A Gallup poll suggests that 42% of Americans believe in a creationist account for explaining the existence of human kind. This is a surprising figure considering the overwhelming evidence and consensus for evolution by natural selection.

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Unfortunately, the creationist angle is strengthened by people such as Ken Ham and his creationist “museum“, which claims that the world is only a mere 6000 years old and also that the world was literally created in 7 days. It is clear to most that just by looking at the world around us, along with using scientific methods, for instance looking at sedimentary rock deposits and comparing how sediment currently settles. We can see that 6000 years is nowhere near enough time for these rocks to form.

Is it right to teach creationism as an alternative to evolution in schools?

u-s-kindergarten-classThe Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) is developing an Interstate Passport Initiative, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, WICHE proposes making the creationist “teach the controversy” strategy a standard part of college biology courses. They suggest in their faculty handbook that students watch the Bill Nye/Ken Ham “debate” to evaluate the effectiveness of the of the use of scientific data in a debate. But most scientists would agree that this is not a debate at all and that there is no place in an educational facility for such a conversation other than to see the importance of scientific data.

Despite the federal government’s efforts to secularize schools, some are intent on “Christianizing” them. There are several US states which have decided to allow the teaching of creationism as an “alternative” to evolution and there are schools which include it in their curriculum. This can be seen on this map created by Slate in 2014.

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What are the reasons for believing creationism over evolution? Various studies suggest that 2 psychological biases are at play here, making us humans more susceptible to believing in creationism over evolution, unless educated otherwise, especially in children.

Promiscuous Teleology

Teleological reasoning is the human tendency to explain things in terms of their function rather than what has caused them. For example: American 7 to 8-year-olds were asked why a rock was pointy. Children tended to prefer answers such as “so animals don’t sit on them and smash them” and “so animals can scratch on them when they get itchy,” rather than “stuff piled up over time”. Psychologists also asked 8 to 10-year-olds, from a range of backgrounds involving different levels of religiosity, “how the very first sun bear got to earth”. Regardless of family religiosity, most children preferred the creationist answer. These results were also found in 5 to 7-year-olds but there was divergence among 11 to 13-year-olds. This research points to the fact that children prefer explanations involving intentional design, thus making creationism more attractive.

Psychological Essentialism

This is the ability to link things within certain categories based on non-observable similarities or essence, such as linking dolphins to land mammals rather than fish. This is a great learning tool for children and adults alike. The problem is that evolution can be counter-intuitive to this way of thinking as things change considerably over time (although a very long time). This is the main reason children and adults misunderstand evolution as they can often not grasp the concept of species changing from one form to another over time.

Along with these two factors, people often don’t understand the significantly long time scale and tiny mutations that lead to changes over millions of years. This could be a failing in the education system, but is also partly due to resistance from religious institutions. It’s a hard battle to fight when people such as Ken Ham will bend science to “prove” his creationist ideas.

98% of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science say they believe humans evolved over time, however, data from a recent Pew Research Center survey on science and society found that only around 66% of Americans perceive that scientists generally agree about evolution. When there are such strong consensuses between scientists, why don’t the public know? And what can we do to educate people who are surrounded in a somewhat science rejecting education system?