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Pascal Wagner-Egger et. al. on teleological thinking as a common root between creationism and conspiracism

Writing in Current Biology Magazine, Wagner-Egger and colleagues identify an intriguing connection between creationism and what they term “conspiracism:” teleological thinking, encapsulated in the slogans “everything happens for a reason” and “it was meant to be.” On on the one hand, important critical questions can be raised concerning the conceptual basis for their study, and also, about the nature of the causal relationship they have identified. On the other hand, their work points to strategies—and limitations—for addressing creationism.

Wagner-Egger et. al.’s conclusions

The paper identifies two sets of beliefs, “creationism” and “conspiracism.” They understand creationism as “the belief that life on Earth was purposefully created by a supernatural agent” and conspiracism as “the proneness to explain sociohistorical events in terms of secret and malevolent conspiracies.” They identify a third set of beliefs, teleological thinking, or “the attribution of purpose and a final cause to natural events and entities.” Their aim is to identify the relationships among these three sets of beliefs. They find that there is a correlation: belief in creationism is correlated with conspiracism, and teleological thinking is correlated with both. The conclusion that advances the literature, they claim, is that teleological thinking is a “new predictor” of conspiracism.

Correlation and causation

The maxim that correlation does not imply causation is especially apt in this case. As Wagner et. al. point out, their results do not warrant the conclusion that teleological thinking causes conspiracism or creationism any more than it warrants the claim that conspiracism and creationism cause teleological thinking. They do appear to favor teleological thinking as a cause, however, since they refer repeatedly to the persistence of childhood beliefs about the purposes of natural objects as a cause of creationism. Regardless of the direction of causation, Wagner-Eggers et. al.’s conclusion is significant. If teleological thinking is at the root of creationism and conspiracism, disabusing those who hold any of the three sets of beliefs will erode their confidence in the others.

Critical questions about Wagner-Eggers et. al.’s formulation of creationism

Wagner-Egger et. al.’s formulation of creationism obscures issues surrounding denial or misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. One might think that “life on Earth was purposefully created by a supernatural agent” while at the same time thinking that evolutionary science provides an adequate account of everything it is purported to explain. For instance, someone might think that a creator designed laws of nature or set natural processes into motion that result in evolution as scientists understand it. Presumably, in the surveys they conducted to identify creationists, they looked specifically for the denial of particular evolutionary claims in connection with beliefs about the creation of life on Earth. Unfortunately, the survey instruments they used are not available online, and they do not appear to have used a standardly-used, research-validated survey instrument.

Moreover, Wagner-Egger et. al.’s analogy between creationism and conspiracism is opaque, and lacks motivation.

Creationism could be seen as a conspiracist belief system (indeed, involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things…and conspiracism as a type of creationist belief targeting socio-historic events (e.g. specific events have been purposefully created by an all-powerful agency).

This fails to account for an important disanalogy. On Wagner-Egger et. al.’s account, conspiracists adduce the existence of a “secret and malevolent” agent. In contrast, creationists typically believe that the supernatural agent at work in nature is benevolent, and that its work is plainly evident to anyone who tries to see it. Furthermore, there are a range of motivations for affirming religious beliefs which do not have immediate consequences for trust in science, for instance, grounding moral beliefs in a purposeful universe which nonetheless includes purposeless, mechanical causes.

This suggests that a finer-grained instrument for detecting the relationships between religious belief, teleological thinking, and attitudes towards evolutionary biology is required in order to draw parallels between creationism and conspiracism. This reflects the larger point that the relationship between evolutionary biology and religious belief and more generally, beliefs about the origin and nature of the universe, are complex.

Strategies and limitations in addressing creationism

Beyond teleological thinking, anti-scientific, anti-evolutionary creationism and conspiracism bear a striking resemblance to one another on two key points. First, both rely on a similar attitude towards evidence: both find any and all facts compatible with their point of view. Second, both are founded on a kind of narcissism. Creationists see the universe as intended for the benefit of humans. Similarly, conspiracists see historical events as having been orchestrated by the grand conspiratorial forces in order to disadvantage those outside the conspiracy, that is, the conspiracists themselves.

Taking Wagner-Egger et. al.’s result about the links between creationism and conspiracism seriously suggests the further question, what is the strength of interactions between the two? To what extent do creationists see evolutionary biologists as forming a conspiracy, or see the global conspiracy at work in promoting evolutionary biology? Creationists should be pointed towards evidence of the independence of evolutionary scientists from one another, and the lack of their common interests beyond pursuit of evolutionary questions. Science red in tooth and claw—the creationist should be pointed towards the competitive nature of science, in which working groups are pitted against one another for prestige and funding, and the essential place in science for falsification and conceptual change as markers of the success of science. Of course, there are scientists whose work depends on evolutionary biology, but who are not aligned with them, and so have no interest in the success or failure of any particular claim about evolution. This accords with emphasizing the many failures of optimization and adaptedness that can be found in nature as evidence of history, rather than design. The greater extent to which belief about teleology in science and nature can be undermined, the harder it will be for someone to maintain a connection between conspiracism and creationism.

