What does "disbelief" in evolution *mean*? What does "belief" in it *measure*? Evolution & science literacy part 1
The idea that popular “disbelief in evolution” indicates a deficiency in “science literacy” is one of the most oft-repeated but least defensible propositions in popular commentary on the status of science in U.S. society.
It’s true only if one makes the analytically vacuous move of defining science literacy to mean “belief in evolution.”
It’s false, however, if one is interested in understanding, as an empirical matter, either what members of the public know about what is known to science or what the social meaning of “belief” in evolution is for members of culturally diverse groups.
Ultimately, I want to offer up some original data that helps to make my meaning clear.
But let’s start with some science of science communication basics. I’d be tempted to say they are ones that bear repeating over and over and over if I didn’t recognize that the persistence of disregard for them among popular commentators can’t plausibly be explained by the failure of those who have made or who are familiar with these findings to point them out time and again.
I start with these well-established findings, then, just so it will be clear what I see as the modest increment of corroboration and refinement to be added with the new data I'll describe.
Getting clear on what’s already known is what I’ll do in this post, which is part 1 of a 2-part series on evolution, ordinary science intelligence, religion, and (ultimately) how all of these are intertwined with the central constitutional difficulty of the Liberal Republic of Science. Part 2 is where I’ll get to the original data.
First, “believing in evolution” is not the same as “understanding” or even having the most rudimentary knowledge of science knows about the career of life on our planet. Believing and understanding are in fact wholly uncorrelated.
That is, those who say they “believe” in evolution are no more likely to be able to give a passable—as in high school biology passing grade—account of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variation” (the basic elements of the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary theory) than whose who “disbelieve.” Indeed, few people can.
Those who “believe,” then, don’t “know” more science than “nonbelievers.” They merely accept more of what it is that science knows but that they themselves don’t understand (which, by the way, is a very sensible thing for them to do; I’ve discussed this before).
Second, being enabled to understand evolution doesn’t cause people to “believe” in it.
It’s possible—with the aid of techniques devised by excellent science educators—to teach a thoughtful person the basic elements of evolutionary theory! Everyone ought to be taught it, not only because understanding this process enlarges their knowledge of all manner of natural and social phenomena but because seeing how human beings came to understand this process furnishes an object lesson in the awe inspiring-power of human beings to acquire genuine knowledge by applying their reason to observation.
But acquiring an understanding of evolution—that is, a meaningful comprehension of how the ferment of genetic variance and random mutation when leavened with natural selection endows all manner of life forms with a vital quality of self-reforming resilience—doesn’t make someone who before that time said they “disbelieved” evolution now say they “believe” it.
Empirical studies—ones with high school and university students—have shown this multiple times. Believe it or not. But if not, you are the one who closing your mind to insight generated by the application of human reason to observation.
Third, what people say they “believe” about evolution doesn’t reliably predict how much they know about science generally.
This is one of the lessons learned from use of the National Science Indicators.
The Indicators, which comprise a wide-ranging longitudinal survey of public knowledge, attitudes, and practices, offer a monumentally useful font of knowledge for the study of science and society. Indeed, they are a monument to the insight and public spirit of the scientists (including the scientist administrators inside the NSF) who created and continue to administer it.
Integral the the Indicators is a measure of “science literacy” that has been standardly employed in the social sciences for many years. The Indicators include a “knowledge” battery—an inventory-like set of “facts” such as the decisive significance of the father’s genes in determining the sex of a child and the size of an electron relative to that of an atom.
The indicators include two true-false items, which state “human beings, as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals,” and “the universe began with a huge explosion,” respectively. Test-takers who consistently get 90+% of the remaining questions on the NSF test correct are only slightly more than 50% likely to correctly answer these questions, which are known as “Evolution” and “Big Bang” respectively.
That tells you something, or does if you are applying reason to observation: it is that “Big Bang” and “Evolution” aren’t measuring the same thing as the remaining items. In fact, research suggests—not surprisingly—that they are measuring a latent or unobserved “religiosity” disposition that is distinct from the latent knowledge of basic science the remaining questions are measuring.
What people are doing, then, when they say they “believe” and “disbelieve” in evolution is expressing who they are. Evolution has a cultural meaning, positions on which signify membership in one or another competing group.
People reliably respond to “Evolution” and “Big Bang” in a manner that signifies their identities. Moreover, many of the people for whom “false” correctly conveys their cultural identity know plenty of science.
Accordingly, many social scientists interested in reliably measuring how disposed members of the public are to come to know what’s known by science, particularly across place and time, have proposed dropping “Big Bang” and “Evolution" -- not from the survey regularly conducted by the NSF in compiling the Indicators, but from the scale one can form with the other items to measure what people know about what's known to science.
This proposal has raised political hackles. How can one purport to measure science literacy and leave evolution and the big-bang theory of the origins of the universe out, they ask? Someone who doesn’t know these things just is science illiterate!
Well, yes, if you simply define science literacy that way. Moreover, if you do define it that way, you’ll be counting as “science literate” many people who harbor genuinely ignorant, embarrassing understandings of how evolution works.
Plus you’ll necessarily be dulling the precision of what is supposed to be an empirical measuring instrument for assessing what is known—since people who do know many many things will “say” they “don’t believe” in evolution. They'll say that even if they -- unlike the vast majority of the public who say they "believe" in evolution--are able to give an admirably cogent account of the modern synthesis.
Indeed, you’ll be converting what is supposed to be a measure of one thing—how much scientific knowledge people have acquired--into a symbol of something else: their willingness to assent to the cultural meaning that is conveyed by saying “true” to Evolution and Big Bang, as many people who do, and for that reason, without having any real comprehension of the science those items embody and without even doing very well on the remainder of the NSF Indicator battery.
Even then, the resulting “scale” won’t be a very reliable indicator of “identity,” since most of the remaining questions are ones that people whose identities are denigrated by answering “true” to Big Bang and Evolution are ones that bear no particular cultural meaning and thus don’t reliably even single out people of opposing cultural styles.
But insisting that the measure that social scientists use to study “science literacy” include Big Bang and Evolution under these circumstances will still convey a meaning.
It is that the enterprise of science is on one side of a cultural conflict between citizens whose disagreement about the best way of life in fact has nothing to do with the authority of science’s way of knowing, which in fact they all accept.
A “science literacy” test that insists that people profess “belief” in propositions that its citizens all understand to be expressions of cultural identity is really a pledge of allegiance, a loyalty oath to a partisan cultural orthodoxy.
Steadfastly insisting that the state teach its citizens what science genuinely knows (about evolution, the origins of the universe, and myriad other things), and even more critically how science comes to know what it does, are essential to enabling culturally diverse people to attain happiness by means of their own choosing.
But insisting that they pledge allegiance to a particular cultural orthodoxy doesn't advance any of those ends. Indeed, it subverts the very constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.