|The divine comedy|
Morton's demon is a concept that derives from Maxwell's demon and was created by ex-creationist Glenn Morton. It is a reference to the biases present when people consider evidence.
Comparisons with Maxwell's demon
Maxwell's demon was a thought experiment in which a demon could stand at a gate between two rooms and open the gate to let fast moving particles into one room and slow moving particles into the opposite room. This would create a temperature differential that could be used to perform work. Since in the thought experiment the demon itself did not need to expend energy to create this differential, it was believed that such a system could create a perpetual motion machine and violate the laws of thermodynamics.
Morton proposed that a similar demon stands at the gate of the mind of creationists and other anti-evolutionists that only allows in evidence confirming their world view, and shuts out any contrary evidence. Such a thing would be an extreme case of confirmation bias, but would go beyond such a mere bias to confirming one's thoughts and would stray into willful ignorance. It is this demon that allows them to maintain their worldview in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Morton's original article
Copyright 2002, 2004 G.R. Morton. This can be freely distributed so long as no changes are made and no charges are made.
This article was originally posted on Talk Origins. Glenn Morton then posted it on his website. It is provided here by permission of the author. Glenn Morton is a former young earth creationist, who has written for young earth organizations. This gives him a unique perspective into the world of young earth creationism.
Maxwell suggested a famous demon which could violate the laws of thermodynamics. The demon, sitting between two rooms, controls a gate between the two rooms. When the demon sees a speedy molecule coming his way (from room A), he opens the gate and lets the speedy molecule leave the room and when he sees a slow molecule coming at the gate (from room A), he holds it closed. Oppositely, when he sees a speedy molecule coming at the gate from room B he closes the gate but when he sees a slow molecule from room B coming toward the gate he opens it. In this way, the demon segregates the fast moving molecules into one room from the slow ones in the other. Since temperature of a gas is related to the velocity of the molecules, the demon would increase the temperature of room B and cool room A without any expenditure of energy. And since a temperature difference can be used to create useful work, the demon would create a perpetual motion machine.
Maxwell's demon was shown to fail by Szilard who showed that the demon needed to use light (and expend energy) to determine a fast molecule from a slow one. This energy spent to collect information meant that the demon couldn't violate the 2nd law.
The reason I mention this is because I realized tonight that the YECs have a demon of their own. In a conversation with a YEC, I mentioned certain problems which he needed to address. Instead of addressing them, he claimed that he didn't have time to do the research. With other YECs, I have found that this is not the case (like with firstname.lastname@example.org who refused my offer to discuss the existence of the geologic column by stating "It's on my short list of topics to pursue here. It's not up next, but perhaps before too long." Message-ID: email@example.com ) And with other YECs, they claim lack of expertise to evaluate the argument and thus won't make a judgment about the validity of the criticism. Still other YECs refuse to read things that might disagree with them.
Thus was born the realization that there is a dangerous demon on the loose. When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell's demon did for thermodynamics. Morton's demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn't looking.
However, my conversations have made me aware that each YEC is a victim of my demon. Morton's demon makes it possible for a person to have his own set of private facts which others are not privy to, allowing the YEC to construct a theory which is perfectly supported by the facts which the demon lets through the gate. And since these are the only facts known to the victim, he feels in his heart that he has explained everything. Indeed, the demon makes people feel morally superior and more knowledgeable than others.
The demon makes its victim feel very comfortable as there is no contradictory data in view. The demon is better than a set of rose colored glasses. The demon's victim does not understand why everyone else doesn't fall down and accept the victim's views. After all, the world is thought to be as the victim sees it and the demon doesn't let through the gate the knowledge that others don't see the same thing. Because of this, the victim assumes that everyone else is biased, or holding those views so that they can keep their job, or, in an even more devious attack by my demon, they think that their opponents are actually demon possessed themselves or sons of Satan. This is a devious demon!
He can make people think that the geologic column doesn't exist even if one posts examples on the internet. He can make people believe that radioactive dating doesn't work even if you show them comparisons of tree rings compared to radiocarbon dating. He can make people ignore layer after layer of footprints and burrows in the geologic column (see http://home.entouch.net/dmd/burrow.jpg ) and believe that burrowing can occur and animals can walk around unimpeded during a global flood. He can make people think that the sun is shrinking, that the stars are all within 6000 light years of the earth, or that God made pictures in that light of events which never happened. He can make people believe that fossils aren't the remains of animals and are 'petrifactions' placed there by the devil. He can make people ignore modern measurements of continental motion, stellar formation, or biological speciation. He can make people believe that 75,000 feet of sediment over an area 200 by 100 miles can be deposited in a few hundred years, and he can make people believe that Noah trained animals to poop into buckets on command. He can make people deny transitional forms which have traits clearly halfway between two groups. This is a dangerous demon.
But one thing that those unaffected by this demon don't understand is that the victim is not lying about the data. The demon only lets his victim see what the demon wants him to see and thus the victim, whose sensory input is horribly askew, feels that he is totally honest about the data. The victim doesn't know that he is the host to an evil parasite and indeed many of their opponents don't know that as well since the demon is smart enough to be too small to be seen.
But unlike Maxwell's demon, Morton's demon doesn't expend any energy—he gets his victim to expend it for him. He can get his victim to expend massive amounts of intellectual energy figuring out how to convince the world that they are wrong. The victim will spend hours reading supportive books or searching through scientific literature noting only those portions which support the YEC position. And the victim will spend lots of energy trying to convince others to come see things the way they do. Thus, the demon gets its victims to spend energy to help it spread the infection.
The demon drives his victim to go to YEC conventions so that the demon can rest. By making his victim be with those equally afflicted, the demon doesn't have to shut the door or even be watchful. This is because it allows the demon time to rest when all that is in the room is supportive data. For the victim, there is comfort in numbers even if they are few.
Those who try to help the poor victims escape the ravages of Morton's demon wear themselves out typing e-mails explaining data and facts which never get through the demon's gate. After years of weariness, the philanthropic individual dies of fatigue. This is oh so devilish a situation!
Morton's demon represents several known cognitive biases and psychological phenomena, including:
- Cherry picking
- Cognitive dissonance
- Confirmation bias
- Open mind
- Selection bias
- Selective reporting
- Willful ignorance
- ↑ Morton's Demon: Talk Origins Post of the Month Feb 2002 (Archive.org from 2012).