True Skeptics

Can people who doubt the phenomena of biological evolution be persuaded by a better demonstration of the evidence? Alan Rogers, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, thinks so. He has authored a newly published book called, “The Evidence for Evolution.”

Rogers discusses what motivated him to write the book in this release by Lee Siegel, the University of Utah’s public relations officer, and a former science reporter.  Siegel writes:

Rogers has been teaching courses on evolution since the 1980s, but for most of that time he didn’t talk much about the evidence that evolution actually happens. That issue was settled scientifically more than a century ago, and scientists are interested in the unknown and newly discovered. So, classes and textbooks tend to emphasize the mechanisms of evolution that are still subjects of active research.

Rogers changed his approach in 2006 after he read a poll reporting that only about half of Americans believe humans evolved. “It occurred to me after reading this poll that it didn’t make much sense to teach students about the intricacies of evolution if they don’t believe that evolution happens in the first place. So, I decided that my introductory classes henceforth were going to have a week or two on the evidence for evolution, and I started looking for a text.”

“I’m trying to convince skeptics that evolution really happened. If they’re skeptics, then as soon as I get to the point where I say, “˜trust me,’ they’re going to say “˜no. The reason I’m skeptical is because I don’t trust you.'”

Wait a second.  I thought that anti-evolution attitudes sprang largely from religious belief, not from some vague skepticism. And about his change in teaching approach: I’d be curious to hear if that has resulted in Rogers swaying more students with the evidence he’s been presenting in classes.

I’m doubtful.

My quibbles aside, there’s much to like about what Rogers says here:

All scientists are skeptics if they’re any good, but they’re not stubborn about it. In science, you have to be able to change your mind when confronted with evidence. It seems to me that learning that skill is important, not only for scientists, but for everybody. It makes us better citizens.

UPDATE: Alan Rogers responded via email:

I enjoyed your post. You point out that evolution skeptics are often motivated by religion, and you are skeptical that evidence is likely to help much. Maybe not, but I’m optimistic. Let me tell you why.

To begin with, I’m optimistic because the debate about evolution has changed over the years in response to evidence. For example, a century ago, people used to argue that natural selection was impossible because of blending inheritance. That argument disappeared as we learned about genetics. Other anti-evolution arguments disappeared as we learned about continental drift. So the argument is not immune to evidence, just highly resistant.

I’m also optimistic because of my experience with students. This past spring I gave a guest lecture, and afterwards two students stayed behind to ask questions. They said they were both “kind of skeptical” because they didn’t really believe the radiometric dates. “How can we really know that rates of decay are constant,” they asked? So I gave them several reasons, and at the end they both wanted to know where they could get a copy of my book.

I’m not expecting to convince anyone who is already a committed creationist, but there are many people who are merely skeptical. This is the audience I hope to reach.

24 Responses to “True Skeptics”

  1. sharper00 says:

    Being “skeptical” of something you don’t like and never ever accepting its reality regardless of evidence isn’t all that neat a trick.

  2. NewYorkJ says:

    All scientists are skeptics if they’re any good, but they’re not stubborn about it. In science, you have to be able to change your mind when confronted with evidence. It seems to me that learning that skill is important, not only for scientists, but for everybody. It makes us better citizens.

    This is why the vast majority of so-called climate “skeptics” are nothing of the sort.

  3. mondo says:

    My problem with the evolution/creation “debate” is that the whole discussion is about it being entirely one thing or the other.   What about the possibility that there are clearly evolutionary processes happening, but so might be creative processes in the realm of (to scientists at least) the unknown unknowns.
    It is pertinent to consider the development of the airplane, automobile or racing yacht.  In each case there are clearly elements of creativity, human invention – what we might call creation.  But there are also clearly elements of evolution.   Take the winged keel introduced into racing yachts by the Australian Americas Cup yacht in 1983 which then “evolved” into use on aircraft wings.

  4. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    I’ve discussed this exact same point many times in my life, and I think I’ve even mentioned it here.  The idea one’s religion prevents one from accepting evolution is over-hyped.  Most people who have the problem have had a poor education on both science and their religion.  They understand neither.  That is why they don’t accept evolution.
    I remember how I was taught about evolution.  It was brief, dumbed down, and if it was all I had to go on, I wouldn’t have accepted it.  The material could have been accurately summarized as, “Evolution happens because natural selection causes healthy mutations to be passed on to the next generation.”  Throw in an out-dated and inaccurate tree of evolutionary paths (which had glaring mistakes), and that’s all school gave me.  Fortunately (and ironically) I received a much better education on the subject in a church study group.
    I never would have dismissed evolution, even with the shoddy teaching of it.  However, I could certainly see why one would.  A classmate of mine did, and over a couple years, she changed her mind as she was exposed to more information.
    Better education is key to getting people to accept evolution.  Some people will always reject it, and it’s harder to teach people as they get older, but most people who reject evolution can have their minds changed.

