Have you heard of Wilt Chamberlain?


[My thoughts in essay form. Long-time readers will find it familiar. Feel free to share.]

Tonight’s debate on creationism between Ken Ham and Bill Nye will end—like most debates on this topic—with two camps even more certain of their views. One will celebrate Ham and conclude that the theory of evolution has been overthrown. The other will brand him a fool and insist that creationism undermines scientific literacy and America’s future. Here’s a different take: it doesn’t matter what people think about evolution.

For all the talk about the dangers creationists pose, it is a brutal empirical fact that you can reject evolution and still become a successful scientist. So if believing creationism doesn’t prevent people from getting a PhD in physics, how can it be that dangerous?

Consider a sports analogy. Some basketball players excel at offense but not defense. Otherwise excellent shooters may be simply average at free-throws. Any sports fan will tell you this is not surprising. Sports are complicated. Even within the same sport, skills don’t always transfer from one area to another. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest scorers in the history of basketball. He was also a terrible free-throw shooter. Those two sentences are perfectly compatible.

Let’s now reframe the debate: We already know that athletic ability is much more than a single discrete skill. Is intellectual ability similar? Maybe judging intelligence by belief in evolution is as ridiculous as judging Wilt Chamberlain’s basketball game by his free-throws. Note that this is an empirical question that should be studied scientifically. We must look at the evidence instead of getting emotional.

The Internet is always a good place to start. We can search for terms like ‘domain-specific knowledge in decision making’ and ‘transfer of cognitive skills’. We can skim a few abstracts to see that “considerable research and controversy have surrounded this issue” and that we must “view superior [decision-making] performance as a complex function of existing knowledge. Since the data are inconclusive, we cannot just assume creationists won’t be able to think critically outside biology.

But if rejecting evolution does not necessarily affect your ability to reason elsewhere (and it doesn’t), then who cares? Why get so excited? When this issue arises in schools, we can make compromises instead having a big fight. Parents who don’t want their children to learn evolution can substitute a unit on biochemistry, human anatomy or marine biology. For all the hype, the theory of evolution is usually just a few weeks of high school biology. That’s it.

None of this means creationism is “right” or “true.” But it does mean that those aren’t always the most important questions to ask. It means that without hard evidence creationism causes harm, we should hesitate before attacking those who believe it. It means an increasingly diverse, pluralistic and fractious America must weigh cultivating tolerance alongside abstract ideals.

Perhaps a step forward is to focus less on creationism and more on creationists—the actual human beings involved. They are as complicated and varied as all human beings. Just like any of us, they are good at some things and not others. Of course some creationists can become world-class pediatric neurosurgeons. Of course they can!

So the next time you hear someone argue that creationists are irredeemably irrational and unscientific, say: “Let me tell you about this basketball player named Wilt Chamberlain…”


  1. I just commented on your post asking if evolution is the “foundation” of biology, making an analogy to understanding orbitals and chemistry: yeah, you can be a chemist without understanding orbitals, but you’d be a better one if you did, because orbitals are pretty darn central to the field.

    But I thought I would comment on a more recent post as well. The Wilt Chamberlain analogy doesn’t really do the issue justice. There are two substantive issues with creationism that make it less harmless than, say, deciding that my favorite color is blue.

    1) the science: Yes, you can be a world-class surgeon and be a creationist. But there are all sorts of ways in which being a creationist can impair science-related job performance. For research scientists, not believing in evolution means losing a powerful tool to understand observed patterns. For doctors, it raises questions of how to approach things like antibiotic resistance*. I wonder whether certain agricultural mistakes would have gone differently with more understanding of evolution – DDT use in ag in the 50s (even before it was restricted, mosquitoes were developing resistance and its effectiveness was waning: Rachel Carson actually argued not for elimination of DDT use, but smart & limited application, in part to retain DDT’s effectiveness as a malaria-fighting tool) and antibiotic use in livestock today. There are also fields where being a YEC would be crippling – paleontology, geology, paleo-climatology anything involving radiocarbon dating, etc. And indeed, there is a decent fraction of climate science which would be problematic for YECs… so there’s a potential conflict between understanding climate science (and therefore, appropriate climate policies) and YEC. (not to mention people and politicians citing God’s promise that there will not be another Flood as evidence against sea level rise)

    2) education: creationists don’t stop with believing creationism, but actively try to get it into school curricula. I wouldn’t be comfortable with a group of people trying to pass laws allowing for teachers to teach that “blue is the best color”, much less teaching something with potential drawbacks as mentioned in paragraph 1.


    *I do recognize that there are creationists who accept “micro-evolution” for whom this would not be such an issue.

  2. Prajwal,

    I agree with your argument when it is framed for evolutionists looking towards creationist. It is a good argument on abilities/intellectuality not being dependent on ideological or even scientific beliefs.

    It should also work vice a versa, however, there are larger problems at play. Most creationist (aka fundamental Christians) do not see this as a problem of science, but as a problem of literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. As evolution attacks the core of their worldview (and seemingly for them their entire belief system), creationism MUST BE upheld in order for soteriology to remain in tact.

    But again, your argument is great considering the first framework and I agree as well. It was well thought out.

  3. Prajwal,

    To be a creationist implies an unwillingness to question one’s assumptions. That’s a poor trait for a scientist, who should always be willing to question assumptions. I grant one may perform research in a field for years, and be fortunate enough to achieve valuable results, without ever stumbling across a problem that requires questioning a fundamental assumption. I suppose many researchers spend their entire careers without ever coming across something revolutionary enough to upend their worldview. Yet as long as the possibility remains, the creationist is handicapped by refusing to accept that a result contradicting Genesis entails the possibility that Genesis must not be taken literally.

    From what I’ve observed, creationists don’t tend to choose research fields that are likely to call out their beliefs. Statistically speaking, the probability of their doing poor research is low. But it’s greater than zero.

    1. Thanks for the comment Steve. I appreciate it. I would gently push back on your phrase “to be a creationist…” I think it is unnecessarily reductive. To “be” a creationist (or anything else) can mean many different things, including (as we’ve seen) a successful scientist and pediatric neurosurgeon. So why should we care so much and react so angrily, especially if “their probability of doing poor research is low”?

      There are many qualities that may be associated with being a poor scientist. For example, many successful scientists aren’t good at computer programming. But we don’t a priori try to eliminate people based on that one factor. I’m also not sure scientists “always” need to be willing to question their assumptions. Some of the time maybe. But IMHO, not all the time. When do you think scientists actually have to question a core assumption? I would say only if doing so helps them advance their research agenda. But as you yourself have noted, it’s not always necessary.

      All of this of course touches on why becoming a researcher/scientist is the unit of analysis. Maybe it would be better for a scientist society if we had more surgeons. And if creationism doesn’t (obviously) affect surgical ability…it could be more of a reason to not attack this one belief.

      Anyway…this has gone on long enough. Thanks again for the comment. Hope you engage again.

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