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« Five theses on science communication: the public and decision-relevant science, part 2 | Main | Polarization on policy-relevant science is not the norm (the "silent denominator" problem) »

"Public comprehension of science--believe it or not!": the public and decision-relevant science, part 1 

Gave talk yesterday at a meeting of the Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences Iniative of the National Academy of Sciences.  The aim of the Initiative is to identify various avenues—in education, in political life, and in civil society—for enlarging the role that the life sciences play in everyday life. 

The Initiative is typical of the leadership role the NAS has fittingly assumed in integrating the practice of science with the scientific study of how ordinary citizens come to know what is known by science—a commitment on the Academy’s part that was highlighted in its Science of Science Communication Sackler colloquium in the Spring of 2012.

My talk was on how the pubic thinks about decision-relevant science. This is part 1 of 2. But slides for whole thing here

As is well-known to readers of this blog, I believe that doing and communicating science are very different things, even when the sort of science being done is the science of science communication.  Indeed, I believe the “science communication problem”—the persistent failure of the availability of valid science to quiet public controversy over risks and other policy-relevant facts to which that science speaks in a compelling way—is a consequence of our society's failure to devise practices and construct institutions that recognize fully the significance of the communicating-doing distinction.

To effectively communicate this point, I thought I would demonstrate what strikes me—as someone who only who does the science of science communication—as a clever way to communicate what I know to the public.

I told my audience that I would present the first part of my remarks in the style of a “reality tv” program or the like entitled, “Public comprehension of science—believe it or not!,” a show dedicated to sharing with viewers instances of the myriad “ ‘strange but true’ characteristics of the public’s knowledge of what science knows.”

This week’s episode (I told them) would feature three stories:

1.  Evolution: “believing,” “disbelieving” & understanding

About half of the general public in the U.S. does not “believe” that humans “evolved” from other animal species. They “believe” instead that humans were created, as is, by God.

This not surprising news to regular viewers of this program—or likely to anyone else. We are reminded of this fact at least once a year by Gallup, which has been polling Americans about their “belief” in evolution—and reporting more or less the same result—for many many years.

The “strange but true” thing is this: the half of the U.S. population that does “believe” in evolution is no more likely than the half that doesn’t to be able to be pass a high school biology test on the rudiments of how evolution works.

There is, researchers have found again and again, no correlation between whether someone says they “believe” in evolution and their understanding of the concepts of “natural selection,” “genetic variance,” and “random mutation”—the basic elements of the dominant, “modern synthesis” position in the science of evolution.

In fact, distressingly few of either the believers or disbelievers have an accurate comprehension of these dynamics.

And there’s another curious thing about “belief” & “disbelief” in evolution.

It’s definitely possible to teach people the basic elements of the modern synthesis, which are remarkably and elegantly simple. The evidence that supports them is reasonably straightforward too.

But imparting such understanding also has zero effect on the likelihood that those who then demonstrate basic comprehension of evolution say they “believe” in it! 

Researchers have demonstrated this multiple times, too, with both high school and college students.

Strange but true!

2.  Climate change risk perceptions: “fast” & “slow”

This week’s second story involves public comprehension of climate science.

The U.S. public doesn’t get it.

This was the conclusion of a very impressive 1992 study, which found that those members of the public who believed climate change was occurring tended to attribute it to holes in the ozone layer and other irrelevant phenomena.

When researchers re-did the study in 2009, the public was still woefully ignorant of elementary climate science. They found, of course, that a great many members of the public didn’t accept that global temperatures were increasing as a result of human CO2 emissions.

But even among the segment of the public who said they did accept this, the researchers found myriad, remarkable misunderstandings, including the belief that aerosol spray cans were one source of the problem and that cleaning up toxic waste sites would help to ameliorate it.

And here’s another thing.

The public tends to over-rely on cognitive heuristics in forming perceptions of risk. This is the theme, of course, of Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning work, and his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  

Various commentators who draw on Kahneman’s work (but interestingly not Kahneman himself, to my knowledge) assert that “bounded rationality” of the sort documented in this work explains why members of the general public don’t universally share climate scientist’s concern about the dangers that climate change poses to human wellbeing.

But social science evidence has established that those members of the public who are the most science literate, and who score highest in measures of the disposition to use reflective modes of reasoning (the “slow” kind, in Kahneman’s typology) are in fact the most culturally polarized on climate change risks!

As members of the public become more science literate, more numerate, and the like, they don’t converge on what climate scientists know.  They just become more reliable “indicators” of what people who hold particular cultural values believe.

Believe it or not . . . .

3.  Antibiotics: consensus, scientific & public

The last story for this week concerns antibiotics.

There is really no meaningful public controversy—cultural or otherwise—over whether someone who is not feeling well should seek medical treatment, and should take antibiotics if his or her physician prescribes them. 

But 50% of the U.S. public believes that antibiotics kill viruses and not just bacteria.

This is a consistent finding in studies that administer the NSF’s “Science Indicators,” the standard “science literacy test” used to measure what members of the public know about basic science—not just in the U.S. but globally.

Now in fact, the question is a “true-false” one, and so one might conclude that members of the U.S. public are doing no better than chance in their responses here.

