culture

Asking if someone "believes" in evolution is a dangerous question

Recently, likely presidential candidate Scott Walker was asked if he believed in evolution and accepted it.” He punted on the question, drawing scorn from people who follow the things American politicians say at London think tanks.

I am uncomfortable with asking if individuals believe in evolution, or any other theories supported by scientific evidence. The theory of evolution seems to me to make sense based on the huge repository of quantifiable evidence in its favor. Scientists far more qualified than I am have tested this theory repeatedly and it explains much of how we experience the world. I find it to be far more likely than the theory that we simply popped into existence a few thousand years ago, and the pope has stated the same.

A few centuries ago, every reputable scientist looked at the visual evidence of stars moving around the earth and concluded that the earth was the center of the universe. The scientific community had ignored the heliocentric ideas of Aristarchus of Samos and suggested that he be hauled before the priests for blasphemy. The community also didn’t think much of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who suggested that the universe might not have a center at all. I suspect that people in power of the times were asked in the public square if they believed in the blasphemous theories proposed by Aristarchus and Nicholas. No doubt a few scholars had promising careers shot down after they were laughed at for believing such insane ideas.

And belief comes with its own risks. Confirmation bias dictates that we will seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts those beliefs. And the backfire effect compounds this problem: if you’re confronted with evidence that contradicts your beliefs, those beliefs are likely to strengthen. Are these the sorts of characteristics we want our politicians to take on lightly, especially when the belief has little to no bearing on their ability to govern?

I tend to favor politicians with a healthy degree of skepticism about the world around them. There is so much that people outside the Oval Office simply do not know, information that will likely circumvent much of the way candidates currently see the world. I can’t help but hope that politicians who seek that office are exceptionally guarded before they jump to beliefs.