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The evolution debate isn't about science literacy either

A few days ago Gallup released a poll showing that 46% of Americans "hold creationist views."

The almost universal reaction -- among folks that I have contact with; I am very aware that that sample is biased, in a selection sense --was "what is wrong our science education system?!"

Well, lots of things, but the contested state of evolution is actually not a consequence of any such deficiencies -- or at least not of deficiencies in "science education" understood as the propogation of comprehension of what is known by science.

In this sense, the evolution controversy is very much like the climate change one, which, we concluded in our Nature Climate Change study, also is not a consequence of low science comprehension.

Those who study public understanding of science have a better way to investigate the impact of science comprehension here than simply to correlate science literacy & "acceptance" of evolution.  They examine whether those who "accept" have a better grasp of the basic science of evolution than those who "reject."

They don't. There is simply no correlation between "accepting" evolution and understanding concepts like natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variation -- the core of the "modern synthesis" position on evolution.

That is, those who "reject" are as likely to understand those concepts as those who "accept" evolution. In fact, those who accept aren't very likely to understand them in absolute terms. They "accept" what they don't really understand.

This isn't really cause for alarm. Individuals can't possibly be expected to be able to understand and give a cogent account of all the things known by science. Yet they accept zillions of such things that are indeed essential to their living a good life, or even just living (antibiotics kill bacteria; drinking raw milk can make you very very very sick; a GPS system can reliably tell you where you are & how to get someplace else ... ).   

But the critical point here is that scientific comprehension isn't what causes those who accept evolution to accept it or those who reject it to reject it.

What does is their willingness to assent to science's understanding of what's known here as the authoritative account of what's known. Those who "accept" evolution are accepting that. Those who resist aren't.

Moreover, those who resist it on evolution aren't resisting across the board. They accept plenty of things -- orders of magnitude more things -- as known because science says so than they reject.

Evolution is a special kind of issue. The position you take it on it is an expression of who you are in a world in which there are many diverse sorts of people and in which there is a sad tendency of one sort to ridicule and hold in contempt those of another.

So here is an intersting moral question, I think. Is the goal of "science education" to impart knowledge only or should it aim to propogate acceptance, too?

I think it is morally appropriate, in a liberal democratic society, for the state  to promote the greatest degree of basic science knowledge (what Jon Miller calls "civic science literacy") as possible. Citizens must possess that sort of knowledge in order for them to participate meaningfully in public life and for democracy to have any prospect of using the great amount of scientific knowledge at its disposal to make its members healthy, safe, and prosperous.

But I really am not sure that the goal of science education, at least when it is provided by the state, is to make those who know what is known to science also accept it -- that is, assent to science as authoritative to say what is known.

In fact, I have a strong intuition that that sort of goal is profoundly incompatible with the basic premises of political liberalism, which obliges the state to respect the power of individuals to form their own view of the meaning of life.

I do indeed believe that people should accept the authority of science to certify what is known on issues--all issues -- that admit of scientific inquiry. However, my sense is that this is a goal to be promoted by discussion and deliberation among free citizens reasoning with one another and not a position that should be propogated as a moral or political orthodoxy by institutions of the state.

Still I don't mean to insist on this point. I find it difficult. I would actually be grateful to hear what thoughtful peole have to say on it.

I'll be satisfied for now so long as we see and get clear on the point that knowing what is known by science is different from accepting it.

People who make mistakes about what science literacy does & doesn't cause are unlikely to be effective in conveying what is in fact known by science.

And they are also likely to fail to think seriously about the complicated moral questions that state propogation of acceptance distinctively poses.


Bishop, B.A. & Anderson, C.W. Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27, 415-427 (1990).

Miller, J.D., Scott, E.C. & Okamoto, S. Science communication: public acceptance of evolution. Science 313, 765-766 (2006).

Shtulman, A. Qualitative differences between naïve and scientific theories of evolution. Cognitive Psychology 52, 170-194 (2006).


