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« How religiosity and science literacy interact: Evolution & science literacy part 2 | Main | Science literacy & cultural polarization: it doesn't happen *just* with global warming, but it also doesn't happen for *all* risks. Why? »

What does "disbelief" in evolution *mean*? What does "belief" in it *measure*? Evolution & science literacy part 1

The idea that popular “disbelief in evolution” indicates a deficiency in “science literacy” is one of the most oft-repeated but least defensible propositions in popular commentary on the status of science in U.S. society.

It’s true only if one makes the analytically vacuous move of defining science literacy to mean “belief in evolution.”

It’s false, however, if one is interested in understanding, as an empirical matter, either what members of the public know about what is known to science or what the social meaning of “belief” in evolution is for members of culturally diverse groups.

Ultimately, I want to offer up some original data that helps to make my meaning clear.

But let’s start with some science of science communication basics. I’d be tempted to say they are ones that bear repeating over and over and over if I didn’t recognize that the persistence of disregard for them among popular commentators can’t plausibly be explained by the failure of those who have made or who are familiar with these findings to point them out time and again.

I start with these well-established findings, then, just so it will be clear what I see as the modest increment of corroboration and refinement to be added with the new data I'll describe.

Getting clear on what’s already known is what I’ll do in this post, which is part 1 of a 2-part series on evolution, ordinary science intelligence, religion, and (ultimately) how all of these are intertwined with the central constitutional difficulty of the Liberal Republic of Science. Part 2 is where I’ll get to the original data.

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’t cause 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.

What people are doing, then, when they say they “believe” and “disbelieve” in evolution is expressing who they are. Evolution has a cultural meaning, positions on which signify membership in one or another competing group.

People reliably respond to “Evolution” and “Big Bang” in a manner that signifies their identities.  Moreover, many of the people for whom “false” correctly conveys their cultural identity know plenty of science.

Accordingly, many social scientists interested in reliably measuring how disposed members of the public are to come to know what’s known by science, particularly across place and time, have proposed dropping “Big Bang” and “Evolution" -- not from the survey regularly conducted by the NSF in compiling the Indicators, but from the scale one can form with the other items to measure what people know about what's known to science. 

This proposal has raised political hackles. How can one purport to measure science literacy and leave evolution and the big-bang theory of the origins of the universe out, they ask?  Someone who doesn’t know these things just is science illiterate!

Well, yes, if you simply define science literacy that way.  Moreover, if you do define it that way, you’ll be counting as “science literate” many people who harbor genuinely ignorant, embarrassing understandings of how evolution works.

Plus you’ll necessarily be dulling the precision of what is supposed to be an empirical measuring instrument for assessing what is known—since people who do know many many things will “say” they “don’t believe” in evolution. They'll say that even if they -- unlike the vast majority of the public who say they "believe" in evolution--are able to give an admirably cogent account of the modern synthesis.

Indeed, you’ll be converting what is supposed to be a measure of one thing—how much scientific knowledge people have acquired--into a symbol of something else: their willingness to assent to the cultural meaning that is conveyed by saying “true” to Evolution and Big Bang, as many people who do, and for that reason, without having any real comprehension of the science those items embody and without even doing very well on the remainder of the NSF Indicator battery.

Even then, the resulting “scale” won’t be a very reliable indicator of “identity,” since most of the remaining questions are ones that people whose identities are denigrated by answering “true” to Big Bang and Evolution are ones that bear no particular cultural meaning and thus don’t reliably even single out people of opposing cultural styles.

But insisting that the measure that social scientists use to study “science literacy” include Big Bang and Evolution under these circumstances will still convey a meaning.

It is that the enterprise of science is on one side of a cultural conflict between citizens whose disagreement about the best way of life in fact has nothing to do with the authority of science’s way of knowing, which in fact they all accept.

A “science literacy” test that insists that people profess “belief” in propositions that its citizens all understand to be expressions of cultural identity is really a pledge of allegiance, a loyalty oath to a partisan cultural orthodoxy.

Steadfastly insisting that the state teach its citizens what science genuinely knows  (about evolution, the origins of the universe, and myriad other things), and even more critically how science comes to know what it does, is essential to enabling culturally diverse people to attain happiness by means of their own choosing.

But insisting that they pledge allegiance to a particular cultural orthodoxy doesn't advance any of those ends.  Indeed, it subverts the very constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.


Part 2.

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Reader Comments (36)

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.

