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Why Do Smart People Reject Evolution?

Last updated on December 6, 2018


Why don’t people believe in evolution? In almost every case, there’s a religious answer.

Rafi Letzter, a science writer for the Business Insider, asks this question in a piece titled Why So Many Smart People Don’t Believe in Evolution. He begins with oft-repeated stats: only fifty-percent of American adults ‘believe’ in evolution and most of those believe that God oversees the process. Most of the rest are given over to various strains of creationism that move on a sliding scale from Intelligent Design to the belief that God created everything in six literal days and buried fake fossils to fool all but true believers. Letzter comes to the question honestly: he grew up in an Orthodox community where “school teachers laughed off dinosaurs and space travel as fairy tales”. (Space travel? I didn’t know that this was controversial among the conservatively religious.) He eventually left the community and admits that it bothers him that people who appear to be so genuinely smart as his Orthodox teachers can reject what evidence clearly shows to be true. He wonders how and why they do this?

Confused with FactsQuestions

To answer his question, he refers to two papers. The first one, published in 2015 and titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief, careened through the internet and was used to ‘prove’ that the non-religious are smarter than the religious. The authors asked people these questions:

  1. Imagine a widget. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  2. Next, think of a bat and ball. Together a bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  3. Now imagine a patch of lily-pads in a lake. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

(See Letzter’s piece for the answers.)

Two observations are made here. One is that for each question, an intuitive and seemingly obvious answer – a gut feeling – pops into most people’s mind. The other is that this intuitive answer is wrong. The authors argue that people who are less religious are willing to stop and challenge themselves, to take a minute to see if what they are thinking aligns with facts. Less rigorous thinkers, they say, are more willing to accept what appears obvious. The paper’s authors addressed evolution directly finding a correlation between those who scored lower on the test and those who don’t believe in evolution. They posit that these people are more comfortable with what ‘seems’ right. These are folks who might say, ‘Everything I see is made by someone so the world must be made by someone.’ Though this was trotted out to the internet to the consternation of the faithful, the authors ‘urge caution in interpreting…the implications of the present results.’ They recognize the difficulty about generalizing about all people based on their one paper. And I don’t know what ‘believe’ means in this context.

Letzter isn’t happy about this paper. He feels that the paper “attempt[s] to marginalize and dismiss the perspectives of religious people.” He looks to another paper by Dan Kahan and Keith Stanovich (here) that basically argues that people with finely-honed reasoning skills are more skilled at being reasonable. If that sounds circular and obvious to you then you must have finely-honed reasoning skills. I think this is an appropriate response. Some level of mathematical thinking is needed to answer the three questions posed above. To conclude that people with some level of algebraic skills are better able to answer algebraic questions is circular. Certainly, more work is needed to parse the differences, if any, between a religious and a secular mindset.

Science vs. Religion

Letzter reels like a drunkard through the science vs. religion question in his wrap up. Regarding Kahan and Stanovich’s paper, Letzter remarks that “It’s a more challenging argument to accept if you’re a person who sees science as our only effective tool for extracting something like objective truth from an uncaring and chaotic universe – and who fears the consequences of rejecting it. It’s far less comforting than telling yourself “Oh, well those people are just dumb.” But science doesn’t seek ‘objective truth.’ Science describes nature. And any truth revealed by science is only as strong as the next piece of evidence. Many scientists are religious and almost all are just fine with others being religious. What should be irksome to Letzter is when the religious deny evidence before the fact due to religious views. Researchers routinely battle over evidence: it’s part and parcel of the scientists’ job description. Religious folk can, and do, join the fray, but to engage science they must argue with evidence, not with the tenets of their faith. Letzter notes that Kahan and Stanovich describe certain people as ‘more skilled at explaining to themselves why they shouldn’t – or should – accept a verifiable scientific claim”. What kind of upside-down logic extols the virtue of deciding not to accept a ‘verifiable scientific claim”?

Letzter goes on. “We should be skeptical of anyone who publishes a study explaining why people who disagree with them are less clever”. Yes, we should be skeptical, we should always be skeptical. On all things be skeptical but this research isn’t about being clever. It’s about people who hold on to belief in the face of facts that argue otherwise. The question isn’t whether evolutionists are more clever than Orthodox Jewish teachers – I don’t even know what that means – the question is why do the Orthodox hold on to views that are contrary to facts? Science doesn’t seek to marginalize but why shouldn’t we marginalize and dismiss unsupportable religious ideas that claim to trump facts? Why shouldn’t we marginalize the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old when everything other than one interpretation of one religious book tells us differently?

Dennett ScientismLetzter concludes by slipping into the canard of scientism: the Talmud scholars from his childhood, with extreme powers of persuasion, are able to convince themselves that what they believe is right even in light of facts that argue otherwise. “Oddly enough,” writes Letzter, “that’s the very same route that leads many secular people to place their faith in science.” I’m not sure what he means, nor am I ever sure what ‘placing your faith in science’ means. I know what placing your faith in Jesus means and there is no corollary in science.

For many people, facts are subservient to faith, culture, and family. We don’t fight wars over scientific facts. We fight them over religion. We fight them because our brother was beaten up by those other people. We fight them because God told us that we own this part of the planet.

“What a scary thought’, he concludes. On that, we agree.

For what it’s worth, I avoid this battle. I see it as a losing proposition. Evolution is the best description we have for how th efacts about diversitu fit together. This is really what evolution is. It doesn’t address a single whit of your religion. I also know and work with truly intelligent people who are creationists. When asked, I am happy to discuss facts and how they fit together. I am a peacemaker and don’t go looking for a fight. Like Letzter, I’m fascinated with the question of how intelligent people can deny the facts about evolution that are so patently obvious.


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Since you’re already here would you like to start with Post 1 of the series “Explaining Evolution”? It will finally be about 60 or so posts that outline the major tenets of modern evolutionary theory. Start here.

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From Jerry Coyne.

Published inBlogEvolution Explained

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