Creationists Aren't Stupid
I once made a comment in a thread talking about a friend of mine who is a Young Earth Creationist (people who read Genesis literally and thus believe the universe is only 8,000 years old), saying that he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. Another reader responded with "Then you need to find some smarter friends".
A lot of people in the creationism debate have this same attitude, that clearly anyone who rejects the idea of an old universe is not just mistaken, but clearly mentally deficient. Some of that is just old-fashioned name-calling, denigrating your opponent like any two kids in a schoolyard brawl. But whatever the cause, the attitude that "If you disagree with me you're an idiot" is foolish and inaccurate, and we ought to stop doing it.
Because I stand by my statement that my friend the Young Earth Creationist is one of the smartest people I know. And here's why I say that.
This guy got an almost perfect score on his SAT when he went to college. He graduated with top marks from one of the best liberal arts and sciences schools in the country. He's a polymath and has unbelievable mental recall, storing everything from childhood phone numbers to the exact values of every rare US coin in history. He's got an intuitive feel for numbers that's pretty amazing. He's started multi-million-dollar businesses, asks penetrating questions, and researches topics of interest exhaustively. He has an incredible knowledge of US history as well as the Byzantine Empire. He was a key player on his university's debate team and can argue just about any side of an issue and by the end of the day have you thinking he's right, only to swap to the other side and convince you he's right on THAT one as well.
In short, he has every attribute of brilliance, except for his belief that the Earth is only eight thousand years old. Does that one failure negate everything else and make him an idiot?
Lots of the leaders of the creationist movement have advanced degrees, up to and including Ph.D.s. It takes a lot of work and at least minimal intelligence to achieve that academic level. No, it doesn't confer infallible genius, but it's also difficult to say that someone who's done it is simply a moron. They've got to have something on the ball that your typical resident of the local mental institution doesn't.
No, these people aren't stupid. They're wrong on the facts, they're willfully blind to dissenting information in many cases, they are as capable of lying and distortion and mistaken ideas as anyone, but they're not necessarily idiots just for dissenting with something you believe to be an objective, fundamental truth.
Calling them stupid is easy, but ultimately it's a cop-out. The thought that someone who's as smart as you could come to a conclusion that's so clearly wrong is frightening. It makes you doubt your own understanding, making you wonder if maybe being smart isn't as reliable a guide as you'd hoped. "If smart people can believe something so foolish," the internal thinking goes, "then what if I -- also a smart person -- believe foolish things as well? But surely that can't be, therefore ... he's an idiot!"
I think Michael Shermer does a great job in "Why People Believe Weird Things
" exploring different ways intelligence can be used to protect wrong ideas once they've become internalized. In some respects the greatest strengths of a smart person become subverted, "turned to the Dark Side" as it were, marshaled to protect an idea that should have been shot down by them at the very beginning. But the very fact of their intelligence is what makes disabusing them of the wrong idea so difficult.
What he doesn't do -- and this is something I think those on "our side" of the discussion would do well to emulate -- is to dismiss them as "stupid". That kind of reflexive stereotyping precludes rational discussion rather than facilitates it. It's a lazy shortcut, a childish name-calling, and it's also factually untrue. For people who pride ourselves on honest, objective rationality, we can do better.
These people aren't stupid, they're just wrong.