I'm a bit taken aback by your language here of "correct" answers to these questions... Do you, personally, think there are "correct" and "incorrect" answers? Is your use of "correct" putative?

Anyway,this kind issue reminds me of the problems with norm-referenced standardized testing in education. Norm-referenced tests are widely accepted as valid a measure of someone's ability and/or knowledge. However, when we consider the meaning of "validity" there - to signify an accurate measurement of what is purportedly being measured, we see the problems cropping up. In reality, what norm-referenced tests tell you, primarily, is how a particular test-taker does on a specific test (at a specific moment in time and under specific circumstances) relative to the other people who took that test.

More valuable, IMO, are criterion referenced tests, which get closer to actually measuring what is purportedly being measured (although even there, there are many problems).

In this case, the "scientific literacy" test seems to be a criterion-referenced test, but is it really? The argument you present here certainly makes that viewpoint problematic. IMO, to measure "scientific literacy," questions should be asked to assess the level of knowledge, and the reasoning the test-taker can apply, with respect to the different arguments related to evolution or the beginning of the universe. That would be the more valuable metric. One is "scientifically literate" to the extent that they can apply reasoning to reflect on debates and support conclusions. If someone doesn't know the varying arguments about a particular subject being analyzed, and can't reflect on the validity of the various arguments, then I'd say that their "literacy" such as it is, is of limited comprehensiveness.

My feeling is that many "tests" we use are severely hampered by a bias towards wanting to numerically quantify phenomena that are very difficult to quantify. We pick some metric, that we think should be informative, and then place great emphasis on the "objective" value of the resulting numbers without really going back to check on validity. We pick something to measure that can be numerically quantified and then think that because we can come up with numbers we've completed the task.

A question, Dan. If you took any other two questions from the test, at random, how well would performance on those two questions predict performance on the remaining questions? I don't doubt that the two questions you singled out would be less predictive than other questions selected at random, but I do wonder about how much less predictive they would be.

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I don't think the "knowledge" component of the Indicators "science literacy" batter are a great test, no. I don't like "inventory style"; I think what it is most important to measure for purposes of assessing the quality of "civic science educatin" (useful conception that Miller, who invted the Indicators came up w/) is the sort of reasoning that is distinctive of science once you abstract from all the particulars of what it knows and how it come to know it. This is subject of post on "ordinary science intelligence" from while back.

But yeah, I think "true" is best answer for both Evolution & Big Bang if one is trying to reduce what is known about career of life on earth to something really simple.

On your question about predictive power of the questions -- the link in post takes you to portion of indicators that shows that Big Bang and Evolution are the only questions that getting a high score on the *remainder* does a horrible job in predicting. That's one of about 10 ways to show that if one is using the items to form a scale, you dont' want BB & E. It's all about covariance of responses -- if they don't covary in a tight way, they aren't measuring same thing. There are also important differences across groups: BB & E likely increases the reliability of the test for religious but not for nonreligious (or for republicans, etc). That's a classic validity problem: if the measure is not reliable for subgroups, you should fix your scale.

I'll say something about this in part 2 actually

June 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

But insisting that the measure that social scientists use to study “science literacy” include Big Bang and Evolution under these circumstances will still convey a meaning.

It is that the enterprise of science is on one side of a cultural conflict between citizens whose disagreement about the best way of life in fact has nothing to do with the authority of science’s way of knowing, which in fact they all accept.

Excellent point. And if you're interested in what is the source of the "toxic" or "pathological" aspect of controversies over scientific issues, I think you've put your finger on it: it's the attempt to use "Science" in the abstract as merely a kind of political/social tool -- a blunt instrument, so to speak -- to advance one's own side in a larger cultural conflict. Add AGW to evolution and the big bang and you'll see a similar pattern. I continue to think that a number of scientific issues at the center of public controversies have genuine or inherent cultural implications, and in those cases polarization to a greater or lesser degree is normal and will only be resolved over time through open debate and the accumulation of experience -- but that's distinct from this deliberate wielding of Science as simply a club in a cultural war.

P.S.: I smiled when I saw this: "Thank God for evolution" -- on a church sign.

