists on the subject).

I am ready to bet that nowadays there are even studies in the neurosciences (of what valour I cannot say).

Weregoat said...

@Don:
[The goat misses the point]
> The point is, indeed, to be “interested in how beliefs are formed and held against > against facts and objections”. To which your sole comment seems to be “there is
> plenty of literature on that”. Perhaps you can expand on this, since that is
> really the entire point of the whole exercise?

Yes and no. I missed the point, but because it was not the point I was trying to answer to. :-)

My point, the reason of my comment and the original email Ron is quoting, was to explain **why** I didn't consider the whole discussion with Jimmy worth reading.

In this view, the comparison with flat Earthers is, IMHO, relevant as a way to hint why I am not really interested.

For me, since I live in a country were religious beliefs (and particularly religious fundamentalism) in not that important and pervasive, the mechanism you yourself indicate and similar are good enough to me for a summary description of both (and UFOs, and cults and astrology).

And I don't feel the urge to go deeper than that, because, mainly, they have no political and cultural influence in the society I live in.

For me (and again this is about why I didn't read the post) the reasons why Jimmy believes what he believes are as relevant as the reasons of my hypothetical flat Earthers party goer: I doubt I will learn anything worthwhile and in the meantime someone else will drink all the Guinness. :-)

Don Geddis said...

@weregoat: Ironically, I'm on your side here (as you've noticed and mentioned several times). But just to push you one more time here: we all (besides Jimmy, perhaps) agree that you're unlikely to learn anything interesting about the direct subject matter, whether it be YEC, flat earth, UFOs, or astrology.

But the intent of the exercise is to learn how intelligent, thoughtful, reflective people can nonetheless come to hold passionate (but "wrong") beliefs. Is that not something more general, and useful, about the overall human condition? Even if YEC in particular "have no political or cultural influence" in your society, do you really think similar thought patterns don't occur in your society on other subjects?

Might there be, for example, any relationship to the UK's current turmoil over Brexit? Or perhaps the half century cold war with the USSR / Russia? The French vs. the English, the Germans vs. the French, the religious divide in Ireland, the incoming Islamification of Europe, etc? Are these not all in kind of a similar bucket of experience?