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Friday
Jun212013

How religiosity and science literacy interact: Evolution & science literacy part 2

This is the second of two posts on science literacy and evolution.

And religion.

And liberal democratic society as the naturally congenial but sometimes precariously raucous—or maybe better, simultaneously congenial and precarious because naturally raucous—home for science.

And how the common misunderstanding of what public “disbelief” in “evolution” truly signifies can actually interfere with popular dissemination of scientific knowledge.  Plus compromise norms of respect for cultural pluralism that are essential to the practice of liberal democracy.

See? Get it?

Okay, well, in the last post I described the vast body of long established but persistently--weirdly--ignored work that social scientists have amassed on the relationship between public “disbelief” in evolution and public understanding of evolution and other basic elements of science.

That work shows that there  isn't any relationship. What people say they “believe” about evolution is a measure of who they are, culturally.  It’s not a measure of what they know about what’s known to science.

Indeed, many people who say they “believe” in evolution don’t have the foggiest idea how the modern synthesis hangs together. Those who say they “disbelieve” are not any less likely to understand evolutionary theory--but they aren't any more more likely to either.

That so few members of the public have a meaningful understanding of the workings of genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection (the core elements of the modern synthesis) is a shame, and definitely a matter of concern for the teaching of science education.

But it’s a problem about what people “know” and not what they say they “believe.” What people say they "believe" and what they "know" about evolution are vastly different things. That's what the ample scientific evidence on public understandings of science show.

In this post I want to add a modest increment of additional evidence corroborating this important point.

The evidence has to do specifically with the relationship between religion, science literacy, and belief in evolution.

The evidence is from a survey of 2,000 US adults recruited and stratified in a manner designed to assure national representativeness. 

The survey instrument included the NSF science indicators.

It also contained various measures of religiosity, including regularity of church attendance; regularity of prayer; and perceived “importance of God” in one’s life. These cohered in a manner that enabled them to be formed into a reliable “religiosity” scale.

And the survey contained an item that Gallup and other pollsters routinely use to measure the public’s “beliefs” about evolution.

What do these data show?

Well, I’ll state in summary form what I regard as the findings of interest, and then supply the supporting details:

1.   Neither the “Evolution” nor the “Big Bang” items in the NSF’s "Science Indicators" battery can plausibly be viewed as reliably measuring “scientific literacy” in subjects who are even modestly religious.

2. When subjects who are highly science literate but highly religious answer “False” to the NSF Indicator’s Evolution item, their response furnishes no reason to infer that they lack knowledge of the basic elements of the best scientific understanding of evolution.

3. For respondents who are below average in religiosity, a high score in “science literacy” predicts a higher probability of “believing” in “Naturalistic Evolution”—and so does a low score!

4. For those who are above average in religiosity, a high score in science literacy doesn’t predict a higher probability of believing in Naturalistic Evolution. But it does predict a higher probability of believing in Theistic Evolution.

5.  A higher score in science literacy predicts a lower probability of believing in Young Earth Creationism—whether respondents are below or above average in religiosity.

Okay. Here are the specifics.

1. In general, religiosity (measured, as I said, by aggregating items on church attendance, frequency of prayer, and perceived personal importance of God) is correlated negatively with science literacy.

But the effect is modest. The large overlap in the density distribution plots to the left makes it clear that the portions of population “above” and “below average” in religiosity (“AARs” and “BARs,” let’s call them) both comprise individuals of a wide range of scores on the NSF science literacy battery.

Or at least they do when one leaves Evolution and Big Bang out of the tally, as the NSF itself decided to do in 2010, and & as I have here. To make the science literacy scale more reliable and discerning, I’ve added items from the Indicators' “science process” battery, which tests knowledge relating to probability and validity of experimental methods.

Consider, though, how AARs and BARs scoring in the top 50% of the science literacy test so measured respond to Evolution and Big Bang:

The difference in the percentages of the two moderately “science literate” groups who answer “true” to these questions is stunningly high. 

Now one can use even more intricate statistical tests—ones involving, say, Cronbach’s alpha, factor analysis, and structural equation modeling—to convincingly show that Evolution and Big Bang are not measuring the same latent proficiency in acquiring scientific knowledge as are the remaining NSF Indicator items. 

But nothing more intricate than this discrepancy in the performance of modestly science literate AARs and BARs is necessary to see that these two items aren’t a valid measure of science literacy in the former.

2. The NSF Indicators test of science literacy is far from perfect, but I think it’s reasonable to infer that people who do above average have acquired more understanding of basic science knowledge than those who score below average.

I doubt that a majority of BARs who score in the top 50% of the NSF Indicator battery (sans Evolution and Big Bang and avec the process items) know the basic elements of the theory of evolution, including the role that genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection play in it. 

But I think more of them are likely to understand those things than BARs who score in the bottom 50%.

By the same token, there’s reason to believe that AARs who score in the top 50% on the NSF science literacy test are more likely to have acquired an elementary knowledge of evolutionary theory than those—BARs or AARs—who score in the bottom 50%.   

Nothing in how the above-average science literacy AARs answer the Evolution item furnishes any reason to doubt this. How they respond to that item, I’ve just pointed out, is not, for them at least, a measure of what they know about science.  And in any case, as has been established by researchers on multiple occasions, there’s zero correlation between whether one says one “believes in” evolution and whether can give a passable account of the modern synthesis.

3. Now let’s consider what we can learn from the responses to the “popular opinion poll” item on beliefs in evolution.

That item asks respondents to indicate “which one of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings—” 

  • Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process
  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; or
  • God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." 

Let’s call these responses “Theistic Evolution,” “Naturalistic Evolution,” and "Young Earth Creationism," respectively.

Theistic Evolution was the most popular response but by was supported by only a plurality (38%). Young Earth Creationism was second and Naturalistic (or "Godless") Evolution third but the proportions who selected each differed by only a slight amount (32% vs. 29%, respectively).

These numbers, by the way, differ a bit from what Gallup tends to report. The percent selecting Theistic Evolution is in consistent with that. But Godless Evolution runs closer to Young Earth Creationism than it does in Gallup polls.

What to make of this? Well, I’ll write a blog soon about the validity of on-line public opinion samples. But suffice it to say that based on the predictive accuracy of surveys conducted by YouGov, the premier on-line survey firm that recruited the sample for this study, and surveys conducted by Gallup in the 2010 and 2012 elections, YouGov is probably getting closer to the “true” general population values.

What we are interested in, though, is how science literacy and religiosity influence selection of these responses.

Consider first the relationship between these responses & science literacy.

Whoa ... the Jesus fish symbol popped out of my regression!

Maybe not shocking but note that support for Naturalistic peaks at only about 55% even among the most science literate. The relationship between support and for that position and science literacy, moreover, is “U”-shaped—higher at both the low and high ends. This relationship was confirmed by a multinomial logistic regression with appropriate quadratic terms; the fitted values from that regression are what I’m graphing (these plots are very true to what one would see in the “raw” data).

Now add religiosity. The following plots contrast the probabilities that AARs and BARs will select one or another of the response to the popular pollster item. They are derived from the same multinomial logistic regression, which confirmed that the impact of science literacy on the probability of selecting one response or another varies depending on level of religiosity.

It’s clear that the “U”-shaped relationship between science literacy and believing in Naturalistic Evolution is being driven by BARs.

In other words, BARs are more likely to believe in Naturalistic Evolution as they become either extremely science literate or extremely science illiterate!

Is this a surprise? Well, I wasn’t expecting this. My inspection of the data was pretty much exploratory, without strong hypotheses.

But I was reminded of a finding in what I regard as one of the very best studies of how high-quality instruction in the teaching of evolutionary theory generates improvements in knowledge but not changes in belief

In the study, Anton Lawson and collaborators found that high school students, particularly those scoring highest in critical reasoning skills, readily acquired knowledge of various aspects of evolution through instruction, but that acquisition of such knowledge did not produce a corresponding shift in belief among the students who began as nonbelievers.  

