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Religion might not be the only reason people buy into creationism and intelligent design, psychological experiments suggest.
No matter what their religious beliefs, college-educated adults frequently agree with purpose-seeking yet false explanations of natural phenomena – finches diversified in order to survive, for instance.
Kelemen has documented the same kind of erroneous thinking – called promiscuous teleology – in young children. Seven and eight-year olds agree with teleological statements such as “Rocks are jagged so animals can scratch themselves” and “Birds exist to make nice music”. These mistakes diminish as kids take more science classes and learn causal explanations for natural events.
To see whether education erases teleological tendencies or whether they instead represent our brain’s default mode, Kelemen and colleague Evelyn Rosset presented 230 university students with various teleological statements, such as:
• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil
• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells
• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise
• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align
Students saw a sentence flash onto a computer screen and had either 5 or 3.2 seconds to answer true or false. A third group had no time limit.
To make sure students were paying attention and could read quickly, the researchers threw in some obviously true statements: “Flowers wilt because they get dehydrated” or “People buy vacuums because they suck up dirt”, for example.
A first round of experiments suggested that adults make more teleological mistakes when pressed for time than when not. Yet Kelemen and Rosset also noticed that no matter how much time they had, test subjects tended to endorse false statements implying that the Earth is designed and maintained for life. “The earth has an ozone layer in order to protect it from UV rays”, for instance.
A second round of tests with a new group of students added more biological and geophysical questions to probe these inclinations further. Kelemen and Rosset also asked volunteers about their religious beliefs.
People continued to agree with false teleological statements, particularly those that endorsed an Earth intended for life. But non-believers were just as likely to make these errors as religious students, they found.
Education goes only so far in extinguishing mistaken beliefs about the physical world, Keleman says. “It suggests that we’re quite explicitly failing in science education, certainly with these undergraduates.”
“What her work suggests is that the creationist side has a huge leg up early on because it fits our natural tendencies,” says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. “It has implications for why most people on earth are creationists, I think.”
For this reason, it’s not surprising that non-religious, college-educated adults fall back on purpose-seeking explanations. Many people have little understanding of evolution and instead view it as a cultural belief, thinking: “‘I’m a good secular liberal, I’m no yokel, I believe in Darwin,'” Bloom says.
He also wonders if extensive science education could blunt the tendency to fall back on teleological explanations. “It might turn out that if you put Richard Dawkins or Einstein or whomever [to the test], no matter how expert or educated they are, they might still make these mistakes.”
Indeed, Kelemen is running similar experiments on volunteers with stronger science backgrounds to see if they, too, fall back on such childlike reasoning.