For the past few days we’ve been seeing several articles about this item from the University of British Columbia: Death anxiety prompts people to believe in intelligent design, reject evolution, which — notwithstanding the flurry of press articles about it — struck us as not particularly newsworthy.
But now we’re writing about it, for reasons that will soon become apparent. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:
Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.) have found that people’s death anxiety can influence them to support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory.
Existential anxiety also prompted people to report increased liking for Michael Behe, intelligent design’s main proponent, and increased disliking for evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
See what we mean? Low-grade, essentially silly stuff. The UBC article continues:
Published in the March 30 issue of the journal PLoS ONE, their paper is the first to examine the implicit psychological motives that underpin one of the most heated debates in North America.
“Our results suggest that when confronted with existential concerns, people respond by searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life,” says [UBC Psychology Asst. Prof. Jessica] Tracy. “For many, it appears that evolutionary theory doesn’t offer enough of a compelling answer to deal with these big questions.”
In each study, participants were asked to imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings, or they were assigned to a control condition: imagining dental pain and writing about that.
The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174-word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.
Whoop-de-doo! Think depressing stuff, then decide whether you like Behe or Dawkins. The depressed people chose Behe. Then there’s a twist:
However, the research team saw reversed effects during the fourth study which had a new condition. Along with writings by Behe and Dawkins, there was an additional passage by Carl Sagan. … In response, these participants showed reduced belief in intelligent design after being reminded of their own mortality.
Although the “news” involved Behe and Dawkins, we didn’t blog about this because it wasn’t about evolution. It was psychology, and it seemed to be a rather vapid study of the power that suggestion can have over weak and uninformed minds. So we ignored it — until today.
Speaking of weak and uninformed minds, the “news” of this psychology study appears to have excited the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).
This has just appeared at the Discoveroids’ blog: Intelligent Design & the Fear of Death. It’s by David Klinghoffer, a Discoveroid “senior fellow” (i.e., flaming, full-blown creationist). We won’t bother reciting Klinghoffer’s creationist oeuvre, but you can check it out in this recent post.
Klinghoffer does a lot of nit-picking about the reading selections used in the test. You can see what he says about that at the Discoveroid blog if you want to. When he’s done doing that he says, with bold font added by us:
[The authors of the study] seek to knock us over with a revelation that Samuel Johnson had already expressed two and a half centuries ago. “Depend upon it, sir,” said Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The authors need 13 pages of stiff academic prose to convey the same point.
Of course, what they really intend to convey is the prejudice that ID, unlike accepting Darwinian evolution, is fundamentally not a rational commitment but only an emotional one, and therefore safely dismissed.
Yes, that’s about it. Then Klinghoffer concludes:
If they had really wanted to test the point, they ought to have assigned their subjects to write a description not only of their own death but of an emotionally charged event of a different kind.
For example, “Write a description of how your holding a particular scientific belief would result in your being taunted by peers as a religious fundamentalist ‘creationist,’ or at best ignored as an unserious thinker who substitutes emotion for rational thought.” Now show them the passages from Dawkins and “Behe” and then see whether that drives some people to a greater willingness to embrace Dawkins.
Ah, good point! Fear of being Expelled! is even greater than fear of death. Klinghoffer strikes again!
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