Nevertheless, the subgroup of such students who did back away from two particular beliefs hostile to naturalistic evolution (that the “living world is controlled by a force greater than humans” and that “all events in nature occur as part of a predetermined master plan”) consisted of the students who scored the lowest in critical reasoning skills. 

Speculating on why, Lawson et al. noted that “experience tells us that people change their beliefs for other than rational reasons. For example, hearing the opinion of an acknowledged authority figure could cause one to change a belief. Perhaps intuitive [students] are more likely than reflective students to change their beliefs for this reason.”

Lawson et al. don’t themselves explicitly suggest this, but a consistent conjecture might be that students who are higher in critical reasoning skills might be more inclined to push back on identity-threatening “beliefs” (even while taking on more knowledge) than those who are less reflective. That would be consistent with findings that motivated reasoning can be amplified by science literacy and cognitive reflection.

Someone should do a study to test that hypothesis!

4.  For AARs, in contrast, an increase in science literacy does not predict belief in Naturalistic Evolution. On the contrary, it seems to predict a slight decrease, although the effect is pretty much zero for all but those AARs whose scores are quite low.

So much for the idea that “disbelief” in evolution is a sign of low science literacy.  It isn’t.  “Disbelief” is just as consistent with being high in science literacy as low.

The only thing “disbelief” in Naturalistic Evolution reliably signifies is that one is religious.  This is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution “beliefs” are actually measures of cultural identity (as reflected in religiosity).

This conclusion is strongly corroborated by the relationship between science literacy and the increased probability of believing in Theistic Evolution among AARs. Offered the opportunity—as they aren’t in the NSF Science Indicators science knowledge battery—to select a position simultaneously consistent with “belief” in evolution and religious identity, the most science literate AARS grab hold of it!

5. Indeed, those same subjects—AARs who score high in science literacy—are less likely to espouse Young Earth Creationism than their less science literate counterparts.

What does this tell us? I suppose other interpretations are possible, but I’d say that AARs high in science literacy are in fact eager to affirm their “belief” in evolution, so long as they can be presented with a means of doing so that doesn’t denigrate their cultural identities.

Not surprisingly, BARs also less likely to express support for Young Earth Creationism as they become more science literate.

Support for Young Earth Creationism is associated disproportionately with being simultaneously above average in religiosity and below average in science literacy.

* * * * *

Some concluding thoughts:

1. “Disbelief” in evolution doesn’t reflect a deficiency in science literacy or shortcomings in science education in our society.  

I think it is very reasonable to think members of our society are not as science literate as they should be, and also that our education system must do better in imparting scientific knowledge to citizens generally. 

But it’s wrong to think that the level of “disbelief” in evolution is evidence of those things.  It’s wrong to think that because that view is contrary to empirical evidence.

The evidence that many researchers have compiled and that I’ve added to in a very modest way here show overwhelmingly that an individual's unwillingness to profess “belief” in evolution doesn't indicate science illiteracy or her unfamiliarity with the rudiments of evolutionary theory. 

It measures her expression of her cultural identity. What saying “I don’t believe in evolution” means, culturally speaking, is that one belongs to a community whose members subscribe to a particular set of understanding on best way to live.

2.  Those dedicated to the critical task of promoting scientific literacy, including public knowledge of the best scientific understanding of evolution, should not be focusing on what percentage of the population says they “believe” in evolution.

They shouldn’t be focusing on that because that information tells us nothing about how much scientific knowledge or even knowledge of evolution the public has.  Those who want to test how well society is doing in imparting knowledge of evolution should be measuring instead what fraction of the population can give a cogent account of genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection. It’s pitifully small, among both those who say they “believe” in evolution and those who say they don’t.

But even more important, those who want to promote public acquisition of scientific knowledge should avoid making professions of “belief” in evolution their aim because doing so is much more likely to deter than promote acquisition of basic scientific knowledge.

People who have a religious identity—who include plenty of science literate people and people capable of becoming even more so—see profession of “belief” as denigrating their cultural identities.  Naturally, then, they will see the demand that they not only learn but publicly affirm their "belief” in evolution as an attack on their community by members of another who harbor a shared understanding of the best life hostile to theirs.

They’ll resent that.  And with good reason. It's appropriate--absolutely essential, even--that a liberal democracy oblige those who furnish the public good of education to impart to people of all cultural identities the best available understanding of how the universe works, including the career of life on earth.  But citizens who make it their business to force others who have cultural views different from theirs to submit to purely symbolic rituals of identity-abnegation are engaged in a noxious, fundamentally illiberal form of conduct.

Such behavior, moreover, predictably breeds motivated resistance to acquiring knowledge of what science knows. Fear of the loss of status associated with "assenting" to facts symbolically linked to the identity of a rival cultural group is exactly what blocks citizens from converging on the best scientific evidence on issues climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, and other culturally contested policies.

In their study of how effectively imparting knowledge of evolutionary theory does not produce “belief,” Anton Lawson & William Worsnop conclude:

Of course, every teacher who has addressed the issue of special creation and evolution in the classroom already knows that highly religious students are not likely to change their belief in special creation as a consequence of relative brief lessons on evolution. Our suggestion is that it is best not to try to do so, not directly at least. Rather, our experience and results suggest to us that a more prudent plan would be to utilize instruction time, much as we did, to explore the alternatives, their predicted consequences, and the evidence in a hypothetico-deductive way in an effort to provoke argumentation and the use of reflective thought. Thus, the primary aims of the lesson should not be to convince students of one belief or another, but, instead, to help students (a) gain a better understanding of how scientists compare alternative hypotheses, their predicated consequences, and the evidence to arrive at belief and (b) acquire skill in the use of this important reasoning pattern-a pattern that appears to be necessary for independent learning and critical thought.

This is a sensible prescription for those who (very appropriately!) want to promote the widest dissemination of basic science knowledge in the general public.

But it also happens to be a prescription consistent with the basic liberal injunction to respect the entitlement of individual citizens to freely use their own reason both to understand what is known by science and to decide for themselves what constitutes a virtuous life.

The convergence of the two is not any sort of accident.  It reflects a deep truth about the reciprocal affinity of science and political liberalism.

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Reader Comments (40)

A question:

In a series of studies of both high school and college students, Anton Lawson and collaborators found that students who were the least reflective (as measured by a critical reasoning skills test) were the most likely to accept conventional scientific claims about the workings of evolution, although they were in fact not capable of furnishing cogent accounts of evolution or learning much upon instruction.

I suppose it's in there somewhere (too much there to put in this tiny brain and not enough time to even try)... but wonder of those who are "least reflective" would also be the most likely to accept conventional religious claims (such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old),. Doesn't this point you made essentially only tell us that those who are least reflective are least reflective?

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Those who want to test how well society is doing in imparting knowledge of evolution should be measuring instead what fraction of the population can give a cogent account of genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection.

IMV, they should be measuring what fraction of the population is able to articulate viewpoints on both sides of the debate, reflect on those viewpoints, and articulate their own, well-supported viewpoint (which would not at all need to fit into an either/or framework). Merely being able to give a cogent account of those phenomena you describe is not enough, IMO.

Along those lines:

Thus, the primary aims of the lesson should not be to convince students of one belief or another, but, instead, to help students (a) gain a better understanding of how scientists compare alternative hypotheses, their predicated consequences, and the evidence to arrive at belief and (b) acquire skill in the use of this important reasoning pattern-a pattern that appears to be necessary for independent learning and critical thought.

I think this is unfortunate wording . The contrast to helping students (a), and (b), is not just trying to convince students of one viewpoint or the other. The contrast to (a) and (b) would also include a didactic instruction on the workings of evolution w/o requiring students to actively engage with the material. Such methodology should be included in what comes before the "but."

That is a nitpick, I admit - but one problem with our traditional instructional paradigm is that if often does not recognize, and make explicit, the difference I'm describing.

