Monday, July 02, 2012

Father decides best

Writing for The Atlantic, Robert Wright floated a too cute hypothesis (that Razib promptly undermined). The hypothesis, in essence, is that the militant atheism propagated by people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers has reflexively pushed Christians, who feel under siege, into "anti-scientism" (as Wright phrases it). But as Myers and Razib both point out, perceptions haven't changed much among creationists and evolutionists, who are demographically distributed in the same way they were more than a decade ago.

The anti-scientism charge is what piqued my curiosity. Previously, we've seen that Republicans are more scientifically literate than Democrats are, with a glaring exception on the question of evolution. I wondered, beyond the Darwinian issue, how scientific literacy compares among those who believe in evolution and those who do not. To avoid racial confounding, only whites are considered. The sides are pretty evenly split on the dichotomously posed query, with 53.6% of the population asserting that humans evolved from other animals and 46.4% denying that this happened. The following table shows the percentages of evolutionists and creationists who correctly answered each of 15 simple science literacy items that were posed in 2006, 2008, and 2010*:

Astrology is not scientific70.1%73.2%
The benefits of science exceed the harms82.2%73.8%
Understands the need for control groups in scientific testing85.9%80.7%
Demonstrates a basic understanding of probability93.7%91.4%
The earth's core is hot95.6%93.9%
Not all radioactivity is man-made87.9%82.0%
The father's gene decides the sex of a baby72.1%80.0%
Lasers are not made by condensing sound waves76.7%70.2%
Electrons are smaller than atoms77.5%70.2%
Antibiotics don't kill viruses66.4%61.1%
Continental drift has occurred and continues to occur95.6%84.1%
The earth revolves around the sun 85.8%77.5%
It takes the earth one year to revolves around the sun82.0%74.1%
Willing to eat genetically modified foods77.7%64.2%
The north pole sits on a sheet of ice71.3%53.7%

The stereotype of creationists as relatively ignorant of the basic tenets of science is a reasonably accurate one. The two exceptions are the question on astrology, with its own stereotypes of spiritual but not religious new age hippie chick adherents, and human reproduction, something creationists have a lot more firsthand experience with than evolutionists do (and anyway good liberal evolutionists are presumably loathe to admit to the truth of this horridly patriarchal aspect of human biology).


* Admittedly, the wording for some of these questions is suboptimal. Instead of mentioning the X or Y chromosome passed on by the father, we get "gene", for example. But the good needn't be the enemy of the perfect!


Anonymous said...

that north pole question is weird.

There is a sheet of ice at the north pole. Yeah, okay. But why did they phrase the GSS question so awkwardly? It sounds like a 3rd grader or even a kindergartner.

sykes.1 said...

Overall, the differences are not very impressive.

The evolution question is really loaded because many people who claim to believe in evolution reject Darwinian natural selection and embrace either Lamarckianism (acquired characters) or Spencerism (unfolding of inherent characters.

Virtually all faculty in the humanities and social sciences claim to believe in evolution and reject natural selection.

Jimbo said...

The "benefits of science" question sticks out like a sore thumb. That's an opinion, not a factually statement.

Anonymous said...

Virtually all faculty in the humanities and social sciences claim to believe in evolution and reject natural selection.

Ironic isn't it? What can be quite conclusively proved in the here and now, they don't believe. Yet, what can only be supported by evidence but not repeated by experimentation, they don't believe.

They believe what they wish to believe. They are on the same or lower functional level as many creationists. It is actually convenient to have fairly well educated creationists around because it allows the contrast to present itself.

Anonymous said...

should be

Yet, what can only be supported by evidence but not repeated by experimentation, they believe.

This has nothing to do with the theory itself, just the bizarre reasoning they employ.

pat said...

Bill O'Reilly claims to read a book a day. I only claim to read two books a week. We're both probably lying but the point is most people hardly read books at all. One exception would be the readers of this blog.

I've read about half of everything Steven Jay Gould wrote and also about half of all Dawkins - at least their popular works.

So I, like everyone else on this blog, understand what Darwin actually said and meant. But the vast majority of the public don't really get it. It's like the doctrine of "comparative advantage" in economics or "third normal form" in computer science. Everyone has heard of them but can't quite explain what they are and why they are important.

My ex-wife had a business partner who made in a year maybe double what I've ever made (maybe triple). He had read Lee Iococca's book. In his whole life that was the only book he had ever read. He told people about his having read it. It apparently made a big impression on him but he could never quite work himself up enough to try to get through another book.

If asked he would probably say that he believed in evolution - but what would his opinion be worth?

When I was an undergraduate at George Mason at a New Year's party I asked everyone there who was the Governor of Virginia. No one knew. Anymore than the typical man on the street today knows who Joe Biden is.

Most interesting public issues are too subtle for most of the populace. Global Warming is an excellent example. The theory rests on computer modeling and modeling assumptions. Most of the public are a little light in their math model experience.

Most people who express a belief in evolution do so only because they understand that such a belief is fashionable. If I were to ask that proverbial man on the street how to do a derivative of a function he wouldn't be embarrassed to admit ignorance. But differential calculus is quite easy compared to evolutionary theory. The problem isn't that he doesn't know, but that he doesn't know that he doesn't know.


Audacious Epigone said...


There are lots of instances similar to this with the GSS. It's an enormous survey with lots of questions, presumably mostly written by non-experts.


Great point regarding CAGW, which is probably the only 'scientific issue' split more starkly along partisan lines than the evolution question is.

silly girl said...

CAGW has not survived the test of time. I have no idea if it is correct, but a conservative personality is naturally going to be averse to making radical changes to who has power based on something brand new that hasn't had enough time to be really tested or verified. If the political class hadn't jumped on it as a way to enrich themselves and transfer wealth to favored groups, conservatives would likely be more interested. CAGW is more discussed in political terms than in scientific terms. The media have been the airhead cheerleaders for it, further making it look stupid, so much so, that it is harder and harder for it to get a fair public hearing over the teen girl style hype employed by the media to promote it.

When advocates use ad hominem attacks against skeptics, they really discredit themselves in the public square. When you can't get a reasonable discussion aired, you can't expect people of a traditional bent to take you seriously. It is too bad really that a more measured approach wasn't taken. Hysteria is a big turn off to prudent people.

Anthony said...

The only factual question with a clear answer and more than a 10% difference is the Continental Drift one. The "north pole" question is ambiguous, because there's water under that sheet of ice. So maybe the pole "rests" on the seabed.

The electron question is actually vague if you look at the detailed quantum mechanics - what is meant by "bigger"? But the number of people who would know that is probably less than 5%.