Dunning-Kruger, Evangelicals, and Donald Trump

20-let-the-hate-flow-through-you-Trump-memeAt the beginning of my article last October about vaccines, I quoted the saying “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, and noted that fundamentalist religion in my experience overlaps greatly with proponents of anti-science ideas, who continue to use blatant lies and terrible logic to support their flawed hypotheses long after they’ve been proven wrong.

In some cases, though, malice is definitely present. Take Trump’s campaign, for example. From the very beginning it has been firmly based on all the traditional values of fascism: glorification of violence, authoritarianism, scapegoating of out-groups, and an unrealistic nationalism focused on “returning” the country to some mythical golden era that never actually existed. It’s obvious that a significant portion of Trump’s support arises from hatred of Democrats, minorities, foreigners, Muslims, and so on. However, ignorance may be playing a much larger part.

The Republican party has for decades been firmly entwined with evangelical Christians, who still comprise about half of their voting base. Last I heard, Trump had the support of around 80% of white evangelical voters. Since I grew up completely saturated in their culture, I’ve had a couple decades of experience studying the peculiarities of this particular demographic, and what I’ve seen is astounding ignorance.

White evangelical and fundamentalist Christians seem to be widely afflicted by the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias defined as a false sense of superiority in low-ability individuals. For example, people who score very low on assessment tests tend to greatly overestimate their performance. This isn’t to say that most evangelical Christians are unintelligent or inept; the causes of the effect are a little more complicated than that.

Since religion of this sort relies on the indoctrination of children to survive, parents often strictly control the information their kids have access to, thereby affecting their ability to accurately judge the merit of their religion’s ideas. I covered that in more detail in a couple recent articles. In my innocent childhood I was obsessed with science, but somehow religion damaged that passion and it didn’t return until I deconverted. What I’ve found after leaving is that massive amounts of information were completely omitted from my education in favor of perpetuating the long-debunked lies of young-earth creationism, and my natural curiosity was stifled in order to keep me away from the truth.

Take varves, for example. I didn’t even know about them until a few days ago, and they’re only the latest in a long string of fascinating things I’ve learned since escaping religion. Varves are layered deposits formed annually in bodies of fresh water, and the composition and size of the particles in each layer provides an astonishingly clear record of seasonal changes. Volcanic ash, insect wings, algae, diatoms, fish scales, pollen, flowers, and fruit are just a few of the things identified in their thin and delicate layers. By analyzing them, it is simple to prove that they’re annual, because certain types of organic matter represent specific times of year. In addition, volcanic ash from layers containing it can be matched to known eruptions to further verify their age, and other dating methods such as radiocarbon also corroborate the age of each layer. On top of all that, direct observations of varves that are in the process of forming have confirmed they are definitely annual deposits.

I suspect the reason I was never told about these is that we have modern varves, still forming at the bottom of Scandinavian lakes, documenting the environmental history of the area to at least 9500 years ago. Modern varves would’ve had to form after the creationist’s flood and after numerous cycles of glaciation and melting, which completely invalidates a bible-based timeline.

But it gets better, because we also have ancient varves that wrote millions of years of the earth’s history in stone. The Green River Formation in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado contains over six million annual layers, which show patterns corresponding to the general weather changes of earth’s 21,000-year Milankovitch cycle, animals that sank to the bottom of the lake and were buried slowly by more varve layers, and many other fascinating features. This is all embedded in rocks that young-earth creationists insist were laid down by a worldwide flood…which means delicate layers of sediment must have slowly built up for more than six million years before the flood happened, which came before several ice ages, which came before the 9500+ years of current varves. Not only that, but the Green River Formation is very recent in terms of our planet’s geological history, meaning a lot of stuff happened for a long time before those six million layers even began.

There is absolutely no logical way for young-earth creationists to explain these away, so attempts to do so have consisted of such egregious lies that anyone with accurate knowledge of the subject would have to be really stupid or in willful denial of reality in order to accept their arguments. Follow this link for a much more detailed examination of varves, analysis of a creationist’s attempt to discredit them, and a hilarious depiction of what a deity would’ve had to do during a worldwide flood to create the six million layers in the Green River Formation.

Varves are just one of a huge number of geological phenomena that each can easily disprove young-earth creationism. It’s a wonder anyone still believes in such nonsense…but I used to be one of them, simply because I lacked information. Rather than try to explain away all the evidence, my sources of science education simply omitted most of it. Being ignorant of the great gaps in my knowledge, I accepted what I was taught, but as soon as I stepped out of the alternate reality of my family’s religion I found the evidence and had no choice but to accept it.

Some people might just need to see the information and they’ll follow it to a logical conclusion, but many will remain stubborn. In addition to being insulated from reality, children are taught a double standard in order to prevent them from applying the necessarily skeptical view of out-group ideas to their in-group’s religion. Imagine if Christians taught their children to examine Christianity with the same reasoning and skepticism they apply to every other religion! It didn’t work on me, but I know many otherwise intelligent people with such a strong cognitive bias due to religion that they don’t let go of false ideas even when faced with real tangible evidence that proves them wrong.

In order to produce adults who look at evidence and then insist that reality is the opposite of what they just observed, all you must do is raise children with a dogmatic belief system and a deep dread of questioning those beliefs. The Dunning-Kruger effect sets in as they continue to automatically dismiss all conflicting information on an emotional basis, thereby keeping themselves ignorant of the things they don’t know and unable to accurately assess what they do know.

This is precisely how people who may not be hateful themselves continue to justify supporting Donald Trump after his own hateful words and lies have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that he would be a horrible president. The Republican party exploited this phenomenon decades ago in order to capture the votes of white evangelical Christians, back when such people comprised a much larger share of the population. If you want a voting base that will slavishly support you even though your policies hurt most people who aren’t excessively rich, who better to target than the people already devoted to obvious falsehoods?

In this way, Trump represents the grand culmination of the collusion between Republicans and evangelical Christians over the last several decades. It was no surprise to me that people who deny reality and follow an evil, arrogant, and selfish god would support a candidate who so perfectly embodies those attributes. I doubt it would surprise Thomas Jefferson either, who wrote in 1814, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the Despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

Sometimes I wonder…does Trump really believe the numerous falsehoods he spews on an almost daily basis, or is he conning everyone? I tend to think it’s the latter, especially since his emotion-based speaking style is essentially a salesman’s pitch. Whether it’s intentional or not, he has become a living caricature of the alternate reality that is Republican Christianity.

Image: The Internet Scavengers

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