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

This analysis is great, but it seems to me the science literacy measurements are problematic at the top end of the scale. In the first figure (a smoothed histogram?) we see that the curves stop on the right side of the graph without having gone back down to zero. This means there a substantial % of people are getting the maximum score on the test, i.e. the test fails to differentiate properly at the high end of the scale. But it is precisely in this part of the scale that we hope to see interesting effects - if we are interested in the notion of understanding-induced belief, that is. (Which is not to say that the other aspects of these results aren't interesting also.)

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

Thus, the primary aims of the lesson should not be to convince students of one belief or another, but, instead, to help students (a) gain a better understanding of how scientists compare alternative hypotheses, their predicated consequences, and the evidence to arrive at belief and (b) acquire skill in the use of this important reasoning pattern-a pattern that appears to be necessary for independent learning and critical thought.

This is uncontroversial, at least in tertiary education. The problem is that, in the case of evolution, successful acquisition of these skills _ought_ to induce belief, so testing belief would seem to be a way of testing acquisition of the relevant skills. I agree it is a poor test at high school and early undergraduate level, because it is not realistic to expect the skills to have been acquired to a sufficient degree at that point. So an interesting question is when (if ever) one could expect that.

Imagine a philosophy course in which students are taught the principles of valid reasoning. If the students are able to learn the principles and apply them when instructed to do so, but remain unconvinced that they are useful in their everyday lives, one could argue that the course has failed. This is the rationale behind asking whether students "believe" in evolution.

Is the take-home that these tests should rather be conducted using examples that are not culturally polarizing?
Are you saying science education is overly ambitious in aiming to combat anti-science culture?

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

The problem is that, in the case of evolution, successful acquisition of these skills _ought_ to induce belief, so testing belief would seem to be a way of testing acquisition of the relevant skills. I agree it is a poor test at high school and early undergraduate level, because it is not realistic to expect the skills to have been acquired to a sufficient degree at that point. So an interesting question is when (if ever) one could expect that.

I completely disagree: First, why "ought" acquiring acquiring those skills induce belief? Take the examples of those who have those skills but don't believe; is your argument that somehow they are defective?

Second, the skills of sound reasoning are can certainly be acquired by high school students, let alone undergrads. The problem is that they don't just magically acquire those skills, and helping them acquire them is an immensely difficult and complicated task. Unfortunately, people tend to think that just giving them content and testing on that content does the trick. It doesn't.

If the students are able to learn the principles and apply them when instructed to do so, but remain unconvinced that they are useful in their everyday lives, one could argue that the course has failed. This is the rationale behind asking whether students "believe" in evolution.

I see a couple of problems here: The first is that it seems to me that you are describing a linear sequence that doesn't exist - at least for most people. Most students are not first taught these skills and then asked to apply them. The teaching and the application are inextricably linked - the flow is bi-lateral: Pattern A: Maybe you learn a bit and you start to apply that bit;. then through the process of applying you learn more, which makes you receptive to more instruction. Pattern B: Or maybe you start to explore the process itself first, and then learn some principles that you can place into context by virtue of that experience in exploration, and then you are able to take those contextualized principles and learn more about their application. Neither pattern exists in a pure form, and the actual process and sequence of application is some combination of both.

Learning to apply those principles in such a way that you only use them when asked to do so means that you haven't actually learned the principles. Learning to apply them and then only using them in varying degrees contingent on various "motivations" is altogether human.

Is the take-home that these tests should rather be conducted using examples that are not culturally polarizing?

No. Using examples that are cultural polarizing is the true test. The point is to be able to understand how to control for biases. If you can only reason properly when you have no biases then you haven't' learned the necessary skills.

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Konrad:

You are right the distribution of scores is right-skewed. It's pretty hard to get less than half the questions correct when they are "true/false" (another glaring defect i the test). There's variance, but it is mainly squeezed into the right of the mean. As you surmise, there is less discernment than their should be at the top end; a harder test would be better. Maybe @Nick will come back & propose a better scaling strategy, like IRT, whch weights questions in terms of difficulty (I hope he comes back so I can engage him on the point of whether IRT can be used if one doubts the validity of the questions, as I think one clearly should for E & BB as applied to AARs!).

Anyway, I certainly agree this evidence is less strong than what could be achieved w/ a better "science knowledge" test. Better still would be the "evolution knowledge" test we discussed in the last post. But seriously, Lawson's studies are very much in that spirit (are you able to get hold of them? you know how to get hold of me, I assume).

But I think this is still evidence more consistent with the view that "disbelief" indicates identity than that lack of knowledge of evolution or lack of proficiency in acquiring scientific knowledge. The interaction between science literacy ^& rellition on the evolution items of various sorts shows that the evolution questions mean something different to people who are high in religiosity and science litgeracy than people who are nonreligious and high in science literacy.

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

One more post for now and then I promise to shut up for a while:

It seems the bottom line/logical extension/point you're making here is that asking about belief in climate change is no more a measure of scientific literacy than asking about belief in evolution. Which would mean that asking either question is a test of faith, essentially (as an underlying precondition of motivated reasoning).

Or are there ways that you think the parallel doesn't hold?

Are there politicized issues for which you would say asking about belief one way or the other would be a test of scientific literacy? What about vaccinations? But you say that issue isn't really politicized across a wide sample, right? GMOs? What about HPV? Nuclear energy?

It seems that the degree of politicization is a condition that determines whether asking about belief would measure literacy. But maybe not. Maybe asking about belief in the value of vaccinations, for example, could never be an indicator of scientific literacy? By what measure do you determine how much politicization distinguishes the value (or lack thereof) of measuring belief? Or maybe belief can never be an indicator of scientific literacy?

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

why "ought" acquiring acquiring those skills induce belief?

Because they do so in the overwhelming majority of people who have studied and understood evolution in detail.

the skills of sound reasoning are can certainly be acquired by high school students

I didn't deny this. But science is much more than just reasoning - it also involves assimilating a broad variety of arguments and lines of evidence, while judging the reliability and relevance of each individually and in combination. The tricky bit is assembling it all into a coherent whole.

you are describing a linear sequence that doesn't exist

I don't think I described a linear sequence. I completely agree with your description.

Using examples that are cultural polarizing is the true test.

I agree it is the "true test" - I was asking Dan what _his_ take-home is, since he consistently argues that education/communication does not have the desired effect in polarizing situations. Conducting the "true test" may be pointless if we know in advance it will fail.

@dmk: I agree with the points about belief indicating identity. But isn't it an aim of education to transform identity? One might argue that if the student's identity has not been transformed in some way, no education has taken place.

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

konrad -

Apologies for my misreading what you were saying:

Because they do so in the overwhelming majority of people who have studied and understood evolution in detail.

First, I don't know what evidence you use to make that claim. Second, there are other factors on play in the dynamic anyway - external influences that affect the cause-and-effect your're describing. I'd guess that a minority of people that have a strong Christian affiliation, who have studied and understood evolution in detail, don't "believe" in it (in the sense that it is "natural" and not "theistic.") I don't think they are defective, but subject to the same influences upon their reasoning as everyone else. Thus, I don't see them as defective and I don't agree with your determination of what they ought to believe. I have certainly encountered people who know quite a bit about evolution but who maintain that it is controlled by a supernatural entity. I think it is true that more information about those at the top end of the scale would be useful to evaluate this question - but I'm reasonably sure that a relatively high % of highly-religious people that would measure at the top end of the scale would nonetheless not fit with your *ought.*

Conducting the "true test" may be pointless if we know in advance it will fail.

I don't understand this. If we are curious to know what % of people can display reasoning that controls for biases - why wouldn't we conduct a true test that actually makes that assessment rather than some other test that tests something else? It is certainly not necessary that everyone fail a test as I described. A test-taker can lay out the differing viewpoints and pick one with an explanation of why, or indicate probabilities of which viewpoint they think is correct, or give evidence for why they think the solution is unknowable.

But isn't it an aim of education to transform identity?

Not directed at me, but FWIW, I think that's an interesting question. I think the aim of education is to transform a student's process of learning. That is related to identity in that you want to transform how a student identifies as a learner - and in a sense it is a process of transforming how they form their beliefs. But I don't agree that the aim is to transform their "identity" as in whether they identify with any specific set of beliefs.

