Why Can’t Dawkins Change People’s Minds?

August 5, 2008 at 11:57 am (Belief, Dawkins) (, , , , , , , , )

Cheeky little mid-week post: I watched the Dawkins on Darwin thing on Channel 4 last night and was unsurprised to find that the schoolchildren he spoke to who had been brought up with the creation story didn’t, on the whole, change their minds about the origins of the human race upon being presented with evidence for evolution. Not for the first time, I shall use the old quote “you can’t reason a man out of a position he did not reason himself into” to help to show why, in my opinion, it is unlikely that you will change people’s beliefs. [I have no idea where I stole that quote from. Probably someone on the Bad Science Forum. That or Bertrand Russell.]

If they hold dogmatic beliefs it is unlikely they will change them just because you provide evidence to the contrary – I reckon it’s easy enough for most people to reject new evidence that doesn’t fit in with the beliefs they hold. I think this is true for those with dogmatic beliefs, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Homeopath, Nutritionist or Accrington Stanley Supporter. A footballer you don’t rate plays an absolute blinder and finishes by scoring a cracking goal. Do you re-evaluate your opinion of him? Or do you come up with an ‘excuse’ for his performance? Maybe you will claim that the goal was a fluke or that his overall play wasn’t all that good. Maybe you will claim this performance as ‘the exception that proves the rule’ – he’s definitely still a poor footballer, and you know it. I think one reason we do things like this is because we like to be consistent and we like others to think we are consistent. Oliver Burkeman writes a column for the Guardian on a Saturday and he recently wrote about a book by Cialdini. One of the points raised was this – “We value consistency above almost anything and will go to extremes to maintain it. Partly, this is a matter of keeping up appearances…” and if you’ve ever been booing a player who goes on to score for your team, you will know how hard it is to decide whether to remain consistent and refuse to cheer the player or whether to join the other 15,000 people chanting his name. That’s football. The same goes for, say, evidence that Homeopathy has no effect other than placebo (“but it works for me – I know it does…”); evidence that antioxidant supplements, far from lowering mortality and adding years to your life, either have no discernable effect or, worse, have a negative effect (“but it can’t be true – Carole Caplin and Cliff Richard take them”); evidence that humans evolved rather than being formed out of dust and spare ribs (“yes, I know there’s evidence to show evolution happened, but you have to remember that the Bible is the word of God”).

As I said, it is very easy to reject new evidence that doesn’t fit in with a belief – particularly when that belief is fervently held or long-standing. Which means it is very easy to be wrong, and to stay wrong. If an idea seems, intuitively, to be right then most people are probably likely to ‘go with their gut’. If someone you have always believed (your parents, preacher, teacher or someone well-known – like a celebrity) tells you something, you are likely to believe it. Here’s why scientists are (or at least should be) different: It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition. [That one is definitely Bertrand Russell]

If you’ve written a blog post that touches on similar issues, please leave a link in the comments section below.


  1. leet01 said,

    What is interesting is that Augustine, the greatest theologian in the history of the Church, was not a creationist. He was a great believer in allegory and did not think Genesis should be taken literally. You could point that out to the fundamentalists.

  2. SRW said,

    I came across the concept of “cognitive dissonance” on Greta Christina’s blog a few months back – I haven’t read the book she reviews yet, but it seems from her description to be an excellent description of the mechanisms of self-delusion, and why it’s so often essential to hang on to a few uncriticised beliefs.

  3. jdc325 said,

    Hey SRW – thanks for mentioning Greta Christina – her blog is excellent. I’ve made the link in your comment ‘live’ now (hope that’s OK).


  4. Striver said,

    Inertia is as powerful a force in human affairs (including the life of the mind) as it is in physics – or, as Paul Simon put it in “The Boxer”, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

  5. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comment Striver. Food for thought.

  6. Ivo da C.Souza said,

    God is not “self-delusion’. It is God himself who revealed himself to humanity. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. We accept God with a leap of faith, but without alienating our Reason. Reason and Faith are two wings that lead us to the Truth. Truth sets us free…
    Dr.Ivo da C.Souza

  7. jdc325 said,

    Hello Ivo,

    “It is God himself who revealed himself to humanity.”
    Well I’m not sure that’s actually true, but if you want to believe that then fair enough.

    “Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God.”
    If God existed then it should be possible to prove this using the scientific method. If we accept that a negative cannot be proved, then you are probably right to suggest that “science cannot disprove the existence of God” – but we can assign probability to the existence of God.

    “We accept God with a leap of faith, but without alienating our Reason.”
    It’s true that belief in God requires a leap in faith and it is also true that believers are not necessarily irrational on the whole, but I find belief in God to be irrational – why should someone believe something for which there is no good evidence.

    “Reason and Faith are two wings that lead us to the Truth.”
    Not something I hold to be true, but it’s certainly an interesting idea.

    “Truth sets us free…”
    I particularly like this element of your comment. I do agree that truth can set us free.

    Thanks for your comment,

    PS – I had a look at your website and I was impressed by some of the views espoused there. I certainly think that it is commendable to aim for “unity in peace and solidarity, and in respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the human being” and I don’t think anyone could argue with such worthy sentiments as “reconciliation, justice and peace in Africa and the whole World.”

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