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True Skeptics

By Keith Kloor
Jun 9, 2011 1:23 AMNov 19, 2019 9:08 PM


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Can people who doubt the phenomena of biological evolution be persuaded by a better demonstration of the evidence? Alan Rogers, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, thinks so. He has authored a newly published book called, "The Evidence for Evolution." Rogers discusses what motivated him to write the book in this release by Lee Siegel, the University of Utah's public relations officer, and a former science reporter. Siegel writes:

Rogers has been teaching courses on evolution since the 1980s, but for most of that time he didn't talk much about the evidence that evolution actually happens. That issue was settled scientifically more than a century ago, and scientists are interested in the unknown and newly discovered. So, classes and textbooks tend to emphasize the mechanisms of evolution that are still subjects of active research. Rogers changed his approach in 2006 after he read a poll reporting that only about half of Americans believe humans evolved. "It occurred to me after reading this poll that it didn't make much sense to teach students about the intricacies of evolution if they don't believe that evolution happens in the first place. So, I decided that my introductory classes henceforth were going to have a week or two on the evidence for evolution, and I started looking for a text." "I'm trying to convince skeptics that evolution really happened. If they're skeptics, then as soon as I get to the point where I say, "˜trust me,' they're going to say "˜no. The reason I'm skeptical is because I don't trust you.'"

Wait a second. I thought that anti-evolution attitudes sprang largely from religious belief, not from some vague skepticism. And about his change in teaching approach: I'd be curious to hear if that has resulted in Rogers swaying more students with the evidence he's been presenting in classes. I'm doubtful. My quibbles aside, there's much to like about what Rogers says here:

All scientists are skeptics if they're any good, but they're not stubborn about it. In science, you have to be able to change your mind when confronted with evidence. It seems to me that learning that skill is important, not only for scientists, but for everybody. It makes us better citizens.

UPDATE: Alan Rogers responded via email:

I enjoyed your post. You point out that evolution skeptics are often motivated by religion, and you are skeptical that evidence is likely to help much. Maybe not, but I'm optimistic. Let me tell you why. To begin with, I'm optimistic because the debate about evolution has changed over the years in response to evidence. For example, a century ago, people used to argue that natural selection was impossible because of blending inheritance. That argument disappeared as we learned about genetics. Other anti-evolution arguments disappeared as we learned about continental drift. So the argument is not immune to evidence, just highly resistant. I'm also optimistic because of my experience with students. This past spring I gave a guest lecture, and afterwards two students stayed behind to ask questions. They said they were both "kind of skeptical" because they didn't really believe the radiometric dates. "How can we really know that rates of decay are constant," they asked? So I gave them several reasons, and at the end they both wanted to know where they could get a copy of my book. I'm not expecting to convince anyone who is already a committed creationist, but there are many people who are merely skeptical. This is the audience I hope to reach.

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