Unfortunately, if creationists and conspiracists cannot be swayed by any evidence at all—if their level of narcissism is so high that they will not relinquish their hostility towards science—then there is no point in engaging with them, except to curtail their influence and prevent the spread of their belief system.

SUSE Leap 15 and KDE on a ZenBook

Having moved to Portland, it’s now time to start blogging again! Greetings to all my readers. In the works: a posting on a recent article about conceptual errors common to creationism and conspiracy theories. For now, a brief report on some current technology.

A while back, my 15″ MacBook Pro, from late 2012, stopped working. There is a defect in the graphics card which led to system restarts and shutdowns. At least I was off the hook–I thought those problems were a result of having dropped the machine at the cafe!

I used my work laptop, which ran Windows, but my personal project stagnated, and many of the tools I relied upon to supplement MS Office and other applications were not available on it. Thanks to Cygwin, I was able to get many of those tools back, including Emacs and LaTeX. When I knew I was going to leave my job, however, I needed to get a new laptop. The newer Apple laptops did not seem to me to be good value. They’re expensive! Moreover, the Apple software ecosystem is becoming more and more closed. Time was, one could run applications written for the Mac alongside X applications or other Unix applications ported to the Mac almost seamlessly. This has seemed more difficult to me in recent updates of OS X.

After a little research, I determined that there was a good chance that I could run Linux on an ASUS ZenBook UX330UA. After the retina screen on the Mac, I couldn’t go back to anything less than a QHD+ screen. I lugged the Mac around Europe for many months, or perhaps more notably, all around New York City, and it was an excellent travel companion. Nonetheless, I was ready for something even lighter. An SSD disk was another must-have.

For about half the price of a MacBook Pro with roughly the same components, The ZenBook running SUSE Leap 15 is a good machine for writing, coding, reading PDF’s, and web surfing. After trying out GNOME, I switched to KDE. The system is smooth, reliable, and fast. The primary drawback is the lack of integration with Apple’s calendar and other communication tools, but most of those can be accessed on the web. Printer support for Leap 15 is limited. Watching some videos requires adding some packages from the Packman repository. Another major drawback is that BibDesk is not available. Instead, I use ebib, an Emacs bibliography management package. Other than that, it’s a better experience than the Mac.

Qualified support for evolution in New York

The standards for high school biological sciences curricula in New York State are described in The Living Environment Core Curriculum. (“LE Standard,” hereafter) The Living Environment curriculum is Standard 4 in a set of 7 describing the science curriculum in New York State. “Key Idea 3” in the LE Standard describes the central point instructors in Living Environment courses are supposed to make about evolution.

Individual organisms and species change over time.

There are many ways in which this statement and the associated Performance Indicators fail to describe, even in broad outline, what we know about evolution. For one thing, they almost all concern natural selection. For instance, there is no mention of random drift or historical contingency, or the use of evolution in explaining taxonomy and biodiversity. While this deserves further comment, what I would like to call attention to here are two points at which the LE Standard qualifies support for teaching evolution.

Use of “theory”

Key Idea 3 is further elaborated in the LE Standard as follows.

Evolution is the change of species over time. This theory is the central unifying theme of biology.

The problem here is “theory,” which is widely misunderstood, and which does not appear anywhere else in the LE Standard. Teaching evolution is often attacked on the grounds that scientific knowledge about evolution is “just a theory.” This is not how scientists use “theory,” which, in proper scientific parley, indicates a well-confirmed statement or set of statements of general or universal application, such as Newton’s theory of gravitation, or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Although both of these have been modified with time, no one attributes either to Newton or Einstein as conjectures or guesses. They are understood as describing facts about physical objects derived from initial claims made by Newton and Einstein. Glenn Branch, in a recent blog post, explains the cognitive status of evolutionary biology in depth, and provides some useful links.

The LE Standard ought to state that “The central, unifying theme of biological science is that all living things have relationships of descent with one another.” 

Belief vs. acceptance

Key Idea 3 is also explained with:

According to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection.

This is the only point in the LE Standard at which the level of support among scientists for a scientific claim is mentioned. Indeed, it would be absurd to preface “Organisms from all kingdoms possess a set of instructions (genes) that determines their characteristics,” the explanation of Key Idea 2, about heredity, with “According to many scientists.” Any scientist that denies this would not be deemed worth of the name. The aim of the LE Standard should be to state what the best scientific evidence provides rational warrant for, which is that evolution has occurred and will continue to do so. Formulating the standard in terms of how many scientists would affirm that evolution occurs by natural selection suggests that there is a parallel between religious belief and acceptance of evolution. This is not the case, as explained in a National Academy of Sciences FAQ.