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Reader Comments (6)


Thanks for your invitation to explore the role of science literacy, education and the correlation (or lack thereof) between understanding and acceptance or, as you put it, assent of the science. I share your view that civic science literacy is vital and agree with Jon Miller's view that higher education is where this literacy really matures. I also agree with your comment that there's lot's of things wrong with our current science education system (one of them being that by and large we're not teaching relevant science and solutions to 21st century challenges like climate change.)

I also agree that "neither" is the correct answer to the question about "which group is more science literate?", which the media seemed to focus on when your Nature Climate Change paper came out last week.

While others at the National Center for Science Education might comment about your statement above about there not being a correlation between accepting evolution and understanding related concepts, I can comment on the premise you float in your article: that understanding the science doesn't lead to worrying more about the risk of climate change.

As you point out, most people fail at basic science literacy, and Six Americas research shows most teens and adults fail when it comes to the basics of climate and energy. Fewer than one in five students learn "a lot" about climate change in school, but 70% would like to learn more. Long story short, even within science education, climate change is largely missing in action.

But, in their 2010 study on Knowledge Across the Six Americas, Leiserowitz and Smith found that there appears to be a correlation between understanding (however sketchy) and acceptance of the science. Using a graded curve, they found that "97 percent of Alarmed receive a passing grade, 83 percent of Concerned, 74 percent of Caution and Doubtful, 56 percent of the Dismissive and 19% of the Disengaged."

We have found that, because of the psychological issues related to the "gloom and doom" aspect of climate change, integrating science with solutions, which by the way the draft Next Generation Science Standards do a great job of, is an effective strategy. But what sort of "solutions" can we talk about in a science classroom without becoming advocates or activists for a particular solution or policy? That's obviously challenging but where the cutting edge education and related research are heading.

A few schools-- Peak to Peak K12 Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado is one-- have come up with ways of integrating climate and energy topics throughout the curriculum, not only in science but also math, social studies, arts and humanities. The school itself is a living laboratory for examining energy and sustainability issues, and students who graduate will have a solid foundation for "civic science literacy" in the 21st century.

You say "I really am not sure that the goal of science education, at least when it is provided by the state, is to make those who know what is known to science also accept it..." and certainly teachers deal with this all the time when students or parents complain about evolution because if conflicts with their religious ideology or climate change because it conflicts with their cultural, often economic frame.

Attempts to "teach the controversy" and include "both sides" has been tried many times with evolution (resulting in court cases that affirm teaching creationism in public schools is illegal) and more recently with climate change. In fact, many teachers, due to pressure or because of their own confusion, beliefs and/or mistaken notion of fairness and balance, present climate change as controversial and show "both sides" as if they each had equal weight-- a practice we know from experience and research that leads to confusion, not clarity.

Implying that science literacy doesn't matter when it comes to weighing the risks of climate change, (which isn't so much what your article said as what the media picked up on,) is inaccurate and unfortunate. Science literacy is vital, particularly around climate/global change and energy issues.

As with evolution, those who are ideologically threatened by the implications of the science claim the science is bad, the fallout on society will be bad, and therefore we need to teach "both sides" to be fair. But in both cases, the science isn't "bad", the implications for society are both known and unknown, and teaching "both sides" neither promotes critical thinking skills nor is really fair. Ideally, all students should have basic literacy about climate and energy science and solutions. While debating policy, political and economic issues may not be appropriate in the science classroom, it certainly is part of the "civic" part of literacy that is appropriate in social studies and other classes.

It will be interesting to see whether and how the Next Generation Science Standards, now in review, are adopted and deployed. They have the potential to revolutionize science education and literacy, but there's already push-back from those who are concerned, as you are, that the promote "state propagation of acceptance," which among those who are dismissive of climate science, translates as "you are training our kids to feel guilty about our lifestyles and become environmental/communist activists who will destroy America."

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark McCaffrey

Mark -- my first reaction addresses such small slice of this thoughtful response (many thanks!) that I feel sort of pathetic to voice it.

But for sure, I agree that "teaching both sides" is the wrong position on evolution. That wouldn't be science education b/c there is only one side (in the relevant sense) from the point of view of what's known by science.