But interestingly, U.S. respondents score consistently higher than members of the public from other countries, including Japan, Russian, South Korea, and the EU nations.  So really, we “know more” science than they do here.

Indeed, members of the public in the US tend to score higher on lots of items on the NSF science literacy test.  It really is tempting to say that the US is more science literate than the rest of the world!

Except that members of the rest of the world do so much better than we do on the NSF indicator item that asks whether humans evolved from other animals . . . .

But you know what that actually signifies? That the NSF item on “evolution” isn’t measuring the same thing as the rest of the test.  Those who consistently get 90+% of the questions are only slightly more likely than 50% likely to correctly answer the evolution question.

Actually, that shouldn’t surprise you at this point: it follows, almost logically, from the first story in this show, which related that there is really no relationship between saying one “believes” evolution and having and being able to form an accurate scientific understanding of evolutionary theory.

Social scientists have demonstrated that the “evolution” question is actually not measuring the same “science comprehension” quality in people who take the NSF science literacy test as the other items.  It is measuring their religiosity.

Yet proposals to exclude the evolution question from measures of “science literacy”  in studies that correlate science literacy with other attitudes tend to provoke significant controversy.  Critics say the item should be included even though it indisputably reduces the precision of the science literacy score as a measure of a latent science comprehension aptitude or disposition.

Sad but true. . . .

Next time: Five theses on public understanding and decision-relevant science, each of which can be illustrated using the three stories from this week’s episode of “Public Comprehension of Science—Believe it or Not!”

Not to give anything away, but if you think that what I’ve told you so far means (or even means that I think) the public is irrational, you are very wrong.

Wrong about what it means, and wrong about what public rationality and its relationship to decision-relevant science consist in. 

Part 2.

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Reader Comments (9)

Social scientists have demonstrated that the “evolution” question is actually not measuring the same “science comprehension” quality in people who take the NSF science literacy test as the other items. It is measuring their religiosity.

I think that is particularly interesting when coupled with this bit of info:

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Really interesting. If Pew did it, it's pretty likely to be a good survey.

In some sense, not that surprising. To self-define as "atheist," one has to have high level of interest, whereas identifying as "religious" is consistent w/ wide range of interest levels.

By same token, I am very willing to bet -- a modest amount, say, $10,000 -- that if we could identify people who are genuinely versed in or conversant with in "intelligent design" they would score *much* higher on test of evolutionary theory than average person or even average college grad.

June 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan - what odds are you giving?

By same token, I am very willing to bet -- a modest amount, say, $10,000 -- that if we could identify people who are genuinely versed in or conversant with in "intelligent design" they would score *much* higher on test of evolutionary theory than average person or even average college grad.

My guess is that there might be a matter of definitions here: I think you'd find that there are many Young Earth Creationists who would score much lower on tests of evolutionary theory than the average person or college grad but yes, many strong believers in ID know quite a bit about evolutionary theory. My guess dis that those two groups would balance each other out. Are you excluding YECs from your categorization of being genuinely versed in or conversant with ID?

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I am not as familiar as I ought to be w/ creationists. But I was not under the impression that there was an overlap between 'new earth' ones & those who espouse 'intelligent design.'

I'm sure, in fact, that that Behe is not 'young earth.' HIs arguments are of the form that "the probability that adaptation x could have evolved since the beginning of life given what we know about the rate of random mutation & the dynamics of natural selection is 1 in 10^32...." He doesn't use the cheap device of assuming beginning of life 6000 yrs ago.

He & other ID proponents also make clear that they accept evolution -- they don't think God created what we see, as is. They just say that what we see couldn't have happened spontaneously in the time frame available as undertood by the best evidence we have about the age of the earth & the emergence of life on it. Behe wouldn't enjoy any of the
creationist museums
that are cropping up.

I think anyone who gets what ID theorists are saying -- who has read, say, Darwin's Black Box (I have!), would have any problem whatsoever passing a test that requires a cogent understanding of the modern synthesis.

I would support ID being taught in a math class. It furnishes a textured and engaging foundation for making sense of lots of interesting concepts involving number theory, conditional probabilities, and valid causal inference.

I also think it is not consistent with the best evidence on evolution. By my estimation, 90% of the admitted "anomalies" that ID exploits have been resolved consistent with the modern synthesis (theories like 'puntuated equilibrium' & others dealign w/ the cambrian explosion all have that character). As for the other 10%, ID isn't leveling with its readers about what 'normal science' is all about. The current best understanding of evolution isn't anywhere close to a 'crisis' or 'breaking point' from its anomalies.

And in any case, if it breaks, science will insist on an answer that is not IDs -- ID rests on an alternative to science's way of knowing -- it fails 'nullius in verba,' in fact. It should admit it & we could have an interesting philosophical debate about what that means Y& whether that necessarily means ID is irrational.

But anyway, show me somoene who knows the modest amount that I've just demonstrated I have of the workings of ID. I guarantee he or she will be 2 SD's ahead of the population mean in understanding of the modern synthesis

June 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I think there are plenty of IDers who have beliefs overlap with YEC. If you define your terms and let me know your odds, we might have a bet!

