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Costless false beliefs

From the Gallup Poll:

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago.

They’ve been asking the question since 1982 and it’s been pretty steady at 45%, so in some sense this is good news! (I’m saying this under the completely unsupported belief that it’s better for people to believe truths than falsehoods.)

One way to think of this is that, for the overwhelming majority of people, a personal belief in young-earth creationism (or whatever you want to call it) is costless. Or, to put it another way, the discomfort involved in holding a belief that contradicts everything you were taught in school is greater than the discomfort involved in holding a belief that seems to contradict your religious values (keeping in mind that, even among those who report attending church seldom or never, a quarter of these people agree that “God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago”).

Some of this is political (see further discussion here), but lots of Democrats and independents believe that 10,000 years thing too, so, just as with impressions about inflation and unemployment, it looks like there’s just a high general level of ignorance on the matter.

P.S. Of the remaining 60% of survey respondents, 38% agreed with the statement, “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process,” 16% believed “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process,” and I suppose the remaining 6% declined to state an opinion. I don’t really have any comment on the “God guided the process” bit, as it seems vague enough to mean just about anything. (I’m not saying it’s a bad survey question, just that it could pretty much mean whatever you want it to mean.) Also, I suspect that many biologists would object to the “less advanced forms of life” bit, but I think I know what people think when this question is asked.

P.P.S. Yes, I know that people are ignorant on many many topics, not just evolution, inflation, and unemployment. Feel free to leave your favorites in the comments.

P.P.P.S. The question appears to be so that you have to either believe in evolution, or believe that humans are 10,000 years old. You can’t, for example, state that humans didn’t evolve but were created 50,000 years ago.

22 Comments

  1. Tony G says:

    I think these types of statistics say more about the latent variable "I am religious" than they do about the stated belief. For such respondents, God's listening when they answer the survey and they don't want to doubt Him out loud.

    I wonder how one could phrase the question to get past this bias.

  2. pretendous says:

    Yes, I know that people are ignorant on many many topics, not just evolution, inflation, and unemployment. Feel free to leave your favorites in the comments.

    How about religion?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/us/28religion.h

  3. jsalvati says:

    If you've not read Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter (http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Rational-Voter-Democracies-Policies/dp/0691129428), his argument relies directly on this logic. It's a wonderful book, if you haven't read it (he also has some papers on this logic).

  4. subdee says:

    It's not all cognitive dissonance. There are a lot of home-schooled and religious-private-schooled people in the United States. There is one of these places in my town – as a member of the community, you can go all the way from elementary school through college and at no time learn anything that contradicts your religious young earth beliefs.

    Once you enter the workplace, as you as you're not a scientist or an educator, it doesn't seem to matter what your personal beliefs on Creationism are.

  5. Phil says:

    This general issue — of people either believing nonsense, or saying they believe nonsense — was previously discussed in the context of people who say Obama is a Kenya-born Muslim socialist. I agree with commenters on that previous post, who say that sometimes this happens because people want to indicate what club they belong to rather than out of sincere belief in what they're saying.

    But I also agree with Andrew, that people will sometimes seem to believe something because hey, why not?

    I know someone — a well-educated, thoughtful, intelligent person — who agrees with the obvious fact that the makeup of the atmosphere affects the earth's energy balance, also agrees that carbon dioxide absorbs and re-radiates infrared radiation and thus that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels might substantially affect global average temperature…and yet, he thinks the effect is as likely to be negative as positive. He has no physical basis for this, and cannot provide a rational explanation for it, but it's what he believes. I can't help but think that if he had real money on the line, he wouldn't really bet according to this belief. (Of course, he does have real money on the line, but in a tragedy-of-the-commons sort of way, his _individual_ belief doesn't really matter, as far as government policies and so on).

    As Joan Jett succinctly put it, "people gonna say what they wanna say, it doesn't really matter anyway." Whaddyagonnado?

  6. vak001 says:

    @Tony G: Obviously one should conduct the survey under the cover of an umbrella (made of some reflecting material, aluminium preferably).

  7. K? O'Rourke says:

    Believing other things can be _taken into account_:

    As evidenced in the link of pretendous' post above

    “Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics,…"

    K?

  8. Bill Jefferys says:

    "Once you enter the workplace, as you as you're not a scientist or an educator, it doesn't seem to matter what your personal beliefs on Creationism are."

    …unless you get yourself elected to the State Board of Education. It's a big problem in Texas, and therefore in the entire country, because Texas buys a huge amount of textbooks, and the SBOE approves them. Since textbook publishers don't want to lose the business, they will kowtow to the ignorance of whoever is on the Texas SBOE. And, since it is expensive to publish several versions of a textbook, you may find the same textbooks in your public schools, regardless of what state you live in.

    This goes for science texts (read: evolutionary biology), American history texts (the latest round of this tried to make slavery "not so bad"), etc.

    The current composition of the Texas SBOE should not make any thinking person comfortable.

