Sunday, January 13, 2008

Belief in Evolution = Scientific Literacy? Not So Fast...

"I can perfectly understand the precepts of Communism without believing them. Does that make me by definition illiterate about Communism?"

I just came across this post on the normally excellent Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog (emphasis mine):

I recently wrote about evolution and scientific literacy. The graph on the [right] shows the percentage of the population that understands evolution is a core scientific principle. The graph based on data from 2005 for 34 countries.

  • Blue indicates those that know that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.”
  • Yellow are those that are unsure
  • Red are those that don’t know that it is true

The United States is is second to last place in this questions of scientific literacy with only 40% of the population knowing the truth. The USA was between Cyprus and Turkey in this measure of understanding of scientific knowledge. The most knowledgeable countries have about twice the rate of knowledgeable respondents (with nearly 80% knowing).

I couldn't help responding in length to what I see as a seriously flawed conclusion. Below is the response I left in his comments section:

I'm a former engineer turned economist who is now studying religious groups from an economic perspective (basically the topic of the sociology of religion, but using the tools of economic analysis). It seems that using "belief in evolution" as the proxy for scientific literacy is an extremely unscientific and biased measure. It skews the data horribly by measuring something that is controversial in many circles and purporting that those who disagree are educationally lacking.

For example, I know many engineers who know far more about applied mathematics and science than 99% of the American (and world) population. Some of these same people are less than convinced about some of the claims of evolution. On the other hand, I also have many friends who struggle with algebra and know next to nothing about chemistry or physics (far less than the engineers), but who are absolutely convinced that evolution is a fact. According to this metric, they would appear more scientifically literate than the engineers.

Incidentally, the rates of belief in evolution in the Western countries shown on this graph loosely correlate with national levels of church attendance (high rates of belief in evolution = low church attendance). However, sociological research shows no particular level of scientific illiteracy amongst church-goers beyond this one issue of evolution. America is far more religious than any other Western country or Japan and therefore shows up as having lower rates of belief in evolution. That does not imply low rates of scientific knowledge in any other area.

The survey question used seems to have some serious problems with it. Many serious thinking people may answer this question about as "Not Sure". The question also doesn't ask if people understand the concept of evolution, but rather if they agree with its implications. Those are two different things. (For example, I can perfectly understand the precepts of Communism without believing them. Does that make me by definition illiterate about Communism?)

To draw a quote your own post about what Dr. Simon Best said everyone should learn: “I should teach the world the basics of the scientific method per se, and the basic statistical tools that support it. I feel passionately that these are core tools of citizenship, that - once grasped - allow anyone to ask the right questions of scientists and their respective advocates and opponents, whether in the private or the public sector.”

It’s important to extend the scientific method of inquiry to investigating societal and economic claims, rather than assuming our preconceptions of others to be true. We just might be surprised by what we discover that we never knew before and how many of our stereotypes of others are unfounded.

The economics of religion is a burgeoning field. I am currently working on my PhD in Economics and this is one of my sub-disciplines. I have about 40 blog posts on this topic so far.

I'd also highly recommend reading some of Professor Larry Iannaccone's excellent work on the for more on this.


curiouscat said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree that asking whether people comprehend some topic or if they hold some believe are different questions. This survey is clearly asking whether people accept the implications of the evidence of evolution all around us specifically for the development of human beings. I am sure there are people that accept evolution as the explanation for all the other development of life but stop at the development of human beings. I would consider those people to be literate on the topic of evolution - where others chose to draw that line is up to them (as I see it).

I agree my standards of scientific literacy might be a bit farther than most would place it (but not much I don't think). But I definately believe that line is fuzzy - it is not a binary state - scientifically literate either true or false. I probably wish for a higher level of scientific understanding to be considered scientifically literate than most do. But it might be clearer to say the level of scientific literacy is so low as to be unacceptable to me to be considered scientifically literate in this day and age.

Also to be clear: I can see that those taking the position that they do not accept that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” but do comprehend all the other implications of evolution is different than someone that doesn't understand evolution at all. Such an understanding could well be held by a scientifically literate person - from how I see things.

I also included a much longer post on my site.

Jason Br. said...

Evolution is not controversial in scientific circles.

William said...

There have been studies on this by the National Science Board.
Excerpts from a post I made as attempt to explain why the Creationism/Intelligent Design hoax persists so widely in America:

America is a religious culture, and... Americans are also scientifically illiterate and embrace psuedoscience, according to a report by the National Science Board. A portion of this report found on the government's National Science Foundation website, deals with public scientific literacy. Some quotes from the report:

"In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans....Studies also suggest that not many Americans are technologically illiterate... Researchers have concluded that fewer than one-fifth of Americans meet a minimal standard of civic scientific literacy ... it is possible to conclude that most Americans (two-thirds in 2001) do not have a firm grasp of what is meant by the scientific process. This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience. "

It is clear that the concepts of evolutionary biology are clearly not within the grasp of most Americans. The National Science Board says that it is important for basic scientific literacy to be better able to"participate in public discourse on science-related issues." However, most Americans believe the dinosaurs and humans coexisted, most do not know that electrons are smaller than molecules, and barely half know that it takes one year for the earth to orbit the sun. 70% of college aged adults (18-24) could not find New Jersey on a US map, 87% could not find Iraq on a world map.

I hope this helps.

billhallfamily said...

Belief in evolution is not like belief in the Tooth Fairy, it is like belief in gravity.