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Konrad & @Joshua:

I hesitate to add this b/c it is not actually relevant to assessing what to make of "I don't believe in evolution!" Also b/c I could, for that reason, easily be taking your statement, @Konrad, out of context. But I did want to say that I very much share Joshua's reaction to your suggestion that "successful acquisition" of knowledge of the theory of evolution " _ought_ to induce belief, so testing belief would seem to be a way of testing acquisition" of understanding.

It is no part of science to believe that "accepting" is a test of "knowing."

On the contrary, it is in fact *essential* to the enterprise of science to separate understanding/knowing form "belief"/"acceptance." Advancement of knowledge comes only when those who know or understand the current best scientific account of a phenomenon form the sense that they just don't *believe* it is right. That belief motivates them to perform valid experimentation to show that the current best understanding is in error. If those experiments corroborate their sense that the existing best understanding was wrong-- well, then that understanding is abandoned, and a new one created. At that point the new undersanding gets "taught" to students. They are expected to understand *it*. But not so we can be sure they accept *that* new understanding, but so that we can be sure that if they don't, they'll attack it too. If we didn't say at one and the same time, "here is the best understanding -- make sure *you* understand it but by all means feel free to question it & try to show that it is wrong if you are so inclined," there'd be no reason to be confident that the best understanding of anything at any given time is other than superstition or dogma.

Thank goodness Einstein understood the prevailing Newtonian theories of gravity & the speed of light but didn't *accept* them! And so what if some fraction of the students being trained in physics today don't accept quantum mechanics -- think it is "incomplete" b/c it involves an ineradicable probabilistic element that gives rise to "spooky" phenomena like entanglement that don't fit (easily at least!) with Einstein's theory of special relativity. Maybe they will "prove" someday that Einstein himself was right to reject quantum mechanics for that reason. In any case, there will be no reason to worry about whether these dissenters "understand" quantum mechanics -- any more than there was reason to think Einstein didn't.

Likely the context warped the meaning of what Konrad said, or my reaction to it, since I would be shocked if Konrad disagreed with me on this.

As I said -- none of this is actually relevant to what we are discussing. Those who say "I understand natural selection, random matuation, genetic variance etc but don't 'believe' in evolution b/c God created humans as they are," etc. are not instances of what I'm describing.

But they are instances of something -- the simple expression of cultural idenitity -- that a liberal state has no business stifling.

So, to answer another question you posed @Konrad, No, I think it most certainly is not the business of education, at least when furnished by the State, to "transform" anyone's identity as I'm using the term. That's a proposition as fundamental to the Open Society as the propositoin that no one is obliged to accept the prevailing best scientific understanding of a phenenomenon is to the Logic of Scientific Disovery.

June 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Joshua:

Of course "belief" in climate change is not a test of science literacy. It's very clear that the more science literate peopole are, the more likely they are to disagree on the facts on climate chante. Asking "do you think human beings are heating up the planet?" is as good a test of whether someoine is science literate as flipping a coin. It's also a horrible test for figuring out whether someone has a passable understanding of the sclience relating to the climate -- since most citizens who accept that climate change is happening understand why as well as they understand genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection.

So yes, people who cite disagreement about climate change as evidence of a problem in science education are making a mistake. But I've said that 5 million times -- it's the focus on evolution that is new(er) for me.

And just to anticipate a nonsequitur (not from you, @Joshua, but others) -- None of this implies, either, that it is at all inappropriate for goverment to make policy based on the best undrstanding of climate science or any other kind of science or to educate students and others in the best scientific understanding. Figure out for yourselves why that's a mistake if you think that follows from what I said. It will be good practice in logical thinking.

June 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Joshua and Dan,

I seem to have created the impression that I think understanding the currently best explanations should _always_ induce belief - this is obviously false, with quantum physics being a clear example. In quantum physics, we see continuing and widespread controversy among specialists (in the form of publications in the academic literature) - a clear sign that understanding of this theory in its current state does _not_ induce belief.

In evolution, we see the opposite: for more than half a century (going back to before we even had DNA evidence), there has been complete consensus among specialists that evolution has happened and continues to happen in all organisms. If understanding of this particular theory (including the evidence supporting it and the long history of attempts to falsify it) did not induce acceptance in an overwhelming majority of cases, signs of dissent would be observable in the academic literature - as a rule, there is nothing scientists like better than the chance to cast doubt on an existing theory. So my claim that it _ought_ to induce belief is just based on empirical observation of what happens in the case of people learning this particular theory (typically at advanced undergraduate level and beyond) - it just happens to have a fantastic track record of convincing people.

Also, "acceptance" or "belief" (synonyms, I think) in science is _always_ provisional. It does not in any way inhibit scientists from prodding the boundaries looking for potential avenues of attack - that's what we do for a living! Perhaps you are conflating acceptance of a theory with being _invested_ in it?

Re whether education aims to transform identity - it's a question I thought I'd toss out for debate. Presumably the answer depends strongly on how one chooses to define "identity". But I remember regularly reflecting during my undergrad days on how much I had turned into a different person through what I had learned over the preceding year or so (quite unlike high school, where my pace of learning/transformation was much slower). And yes this does include changes in which groups and beliefs (both religious and political) I identified with.

@Joshua: "I have certainly encountered people who know quite a bit about evolution but who maintain that it is controlled by a supernatural entity." - that is still evolution, I was not talking about the supposed distinction between theistic and naturalistic evolution. Nor do I tend to distinguish between theistic vs naturalistic planetary motion, theistic vs naturalistic weather pattern dynamics, or theistic vs naturalistic stock market movement - the content of such pairs of "theories" are identical. So if, in Dan's analysis, one wanted to interpret the labels as indicative of scientific knowledge rather than group identity (which we don't really), one really should combine those two categories.

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

None of this implies, either, that it is at all inappropriate for goverment to make policy based on the best undrstanding of climate science or any other kind of science or to educate students and others in the best scientific understanding. Figure out for yourselves why that's a mistake if you think that follows from what I said.

For an exercise in logic, "inappropriate" seems a little vague. Letting that go, though, the problem, as always, lies in determining what exactly is the "best scientific understanding". As determined by whom? A Democratic appointee/committee or a Republican? "Best" in the eyes of the EC cultural quadrant or the HI? "Best" as determined by a head count? How are those heads being counted? And anyway does a head count really point us to the best scientific understanding or merely to the currently popular scientific understanding?

This isn't to question the right of a democratic government to do what it believes is right and is lawful, and maybe that's all that is meant by "appropriate". Otherwise, though, I think the word minimizes a genuine dilemma that governments, like the people they govern, have when "science", as embodied in human/cultural beings and human/cultural institutions, is involved in public and cultural controversy.

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Konrad -

But I remember regularly reflecting during my undergrad days on how much I had turned into a different person through what I had learned over the preceding year or so (quite unlike high school, where my pace of learning/transformation was much slower). And yes this does include changes in which groups and beliefs (both religious and political) I identified with.

One more comment on this as it seems that Dan wants to keep the focus elsewhere.

My guess is that it would be hard to tease out normal developmental processes there - what you learned from outside any formal educational context (i.e., social interactions, reading that had nothing to do with your education, or just watching TV), what you learned from inside the educational context but that was not really a product of anyone's intention (for example, watching a professor display entirely un-admirable attributes), and what might reasonably be considered development that occurred because it was targeted in some way by the operating educational paradigm.

At any rate, I would certainly not support the notion that transforming a student - in the sense of who they identify with or what they believe - should be a direct target of education. As a teacher, I might hope that a student who believes that it is beneficial to use drugs or hang out with criminals would be transformed by virtue of learning better how to reason - but I think that targeting a transformation related to specific decisions the student might make (what to believe or who to hang out with) would almost inevitably backfire - as opposed to encouraging students to be transformed into people who think problems through rationally. In that sense, I think it would be similar to Dan's point about someone resenting an approach to education about evolution or the BB that was based on targeting beliefs more than processes of reasoning.

I was not talking about the supposed distinction between theistic and naturalistic evolution.