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

It seems to me that a test needs to take into account how humans manage to compartmentalize their thought processes. If I divert a statement like "I do not believe in evolution" with a comment like: "Gee, you can save a lot of money on flu shots that way", I'm apt to get a more nuanced response. But if I press, I'm likely to make these people really uncomfortable. Because they don't want to really explore the outlines of what they do or don't believe on a functional daily life basis, they just want to express the idea that people like them don't believe in evolution. So there is room, for some people like this, if you are clear that belief is separate from what is to be taught in science class, to have the ability to limit science class to science. On the other hand, if you jump up and down on their heads about their claimed beliefs they will get ultra defensive, and lash back.

Somewhat similarly, in my Methodist childhood, everyone dutifully stood up in church every week to sing "the Doxology" (or to some, the "Gloria Patri") which goes, depending on how it was translated, in part: As it was in the beginning, Is now and ever shall be, World with out end, Amen, AAAAhmen. This goes really nicely with a good pipe organ. Ringing in my ears just now it is quite nostalgic. It's a great ditty, quite dramatic. Booming low notes on the pipe organ; World without end! Now that I've resurrected this inside my head, I need to invent new words to go with the tune. But, I don't think most people sweat the details too much.

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


I know someone who is studying *exactly* your proposed "compartmentalizating" dynamic -- in Islamic countries (mainly Turkey; easying himself in, essentially, since they have very hybrid set of institutions), where he looks at how science-trained professionals (mainly Drs, some other kinds of technicians) negotiate patent tensions between religious and various elements of their science-based professional knowledge. He reports that usually it takes about 15 awkward minutes for the subjects he's interviewing (most of whom have been *trained* in European or US professional or post-grad programs; they can talk easily generally w/ him) to *get* what the hell he is talking about. When they do they say -- "oh: at work I believe this, at home that." Most natural thing in the world apparently -- or at least is when poltical social conditions are relatively quiet etc.

I think we overstate the tension between secular & sectarian in some respects (but only in some; obviously the secularization of human societies is a huge, momentous thing).

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


Can you get me a photo of that sign?

Also, after tomorrow or whevenever it is that I do part 2, cosider whether it's possible to play WSMD, JA w/ things relating to climate, evolution, science literacy, etc.

Actually, there was *so* much debate going on in last thread about "economic intersts" & other explanations for the science literac/polarization interaction. C'mon, someone propose a decent WSMD, JA when stuff like that happens or will all drown in waves of storytelling!

June 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, it isn't true that the Big Bang and evolution items are poor discriminators in the NSF Indicators scale. They certainly reflect something to do with religious belief in addition to whatever it is that the other items measure, but they also have steep discrimination parameters on the latent knowledge variable if you run IRT models. This is one of the arguments made for retaining them in the scale, as well as the other arguments that you critique above. See the NSF workshop reports by Tom Guterbock and Chris Toumey.

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Alas, I was driving when I saw the sign, and now it's gone, so no photo. A nice short example of how to communicate across cultural divides, though, don't you think?

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


Thanks for this comment.

Those are excellent reports, produced by public-understanding-of-science "dream teams."

They are very much part of the background I'm drawing on in the post. Indeed, my reading of those reports informs my opinion that E and BB should not be included in a "science literacy" scale w/ the other knowledge items.

I'll elaborate a bit on why I think that, and say more in "part 2."

Welcome your critical reflections -- now or after next part.

To start, I find Roos, J.M. Measuring science or religion? A measurement analysis of the National Science Foundation sponsored science literacy scale 2006–2010. Public Understanding of Science (2012) very compelling.

As you l'm sure your know, Roos presents a very compelling demonstration that E and BB don't scale well with the remaining "knowledge" items because they load on "Young Earth Creationist" worldview latent variable. Roos replicates the findings from this model across 7 data sets.

To my knowledge, this is the only published examination of the psychometric performance of the Indicators as a knowledge "scale" aside from the work Miller initially did in developing these items.

The NSF workshop reports, which were prepared in part in response to the NSF's own controversial 2010 decision no longer to treat BB and E as members of the knowledge *scale* (but still to collect the data on these items), aren't at odds w/ anything in Roos. They don't themselves present any analyses at all on the scale performance of the Indicators and instead allude only to "informal" unpublished analyses performed by various researchers (including some very eminent ones!).

Moreover, both reports are critical of E and BB. They very sensibly propose replacing E with a set of evolution knowledge items that would in fact identify who actually understands basic concepts of evolutionary theory, something that E, which is a "belief" item, doesn't do. As I mentioned in my post, there's plenty of evidence that people who "don't believe" in evolution can form and convey a solid understanding of the elements of the modern synthesis. So test that -- knowledge, not "belief."

Here are some excerpts from the reports.

