Bigfoot, the Big Bang, and the Measles Outbreak

The Happiest Place on Earth has become the Spottiest Place on Earth.

Early last December, one person with measles visited a Disneyland park in California. Maybe they sneezed. That’s probably all it took. Measles is so contagious that if someone has it, 90% (!) of the people close to that person will get infected if they are not immune.

It was a perfect storm: measles exposure in a very public place in a hot-bed of anti-vaccination-ism.
There were 644 new cases of measles in 2014 – the largest number in the U.S. in nearly one-quarter of a century – and dozens of those cases were linked back to the December Disneyland exposure.

disney tshirt measles

The science is conclusive – measles is a highly contagious, very serious disease that can cause severe complications and death. Before 1963 (when vaccination began), 400-500 people in the US died every year from the measles and another 4,000 developed encephalitis.

Also conclusive – the reappearance of previously-defeated diseases like measles and whooping cough is linked to increasing numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids.

There Must Be a Misunderstanding…

“We just aren’t sending the right message to parents!” – or so thought the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a study published last year, almost 2000 parents were given specific information from the Centers for Disease Control regarding the measles vaccine, the MMR. The parents were divided into groups:

  • Group 1 received information explaining that the measles vaccine (MMR) does not cause autism.
  • Group 2 received information about the dangers of measles that can be prevented by the MMR vaccine.
  • Group 3 saw photos of children with measles that could have been prevented by the MMR vaccine.
  • Group 4 read a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died from measles.

So what do you think? Which approach was most effective in convincing parents to vaccinate their children?

None. Not one of the approaches worked.

Although information that debunked the autism/vaccine myth successfully reduced misconceptions about an autism link, parents who were already unlikely to vaccinate doubled down and expressed even stronger feelings against vaccinations.

In the group of parents who saw images of sick children, belief in the autism link rose. The narrative about the infant who almost died from measles increased the number of parent-reported stories about vaccine side-effects.

Similar results were found with the flu vaccine. People who were fearful that the flu shot could actually cause the flu were given solid evidence debunking this myth. And after the evidence – the flu fearful were even less likely to get a flu shot.

When Knowledge is Not Enough

In 2008 the Texas State School Board was embroiled in controversy over public school science curriculum. Front and center of the controversy, of course, was evolution. Southern Methodist University anthropologist, Dr. Ron Wetherington, served as an expert reviewer during the process.

At the time, the Texas State School Board was packed with staunch creationists, including the staunchest of all, president Don McLeroy.

Dr. Wetherington and his colleagues believed that education was the key to correcting misinformation. Denial of the evidence supporting evolution is largely due to ignorance, they reasoned. But Dr. Wetherington and his colleagues found that the facts of evolution were irrelevant in the debate. The Revisionaries, an award-winning film that documents the standards and textbook battles between the scientists and the Texas State School Board, features Dr. Wetherington.


Most states include evolution in their science curriculum and approximately 70 percent of students entering college say they were taught about evolution. Yet, more than one-third of young Americans (18-29 years) do not believe in human evolution or are not sure. Even fewer Americans accept human evolution in the 30 years and older demographics.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.
(Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

Apparently this truism does not apply to science. Throwing facts at the problem is not helping.

The Science of Big Foot and Haunted Houses

Sometimes reasonable people doubt science, but doubting science has consequences. Vaccines save lives and anti-vaxers are decreasing the herd immunity that keeps the weakest among us safe. Fluoridation conspiracy theorists argue against a safe, cheap, and effective practice that promotes dental health across socioeconomic lines.

Evolution is real and is a fact and is the very foundation of modern biology and medicine. Rejecting evolution on religious grounds is driving people away from their faith and their churches in droves.

Americans, champions of public schooling and education for all, often flounder in their understanding of scientific knowledge.

Fifty-one percent of Americans are confident in the safety of vaccines, but roughly the same percentage of Americans believe in haunted houses.

The number of Americans who believe that the universe began with a big bang is equal to the number who believe in Bigfoot.


It’s one thing to know a bunch of science facts, it’s another thing to know what to do with them. More important than the ability to spout lists of science facts is science thinking.

Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not. (Marcia McNutt, editor of Science)

Science is facts, but not just the facts – it’s also how we decide what is true and consistent with natural laws and what isn’t. Science thinking is equally important: What is evidence? What is a theory? How do scientists work?

Tight With Our Peeps

Our beliefs about science  are largely motivated by our emotions. In that regard, we never left high school – we want to stay tight with our peers. apa_saved_by_bell_jt_130125_wmain

So, if my brain understands the evidence for evolution but my faith community denies it, most often my need to “fit in” will triumph. I will “doubt” or “deny” evolution because to allow myself to believe otherwise comes at an emotional cost.

I don’t really care about hurting science’s feelings, so there is not an emotional downside in ignoring science. crying scientist

That’s the reason anti-vaxers are often found in hot pockets of uniform communities and not spread randomly across all demographics.

That’s the reason why political party affiliation usually predicts a person’s opinion on the validity of climate change data.

Scientists themselves are not immune to self-imposed bias. We all favor evidence that confirms what we already believe.
But science evidence isn’t considered legit until it has been put up on the hot seat before the scientific community. If evidence cannot be confirmed AND replicated by multiple other scientists, it fails.

 In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.