A fair point.

Relatedly, it would be interesting to see what would happen if Dan could run his analysis consistent with that distinction, i.e., finding out whether there might be a correlation between "scientific literacy" and those who reject both "natural" and "theistic" evolution (someone who might say "I didn't have no monkeys as ancestors.")

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I think that targeting a transformation related to specific decisions the student might make (what to believe or who to hang out with) would almost inevitably backfire - as opposed to encouraging students to be transformed into people who think problems through rationally. In that sense, I think it would be similar to Dan's point about someone resenting an approach to education about evolution or the BB that was based on targeting beliefs more than processes of reasoning.

I think we're all agreed there. It's the transformation into people who think problems through rationally (along with the acquisition of concepts and vocabulary to use in such thought) that I was referring to as a transformation of identity. I do think this is related to the notion of identity Dan has in mind, though the extent of this relation is unclear.

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

Hello friends, I am back from my vacation, and am glad to see good discourse is still alive.

A friend of mine who taught early human history in high school always started his class the first day with a Bible in hand saying," This is the good book; read the good book; believe the good book!"

"But", wherein he would switch to holding up the textbook and continue, "answer the test questions with this book." Seemed to work fine.

BTW, the priests are using the theocratic evolution at my parish. They see the supposed conflict with the science of evolution and religion as persons confounding facts with belief. They are separate for humans.

I agree with them, faith is not facts, neither is truth. Both disciplines seek truth, but different truths.

Kinda like remembering that women and men are exactly alike, only different. Once you understand that you won't have so much misunderstanding with your spouse (hopefully).

June 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@Larry:

Logic is a simple matter. Morality here is not, although I have positions.

1. I'm sure you wouldn't make mistake but many who read my post (if they were to read it) would think "he is saying that it is illiberal to try to induce 'belief' in the best available scientific understanding of evolution; that means he is against teaching evolution in public schools!' That would reflect an embarrassing (to the person making such a mistake) misreading of the argument. It would be embarrassing b/c I explicitly say (in this post & last one too) that teaching & testing for knowledge of evolution is fine & legitimate, in my view. It would also be embarrassing b/c it would show that the critic can't get the central point -- even when whapped in the head w/ a 2x4 version of it -- that "knowing" & saying "I belive!" are wholly unrelated to each other. But believe me, the misdunderstanding will predictably, reflexively, be made.

2. The moral issue is how, once I say that it is inconsistent w/ political liberalism to make professions of "belief" the object, it can still be right for the state to promote knowledge of the best aviailble scientific understanding of evolution & even impose benefits and penalties, in the form of good & bad grades in public school courses, for acquisition of such knowldge. You can't expect me to give a fully satisfactory account of why I think this is the right answer here; you can expect me to be able to give it in some place/time where we have the luxury of time & space to refelct -- & it woudl be a challenge for me to meet the expectation for the issue *is* complicated & my skills as a political philosopher are modest (I'd likely try to find a skilled one who agrees w/ me to represent my position).

But the short of it is that I think a liberal democratic state has an obligation to ensure *primary goods* are made available to citizens; and that the opportunity to become able to understand, and thereafter the acquisition of understanding of the best available collective evidence we have of basic matters of science (like the career of life on earth), are among those goods.

Being made conversant with those best understandings is not inconsistent w/ respect ("respect" is such an emotionally sterile word for characterizing what is compelled; try achthung) for the right of the individual, using critical reflection, to decide for herself what is true and what the best way to live might be. On the contrary, they are conditions of being able to do those things in the way that comes closest to the full realization of the special powers of free reason that humans have and that compel a form of political organization -- the liberal democratic state -- that affords individuals the respect they merit as beings with that special power.

My somewhat preachy reaction to @Konrad -- who I'm sure only by accident wandered into the statements I attacked -- reflect the nature of the reconciliation I am envisioning here. It goes like this:

1. Create the conditions in which individuals have the power to acquire reason; give them them the materials needed to use that reason to advance their ends as they conceive them; and then get the fuck out of the way as they use them, except to assure that they don't in a way that interferes with the equal right of others to do the same.

2. In public education that means: focus on knowledge of what's known to science; emphasize to students that part of science's distinctive way of knowing involves welcoming challenges, conducted according to the methods that science recognizes as suited for generating insight that counts as knowledge, to the best understandings; invite with genuine enthusiasm challenges so conductecd to the prevailing best understandings; and never ever ever insist on pledges of allegiance to any sort of orthodoxy on matters political, moral *or* empirical.

June 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

While I like the discussions above, I would like:

1. A clean separation between science and political science. To me science is what has been observed and measured independent of my personal beliefs about morals, religion or world view. When I talk to fellow scientists, a few hours every day for decades now, we stick to what has been measured and what Ockham's razor says we should believe about what this measurement might mean.
2. A Bayesian analysis, with error bars, of the survey above. As a guess, once you put error bars in, clean up the questions, and include things like Z scores, a normalized way of comparing different results, it is not clear to me that there will be any statistically significant differences.
3. Some proof of what the tests are measuring. Given the ambiguity of questions and their answers, it is not clear what is being measured.
4. Some discrete metrics for both religiosity and belief in evolution. For instance, when I was a kid, I believed in evolution because my parents and friends said they did. I still believed in it, but a little more strongly, when I shifted from being a graduate student in physical chemistry (with no biology background) to being a graduate student in biochemistry. Now years later, with an average of 3 hours a week looking at the evidence, I believe in evolution probably 10,000 fold more than I did when I started being a biochemist. I can quote many hours of experimental results in favor of parts of evolution but not all the things that are claimed about it.
Interestingly, in talking with friends, I found that there are holes in the entirely evolutionary (naturalistic evolution) hypothesis. If we hypothesize that evolution is a dominant mechanism that led to the life that we see on this planet but that G-d tweaked things here and there to guide an otherwise excellent development, it is very hard to disprove this hypothesis. The reason that it is hard to disprove this hypothesis is that if there were such tweaks, using even 21st century science, all evidence of those tweaks would disappear from the system in a couple of thousand years. Even major tweaks would be invisible to us now. So far, none of geneticist friends has come up with any solid experiments that would show that G-d or some extraterrestial intelligence did not tweak things a bit. Francis Crick, more than a decade ago, said that the only way to fit some early data about evolution into a believable scientific framework was to posit the existence of non-terrestrial entities. He was working on the origin of life on Earth when he said this.
Thoughts?
Also, I have much more detailed versions of the above arguments if anyone wants to talk to me off line.

June 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Eric:


I would like:
A clean separation between science and political science.. To me science is what has been observed and measured independent of my personal beliefs about morals, religion or world view. When I talk to fellow scientists, a few hours every day for decades now, we stick to what has been measured and what Ockham's razor says we should believe about what this measurement might mean.

A Bayesian analysis, with error bars, of the survey above. As a guess, once you put error bars in, clean up the questions, and include things like Z scores, a normalized way of comparing different results, it is not clear to me that there will be any statistically significant differences.


Honestly, this just sounds like empty posturing to me -- a way of saying you stand for "rigor" that avoids the effort of figuring out in what respect it is lacking here (or that just avoids the effort to figure out what has been done, really) and how that would be remedied.

I'm sorry to start on a sour note but your msg creates that mood in me.

I am, of course, happy to help you figure out what's been done if you are not grasping it -- not grasping it despite my actually furnishing information in the post that is relevant to all the issues you raise about variables & measurement.

Why don't you start with the multinomial regression analysis that is linked in the post. The outcome variable is the 3-option response to the "which of these is closest to your belief..." The "base" response -- the one in relation to which the probabiity of selecting another is being modeled -- is "Naturalistic evolution." The predictors are the science literacy score computed as described ("zscilitnonrelig"; standardized-- i.e., transformed into a zscore) a religiosity scale constructed as described (Zreligiosity; again standardized-- i.e., a "z-score"); a cross-product interaction term for those two predictors (zsciliinrxzr); plus, to model the curvilinear effect of changes in science literacy (someting that is clear in the raw data; happy to show what that "looks" like so you can see why a curvilinear model rather than a linear one made sense) the squared value of the science literacy score (scilitnsq) and the cross product interaction for that & religiosity (scilitnsqxzr).