From Toumey et al:

To explore knowledge of evolution, the following steps are recommended: First, there cannot be only one binary item on evolution. Instead, there should be a scale of knowledge of evolution. This means a module with multiple items. A module on evolution can survey knowledge of individual elements (genotypic variation; phenotypic variation; adaptation; natural selection; speciation; and so on).

Second, the topic of evolution ought not to be reduced to human evolution. Plant evolution, for example, is critical to public policy in the area of genetically modified organisms, and microbial evolution is relevant to questions about antibiotics and vaccines.

Third, these items need to be knowledge questions, not religion or attitude questions. It is noted that the General Social Survey (GSS), which collects data for Chapter Seven of the Indicators, also collects high quality data about religion and other phenomena. Correlations can be used to explore the interesting relations between religion and knowledge of evolution, but knowledge of evolution has to be defined and measured in its own terms.

From Guterbock et al.

To our knowledge, the relationship of various aspects of religiosity with answers to the evolution and big-bang items has been explored informally by several researchers, but has not yet been fully treated in published research. These informal explorations find, as expected, that fundamentalist respondents are less likely to endorse these items. . . .

While these questions are stated as simple factual propositions without any direct religious content, it is clear that some respondents respond to the items based on doctrines of the religious belief systems to which they are committed. In particular, conservative Christians who hold the Bible to be inerrant would be reluctant to endorse these items as being “true.” The continued strength of conservative Christianity in the United States would then explain the lower scores on these items in the United States compared with other developed countries.

In earlier surveys that did not incorporate direct questions about religion, lower scores on these items are found in southern states, where fundamentalist and conservative Christian religious traditions are strongest. As Tourangeau’s split ballot experiment showed, the items achieve far higher levels of endorsement if they are preceded with the phrase “According to… .” And Sally Stares’ item analysis comparing UK and US response patterns (presented at the workshop) shows that, among US respondents, these items are located in a different area of a two-dimensional factor space than are the other general knowledge items. . . .

Nick Allum showed with an IRT model that the evolution item is more “difficult” in the US than in the UK (that is, one needs to have a higher level on the knowledge scale in order to answer it correctly). It is also a relatively weak discriminator for overall science literacy in the UK, but a much stronger one in the US. However, some further IRT analyses by Sally Stares suggest that this strong discrimination may be part and parcel of its generally different measurement behavior when compared with the other items in the set. A two-trait model of US items from 2005/06 showed notable differences in the measurement behavior of the evolution and “big bang” items compared with other knowledge items.

With all this said, it is true that the evolution and big-bang items do still correlate fairly well with the other general-knowledge items. Thus, they do function in part as measures of science knowledge, but they are also clearly picking up another dimension (i.e., personal commitment to Christian—or perhaps other—religious orthodoxy).

In a word, these are not really bad indicators of science knowledge, but they are not the best.

As has already been suggested in the report of the Toumey conceptualization workshop, it would also be possible to test knowledge of evolution by asking about other aspects, such as plant evolution, survival of the fittest, or other elements of evolutionary process that are less directly tied to the hot-button issue of human origins.

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I am skeptical about whether your second claim, that acquiring an understanding of evolution does not cause people to believe it, has been established. I haven't read all of the linked material, but the first article I looked at made claims about _instruction_ in evolution rather than understanding of it. Anyone who has dabbled in teaching knows that those are not the same thing; nor does an ability to answer content-based questions (which probably dominate most high school and early university assessments) imply understanding.

To establish your point, one would at least have to measure the degree of understanding that has been acquired (which I imagine may be negatively correlated with prior anti-evolution belief) and show that increased understanding does not lead to increased belief. Even then, the strongest claim one could make is that a specific (measured) level of understanding is not sufficient to induce belief - such a claim implies nothing about what would happen if the degree of understanding is enhanced further.

The idea you are battling against, that (a sufficiently high level of) understanding induces belief, is not just axiomatic - we know this happens because it is how scientific knowledge is created in the first place. It underlies the whole notion of "proof": in science (and especially but not exclusively mathematics), proving a claim is simply the process of conveying, to a highly skeptical audience, an understanding of why the claim has to be true. Only once such understanding has induced belief in a critical mass of scientists can a claim be regarded as scientific knowledge. To question this is to criticize science as subjective and socially constructed (a valid line of attack, but I'm not sure if it's one you intend to take).