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    I agree that “shoddy teaching” of evolution can be a problem and that to some degree, “better education is key to getting people to accept evolution.” In fact, along those lines, as this 2009 Gallup poll noted, “There is a strong relationship between education and belief in Darwin’s theory, as might be expected, ranging from 21% of those with high-school educations or less to 74% of those with postgraduate degrees.”

    But overall, the 2009 Gallup Poll

    shows that only 39% of Americans say they ‘believe in the theory of evolution,’ while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way. These attitudes are strongly related to education and, to an even greater degree, religiosity.”

    I bolded that last word.

  6. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    Keith Kloor, I don’t doubt religious beliefs are correlated with a dismissal of evolution.  That’s to be expected.  If a person doesn’t accept evolution, they are likely to look for answers elsewhere.  That would draw them toward religion.  If they don’t believe life came about naturally, but they’d like to know where life came from, religion is the obvious choice.  This means religion is not just a cause for the dismissal of evolution, but it can also be an effect of the dismissal.  It works both ways, but in my experience, the latter is far more common.
    As an aside, I wish the raw data for that article was (readily?) available.  I thought it was interesting the article used church attendance as it’s metric for religion.  I’d be curious how these results would compare if people were just asked about their beliefs.  Not only is there a difference in the honesty of answers in the two questions, I suspect institutional religion is more correlated with a dismissal of evolution than personal religion.

  7. kdk33 says:

    @2 NYJ,

    What does evolution have to do with climate?

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    Brandon, you have it backwards when you write:

    “If a person doesn’t accept evolution, they are likely to look for answers elsewhere. That would draw toward religion.”

    Most people that reject evolution (IMO) do so because they are already invested with a deeply ingrained set of religious tenets.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    Alan Rogers has sent a gracious note via email and has given me permission to post it, which I have done so in an update in the post.

  10. Ed Forbes says:

    LoL…I love the evorution and Darwin wars

    I will start with saying Darwin was WRONG !!

    How about them apples from someone who is about as non reilgious as you can get.

    Previous to Darwin,  “catastrophism” was the excepted model. . The current evolution controversy began with the Scottish geologist James Hudson in 1795 with “uniformitarianism” . followed In 1802 with the biologist  Lamarck who defended unlimited organic change and that these acquired modifications were inherited. Darwin’s papers reinforced these views.
    This battle between “uniformitarianism” and  “catastrophism”  has been renewed in force due to recent discoveries that support the basic principles of  “catastrophism”.  The abrupt end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago due to an asteroid impact being the most famous such episode.
    The really funny part is that Darwin totally rejected “catastrophism” with its sudden mass extinctions and leaps of new species coming suddenly into existence. “..As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favorable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps”¦” followed by “..”If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed in numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down”¦’
    American Paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephan Jay supported the view the constant, incremental change required by Darwin does not reflect the record.  New species arise in explosive phases, spread over wide areas, and then go static with little or no change over very long periods of time. The record supports Eldredge and Jay much better than Darwin.
    So see”¦one can both believe in evolution and believe Darwin to be totally off track at the same time. Quite a few parallels with my being a “denier” on the climate science religion.

  11. NewYorkJ says:

    kdk33: What does evolution have to do with climate?

    The post is entitled “true skeptics”, and I think the characteristics of a true skeptic (quote from Rogers which I highlighted) is not constrained to one narrow field, wouldn’t you say?

  12. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    Keith Kloor, this may be a case where we have an irreconcilable difference.  I see no reason to assume (or believe) a person’s initial rejection of evolution is due to religion, unless we’re solely talking about youths who have been effectively brainwashed by their parents. Even then, it would be a case of the education being disrupted, so the problem is still as I said.
    If necessary, we can obviously just disagree on this, but I’m curious what you think religion does that makes people reject evolution.  Young Earth Creationism is considered as much a joke by informed religious people as it is by non-religious people.

