David Brooks writes today about the “Crews missile” — Capt. Nick Crews’ lacerating letter to his (allegedly) slacker children — and says that however justified its author’s opinion may have been, strategies like this don’t really change people’s behavior. Excerpt:
It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.
I happen to cover a field — politics — in which people are perpetually bellowing at each other to be better. They’re always issuing the political version of the Crews Missile.
It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.
It should be pointed out that Brooks wrote a book about what science tells us about human behavior, so he knows what he’s talking about here. Anyway, this puts me in mind of our fierce discussion on this site about Young Earth Creationism. Those who support teaching the scientific consensus on biology, geology, cosmology, etc., get incandescently angry at religious fundamentalists who believe, against the evidence, that Genesis is literally (versus poetically) a true account of our origins. They fire off their own version of Crews missiles at fundamentalists all the time. Unsurprisingly, a program of bludgeoning YEC believers with facts and ridicule doesn’t move them.
In light of Brooks’s point, can we think of a different strategy for dealing with objections to evolution — one that stands a chance of actually succeeding in changing minds? In today’s NYT Science section, the science writer Nicholas Wade offers this idea:
Unlike a fact, a theory cannot be absolutely true. All scientific theories are subject to change and replacement, just as Newton’s theory of gravitation was replaced by Einstein’s. The theory of evolution, though it has no present rivals, is still under substantial construction.
Evolutionary biologists are furiously debating whether or not natural selection can operate on groups of individuals, as Darwin thought was likely but most modern evolutionists doubt. So which version of evolution is the true one?
By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.
And rudderless politicians like Senator Rubio wouldn’t have to throw 15 back flips and a hissy fit when asked a simple question like how old is the earth.
Strictly speaking, I suppose this isn’t really a strategy for changing minds, but rather for defusing the controversy that prevents or at least impedes the teaching of standard biology in classrooms. But it’s in the ballpark, and it may provide a starting point for changing minds.
Peter Hitchens wrote the other day, about the current Anglican church controversy: “As we know from history, if you want unconditional surrender, you condemn yourself to a much longer and crueller war than if you are prepared to make terms.” Applying that principle to the argument over evolution and Creationism, it seems to me that those arguing the mainstream scientific position would do well to find a way (e.g., Wade’s proposal) to offer YEC believers something other than unconditional surrender. YEC folks have an epistemic Iron Dome to stop any evolutionist Crews missile from getting through to them.
What would an alternative strategy look like? You tell me.