The evolution debate isn’t about science literacy either

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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