  13. Michael Larkin says:

    In the developed world, the evolution controversy seems mainly an American thing. I was brought up RC (and educated in RC schools) in Britain, and was taught standard evolutionary theory. God worked through natural laws over billions of years – so there wasn’t any problem. In the US, there seems to be more emphasis on literal interpretation of Genesis. For many Catholics (and European protestants), the OT is seen as containing allegorical rather than literal truths.

    Rogers intimates that there’s a difference between accepting evolution and accepting currently proposed mechanisms for it, and I think that’s right. For me, the fossil record, coupled with sound dating techniques, is enough to show it happened. However, I am very sceptical that the prime mechanism of taxonomic variation involves natural selection, which may only be significant at the lower levels – genus or species formation, perhaps. I think we are probably missing something that hasn’t yet been thought of. Current research in epigenetics may help open up the minds of the more strident Neo-Darwinists to fresh possibilities without seeming to play into the hands of Creationists.

    What has it to do with the climate debate? For me, it parallels my opinion about global warming. On balance, I accept it has happened, but I am sceptical that anthropogenic CO2 has had much of an influence on it, especially when we don’t yet know a great deal about natural influences.

    Then there’s the catastrophism, which in my view has something in common with the way religion plays into the evolution debate; it’s religion/apocalyticism in the guise of science. However, many AGW proponents won’t countenance that possibility; indeed, see dissenters as heretics. Ah well, I suppose we should be grateful that at least we’ve moved on from burning heretics to merely attempting to demonise and marginalise them. But even burning didn’t work, so this is even less likely to.

    Convincing evidence is the only thing that will work. The climatological “fossil record” isn’t enough; it’s nowhere near as strong as its analogue is for evolution, and the theoretical component of CAGW is, IMO, correspondingly weak.

  14. Barry Woods says:

    is it possible t see darwinian evolution,as an unearly incomplete version of all the mechanisms and subtleties of evolution.

    As is Newtonian physics with respect to physics now, and physics now compared to 50 years time, etc, etc
    Darwin has some issues with his theories, so a equivalent of a unified theory for evolution.  Yet to even suggest anything is to be labbelled a creationist and stuck in statis.

    not my battle – no faith myself.

  15. Howard says:

    Rogers makes my previous point that the problem with the public swallowing CAGW is a lack of supporting science (observations and physics) that confirms the theory. It has nothing to do with communication, politics or mental illness.  For CAGW, there is no there there.

  16. jeffn says:

    #14 “not my battle”
    If you read the actual results of the poll you’ll find that a near plurality have decided that this isn’t their battle (over a third basically said “no comment”). I think the relevance to AGW can be found in that no comment- there is an implied as well as an implicit message to every overly politicized question.
    The implied message to the poll question is “if you say yes to this question, we will falsely call you a hypocrite for attending the sky god’s church and if you say no we will falsely call you a total fool stuck in a medieval god-cult.” Not surprisingly, almost as many people told the pollster to take a hike as fessed up to the well known fact that religion and evolution are not incompatible.
    If the pollster calls about AGW, we know a yes answer will be presented as tacit support for tax hikes, a no answer will be recorded as stupidity, and so I answer no opinion.

  17. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    jeffn, the issue you mention is a serious one.  People don’t necessarily give straightforward and honest answers to questions, and this is especially true for polling.  There are ways to lessen the impact of this, but without details on the methodology used, it’s impossible to guess at how much bias this might introduce.
    That said, this issue wouldn’t just cause people to take a “no opinion” option.  It can also increase/decrease the likelihood of other answers.  For example, if you try to estimate how many people in the United States are religious, you’ll find widely varying numbers depending upon the metric used, questions asked and polling methodology.
    Along those same lines, here’s something to remember.  That poll most likely asked people if they believed in “evolution” without giving any real description of what evolution is.  That introduces a significant possibility for bias in the results.  Broadly speaking, there are three things people conflate as “evolution.”  There is the evolutionary process, the evolutionary record, and the “spontaneous” creation of life.  If the poll had asked about each of these individually, the answers given would be quite different.  People with more education are more likely to associate “evolution” with just the evolutionary process, so that could explain some of the difference in results.
    Personally, I get an anti-religion vibe from these sort of polls.  I understand the difficulties in creating a good poll, but whenever I read their results, I always see things which should have been asked, but (apparently) weren’t.