If you understand the modeling technique -- which is very basic, really -- you'll be able to see that the model is explaining a lot of variance and that various of the predictors have coefficients that are not trivially different from zero and are estimated with varying degrees of precision. The precision of the estimates tells you which ones of them are 'significantly' different from zero, but you'd have to "add" the effects of various parameters of interest in ways that reflect whatever you are trying to estimate to figure out how big the effects are and how precise they might be. Really, graphing the effects is the best way to figure these things out -- which is what I've done.

But what I've done might be something a reasonable person could be unsatisfied with, for all kinds of reasons. and I'd want to investigate any such disatisfaction -- either to dispel it in that person or to see how I should adjust my own view.

But such a person has to tell me more than that he is "scientist," doesn't "mix in political science & morals," shaves daily w/ "Ockham's razor," would like some "bayesianism" (what is the sort of Bayesian analysis you'd like here?!), etc.

I'm happy to add "confidence intervals" (in the form, say, of shaded area to reflect 0.95 LC for each plotted line) if that's what you want, to the graphs. I didn't here b/c I can see -- and confirmed for myself -- that the effects I'm describing are very big & certainly 'significantly" different form zero, and the addition of CIs just adds visual clutter w/o information. A much better way to understand the precision of the estimates, btw, is to plot density distributions of simulated values derived from the model; "confidence intervals," which are comically misunderstood even by people you'd expect to know better, reflect an arbitrary cutoff-- 0.95 -- and density distribution plots enable a smart person, even one not schooled in statistics or how to sound like one, to *see* how likely it is that outcomes of interest are to converge or diverge and by how much, etc., e.g., here or here.

But whether it would be useful -- add genuine information given what we are discussing here -- to help people see the precision of the parameter estimates is judgment call & likely to vary across peopole according to what they themselves are trying to understand. I can show you & you can decide for yourself. That woudl be a reasonable thing to ask me to do. After making a reasonable effort to understand.

June 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

Given that you didn't respond to this question when I asked it in a more round-about fashion, I'll ask it more directly and then drop it if you don't answer.

It occurs to me that most often when we see references to disbelief in evolution as being a marker for ignorance of the science of evolution or scientific "illiteracy" more generally, the reference is to those who reject any form of evolution - be it "theistic" or "natural."

Of course, that is not always the case.

Likewise, it occurs to me that most often when we see references to disbelief that "the universe began with a huge explosion" as being a marker for ignorance of the science of the creation of the universe or scientific "illiteracy" more generally, the reference is to those who reject any theories about the formation of the universe other than that it was formed more or less 6,000 years ago.

Of course, that is likewise not always the case.

If the questions were worded as "Do you believe that humans evolved from other species?" or "Do you believe that the Earth is millions of years old?" do you doubt that the answers would correlate strongly with the other questions of "scientific literacy?

I am not asking this because I doubt your basic thesis that your arguing here. I very much accept your thesis and I think it is very important for understanding the underlying causes for these (IMO, political proxy) food fights about science.

(Differently that you, I would go as far as to say that the very notion of trying to measure scientific literacy through asking either knowledge-based or belief-based questions is pretty pointless and inherently flawed - because the task itself is inextricably linked to metrics that reflect biases).

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Dan:

I agree with many of your "positions", or with much about them, particularly your reaction to the idea that it's the business of the state to transform an individual's cultural orientation. As I've said before, though, I do think that there is implicit in your position an idealized view of "science" as some purely disinterested inquiry that is immune from the cultural matrix that embeds every human being. This is an ideal that can be approached to the degree that the object of scientific inquiry is removed from cultural values, as in physical sciences, but the closer the object of inquiry comes to such values, as in the social sciences, the greater is the divergence from the ideal. Which isn't to say that the ideal is useless in such areas, but only that the notion of the "best scientific understanding" becomes a lot more problematic in areas or issues where cultural values are involved. So it is to say that we, the public, need to be all the more skeptically, critically alert about claims made under the label of "science" in such areas -- particularly when those claims appear simply to support positions that the claimer already supports.

In this light, it's interesting to look at the particular topic of this post, evolution, and try to understand a little better just why, other than mere herd following, it can be so charged with cultural/moral implications that it thwarts efforts to measure science literacy. As I think you've said, on the purely scientific matters of random genotype variation and differential environmental phenotype support, the notion of evolution is technical but straightforward and largely non-controversial. But the implications of this surprisingly simple idea extend far beyond the technical matters of genetic variation -- it becomes the basis for a view of the whole universe, including humanity and all its works, as but a stochastic machine, in which notions of purpose, value, and meaning have no fundamental function or, in a more literal sense, "meaning". Little wonder, in that view, that it inspires resistance, beyond, as I say, merely sticking with one's group. I think, ironically, that these implications are often better understood by those with religious or quasi-religious objections to evolution than by those who simply "believe" in it. In the end, I agree that we can teach and expect students to learn the purely technical aspects of evolution -- but I think that an honest and respectful approach will have to acknowledge the difficulties over its implications.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

FWIW -

As I've said before, though, I do think that there is implicit in your position an idealized view of "science" as some purely disinterested inquiry that is immune from the cultural matrix that embeds every human being.

I agree with that critique.

This is an ideal that can be approached to the degree that the object of scientific inquiry is removed from cultural values, as in physical sciences, but the closer the object of inquiry comes to such values, as in the social sciences, the greater is the divergence from the ideal.

The problem there, IMO, is that neither branch of the sciences exist outside of the humans that are conceptualizing them. As such, I think that it is far to easy to see some distinction of "removal from cultural values" embedded in the attributes of the sciences themselves. For the most part, IMO, perhaps that may a valid distinction in some abstract world, in the real world that distinction is not often manifest. What is important, IMO, and far more often the operative condition - is the openness to uncertainty and openness to the examination of one's own biases, not the branch of science one is engaging in. Ironically, I often find this kind of criticism about the social sciences to be a bias on the part of those engaged in other sciences (or similarly in the climate wars, from engineer-types criticizing academics).


...it becomes the basis for a view of the whole universe, including humanity and all its works, as but a stochastic machine, in which notions of purpose, value, and meaning have no fundamental function or, in a more literal sense, "meaning".

Again, I think an overstatement. Of course a non-theistic view of "why we are here" or "how did we get here" challenges existential angst - but it does not necessarily imply that "notions of purpose, value, and meaning have no fundamental function... or "meaning" - certainly at a practical level in how people live their lives. And on the flip side, a theistic view of the world does not necessarily imply a consistent approach or non-stochastic view of meaning, value, etc.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

I'm not sure about your question -- whether the equation of "disbelief" w/ "science illiteracy" contemplates only young earth or in any case "exempts" the "theistic view."

If you look at how advocacy groups who care about evolution frame things, theistic evolution is clearly the devil speaking scripture & something very much to be condemend.

But it is clear that how people who are religious answer the question will be senistive to the options -- more will say they "believe" in evoution if you include the "theistic" choice. I should take a close look -- but it's clear that lots of people who sald "false" to the NSF question -- did humans evolve -- piced "theistic" evolution when they answered the "Gallup" question.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@Larry:

On the "idealized," supracultural conception of science point, my failure to give a good answer is not a consequence of my finding the question unintersting or unimportant.

I want to say it's that it's too big & I don't have time!

That's not strictly true, though.

Because I'm pretty sure if I took the time, I wouldn't give an answer as good as the question deservers and you'd be disappointed.

But I will tell you, in a very compact way, what position I would defend:

1. Of course, science is not "culture free" etc. It only makes sense as a way of knowing within a particular form of culture.

2. The form of culture that makes sense for science or makes it make sense to people is broader, though, than the "cultures" described in the "cultural cognition of risk" framework. All of those litle cultures are at home, really, within the broader, science-sense culture. You can't be surprised to hear me say that, since I am always trying to show how silly it is to call one or another group "anti-science" in the Liberal Republic of SCience.-- or not just silly, but also very awful (it is akind of Red baiting). I do suspect, though, tht the little cultures are descendents of cultural ways of seeing things in which science's way of knowing would not make sense. Every single one of them. But that's the past. What's left of that is just sentiment...

