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Science Says Creationists Aren’t Idiots


Last summer, Virginia Heffernan wrote a short essay explaining her preference for technology over science, her problems with evolutionary psychology, and why she has “never found a more compelling story of our origins than the ones that involve God.” The response to “Why I am a creationist” was, as The New York Times put it, swift and harsh. Numerous journalists attacked her, with this Twitter exchange perhaps the most prominent example.

Now that a year has passed and the media circus has ended, we can re-examine the issue more calmly. Why does rejecting evolution get so much attention from mainstream journalists? At the time, Laura Helmuth at Slate and Hamilton Nolan at Gawker offered one typical response: Heffernan’s writing couldn’t be trusted because she is a creationist. Heffernan’s “dedication to facts is somewhat in question.”

Note they make an empirical claim: because of their beliefs about the origins of life, creationists cannot think rationally or logically anywhere. Put another way, it’s possible to determine people’s general reasoning and analytical skills by knowing what they think about the theory of evolution. Interestingly, neither Helmuth nor Nolan nor anyone else provided any evidence for this assertion—none whatsoever. Given that their argument depends on their ability to draw conclusions from creationists’ beliefs, it’s a glaring oversight.

Let’s Consider Some Evidence for a Change

Suppose that rejecting evolution does not infringe on your ability to reason elsewhere. Suppose it is possible to be a creationist and also a top-notch journalist, doctor, or scientist. Suppose that your belief about the age of the Earth is irrelevant to your daily life and has no ill consequences. Helmuth’s and Nolan’s argument would then fall apart. As long as rejecting evolution in and of itself is harmless, why should anyone care what Heffernan believes about evolution? Why get excited?

As long as rejecting evolution in and of itself is harmless, why should anyone care what Heffernan believes about evolution?

So rather than just assuming—as Helmuth and Nolan did—that creationist beliefs are a problem, we have to prove it with evidence. Feelings and desires don’t matter here—only data matter. We have to answer some empirical questions: Does rejecting evolution affect your thinking outside biology? Is there a connection between how we think about this and other topics?

A sports analogy might be illuminating. We don’t expect basketball players to excel at tennis. Within basketball, we’re not surprised that some excel at offense but not defense, or that otherwise excellent shooters are average at free-throws. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest scorers in the history of basketball. He was also a terrible free-throw shooter. And those two sentences are perfectly compatible.

You can say, as cognitive psychologists do, that basketball skills don’t necessarily transfer to tennis, that offensive skills don’t necessarily transfer to defense, and that shooting ability writ-large doesn’t necessarily transfer to the free-throw line. Skills don’t always transfer from one area to another. I suspect we all grasp this idea. We are all good at some things and not others.

What Research Says about Knowledge Transfer

Let’s now reframe the debate: We already recognize that athletic skills in one area may be meaningless in another. Why don’t we do something similar for intellectual skills? Why conclude that rejecting evolution renders someone intellectually impotent everywhere? Maybe judging intelligence by belief in evolution is as ridiculous as judging Chamberlain’s basketball game by his free throws. Note again that this is an empirical question that should be studied scientifically. We must look at the evidence before deciding.

Those who say they ‘don’t believe’ know as much about evolution (and science generally) as those who say they ‘do.’

As always, the Internet is a good place to start. We can quickly search for terms like “domain-specific knowledge in decision making” and “transfer of cognitive skills.” We can easily skim a few abstracts to see that “considerable research and controversy have surrounded this issue“ and that we must “view superior [decision-making] performance as a complex function of existing knowledge.” Even a very quick study of the research should have given Helmuth and Nolan reason to pause.

If they had dug deeper, they may have come across the work of Dan Kahan, of Yale University. Even before Heffernan’s infamous essay, his research had shown you can’t predict someone’s science literacy from his or her belief in evolution. His more recent work has only confirmed that point: those who say they “don’t believe” in evolution know as much about science as those who say they “do.” It is a brutal fact that creationists are just as capable of scientific thinking as anyone else. This fact, as Helmuth cogently described evolution, is “not a story or an aesthetic choice or one side of a debate; it’s the way the world works.”

Creationists Aren’t Hurting Anyone

Perhaps Helmuth and Nolan’s most egregious oversight was ignoring the data right in front of them: Heffernan was already an accomplished journalist! Early in her career, the Columbia Journalism Review listed her among its “Ten Young Editors to Watch.” She has worked at The New Yorker, served as an editor at Harper’s, and has written for both The New York Times and Slate. On top of all that, she has both a master’s and PhD from Harvard University. Heffernan’s mere existence negates Helmuth and Nolan’s arguments. Helmuth herself noted that Heffernan is a “talented writer.” So shouldn’t people consider her talent and accomplishments before judging her? If creationism was so dangerous, how has she succeeded so mightily?

The Laura Helmuths and Hamilton Nolans of the world are intellectually and ethically obligated to prove creationists’ beliefs are harmful.

America increasingly believes people should be allowed to do anything they want as long as no one gets hurt. This moral framework is explicitly invoked to defend gay marriage, promiscuous sex, and recreational drug use. These behaviors, the argument goes, make people happy, give their lives meaning, and cause no harm. So there is no reason to judge, much less legislate, against them. These principles are fine as long as they are applied equally to everyone. But given the current state of the evidence, some people are clearly not applying these principles to creationists.

The Laura Helmuths and Hamilton Nolans of the world are intellectually and ethically obligated to prove creationists’ beliefs are harmful. Not harmful in a metaphysical or abstract sense. And not in the “I’m uncomfortable with your lifestyle” or “creationism violates my moral values” sense. But concrete, measurable harm—the type of harm they demand proof for when conservatives suggest gay marriage and promiscuous sex are harmful.

Mainstream journalists have not come close to meeting their own standards. They have only shown they don’t like and are uncomfortable with creationists. But that’s not enough to justify the vitriol and acrimony they routinely heap on people like Heffernan. They must explain how, if being a creationist is such a problem, Ben Carson separated those Siamese twins, how John Baumgardner got a PhD in geophysics, and how Virginia Heffernan got a job at The New York Times.

Until they do, it’s perfectly okay—by their own values—to be a creationist. So go ahead, if you feel like.