email - December 2005

Group Think

How do you know if the majority is right?

We received a letter from Charla and ignored it because it seemed to be a combative statement posed as a question. It reminded us of one of those thirty-minute “questions” that senators ask people they are “investigating.” It turned out that we were wrong about the writer’s intention, but it took us a couple of emails to realize that.

After we had not replied to her first email, Charla wrote again.

Hi, I sent you an email last week and I was hoping for a response, but I didn't get one. Maybe my questions were not clear enough. So, I'll elaborate more:

1) Science against evolution: If science is against evolution, why are there so few scientists who are against evolution? Why does the majority of opposition to evolution come from people who believe in the Bible? What is the opinion of Indian scientists, Japanese scientists, Chinese scientists, who aren't culturally exposed to the bible? Why aren't they defending the creation myth of their own culture?

2) Belief in Biblical accuracy: I know you focus on the scientific arguments, and not religious ones. But why is it so important to you to believe in the literal accuracy of the Bible? Even many orthodox Jews have no problem believing that certain parts of the Bible are allegorical.

Still laboring under the misconception that Charla didn’t really want to know the answers to her questions, we sent a terse, perhaps even rude, response. We are sorry. It was not one of our finer moments, but this is what we wrote:

There are two reasons why we didn’t answer your email. (1) We don’t know, and (2) we don’t care.

We have not conducted a poll of Indian, Japanese, or Chinese scientists to find out what they think. We don’t even know what percentage of American scientists believe in evolution. We suspect that the percentage is much, much lower than commonly believed. Every time we have run across the claim “most scientists believe in evolution” we have written an email to the source (the American Broadcasting Company, Gallup poll, and Pew Research) asking what the actual percentage is. We have never received an answer. We suspect there isn’t any data to back up that assertion. We won’t accept the premise that “there are so few scientists who are against evolution” without any data to back up that claim.

On October 26, we requested to find out for us. You can help by going to and click on the “Me too!” button. If enough people indicate interest, then maybe they will try to find out.

But it doesn’t really matter what any particular group thinks. If left-handed auto mechanics with red hair all believe in evolution, does that make it true? The vast majority of my friends, who are scientists and engineers, don’t believe in evolution. I don’t know for sure that my friends are representative of the science and engineering community in general. But even if they are, their rejection of evolution doesn’t prove that the theory is false.

The only reason we want to know the actual percentage of scientists who believe in evolution is that we suspect it is much lower than commonly believed. The argument that “evolution must be true because most scientists believe it” is thoroughly refuted if it turns out that most scientists don’t believe it.

It is a little bit frightening that people will believe something just because they are told it by a scientist, priest, athlete, or movie star. You’ve got a brain. Use it! Find out what the evidence is, and evaluate it for yourself.

Charla responded with a better reply than we deserved. she said,

Hi, thank you for responding, I appreciate it. The problem is that I'm not really qualified to examine all the evidence.  I read your site and it makes sense, but then I read the evolution arguments and they make sense too.  If your arguments are so compelling why aren't they accepted in the scientific mainstream?

At last we finally got it! She isn’t just being argumentative. She really wants to know. That makes it a fair question that deserves an answer. We have to admit frankly that we can only partly answer it. Since we can’t really answer the question she asks, we will rephrase it a little bit and break it into two pieces.

First, why do a lot of college biology teachers accept evolution? We don’t know, and we will probably never know. It could have something to do with religion. It could be peer pressure. It could be that they have been told it is true so often that they really believe it. We don’t know why people think what they think.

We try to understand why people think what they think, because it may be instructive to us; but we hesitate to be too confident that we really understand anyone’s motives. It is irresponsible to make a speculative statement such as, “They accept evolution because they don’t want to admit there is a God who expects conformance to certain standards of behavior,” or “They have to accept evolution or they will lose their job.” One or both of those statements MAY be true in some instances, but we don’t know that for sure. We just can’t answer questions about what is in the minds of individuals we have never even met.

It is the second part of the question that is more important. Let’s rephrase it as, “How can I tell which logically sounding argument is correct if I don’t have the required technical background to evaluate the issue?

The best answer (but flippant and often impractical) is, “Get the required technical background.” Of course, you probably can’t quit your job and devote your entire life to study biology, botany, zoology, genetics, chemistry, information theory, probability, thermodynamics, and medicine. But you can (and should) devote some of your time to reading science books and articles, and critically evaluating them. That’s the best thing to do. But, if you can’t do that, here are some usually reliable clues that can help.

Three Clues to the Truth

  1. Look for personal attacks. If one side relies upon character assassination rather than technical arguments, that could be because their technical arguments are not compelling, or non-existent.

    True science involves experimentation and measurable results. It doesn’t matter who does the experiment, the results will be the same. Natural laws don’t change depending upon the university the scientist attended or the degree obtained by that scientist.

    Philosophical arguments often depend upon the reputations and skill of the participants. Philosophers might use “proof by intimidation” because that’s all they have. Scientists should not have to resort to this tactic if they have experimental data to back up their claims.

  2. Watch for censorship. It is generally the lawyer with the guilty client who tries to keep evidence out of court. The fact that certain groups are trying to limit what can be presented in public school science classes should raise your suspicion. People who have the truth on their side don’t try to hide the evidence.

  3. You can tell a lot from body language. When you ask someone to explain why he believes in evolution, does he give a calm, rational answer? Or, does he get excited, call you names, and blurt out something like, “Everybody knows it is true!”? If someone responds in an emotional, frustrated way, it is an indication that he doesn’t really have a good explanation. He has just believed it all his life, but now realizes that he has no reason to believe it, and it makes him uncomfortable to think he might have been wrong all these years. So, he lashes out emotionally. It is generally true that the louder he shouts the less certain he is.

We don’t insist that everyone agrees with us. We just insist that everyone examine the evidence with an open mind.

We are confident that the more you study evolution, the less convincing you will find it. Certainly there are some people who will never reject evolution because of the religious implications of the alternative. Some people will never publicly reject it because they would lose their jobs if they did. Some people won’t reject evolution as long as they perceive it to be the majority opinion of educated people. But your belief should not depend upon what other people believe.

Truth is not determined by majority vote. Truth is discerned by honest investigation into the facts. The truth may be uncomfortable, but in the long run, it is always better to know the truth than to believe a lie.

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