Persuasion in the Evolution Wars

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By Tom Aechtner

I would like to think that I’m a rational person; an individual who logically considers my actions and attitudes.  For instance, it’s my hope that when faced with an advertising campaign I would thoroughly study every claim an advert might make, rather than being affected by flashy images or persuasive rhetoric.  My guess is that I’m not alone in thinking this about myself.

Many of us perceive ourselves to be sensible people who are not easily swayed by the guiles of persuasive techniques, such as those found in advertising pitches or political speeches.  The problem, however, is that decades of persuasion research has revealed we usually don’t have the ability or the motivation to diligently evaluate the many persuasive messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis.  Instead, we often rely upon persuasive cues, or cognitive mental shortcuts, when deciding how to react to media messages.  Case in point, if we don’t have the time to deconstruct the assertions an advertisement puts forward, we may depend upon the perceived credibility of the communicator delivering the information.  Is she a doctor, a scientist, or does she have a degree from a prestigious university?  If so, we have a tendency to use such attributes in order to make a decision in lieu of spending considerable effort investigating a communication’s statements or claims.  As it turns out, researchers have identified how several of these mental shortcuts can be applied to persuade us.  My own work has examined the prevalence of such cues in “Evolution Wars” media. In a recent publication entitled “Challenging the Darwin Skeptics”, I compare the persuasive elements of counter-creationist and antievolutionist mass communications.

The Evolution Wars are a set of modern socio-religious controversies involving the scientific theory of biological evolution and Darwin-scepticism.  Most people are familiar with many of the headline making episodes associated with these ongoing skirmishes.  Such incidences involve efforts to get creationism or Intelligent Design added to school curricula, as well as Answers in Genesis’ Creation museum and Ark Encounter theme park.  Scholars have puzzled over why the Evolution Wars persist, and conclude that at least in part mass media must be playing an important role.  I have been particularly interested in this media, and believe that a notable aspect of Evolution Wars communications is not simply how scientifically, philosophically, or theologically accurate they may be.  Instead, I think that it is crucial to also consider how persuasive such communications are, irrespective of whether their claims are factual.  For example, academics have often deconstructed the arguments made by Young Earth Creationists, demonstrating acute scientific failings as well as theological problems.  In some ways, however, I think that these critiques are missing the point.  That’s because even if antievolutionist arguments have major flaws, they may still be persuasive to audiences when it comes to things like cognitive mental shortcuts.  For example, antievolutionist pundits frequently refer to their apparent scientific credibility and expertise, and are quick to point out the academic degrees held by creationists or Intelligent Design theorists.  Again and again, Darwin-skeptic media reiterates that antievolutionist leaders are as scientifically credible, if not more so, than their Darwin-supporting opponents.  Consequently, even if antievolutionist arguments are inaccurate, Darwin-skeptic communications may still be compelling for audiences because they continually broadcast cognitive mental shortcuts associated with credentials and trustworthiness.

Though in previous work I have analysed Darwin-skeptic media, my latest article identifies the appearance and occurrence rates of several persuasive cues found in mass media produced by commentators associated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the National Center for Science Education, and the BioLogos Foundation.  The first of these organisations embodies strident proevolutionist, antireligious ideologies maintained by the New Atheists, while the second is a religiously neutral organization dedicated to educating the public on scientific matters, and the third is the world’s chief Christian proevolutionist advocacy group.  In addition to highlighting which cognitive mental shortcuts are expressed in proevolutionist media, I then compared my findings with the types of persuasive characteristics identified in Young Earth Creationist and Intelligent Design communications.  What I found was that while both proevolutionist and Darwin-skeptic media exhibit several persuasive cues, antievolutionist materials possess a wider variety of cognitive mental shortcuts, which are expressed in far greater frequencies.  In fact, Young Earth Creationist communications featured more than double the occurrence rates of persuasive cues detected in BioLogos Foundation materials.  Even media associated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which demonstrated the largest total persuasive cue hits when compared to other proevolutionist groups, still exhibited far less variety of cognitive mental shortcuts than Darwin-skeptic materials.  For instance, in comparison to creationists, New Atheist media is considerably less likely to include appeals to credibility.

What struck me from this analysis was not only that people have a tendency to rely upon persuasive cues, such as the credentials of a communicator, but the ways in which these cues appear throughout Evolution Wars media.  In particular, antievolutionists seem to be employing a more elaborate suite of cognitive mental shortcuts than proevolutionists.  As a consequence, regardless of your opinions on Young Earth Creationist or Intelligent Design arguments, the media produced by leading antievolutionists could prove to be persuasive in ways that extend beyond the accuracy of Darwin-skeptic claims.  The primary questions I was left with were whether proevolutionists should reflect on their approach to media communications, and what they might consider doing in response?  I’m not entirely sure how to answer these questions, but when it comes to the use of persuasive cues, it definitely seems that antievolutionists are outstripping their counterparts in the Evolution Wars.


Dr Tom AechtnerTom Aechtner works in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland, Australia.  As HPI’s Lecturer in History of Religious Thought his primary interests lie in contemporary religion-science discourse, with a focus on mass media, and popular perceptions of evolutionary theory.