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To Bolster Belief in Evolution, Study Recommends Celebrity Endorsements

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It’s no secret that evolution proponents are eager to find ways to convince the skeptical public that Darwinian evolution is scientifically rock solid. A new paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology laments: “Despite the consensus among scientists that humans have evolved over time, human evolution still remains a contentious topic among much of the general public.” The study, however, proposes a new tool for evolution evangelists to consider: celebrity endorsements. 

Bieber and the Big Bang

The study, “Celebrity Opinion Influences Public Acceptance of Human Evolution,” cites a number of pop and other stars, for example heartthrob Justin Bieber who has shared with fans his concerns about the cosmological science underlying the Big Bang. Celebrities taking political positions, not always in a thoughtful manner, is nothing new. It’s intriguing to see that that they are branching out into other fields.

At any rate, this peer-reviewed research finds that when celebrities (whether male or female) endorsed evolution, it had an influence on whether undergraduates accepted evolution:

The present research examined the influence of celebrity opinion upon individuals’ acceptance of the theory of evolution. Priming stimuli were developed purveying pro-evolution, anti-evolution, or neutral opinion (Study 1). When paired with a male celebrity or expert source (Study 2), the male celebrity, but not the male expert, influenced undergraduates’ acceptance of evolution. The influence of the male celebrity on acceptance of evolution was replicated in a community sample (Study 3). When paired with a female celebrity source, undergraduates’ acceptance of evolution was similarly influenced. Together, these findings extend our understanding of the reach of credible celebrity endorsers beyond consumer behavior to core individual beliefs, such as those surrounding the acceptance of human evolution.

Coyne Versus Wiker

The study’s design revealed much about the motives of the investigators. They had an “expert” and a celebrity endorse a book that either supported or opposed evolution, and then measured how these endorsements affected the beliefs of undergraduates. The pro-evolution book used in the study was Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, a book that is heavy on the science (though it leaves out much contrary evidence — see here and here). The book critical of evolution used in the study was The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin written by none other than Discovery Institute fellow Benjamin Wiker. This is where it gets interesting.

Wiker’s book is an excellent resource, especially if you’re looking for a popular-level treatment of the life of Charles Darwin that critically investigates the impact of his ideas on society. But it’s not a science-focused book. If you’re looking for the latest compelling popular-level scientific critique of Darwinian evolution — something that would provide an appropriate match with Coyne’s book — Wiker’s book is not the place to go. The study thus attacks the “anti-evolution” book it used as providing “superficial information in opposition of evolution (i.e., the low statistical odds that DNA could occur by chance alone, gaps, and hoaxes in the fossil record and that evolution cannot explain how life on earth actually began).” Wiker’s book isn’t “superficial.” It just seeks to do something quite different from Coyne’s. The Darwin Myth is about the history of an idea. The study offers a straw man by holding it out as representative of the best scientific arguments against Darwinism. Why didn’t the study use an easy-to-read science-focused book like Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism as representing the viewpoint contrasting with Darwinian evolution? Evolutionists apparently can’t allow a fair fight — they won’t allow a debate where their opponent is allowed to muster its best scientific arguments. But this is nothing new.

Visit a Grocery Store Lately?

In our celebrity-obsessed society, it comes as little surprise that the study concludes, “In light of the present findings, celebrities who publicly state opinions about evolution may have an impact on public acceptance of evolution.” They explain this finding on the grounds that “Western cultures…place an emphasis on celebrity culture.” A quick trip through the checkout line at the grocery store could have told you that. Unsurprisingly, they conclude by proposing that evolution apologists recruit “celebrity opinion” to help “increase acceptance of evolution”:

Given the importance of attempting to educate individuals about evolution in order to increase acceptance of evolution and scientific literacy at large, future research might consider how use of celebrity opinion (video clips of celebrity interviews espousing opinions about evolution) might be used as discussion points or learning tools in the educational process.

A Flip-Side

But of course there’s a flip-side to this finding: If celebrity endorsements can help increase public acceptance of evolution, couldn’t celebrity skepticism of Darwin do the exact opposite? They worry that the answer is yes:

Public statements made by celebrities that endorse an anti-evolution opinion could therefore contribute to public nonacceptance of evolution and consequently limit the public’s ability to make informed decisions about a wide range of phenomena — many of which have personal ramifications (Nadelson & Hardy, 2015). Furthermore, once celebrities make these statements regarding evolution, the consequences might be difficult to undue. Public claims made by celebrities that contain scientific misinformation continue to exert an influence on people’s opinions, even after the claims been retracted (Ecker, Swire, & Lewandowsky, 2014). Thus, a celebrity publicly voicing an opinion about evolution that contains misconceptions might not only negatively influence individuals’ acceptance of evolution, but the misconceptions about evolution that are endorsed by the celebrity may be difficult to correct.

Of course they equate non-acceptance of evolution with a social evil that would “limit the public’s ability to make informed decisions” or promote “scientific misinformation.” But aren’t they the ones who created a study where the evolution-supporting source was focused on science and the Darwin-doubting source was a popular-level history book that wasn’t about science? Rest assured, the last thing that the evolution apologists who created this study want is a fair debate where the public has access to the best arguments on both sides. So who is it that would “limit the public’s ability to make informed decisions”?

Photo: Justin Bieber, by Lou Stejskal [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.