Saturday, April 9, 2011

Intelligent Design is For ‘Fraidy Cats

Scaredy Cats (Image by Paparutzi)
Some scientists just love to look for a biological explanation for everything. A recent blog posting Death, Science And Intelligent Design, by Jonathan Parkinson, looks at why people are so wedded to Intelligent Design (ID), despite the overwhelming lack of evidence.

Parkinson writes about a recent study in PLoSOne that argues that ID's popularity in some cases is partly due to peoples’ anxiety about their own mortality. Here is the experimental design: 122 undergraduate students were asked to think about and then write about either their own death or a painful visit to the dentist (the control group). Then they read a 174-word passage by evolutionary biologist (and anti-religion activist) Richard Dawkins which summarized the evidence for evolution, followed by a passage by Michael Behe, also 174 words long, summarizing the arguments in favor of ID. Students then rated the authors on a 9-point scale and ranked their own religious beliefs on a 10-point scale. The researchers repeated the experiment with several other groups, including 832 randomly selected Americans.

The results were intriguing. In four of the groups, students who were asked to imagine their own deaths had a statistically significant higher appreciation for Behe's arguments and ID compared to the control group, even after controlling for religiosity. However, for the one group of natural science students, appreciation for Behe/ID declined after imagining their own deaths.

Okay, now let’s discuss the problems with this study. First, the sample size was small for most of the groups studied and the effects, while statistically significant were also pretty small for some of the groups. Choosing a painful dental experience as the control treatment doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. Why not have the control group simply read the passages without writing the essay on death? The order in which they read the articles may also have created a bias. Perhaps if they read Dawkins last, they would have been more predisposed to his ideas. There are also a variety of variables that were not controlled (e.g., socioeconomic status, ethnicity, health status) that might have influenced either the subjects’ belief in ID or their receptiveness to it. And lastly, Dawkins was probably not the best author to have them read, considering that he is antagonistic to religiosity.

The conclusion of the authors is that support for ID is fueled by "existential anxiety," and that it offers them a sense of meaning and purpose while evolution does not. (Life science students ostensibly have found purpose and meaning in their search for rational explanations of natural phenomena). This brings up another problem with the study: why should existential anxiety over death draw one toward ID, but not anxiety over pain, especially when we consider that death puts an end to pain, whereas dental pain could continue long after the experience and include pain in the pocketbook and the loss of the ability to enjoy one’s meals? Of course this is too rational and the anxiety is really more about people’s lack of experience with death and their fear of the unknown.

Parkinson finds the study’s conclusions plausible, but insufficient, arguing that there are likely two additional factors that influence belief in ID. First, many people believe that the theory of evolution is incompatible with religious belief. Thus, if they are forced to choose between the two, the majority will choose the religion. Parkinson’s other factor is related to the limited imagination of humans and our tendency to use metaphors to understand complex phenomena. There aren’t really any good metaphors for evolution, nor is it easy to understand it based on everyday experiences, whereas ID is based on the anthropomorphic metaphor that life is too complex to have arisen spontaneously and must have been coordinated by an intelligent being.

While Parkinson may be correct, neither of his hypotheses really explains the results of the PLOS study. Why would thinking about death make some people (but not life scientists) more predisposed to ID than thinking about pain or dentistry? It is important to consider other possible explanations for these results. For example, perhaps life science students already have a predisposition against ID and perhaps they also have less existential anxiety about their own mortality. Perhaps they are just less fearful, in general, or have different coping mechanisms for dealing with their fears. Also, Parkinson’s last factor, that evolution is just plain difficult to understand, may be exacerbated by existential fear, at least for those who are susceptible to existential fear and who don’t already have a good grasp of evolution. There is also the question of whether existential anxiety predisposes people to religion in general, and not just religious explanations for the origins of life.


  1. This is a very good analysis of the study and its flaws. I would like to think life scientists' rejection of ID even after being reminded of their mortality is because they've already been exposed to the ideas of evolution and why ID fails as a scientific idea. If the 174-word essay is the first exposure the test subjects have ever had to evolution (or ID, for that matter), that's also a significant finding.

  2. Aside from kudos on an excellent post, where did you obtain the photo? My wife and I have some Fraidy Cats that sometimes cower like that as well.

  3. Hi Robert,

    Look up the photographer, "Paparutzi," on Flickr