Personally, I'm a big believer in "teaching the controversy." These controversies are all excellent material for what I think is at the heart of the matter: a meta-cognitive approach to examining motivated reasoning. Students should be developing the skills to learn to evaluate evidence, assess probabilities, and investigate the biasing influence of cultural cognition, confirmation bias, etc. What better subject matter than evolutionary theory and climate change?

I have no problem with exploring ID in math class orbiology class. I feel similarly about examining what "skeptics" have to say about climate change in earth science class. Hell, examine astrology in science classes and poli-sci classes and philosophy classes and sociology classes. People want to make non-existent distinctions between the disciplines and then incorporate them into pedagogy. Such distinctions do not exist in reality, and foster, they are made on a mistaken belief that somehow they make education easier somehow. That is only true if you consider education to be a "tabla rasa" paradigm where passive students think their goal should be to learn what they've been told and then spit it back out.

Don't get me started....

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"..But social science evidence has established that those members of the public who are the most science literate, and who score highest in measures of the disposition to use reflective modes of reasoning (the “slow” kind, in Kahneman’s typology) are in fact the most culturally polarized on climate change risks!.."

Can it be that they can better recognize hype when they look at the actual underlying data and do not buy the "story". My field is engineering, and I have yet to talk to someone practicing in the field that accepts the conclusions that man is mostly ( >50%) for Global Warming, Climate Change, Climate Weirding, or however else you want to define the worlds weather. Bring up Global Warming in a engineering gathering and you immediately get chuckles. Not to say that some find it a great way to cash in on the fad as business is business.

Hell, the way the "97%" is presented, I am a member of the 97%, and I do my best to help drive a stake through the heart of the CAGW green monster. I am old enough to have lived through the Global Cooling of the 70's, and this is more of the same by some of the same people. Funny enough, it is also many of the same proposed solutions.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

I find the “war” over evolution fascinating. I personally fall into the “don’t care” portion of the population on religion, but find the history of the fight very engaging.

Most of the evidence that is used to support the different positions on evolution is entirely circumstantial. Circumstantial evidence is useful, but must be viewed with caution. A quote from Conan Doyles’s Sherlock Holmes is a useful highlight of the problem of circumstantial evidence: “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes thoughtfully “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.” “There is nothing more deceptive than a obvious fact.”

“Uniformitarianism” was a key part of Darwin’s new theory as over immense and constant periods of time, countless new and distinct forms of life would be formed by the process of nature “selecting” those best able to survive and pass on the inheritance of these minute advantages along. Darwin totally rejected “catastrophism” with its sudden mass extinctions and leaps of new species coming suddenly into existence. “That natural selection generally acts with extreme slowness I fully admit...I do believe that natural selection will generally act very slowly, only at long intervals of time...Slow though the process of selection may be... As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favorable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps.”

As a strong case has been made for very short bursts of change due to catastrophe, it is can be reasonably argued that Darwin was wrong and his theory is either wrong or very incomplete.

Does this now make me an “evolution denier” as well as a CAGW denier also? :-)

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

Ed Forbes,

Darwin was a great biologist, and the founder of Darwinism, the scientific theory of the mutability of species over long periods of time.

But modern evolutionary biology has come a long, long way since Darwin. What is now "established" is called the Modern Synthesis - a combination of genetics, statistical analysis and the biological sciences like palaeontology, embryology and anatomy. Richard Dawkins has written some of the best popular works on the Modern Synthesis.

And beware of Darwin quotations - he spent a lifeltime defending his theory, and often had to admit his critics had good points. His main problem was lack of a convincing mechanism - he had no theory of genes whatsoever. Darwin published many editions of the Origin of Species with various concessions. However, the slow rate of evolution is well established, and Darwin's first edition of the Origins is actually the best.

Darwin did not admit of catastrophies like worldwide God-given floods, but he could have accomodated a comet striking the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs. But even that happens only every 50-million years or so! Otherwise, evolution proceeds even more slowly than Darwin imagined, since he had no inkling the planet is as old as we now know.

As for "denial", Darwin's work is an historical artifact, as much as Tyndall's work on heat-trapping gases. Tyndall and Darwin were well acquainted, even friends.

June 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterToby

"Darwin did not admit of catastrophies like worldwide God-given floods, but he could have accomodated a comet striking the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs. But even that happens only every 50-million years or so! Otherwise, evolution proceeds even more slowly than Darwin imagined, since he had no inkling the planet is as old as we now know."

Ah...but Darwin would deny that new species would, or even could, come up to replace the dinosaurs in the worlds version of a blink of the eye.

Bring up Gould who proposed punctuated equilibria and that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species, and you can generate quite heated discussions.

Darwin is the standard by which most non specialists judge evolution on, so yes, Darwin's comments are fair game. And it can be reasonably argued that Darwin was wrong on many points, which sends many people into anger.

The "theory of evolution" is actually a network of theories that created the research program of biology. These individual theories undergo constant change and revision. So the only thing that can be said if one "believes in evolution" is that yes, species change somehow over some unknown period of time and some species seem to be related. Get any more specific than that and you are getting into constantly changeable theory and not facts.

June 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

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