Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fact Versus Meaning

Andrew Gelman points out that 4 in 10 Americans believe in the Young Earth Creationism. He explains it thusly:
One way to think of this is that, for the overwhelming majority of people, a personal belief in young-earth creationism (or whatever you want to call it) is costless. Or, to put it another way, the discomfort involved in holding a belief that contradicts everything you were taught in school is greater than the discomfort involved in holding a belief that seems to contradict your religious values (keeping in mind that, even among those who report attending church seldom or never, a quarter of these people agree that "God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago").

This is something that people often overlook. There's fact and then there's meaning. Whether human beings were created by a process that began millions of years ago or by God's hand 10,000 as a fact isn't terribly relevant or meaningful to people's lives. The numbers are so huge it doesn't really matter.

Think of it this way. 99.9999% of the planet could live a perfectly fulfilling life believing the Sun revolves around the Earth. The fact of what revolves around what just isn't all that meaningful to the lives we lead.

FLG thinks Gelman was trying to articulate some of that, but he's operating "under the completely unsupported belief that it's better for people to believe truths than falsehoods." FLG has a slightly different take. It's about what is meaningful to people's lives, FLG'll call that Truth, as well as a function of whether soemthing is factually true, FLG'll call that truth. For many empiricists, there is no Truth, only truth. To the extent that Truth exists, it is only because truth has been elevated by empiricists. For empiricists, small-t truth means a lot to them. Consequently, truth becomes Truth.

This isn't the case for a great many people.

None of that makes any sense, does it?


Tim Kowal said...

It's certainly true that there are many facts that just don't have much to do with us. How old is the universe? A billion years? A million billion? How much level 2 cache is there in the Pentium Dual Core architecture? How many tons of Cocoa Puffs are there in the world? The "right" answers to these questions don't much matter unless you're an evolutionary biologist, a computer engineer, or a trivia enthusiast.

You're right, of course, that the reason the answers to questions about the universe are a harder sell than other types of factual questions is because the former type carry a lot of import with respect to worldviews. If I accept that the universe is a bajillion years old and not 10,000, will this commit me to accepting evolution? Biological determinism? Atomism? Atheism? People are suspicious that the scienceists, who are so suspiciously anxious that everyone accept their findings about the age of the universe and the origin of species, might have some ulterior motive. And they happen to be right. As folks like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett demonstrate, science is being employed as the primary weapon in the pop-atheism movement. Employing scientific facts in the cause of what can only be called a "religion" destroys its practitioners' ability to pretend at value-free neutrality that used to be the defining trait of science.

FLG said...


I think science can be value neutral as long as it is merely describing the world rather than recommending policies.

The Ancient said...

4 in 10 Americans believe in the Young Earth Creationism

I'm not as bothered by this as I probably should be, since a large percentage of the public believes any number of ridiculous things.

Has anyone ever seen that same question asked in other countries?

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