  9. Jonathan says:

    Bill Jeffreys: At the ironic risk in this thread of opining about something about which I know little (!) the Texas example is getting a little hoary at this point. Two points: (1) it's getting close to the time that we can disintermediate textbook publishers in the first place, so the Texas problems affect only Texas. (2) Even if that's infeasible, we are very close to the time when for essentially nothing extra the textbook publishers themselves can have as many different variants of the text as they like — the costs of publishing having declined so much. Just publish the text as a pdf.

  10. @Phil

    I believe that your quote is not from Joan Jett, but from the Go-Gos.

  11. Andrew Gelman says:

    Jsalvati:

    You should use this blog's search feature! See here.

    Phil:

    Regarding the Obama birth and the carbon dioxide, I can see how someone can say something like, "Yeah, sure, but who can say for sure . . . I haven't seen the evidence myself . . ." But, to think that humanity was created 10,000 years ago, that just seems ridiculous at a whole other level. No amount of quibbling over documents or arguing over time series is gonna get you out of that one.

  12. Bill Jefferys says:

    Jonathan: The physical textbook may be in use in public schools longer than you expect. I do not expect it to disappear soon. I could be wrong, but we'll see.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    I'm more concerned about intellectuals who claim to believe falsities and punish heretics

  14. Andrew Gelman says:

    Subdee:

    But, 40%??? Way less than 40% of Americans are church-schooled or home-schooled.

  15. Basil says:

    I'm not quite sure how to take your blog title and take on the survey. I believe there is an approachingly seamless relationship between the first two books of Genesis and Evolution in "Genesis And The Big Bang" by Schroeder. He makes some mathematical conjectures relative to Einsteins theory of relativity which should be considered in more detail. The Catholic Church also published an article a few years back that recognized the relationship of evolution and the Bible.
    The hard part for all Bible reading believers is when Genesis says the sun rose and set marking the end of the days of creation. (Notedly the light was created on the third day if my memory serves me correctly) If there is one lie in the Bible, then we can't truly believe any of the things in it. So we Bible believing "folks" hold very stead fast to our literal translations. For your readers, I'd like to point out a few verses that discuss the theory of relativity in the Bible. The book Leviticus in the Bible states that one day unto you is like a thousand unto us. The book John has two passages near chapter 8 that Jesus was asked about death for a non-believer. He says something to the effect of belive in him and become children of light. As we know from Einsteins Theory of relativity, as we approach the speed of light the time relativity equation becomes undefined in a timeless fashion!

    For me, I choose to believe in Jesus for all these reasons and more. The largest reason being how Jesus has worked in my life.

  16. Basil says:

    For your title, I suggest reading the famous mathematicican B. Pascal's "Wager". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager

  17. Andrew Gelman says:

    Basil:

    As illustrated by the photo above, humans did a lot of things more than 10,000 years ago. Not just cave paintings, they also did cool things like go between continents. So, yes, I think the statement, "God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago," is false. Regarding the Bible, I don't know that people are talking about lies. The people who wrote the Bible were doing their best, but these stories were written thousands of years ago. Of course they had to make some things up!

    In any case, if 40% of American believe this, I shouldn't be surprised if some blog readers believe this too.

    People are complicated. Each of us has a messy mix of beliefs and attitudes. I hope that our disagreement over what happened or didn't happen 20,000 years ago won't cause you do discount my statistical arguments. Just as, conversely, I can respect someone's reasoning in statistics or political science or whatever without having to agree with all of his or her spiritual beliefs or political or ethical attitudes.

    To get back to the original point of my post, I can understand that some people might be willing to believe that humans were created 10,000 years ago, but for 40% of people to believe it . . . that's a lot!

    P.S. Regarding Pascal's wager, see here.

  18. Basil says:

    I wish the study would include an additional factor of education level in the study. It seems as if all the "Doctors" I know have a hard time believing in the 10000 years scenario.

    I do believe there is an empty hole in many of their hearts though concerning the existence issue. Almost all of them seem to be looking for something to fill a void of how their very impropable life came into existence, hence a blog such as this. Perhaps 45% of people believing in creationism should produce a reason to investigate farther rather than discredit the statistics. Sometimes we don't like the data, but it leads us in the right direction and to correct decision making. I suggest reading the book I proposed earlier with the first two chapters of Genesis purely from a researcher's perspective.

  19. I like the way you distinguish between costless and non-costless false beliefs. You didn't go much into the latter, but but it seems to me to often be attached to third party rentier beneficiaries (and sometimes its maybe just that the population schelling point is suicidal).

  20. Franco says:

    What's worse, perhaps, are people who know certain things to be true, but will not admit them publicly, for political reasons.

  21. ChristianK says:

    "Also, I suspect that many biologists would object to the "less advanced forms of life" bit"
    Biologists would object if you say that humans are more advanced than some bacteria that exists today.
    You can however argue that an organism such as humans that lives today is more advanced than one that lived 2 billion years ago.

  22. Andrew Gelman says:

    Franco:

    Yes, I seem to recall some survey of political pundits who refused to say whether they believed in evolution, presumably because they wanted to preserve their political viability in some way.