Of course, one doesn't expect _incomplete_ understanding to induce belief in a skeptical audience, so it may well be that the bar is too high to be of relevance for the public - in the case of evolution, a finding that high school and early undergraduate level understanding is insufficient would be both believable and interesting. But it seems to me the problem should be framed as measuring how high the bar is rather than whether it exists at all.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

I think I want to play WMD?JA!

Rather as konrad said above, my intuitive prior belief is that anyone who understands evolution as well as I do almost has to agree with statements such as "humans are evolved from other animals". But we are something like two percent of the population, so if belief is independent of knowledge for everyone else, I would not expect whole-sample correlations to reflect the power of knowledge. It is interesting, but not profoundly surprising, that high-school knowledge has little impact on beliefs.

Give me a subsample of 30 people who could get A's on your biology department's undergraduate evolution final, and compare their agreement with that one "humans..." question to the rest of the population -- if it ain't higher, you will blow my mind.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAn igyt

konrad's comment got me thinking (which is always dangerous).

Believing and understanding are in fact wholly uncorrelated.

There does seem to be a fundamental problem with that statement.

Obviously, even if you controlled for any possible overall changes in religiosity, virtually no one "believed" in evolution prior to the popularization of Darwin's theory.

Clearly at some point, there is some degree of correlation between understanding and believing, even if the association is not perfectly proportional throughout the journey from a complete lack of understanding to a complete understanding.

It would also seem that the specific context under which "understanding" takes place would affect the level of "belief." If my primary instruction about evolution took place in a religious context from instructors whose intent was largely to get me to believe evolutionary theory is the work of the devil, or that evolution could only happen if it were directed by a supernatural being, then my beliefs about evolution would likely be influenced accordingly. If my social identifications were inextricably linked to a community that rejected anyone who didn't think that the bible was the direct word of god, it would influence how I filtered an information I was given about evolution. Likewise if I were taught about evolution by teachers whose intent was, in part, to explain that creationism is fundamentally unscientific, my beliefs would likely be influenced accordingly.

So while it would be a mistake to think that understanding and belief are perfectly correlated (and hence we see results that those two questions are particularly poor predictors of scientific literacy), it does seem that there is something missing in a broad statement that there is absolutely no correlation between understanding and belief.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

If one disagrees with the "consensus" on evolution, and one is scientifically literate, then might one have a form or mental disorder?

In his speech published in the state newspaper Pravda on 24 May 1959, Khrushchev said:
"A crime is a deviation from generally recognized standards of behavior frequently caused by mental disorder. Can there be diseases, nervous disorders among certain people in a Communist society? Evidently yes. If that is so, then there will also be offences, which are characteristic of people with abnormal minds. Of those who might start calling for opposition to Communism on this basis, we can say that clearly their mental state is not normal."

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

Part 2 (stupid computer that submitted my post instead of making a carriage return)
Whether the test measures scientific literacy rather than culture and education dependent test taking skills. For instance, would a person who tests as scientifically literate be able to fix household wiring, walk on coals, or cook a perfect soft boiled egg--experiments that require belief in simple scientific facts not just test taking skills.
If any of the wonderful commenters above can prove to me what the tests measure, I would be delighted. I would even settle for a solid definition of 'belief in evolution' or 'belief in the Big Bang.'

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

An hypothesis or two.

For some, 'I believe in evolution' means 'I believe that science is a better way to understand and interact with the world than is my perception of religion in the middle ages.' The 'belief' is not really about well worked out beliefs or about science or evolution.
For others 'I believe in evolution.' comes across as 'You want me to buy in, without thought, to the 'sciency' hokum that your tribe wants to be true and to deny both the possibility that religion is true and that my cultural tradition has value. If your belief was so good why can't you even define the terms and why do the sciency types keep inventing untestable things and pretending that they are science and not philosophy. If you want to argue science, why do you refuse to let actual science into the argument?'
My experience is that if you start with some definitions of terms and with what is known and not known, then the various sides communicate better and find that they have a lot in common.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Konrad, An Igyt et al.