Science tells us the truth, not what we’d like the truth to be.

ccat reading

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

stop copying me

Nones on the Run and the Lonely Middle Ground

Where were you in ’82? 80s-fashion

In the last thirty-two years (or less), how have you changed? Hopefully your tunes are smaller now and you probably aren’t sporting a sweatband as an accessory.

What about your worldview? Your theology? Have you ever tracked your own thought evolution from childhood to adulthood to where you are now?

Since 1982, Gallup has tracked American beliefs about creationism and evolution. The same questions were asked every two years and the responses tracked:

Which comes closest to your viewpoint?
• God created humans pretty much in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years (traditional young earth creationism)
• Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, but God guided this process (evolution and God, sometimes called “evolutionary creation”)
• Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, but God had no part in the process (atheistic evolution)

Currently, more than forty percent of Americans believe that humans were created in their present form no more than 10,000 years ago – and this percentage has held relatively steady over the last three decades. Respondents who regularly attend worship services and those with a high school education or less were most likely to accept young earth creationism.

The percentage of Americans who believe “God had no part” (atheistic evolution) in human origins is steadily increasing – jumping from nine percent when tracking began in 1982 to nineteen percent this year.

At the edges of the science versus faith conversation are the two extremes: one group has hunkered down and held tight (science is wrong and Genesis is literal); the other has staked out ground and is growing (no role for God in creation).

What about the middle ground – the people who see no conflict between science and faith?
Over the last three decades, the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution and God has held steady – around 38 percent. But in the last four years, the percentage has dropped, and in 2014 was at an all-time low of 31 percent.

cake-eatingConventional wisdom says that if you have the opportunity to have the best of two worlds – if there’s an opportunity to have your cake and eat it – the smart thing to do is to seize it.
Given the opportunity to believe the science learned in school and maintain faith in God as the ultimate cause and source, you’d think the middle ground would be growing, not shrinking.

In the science and faith conversation, the middle ground is no man’s land.

It’s hot lava. HotLava

It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery particularly when contemporary world-class scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are enthusiastic defenders of both evolution and faith. It’s a mystery because most evangelical colleges support both evolution and faith (although often on the down-low, behind closed doors in biology class).

Karl Giberson (What’s Driving America’s Evolution Divide) believes that the increase in the “God has no role” percentage tracks directly with the fastest growing religion in the United States: the nones.

One third of Americans under age 30 do not identify with any religion (Nones on the Rise, Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project). Giberson sees the extremist “you can’t believe both” approach to science and faith as a primary factor in the rise of the nones in the young adult demographic:

young American Christians, by the thousands, are rejecting a religion that tells them to reject science. Many respondents to the Gallup survey apparently perceive the choice to be between evolution and God, rather than between evolution-without-God and evolution-with-God.

Scot McKnight has a slightly different interpretation of the Gallup data. McKnight points out that in all age groups, unguided evolution tracks pretty closely with the number of “nones” in each group. In the graphic below, McKnight inserted the “nones” data next to the “evolution” data:

Gallup-Poll-on-Evolution-by-age-newApparently the under-30 nones aren’t the only ones rejecting a religion that tells them to reject science.

But contrary to Giberson, McKnight sees a reason for optimism in this fact: the under 30 group is the only group that favors God-guided evolution over young earth/special creation. McKnight is hopeful for the acceptance of “evolutionary creation” in the emerging adult generation.

Why They Left

The five-year study by David Kinnaman and the Barna Group haunts me. Kinnaman studied young adults who, though raised as regular churchgoers, left church after their teens. Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church details the study.

Here’s Kinnaman:

No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.

And on that list of six significant themes?

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

Although it is encouraging that more young adults favor “evolutionary creation” over young earth creationism, we can’t ignore the fact that overall, young adults are leaving their faith and fueling the rise of the “nones”.

Take another look at Scot McKnight’s graphic. Gallup-Poll-on-Evolution-by-age-new

Interestingly, it is 30-49 year olds who are rejecting God-guided evolution at a higher rate than younger and older groups. What’s going on there? And how is this group – probably the age demographic of the leadership in most churches – impacting the exit of the young nones?

Claiming the Middle Ground

The extreme voices in the science and faith conversation – Ken Ham, Richard Dawkins – draw honest seekers to the edges, thus the shrinking middle ground. Anything else is defined as either a compromise of faith or of intellect.

What are committed people of faith to do when they want to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind?

Ignore science? Pretend it isn’t so?

…or, revisit the way we read Genesis.

Deep breath. We’ve done this before.

In light of modern science, Christians revisited what they thought scripture plainly taught about the movement of the earth and sun.

In light of modern science, Christians revisited what they thought scripture plainly taught about the structure of earth’s atmosphere.

In light of modern understanding of human rights and the historical context of scripture, Christians revisited what they thought scripture plainly taught about slavery and most recently, segregation.

What Would it Take?

Toward the end of the Bill Nye – Ken Ham debate, the moderator asked this simple question to each debater: what would it take for you to change your mind?
Nye: evidence.
Ham: nothing.

What is it for you? What questions are you asking? What would you like to see addressed here in this blog? Comments? Evidences?

In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to accepting both science and a Christian worldview?
I would like to do a few posts on reading Genesis, and I’m thinking about an “Evolution 101” series covering the basics of evolution science.

Please leave your feedback, your comments, your suggestions!


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

cat angular momentum