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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 28-Sep-14


Sunday 28-September-14

Intelligent Design, the Reversal Trap and Persuasion

There is a dilemma that religious people may face, which is conflict between faith and the evidence of science. Religions are usually based on ancient writings, when science and technology was nowhere near what it has become over the past century or so. Today, science tells us that we evolved from apes and that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.  Religions that stray into such areas disagree, for example the Bible says that the Earth is only 6000 years old.

One of the questions that is important is that of deity, of the existence of an all-powerful God. When you have such a god, then everything can be attributed to him (and it usually is a him). One of the 'proofs' of God's existence is that of 'Intelligent Design', where it is concluded that the universe would not be governed by such simple mathematical equations unless it was created with purpose by a great intelligence.

Aside from the fallacies in this argument, it falls into a deeper trap, of trying to defeat the other side by using their own arguments against them. While this reversal might seem a clever move, its mistake is that adopting the thinking of the other side accepts this approach this as valid, and so weakens its own case. Religions are based on unquestioned belief. Why do they need to use science to 'prove' a truth that cannot be proven? Do the people who propose ID lack faith?

What is perhaps the problem is that many people, including scientists and religious adherents, want there to be one true way. In fact there are many systems of belief (and if you look closely enough, there is one per person). Even science is based on belief. Belief is assumed truth, and each group assume their canon is true and all others are false. Yet like parallel universes, belief systems can exist concurrently and only become problematic when they try to intersect.

There is yet a value for religion in the idea of Intelligent Design, not so much as a solid argument that proves God's existence, but more that just contemplating the idea of ID changes your thinking, even if you are not religious. In research related to this principle, Tracy, Hart and Martens found that if you reminded psychology students of their own mortality, they would be find ID ideas more appealing. However, students of natural sciences went the other way. Having studied evolutionary theory and science more closely, just the mention of an opposing view seemed to make them become more entrenched. The persuasive effect of ID on the psychology students, the researchers found, could be neutralized by priming them with natural science thoughts.

A learning from this is that you may be able to get people to accept ideas they know are not true by triggering a related need or fear (death, in this study). You can also harden views that are already held with some conviction by providing opposing views that are easily refuted.

Tracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE, 6 (3)

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