1. I think we would agree, right, that it makes sense to avoid the sort of metaphysical engagement of the "belief-knowledge" point that not only would make it insusceptible of testing but also make it uninteresting or unrelated to practical issues about how to think about what it makes sense to try to teach students or other curious people, and how to measure whether particular ways of doing so are succeeding. Accordingly, I propose this:

a. The public education system and other appropriate institutions should be trying to teach students and help members of the public generally to form a meaningful understanding of the elements of the modern synthesis in evolution. A literate person -- civically and otherwise -- should be able to give a cogent account of how genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection fit together; of the evidence that supports the view that these mechanisms account for the variety & complexity of life forms we see in the world; and also an account of the nature of the myriad "puzzles" that it is the business of normal science in this field to solve-- or die trying.

b. The right way to measure whether that sort of knowledge is being imparted involves testing whether a cogent account can be given. The idea that someone "believes in" evolution has no role at all to play in such testing. Someone who says "I believe" but can't give a cogent account has been educated in the way that is satisfactory (although I don't think that's the end of the world, either; people can live good lives and not understand all kinds of things important to science -- it would be foolish to think otherwise!). Likewise, if someone can give the account then that counts as a "success" for whatever process of education enabled her to do that -- even if she then says, "I don't believe in evolution."

2. The idea that imnparting the knowledge described in (1) won't or at least in the US at this time doesn't cause "belief" in evolution is an empirical one. I think the studies linked in the post speak to that issue -- offer evidence -- in a manner that is more forceful than Konrad surmises. But I think the evidence is just -- evidence. More reason than one otherwise would have had to accept one hypothesis and reject another. That's all that science ever gives us. People who think science "proves" propositions rather than furnishes probative evidence -- they are not "science literate"! So we should look closely at the studies & see how strong the evidence they furnish is; try to think what additional soruces of evidence would furnish even more reason one way or other other; and keep our eyes open for it.

3. We certainly can play WSMD? JA!. But only if we follow the rules! The game doesn't involve creating experiments that we aren't in a position to carry out -- although that is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. WSMD JA! requires giving an account of how evidence that the data set on hand can be used to test hypotheses; how that evidence can be used not to "prove" things but simply to make hypotheses of interest mor pro less convincing than we woudl otherwise have reason to think them to be.

4. How about this? Do @An Igyt, @Konrad & others agree that *if* "knowing" of the sort I described will tend to cause *belief in* evolution (which I will take to mean the sort of *provisional assent* that soeone w/ a scientific sensibility affords to whatever he or she regards as for now the most supportable account of a phenomenon), then we should expect "science literacy" as measured by the Indicators (sans E & BB; we don't want to include the outcome variable in the predictor) to be positively correlated with "belief in" evoution?

This is not a perfect test, of course. It won't "settle" anything (nothing ever does!), or even count as 'super strong' evidence of the sort that An Igyt's experiment imagines (but in his or her experiment is what researchers did in papers I linked to!)

But presumably, there will be a positive correlation, even if only modest, between "doing well" on the NSF Indicators (again,other than E and BB) and "knowing" how the modern synthesis works. If "knowing" that tends to produce "belief," then doing well on the Indicators science literacy test should be positively correlated w/t "believing" in evolution.

If you agree that sort of test would give us more information relevant to our competing conjectures, I can certainly do it.

June 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Eric -

My experience is that if you start with some definitions of terms and with what is known and not known, then the various sides communicate better and find that they have a lot in common.

W/r/t defining terms. After engaging with folks in the blogosphere, who believe in Intelligent Design and/or creationism (depending on how you define the terms), I have come to believe that the problems with definitions reach down to the most basic levels. I have had disagreements with folks (many of them far more scientifically literate than I, if that is relevant) who have a completely different definition of what constitutes a "scientific theory," and what constitutes "scientific evidence."

If person A and person B defines those terms differently, then how can we measure who is more (or less) scientifically literate?

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

We can define who is more 'scientifically literate' through a test but the meaning of the result is suspect, sort of like discriminating among dog breeds by the pitch of their bark.
On scientific theory and scientific knowledge, I have found the same disparities, even, surprisingly, among scientists. The most flagrant example comes from those who say that string theory in physics is science while John Wheeler at Princeton said that string theory is philosophy because there are no conceivable experiments that would allow anyone to test it.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@An Igyt:

I didn't forget (although I did just remember!).

June 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Yes - the same question of "testtability" relates directly to the question of whether Intelligent Design is a "scientific theory."

IMV, it all boils down to matters of faith: how one defines what is or isn't "scientific" is based on one's starting premises - i.e., what one takes to be true based on faith. How could I convince someone who has faith that a supernatural being exists and controls the universe that ID is not scientific? It would be impossible.

