Why Evangelicals Are Fooled Into Accepting Pseudoscience

09/23/2011 11:58 am ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

Widespread rejection of human-induced climate change by evangelical Christians, of the sort we have seen recently from Rick Perry and others, is a bit of a puzzler. There is no obvious reason why evangelical faith commitments should motivate the faithful to reject climate science. The Bible does not claim that humans cannot affect the climate. God did not promise that the atmosphere will forever be healthy and life-sustaining. No end-time scenarios suggest that Jesus will come back before humans trash the planet.

So why have evangelicals been so ready to reject the generally accepted conclusions of the scientific community on global warming?

I want to suggest that the reason has nothing to do with climate science per se, but derives from the generally dim view that many evangelicals have of science and scientists -- views that make it hard to distinguish credible science from fake challengers.

One of the strategies employed most effectively by evangelicals in their crusade against evolution, which does pose real, although soluble, biblical and theological problems, has been to undermine the entire scientific enterprise. If science is a deeply flawed, ideologically driven, philosophically suspect enterprise, then why should anyone care if almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution? If the scientific community is just a bunch of self-serving ideologues with Ivy League appointments, then we can ignore anything it says that we don't like.

This widespread anti-science attitude was on display in all its glory in a recent polemic from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design. In a piece titled "Peer Review and the Corruption of Science" the author reports on a column in the Guardian by a respected British scientist titled "Publish-or-perish: Peer review and the corruption of science." The Guardian piece makes the legitimate point that too much weight is placed on the number of publications produced by research scientists rather than their quality. This legitimate concern should generate some thoughtful discussion in the scientific community.

But why would the Discovery Institute feel the need to bring this in-house discussion of the publishing culture of the scientific community to the attention of their largely evangelical readership, a readership that, for the most part, probably couldn't even give the name of a peer-reviewed journal? The goal, clearly, is to take the luster off the phrase "peer-reviewed" -- to undermine claims like "There are no articles in peer-reviewed journals suggesting that Intelligent Design is a viable alternative to evolution."

The rhetorical strategy employed by the Discovery Institute does a great disservice to American evangelicals who, understandably, are drawn to faith-friendly discussions of science. In their eagerness to dismantle scientific objections to intelligent design the Discovery Institute drives yet another wedge between evangelicals and the scientific community, making it harder for religious believers to distinguish science from pseudoscience, in particular, and real knowledge claims from fake ones in general.

The relentless assaults on the integrity of science by groups like the Discovery Institute have made it impossible for many people to understand the significance of a "scientific consensus." If the members of the National Academy of Sciences are just another political group with their own agenda -- left-wing Tea Partiers with Ph.Ds -- we are under no obligation to take them seriously. We can even compare ourselves to Galileo for opposing them, as Rick Perry did in explaining why he rejected the scientific consensus on climate change.

In our new book, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," historian Randall Stephens and I look at the widespread and disturbing inability of American evangelicals to distinguish between real knowledge claims, rooted in serious research and endorsed by credible knowledge communities, and pseudo-claims made by unqualified groups and leaders that offer "faith-friendly" alternatives. Across the board we find evangelical Christians attracted to indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can "pray away the gay"), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East).

The tragedy is that nothing within the faith commitments of evangelicals requires the adoption of these various knowledge-denying views. There are authentic and contributing evangelical Christians within every knowledge community. Francis Collins, for example, is a committed evangelical Christian and an important leader in the scientific community. He is also an outspoken critic of Intelligent Design and has written widely on the reconciliation of his faith and his science.

American evangelicals desperately need credible leaders to wean them off their preference for discredited and indefensible knowledge claims. At the moment, however, it is hard to imagine where these leaders might come from.