3. And good riddance to those pre-science-sense culture ways of seeing the world. They do not enable insight into how the universe really works; they stifle it. They also breed the most horrendous and disturbing appetites our species is capable of; they are truly murderous. The vanquishing of those ways of living is the best thing that ever happened to us -- and it hasn't happened for all of *us* yet if we expand our vision past the frontiers of liberal democratic market socieites. The tolerance of difference that marks the vanquishing of those anti-science cultures and the insight that comes from science are of course very tightly interwove.

So I am a cultural partisan and zealot -- when we are talking about the sort of culture that is the home of the Liberal Republic of Science.

June 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan:

Understand completely about the lack of time -- I appreciate very much the time you do take in these responses as it is. And I agree completely with your point 3, and with maybe half of point 2. Just think that science is implicated in the "little cultures" too, just as you and I are.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@ Dan: interesting! A couple of thoughts.

(1) The category of “theistic evolution” is a broad and somewhat amorphous one. The notion that God guided the evolutionary process could mean all sorts of things, from a general idea that God is *in some sense* behind everything that happens in the world, to a view more akin to intelligent design. Some of these views about what it means for God to guide the evolutionary process might contradict a scientific account of evolution (e.g. that God’s involvement in the process is incompatible with any idea of random mutation), but others might not be (for instance, one could believe that God’s “guides” the world in accordance with natural laws, including the “laws” of evolution). So the broad category of “theistic evolution” could mask differences between people who could be said to “believe in” evolution as taught in mainstream science classes, and people who could not. Some people of the former variety might say they don’t “believe in evolution” on one survey, but then endorse theistic evolution on another survey, because – as you point out – the idea of “theistic evolution” allows them to reconcile their cultural commitments with evolution.

More specifically, I think a great deal of what is threatening to some religious people about evolution (even people who would not consider themselves to be Biblical literalists) is aversion to the *randomness* incorporated in scientific accounts of evolution. The idea that life, and particularly human life, has an important meaning and purpose is at the heart of many religious people’s conceptions of their faith, and evolutionary randomness seems undermine this idea (though there may well be non-religious ways of holding that life has meaning without God). So saying that God has guided the evolutionary process removes an important tension between the scientific account of evolution and the conviction in life’s God-given meaning.

Anyway, back to the point about the malleability of the “theistic evolution” category. It might be interesting to try to separate claims about theistic evolution that are compatible and incompatible, respectively, with scientific accounts of evolution, and to test the impact of scientific literacy on people with each view. After all, there is no reason to suppose that scientific literacy has an effect on those whose belief in God’s guidance is fully compatible with belief in the scientific account of evolution, but the same is not true of people whose belief in God’s guidance is incompatible with a scientific account. But I think it might be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two sorts of claim. Some people who endorse theistic evolution might not have a clear view in their own minds of what it means for God to guide the evolutionary process.

(2) Non-religious people are often perfectly capable of discussing fine points of theology, analyzing Biblical stories, etc. without "believing" in religious precepts (e.g., atheist college students who major in Religious Studies and focus on Christian theology). I wonder about the similarities and differences between this group of people, on the one hand, and people who have a basic understanding of the workings of evolution but would not say they “believe” in it, on the other. I think science is generally presented to students with a greater air of authority (as in, this is something that really does explain how the world works) than religion is presented in an academic context. So maybe it requires a greater sense of adhesion to religious beliefs that preclude evolution (which could come from, perhaps, higher cultural stakes in the matter) to learn about evolution without acquiring belief in it, than to learn about religion without acquiring belief in it.

What are the implications of your view for the question of whether religion should be taught in public schools in an “academic” (i.e. non-proselytizing sense)? One could argue that students will not be successfully proselytized (i.e., convinced to “believe” in the religion) unless they are predisposed to do so by their cultural commitments, just as students do not necessarily acquire a “belief” in evolution when they are taught about it in science class. In this case, perhaps there is less reason to fear proselytization in the sense that, e.g., non-Christian students will pick up Christian beliefs. Of course, one might still object to teaching religion in an “academic” sense on the basis that it exacerbates distinctions between students and isolates minority students.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterR.A.B.

@Joshua:

1. I agree that "openness to uncertainty and openness to the examination of one's own biases" is important. My point is that it becomes more difficult for humans, even scientists (and their funders/supporters), to do that when their deeply held values are enmeshed in the issue. I find, ironically as well, that those involved with the social sciences are often the least aware of, or most defensive about, that difficulty.

2. I'm not making a case for either a theistic or non-theistic view of things -- I'm simply saying that evolution has far-reaching implications for people who bother to think beyond a practical, day-to-day level, not all of whom are religious in a conventional sense.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Larry -

1a) (difficulty for humans/scientists), agreed.
1b) No doubt, we can often find examples of those ironies displayed by social scientists as well as engineers, physicists, etc. No doubt.

2) Agreed. But it again, it seemed to me that there was a larger implication in what you wrote: that non-belief in a deity implies that "notions of purpose, value, and meaning have no fundamental function... or "meaning." I have often seen that argument made - so I do need to be careful about projecting the views of others onto you (I sometimes hear dog-whistles).

I have deep respect for religious faith (generally) and have no doubt that for many it supports notions of purpose, value and meaning. My guess is that if we studied the phenomenon, we would find that religious belief in general does correlate with confidence/clarity in purpose, value, and meaning (but wouldn't want to design the study that controlled variables well-enough to prove it). I do, however, reject out of hand the notion that somehow religious belief necessarily bestows a confidence/clarity w/r/t those matters, infers a real-world consistency or non-stochasticity in such matters, or that the non-religious are somehow left with nothing other than existential impotence. IMO, both the religious and the non-religious must grapple with reconciling a view of the whole universe, including humanity and all its works, as but a stochastic machine, in which notions of purpose, value, and meaning have no fundamental function or, in a more literal sense, "meaning". As I understand it, for many maintaining religious faith is precisely about wrestling with that view and coming to grips with the reality that religious belief does notobviate the need to constantly reconcile one's purpose, values, or meaning. I would guess - that when we boil it down to what we go through in day-to-day life - belief one way or the other that the existence of a supernatural entity answers why we're here or how we got here is a weak (but not non-existent) correlate with a clarity of purpose, value, and meaning - and that we could find other similarly strong or perhaps far stronger correlates.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

Yes, religion is complicated, much more so than people who think it's just a bunch of superstition and old stories realize. In one form or another it's found in every variation of human culture known, and at the core of even the simplest versions it's a complex, integrated structure of narrative, ritual, and art. The stories it tells, or its myths, are simply components of that structure, and their literal truth or falsity, in the empirical, scientific sense, are peripheral to their function as carriers of cultural meaning. And I am, fwiw, an atheist myself.

All of which is to say that science, important as it is, can't replace religion, any more than religion can replace science. A longer expression of this compatibility, and a way back to the theme of Dan's post, can be found in an essay by, appropriately enough, Stephen Jay Gould: "Nonoverlapping Magisteria".

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

I think some interesting dimensions of the interplay of scientist and cultural viewpoint are well discussed in Kahan et al.'s "Sunstein on Risk" paper.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=801964

Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk
Abstract:
What dynamics shape public risk perceptions? What significance should such perceptions have in the formation of risk regulation? In Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005), Cass Sunstein catalogs a variety of cognitive and social mechanisms that he argues inflate public estimations of various societal risks. To counter the impact of irrational public fears, he advocates delegation of authority to politically insulated experts using economic cost-benefit analysis. Missing from Sunstein's impressive account, however, is any attention to the impact of cultural cognition, the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce their cultural worldviews. Relying on existing and original empirical research, we use this dynamic to develop an alternative cultural evaluator model, which better explains individual variation in risk perception, differences of opinions among experts, and the intensity of political conflict over risk than does Sunstein's irrational weigher model. Cultural cognition also complicates Sunstein's policy prescriptions. Because the public fears that Sunstein describes as irrational express cultural values, expert cost-benefit analysis does not merely insulate the law from factual error, as Sunstein argues; rather, it systematically detaches law from popular understandings of the ideal society. Indeed, the best defense of Sunstein's program might be just that: by eliding the role that risk regulation plays in endorsing contested cultural visions, expert cost-benefit analysis protects the law from a divisive and deeply illiberal form of expressive politics. The difficult task for those who understand the phenomenon of cultural cognition and who favor democratic modes of policymaking is to devise procedures that assure that popularly responsive risk regulation is both rational and respectful of diverse cultural worldviews.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

@R.A.B.