I have no problem, either, with the state saying, "we teach science, and not religion" -- even though that is plenty coercive, in its way. That's a legitimate thing for the state to insist on-- that students in public schools be taught, & that they learn, what is known from the point of view of science.

But say it does that -- and does it much better than it does it now, in fact, to that a much much higher percentage of people actually comprehend the modern synthesis position on evolution -- but we still find that, oh, 46%, or 33% or 25% say "Ok, but I don't accept that; I believe God created man & everything else in the world, and did it on such & such a date." That's what we'd likely find even if we achieved much higher levels of comprehension here, b/c as I noted, the social science establishes that there's no correlation between comprehension and acceptance.

If in fact the goal is to get the % measured in the Gallup poll to 0, the justification can't be "a liberal democracy is entitled to propogate science literacy."

And here's another thing: if the Gallup poll ever shows that the number has dropped to 0%, and the percentage of people who actually comprehend the modern synthesis is as pitifully low as it is now among people who say they "accept" evolution in a poll like this, I myself won't view that as any triumph for science education.


June 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

When I taught basic sciences such as astronomy and biology, I took exactly the stance that you are outlining. Try to understand the theory whether or not you believe it. The response that I received was a large number of claims about what evolutionists allegedly believe, and what proponents of theories like the big bang allegedly believe. I responded to these statements with documentation explaining what evolutionists and astronomers do claim. Of course, the students sincerely did not want to understand actual claims made by evolutionists or astronomers because they knew that the beliefs of such scientist were motivated by a desire to disprove religion, and I was a fool to suggest that instead of assuming that scientists believe certain things, they should read what scientists actually say. They further argued that I was expecting them to think about something much more complicated than what they would care to think about.

I believe that actually understanding evolution would evolve following how a scientists argues from observing evidence to devising a theory, and I doubt many people on either side of the debate understand the theory. A great deal of so called creationist literature is devoted to spreading misconceptions about what scientists say and how scientists arrive at conclusions.

I am not suggesting that if everyone understood the theory better they would agree with it, but I would suggest that if everyone understood these theories better we might live in a much more accepting society.

June 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYeaton Clifton

First, it's about method. Science education can teach scientific method so that students are doing it themselves then put in the position of having to accept or deny their own experience. My son comes home with counter intuitive science experiments to do at home. The process is simple: a) what do you think will happen? B) what actually did happen? And c) how do you explain that? This kind of existential challenge can get progressively more complex beyond year 6,but it should continue to be part of the educational process. This is a radically religious view of the world, ironically. Specifically, it is deeply protestant : the inability to accept something as true when your own experience tells you otherwise. This leads to my second point, a mantra for all education, which is sadly lacking in science classes : Always historicize! Much argument about science, especially about evolution, seems to assume Christians were all creationists and then Darwin came along and the true Christians opposed him. This is incorrect. Creationism is a modern invention whose history is well documented. The point is that those who oppose the teaching of scientific method also tend to oppose historical analysis. It is as important to understand the history of science as it is to practise its methods. Creationism seeks to do neither.

June 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFourcultures

Science education arguably tries to teach scientific methods as a means of understanding how the worlds functions. I see the known facts about the world secondary to the aim of teaching how science works (or Nature of Science, as it's probably nowadays called).

But then we run into a problem: if evolutionary biology class isn't about learning a certain set of propositions about modern synthesis but rather about the way evolutionary biology works and how it's done, we need to assess not what students factually know about evolution but rather how well they can perform actual data collection, analysis and conclusions. But if there is a student who can't, for the cultural or any other reasons, do this, he can't really get a passing grade. Ability to accept sensible evidence seems something which ought to be the goal for science education.

May 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTuomas Aivelo


a. What data would you have students collect to test human evlolution? Just curious!

b. Do you predict there'd be a correlation between "belief in" evolution & performance on *that* test? I don't. All the evidence we have suggests that students who "don't believe" not only can "learn" evolution just as readily as those who say they "believe" but also can & will *use* the theory (and the evidence for it) if & when necessary to *do* anything that its use depends on

May 18, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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