  18. David Palmer says:

    The arguments against evolution whilst buttressed by religion lie in the science – the problem of complexity within a defined time frame (the biologist, Michael Denton was probably the first to explore these problems) and philosophical reasoning, witness the (non Christian) Australian philosopher David Stove’s book, Darwinian Fairytales who asks questions like, “if it is a case of the survival of the fittest, then how come we have doctors, police, clergy, police, homosexuals, celibate persons” and so on.

  19. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    David Palmer, I don’t think issues like those are important to most of the people who reject evolution.  Most people who reject evolution don’t understand it well enough to grasp complicated arguments (your first), and the second one is basically pure ignorance.  The second one is a nice argument to examine as it shows something of what people “understand” about evolution, and why that faulty understanding encourages disbelief.
    Survival of the fittest, like natural selection, is widely perceived (and taught) as a natural rule in very simplistic terms.  It is taken as, “Those most suited to survive will survive.”  In reality, it is more nuanced.  In fact, this nuance renders it a tautology, meaning there is no way to reject it, “Those most suited to survive are most likely to survive.”
    This sort of misunderstanding is widely encouraged due to how simplistically evolution is portrayed.  How often do you hear the phrase “natural selection causes”?  It’s almost always wrong.  Natural selection doesn’t cause anything to come into being.  It merely limits what comes into being.  This means saying “natural selection causes species to evolve into new species” misleads people by never actually discussing a causative effect.
    On a personal note, I have never met a person who both understood and rejected the theory of evolution.  That is why I cannot understand blaming religion for the rejection of evolution.

  20. Ed Forbes says:

    Brandon “..On a personal note, I have never met a person who both understood and rejected the theory of evolution….”

    If you mean: [Darwin]”.. natural selection [evolution] acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favorable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps…”

    Then I reject it.

    If you mean: [Jay] “…New species arise in explosive phases, spread over wide areas, and then go static with little or no change over very long periods of time..”

    Then I accept it

    Saying one “believes” in evolution without clarity is being very lazy or is uninformed if one does not clarify their stance in regard to Darwin. 

  21. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    Ed Forbes, your argument is ridiculous.  It is neither lazy, nor lacking in clarity, to say one believes in evolution without commenting on that particular issue.  I care not one whit about it.  The particulars of the evolutionary record, including the pacing of developments, means nothing to me.  I accept the evidence shows evolution happened and happens, and I make no further comment.
    There is no reason to expect a person to take a position on an issue internal to evolution when most people would never have heard of it.  As far as I’m concerned, scientists and other interested people can worry about that issue, and I can spend my time on things which interest me.  I imagine it is the same for most people.

  22. jeffn says:

    Brandon, I think your points are strong, but I don’t entirely agree that people are telling the pollsters something that is untrue. People are attuned at how the polls are used in the media. Take, for example, a simple poll question- “do you like to read in a bright room at night?”
    Now the obvious, truthful answer is “yes.” But, lets assume you get asked this by a pollster at the end of a week when every media outlet is consumed with the story of whether or not to ban 100 watt incandescent bulbs and the primary argument against the ban is that the alternatives aren’t bright enough. Knowing damn well how your answer will be portrayed in tomorrow’s headline changes the answer- no? If you agree with the ban and you think you can make do with the alternatives, you’ll fudge- “no” a bright room suddenly isn’t your preference.
    There is a larger component to this- The person who recognizes how the polls are being “used” has also just acknowledged that science (the “scientific survey”) and statistics can be very, very political.

  23. Ed Forbes says:


    This is what is presented as “evolution” by both the media and lower level teachers who know little of the subject:
     [Darwin]”.. natural selection [evolution] acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favorable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps”¦”

    So if a pollster (or anyone else) asks if:
    “do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution” and you answer NO, this lumps you into the fundamentalist religious “denier” column.

    The more one is educated on the issue, the more one is inclined to be a “denier”.

    The parallels with AGW are pretty dramatic.

  24. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    jeffn, I don’t see how your comments change the fact the responses are untrue.  That one may be able to justify giving untrue answers doesn’t change the fact they are untrue.  That’s the very nature of “fudging.”
    Ed Forbes, most people have never heard of the issue you’re discussing.  Moreover, most polls don’t ask if people believe in “Darwin’s theory of evolution.”  They just say “evolution.”  As such, I can’t see the relevance of the issue.  The controversy is not about what you mention, so while it may be interesting for some, it’s not worth digressing to talk about it every time we discuss how religion impacts belief in evolution.

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