Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Evolution and Cognitive Dissonance

There's an interesting article in this week's Science about evolution. The article compares acceptance of evolution across nations (focusing on Europe, the US, and Japan). Sadly, the U.S. comes at the bottom of the list, just above Turkey and just below Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.

The article's authors examine a number of reasons for this result. One reason is the U.S.'s unique form of Protestant fundamentalism. In other countries there isn't the same tension between conservative Protestantism and the theory of evolution.

Another reason is that many Americans just don't understand contemporary biology and genetics. And this leads people to hold inconsistent beliefs. E.g., according to this article 78% of U.S. adults will agree with a description of evolution that doesn' use the word "evolution." At the same time 62% of U.S. adults believe that God created humans in their present form, without evolution. Obviously these two beliefs are inconsistent. And that means that a lot of people are in a state of cognitive dissonance when it comes to evolution.

I teach a "Critical Thinking" course pretty regularly, and I always emphasize the importance of getting one's belief-system consistent. It seems simple, but people have inconsistent beliefs all the time: it's just that they are about personal matters that would never register on a survey. It's nice, for that reason, to see such a clear example where people do hold inconsistent beliefs. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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