Belief does not imply knoweledge: On scientific literacy, evolution, and Geo-political perspective

Often much is made about the fact that fewer Americans “believe in evolution” than in Europe or Japan. This is true, and in some ways, concerning, but what in general, this question and its attendant assumption is completely misleading.

For one, there is almost no correlation between believing in evolution and understanding it. Dan Kahan points this out in an article for the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale:  

First, “believing in evolution” is not the same as “understanding” or even having the most rudimentary knowledge of science knows about the career of life on our planet. Believing and understanding are in fact wholly uncorrelated.

That is, those who say they “believe” in evolution are no more likely to be able to give a passable—as in high school biology passing grade—account of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variation” (the basic elements of the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary theory) than whose who “disbelieve.” Indeed, few people can.

Those who “believe,” then, don’t “know” more science than “nonbelievers.” They merely accept more of what it is that science knows but that they themselves don’t understand (which, by the way, is a very sensible thing for them to do; I’ve discussed this before).

Second, being enabled to understand evolution doesn’tcause people to “believe” in it.

It’s possible—with the aid of techniques devised by excellent science educators—to teach a thoughtful person the basic elements of evolutionary theory! Everyone ought to be taught it, not only because understanding this process enlarges their knowledge of all manner of natural and social phenomena but because seeing how human beings came to understand this process furnishes an object lesson in the awe inspiring-power of human beings to acquire genuine knowledge by applying their reason to observation.

But acquiring an understanding of evolution—that is, a meaningful comprehension of how the ferment of genetic variance and random mutation when leavened with natural selection endows all manner of life forms with a vital quality of self-reforming resilience—doesn’t make someone who before that time said they “disbelieved” evolution now say they “believe” it.

Empirical studies—ones with high school and university students—have shown this multiple times. Believe it or not. But if not, you are the one who closing your mind to insight generated by the application of human reason to observation.

Third, what people say they “believe” about evolution doesn’t reliably predict how much they know about science generally.

This is one of the lessons learned from use of the National Science Indicators.

The Indicators, which comprise a wide-ranging longitudinal survey of public knowledge, attitudes, and practices, offer a monumentally useful font of knowledge for the study of science and society. Indeed, they are a monument to the insight and public spirit of the scientists (including the scientist administrators inside the NSF) who created and continue to administer it.

Integral the the Indicators is a measure of “science literacy” that has been standardly employed in the social sciences for many years. The Indicators include a “knowledge” battery—an inventory-like set of “facts” such as the decisive significance of the father’s genes in determining the sex of a child and the size of an electron relative to that of an atom.

The indicators include two true-false items, which state “human beings, as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals,” and “the universe began with a huge explosion,” respectively. Test-takers who consistently get 90+% of the remaining  questions on the NSF test correct are only slightly more than 50% likely to correctly answer these questions, which are known as “Evolution” and “Big Bang” respectively.

That tells you something, or does if you are applying reason to observation: it is that “Big Bang” and “Evolution” aren’t measuring the same thing as the remaining items. In fact, research suggests—not surprisingly—that they are measuring a latent or unobserved “religiosity” disposition that is distinct from the latent knowledge of basic science the remaining questions are measuring.

While misunderstanding and rejecting evolution has serious impact on one’s understanding of medicine and biology, it does not indicate that one has scientific literacy. Furthermore, despite this statistic being trotted out as a indication of US illiteracy, the world wide scientific literacy rates are pathetically low, and indeed, even Europe and Japan do not fair better than the US:

“A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Miller’s research.

A professor in political science, Miller said one reason for the Americans’ slim lead is that the United States is the only major nation in the world that requires its college students to take general science courses.

“Although university science faculties have often viewed general education requirements with disdain,” he said, “analyses indicate that the courses promote civic scientific literacy among U.S. adults despite the disappointing performance of American high school students in international testing.”

So before those American exceptionalists start getting jingoistic, this only applies to the college educated.  Not the majority population, the general scientific literacy rates are extremely low among the none-college educated, and low in the industrialized “rich” world in general.   When you compare just students with secondary educations, Europe then gets the slight nod, but still at pathetically low rate: 

By giving his test to a representative sample in each nation, Miller can determine the scientifically literate fraction of that nation’s population, called the “scientific literacy rate” (SLR).

The bad news is that global scientific literacy is shockingly low. Among the 34 nations tested in 2005, the SLR rose above 30% in only one nation, Sweden, whose SLR was 35%.

For the United States, the good news is that in all of Miller’s results since the beginning of testing in 1988, the U.S. scored above nearly all other nations. In the 2005 tests, for example, the U.S. ranked second with an SLR of 28%; next-ranked were Netherlands, Norway, Finland, and Denmark at 20 to 25%; then 15 European nations including Germany, France, and the United Kingdom scoring between 10 and 19%; and finally 13 other nations including Ireland and Japan at under 10%. In light of American students’ mediocre showings in international science tests at the primary and secondary school levels, this is surprising. What happens to Americans after secondary school that accounts for this result?

One sees the opposite trends in Asian schools, where the secondary scores are very impressive, but the college scores do not show similar gains.  What do we make this:  People who try to score nationalistic political points off of science literacy do so by missing how bad at science the general population of the industrial world actually is.


One thought on “Belief does not imply knoweledge: On scientific literacy, evolution, and Geo-political perspective

  1. Pingback: The Incredibly Sloppiness of Intelligence reporting: | Symptomatic Commentary

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