Lots of interesting things.

On my view of teaching religion in public schools: sure, but only in a secular way -- as an important social institution worthy of understanding & demanding of an appropriate stance of accommodation & restraint in a liberal democracy. That is to say, I have pretty orthodox liberal views here -- ones about the inappropriateness of the state endorsing any orthodoxy in matters relating to the best life. (As I mentioned, too, in an earlier comment, I don't think anything in the orthodox liberal position I subscribe to implies that public education shouldn't make students acquire knowledge or comprehension of the best scientific understanding of the career of life on earth -- just that it shouldn't make professions of "belief" part of what is expected of them.)

On "randomness": Intersting. It's possible that this is the issue, but that assumes a *lot* of cognitive engagement & theorizing on the part who are saying "I disbelieve." Indeed, I think attributes more understanding of the modern synthesis to them than they actually have. But this is the sort of disagreement that empirical testing resolves"!

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has done some work on religious knowledge versus belief:

http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

"Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

"On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education."

But, of course, the popular media "take away" was that atheists know more about religion than believers:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/us/28religion.html?_r=0
http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/09/28/survey-atheists-know-more-about-religion-than-believers/

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

@Isabel:
Interesting.
Just a survey about knowledge of religion, right? Know of any good "survey" questions that test knowledge of evolution?

June 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I actually like this survey: http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lessons/ev.surv.html

It was designed to help teachers assess their students' understanding of evolution, not for popular polling . . .

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

Isabel,
Interesting survey. Thanks.
I am a professional biologist who has taught evolution and has to keep up with the latest findings in the field. Most of the survey questions have straightforward true or false answers. For about four of them, determining whether the answer is true or false would take a lot of facts, facts that I hope are covered in the course. For about another four, I was intrigued that the correct answer has changed from true to false or false to true based on research results obtained in the last few years. I would be curious as to whether the teacher knew about these changes and teaches the currently correct answers.
From the point of view of science communication, it is unclear what you teach teachers when the answer is nuanced and requires lots of knowledge or has changed recently. If you teach that the answer is true but the answer is actually false but you do not yet know that the answer is false, are you communicating correctly or miscommunicating. As a side bar, it takes a lot of work to keep up with the field so that you know which answers have changed recently.
Feedback?

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Eric-
This last spring I took a college Biology intro class. I was surprised by a couple of thing. One, although evolution was mentioned as tremendously important in the first chapter and a couple of basic precepts were offered, there was actually very little about evolution. It was all biochemistry and genetics. I was told evolution was more emphasized in the the second-level course: a course significantly fewer people ever take. Second, we were taught as uncontroversial simple things like what sorts of organelles are found in plants and not animals. Interested in lysosomes, which we were told were only found in animals, I looked into some of the research and discovered that this fact is actually a matter of controversy, and I learned that some scientists believe that plants and yeast do have lytic vacuoles that qualify as lysosomes. So what was I supposed to do when faced with the task on a test of splitting out the organelles that occur in animals and not plants? I gave the answer that was given in the text, while thinking hard about the evidences offered in the controversy :) And I thought it would have been much more interesting to discuss scientific controversy and how it "plays out" than memorize these "facts."

Our instructor was good enough to caution us a couple of times about "facts" presented in the textbook that, if we were to go on in biology, we would essentially unlearn, but that we would need to know for now. I was grateful for those moments, but I know they annoyed more than one of my fellow students, whose daily refrain was "Will that be on the test?"

And so it is with most things in life, right? People ask, not is it true, but is it on the test? Will my neighbors shun me if I "believe" this or that? Will my life be happier if I delve deeper? I think most people assess that question with a "probably not" and, where I'm from, go fishing.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

Isabel,
Thanks for sharing that.
Back when I was a university professor, I got in trouble with both students and senior faculty for ignoring the poor textbook that I had inherited and teaching what the science actually said.
If I were to teach evolution today in a course, I would present the elements of the modern synthesis, show a range of experiments that support this synthesis and tell about the millions of experiments that are done in research labs every day and support the synthesis, lay out experiments that would prove that the synthesis might not be correct, and point out the parts of evolution that have not been tested.
I would also point out that evolution is not separable from genetics and biochemistry. Evolution can be thought of as the time dependent changes in biochemistry of the descendents of organisms that occurs under the driving forces of genetic selection.
Would such a description have helped you?
To me, if a person is teaching science, their first responsibility is to teaching--Are they actually communicating effectively with current set of students. Their second responsibility is to inspiration--Are the students strongly motivated to find out more on their own. Their third responsibility is to science--You have to teach methods and results. What is actually known, what is likely but still shaky, and what is an interesting hypothesis but not proven.
My greatest hope in teaching would be that some of my students would be inspired and either go forth and extend science or go forth and inspire others to do science well.
For the other readers on this blog, I am trying to figure out how to communicate succinctly, accurately, and effectively. Make suggestions. Ask questions.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Eric--

>Would such a description have helped you?

Hmmm. I would have liked to have heard it put that way, and I certainly would have preferred some scientific exploration around evolution rather than just a "it's the basis of everything in biology" and then on to covalent bonds &etc so we could have a prayer of regurgitating the steps in DNA replication.

And I would have liked to have just heard the term "modern synthesis" actually, about which my textbook was silent.

Isabel

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

The social science referenced here, as far as I can estimate from quotations, estimates religiosity only in regard to theism, and refers in particular to a "personal" (in the theological sense) and singular god; and expressions such as "church attendance" are applicable only for one variety of religion. It seems clear from these references that the data is applicable only for the Judaeo-christian sort of religion, and I suspect it altogether assumes a context of US or possibly anglo/american society. This ought to be made clear as a major limitation of the findings and the whole discussion. There is no apparent reason to think that the relation of religion and science beliefs and knowledge would be the same outside this one peculiar culture.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

@Steve--

excellent points. Why not post in connectoin w/ the interesting discussion occurring in connectoin w/ latest post? I'll post my answer again there too.

Here are items used to construct the "religiosity" scale:

How important is religion in your life?

1 ○ Very important
2 ○ Somewhat important
3 ○ Not too important
4 ○ Not at all important

Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services?

1 ○ More than once a week
2 ○ Once a week
3 ○ Once or twice a month
4 ○ A few times a year
5 ○ Seldom
6 ○ Never
7 ○ Don't know

People practice their religion in different ways. Outside of attending religious services, how often do you pray?

1 ○ Several times a day
2 ○ Once a day
3 ○ A few times a week
4 ○ Once a week
5 ○ A few times a month
6 ○ Seldom
7 ○ Never
8 ○ Don't know

They are for sure a crude measure of religiosity & only of particular sorts.

But I'd say that for the point being made -- that the "Evolution" & "Big Bang" items don't measure science comprehension in relatively religious people -- the admitted crudeness of the measure is not a problem. It's measuring something having to do w/ religion in a good number of people. And in the people who have a good amount of that in them, the "Evolution" and "Big Bang" questions don't measure scientific comprehension.

The limitation or qualitification you propose is a very good one, though, since we can be pretty sure that this measure is not validly measuring religious identity in many people.

What would be fascinating to me, though, would be to have data on how these items work for people who have strong non-christian religious identities, particularly ones whose religions have a view of the natural history of humans that can't be squared with evolution. Maybe those data are out there -- do you know of any such studies?

May 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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