But methinks this is getting too far into the metaphysical engagement that Dan seems to prefer that we steer away from.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Re: understanding and belief, and just a suggestion:

One can (and commonly does) believe something without understanding it, but it's hard to see how one could understand something and not believe it. Accordingly, we can say that understanding is just one form or type of belief -- and there are others: e.g., belief based on experience, belief based on authority, belief based on wishes. There's another important kind of belief that's at the core of the religious attitude -- belief based upon a conscious commitment to a worldview and values, that layers over top of mundane, empirical understandings/beliefs. In other words, one can (and many people do) hold different kinds of belief at the same time, at times even about the same thing. In the case of evolution, for example, one might be able to understand quite well the rather simple mechanisms that underlie it, and so implicitly believe in it in that sense, but nevertheless deny that one "believes in evolution" in, say, the Dawkins/Dennett sense of some grand explanatory principle that banishes the divine. (in the case of the Big Bang, I don't think anyone claims to understand it, but again many can accept that there is substantial evidence for a very hot dense universe at an earlier period but deny the inferred implication that this explains the universe. Btw, my own understanding is that, despite the title, it's not correct to call the Big Bang an "explosion".)

My sense of the point here is that, in the tests and surveys referred to, people are reacting to certain questions that seem to affect their general worldview and value system on a different level than those that simply test their empirical knowledge. I think we'd see a similar phenomenon if we asked people about their beliefs regarding recycling, for example (a candidate for WSMD, JA?)

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


I agree w/ you on the strategy for demonstrating that the E and BB questions measure worldview rather than science knowledge. That's what I'd say Roos has done: show not only that E doesn't scale well w/ the other questions -- and so isn't measuring same thing -- but fits better some other latent disposition that is plausibly viewed as a "worldview." So for rspts w/ that worldview, E means "what's your worldview," not their knowledge of anyting relating to science.

But on "believeing"/"knowing"-- I think that the "impossibility" position you are working out is not right, at least not given what we are talking about.

I understand all kinds of theories I don't believe. E.g., that people are divided on climate change b/c they don't know the science or understand it , etc.

Also, if someone comes up w/ evidence contrary to all sorts of theories I understand & believe now about how the world works, I'll stop believing in the theories -- w/o losing my knowledge of the now discredited theories.

@Joshua raises Intelligent Design. Unless you think Behe is lying, I think he is proof one can "know" how the modern synthesis works & not believe it. Indeed, anyone genuinely understands ID, necessarily undersands the modern sytnhesis, since ID is an inference to "intelligent design" *from* the existence of observatoins that its prpoponents say can't be explained given genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection. tose who disagree w/ them & who "know" what they are talking about say that the observations in qustion are in fact no inconsistent; but they don't dispute that ID theoriest understand the modern synthesis - & could get an A+++ in a highschool biology test or a college one.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


I agree that the knowledge you describe in (1) is of the right sort, and that the empirical question in (2) is interesting. But I think measuring knowledge/understanding as a binary variable is too limiting - my point was that there are multiple levels of understanding, and the interesting question is at which level understanding-induced belief will kick in. This has practical implications - it would be useful to have a better sense of when and to what extent one can expect education/communication to induce changes in belief and/or action that are not premised merely on acceptance of authority. Your thesis seems to be that the answer, for scientifically literate members of the general public, is "never" - only when when this is true are the results of a yes/no analysis informative.

*if* "knowing" of the sort I described will tend to cause *belief in* evolution ... then we should expect "science literacy" ... to be positively correlated with "belief in" evoution?

No, understanding-induced belief is not about general scientific literacy, but about in-depth understanding of a particular argument. I do expect a (weak) correlation, but it may be better explained as science literacy being correlated with willingness to accept science as an authority, coupled with authority-induced belief.


I interpret "understanding" in this discussion as including knowledge of the evidence on which a claim is based - in this interpretation, our understanding does change as the evidence changes.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad


Another point: we are talking about population averages. There will always be individuals (like Behe) who are outliers, but this does not invalidate population-level claims. Ideally one would plot % of population convinced vs level of understanding.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

In your proposed plot, what is the measure of 'convinced' and what is the measure of 'level of understanding?' Are these measures correlated? Thanks.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield


I understand all kinds of theories I don't believe.

Yes, I don't doubt (and vice versa, no?). But I didn't mean that understanding confers belief, only that it's one kind or basis of belief -- and of course also a basis for disbelief. My point was just to distinguish the type of belief that is based on understanding from other types (e.g, experience, authority, etc.), since there seemed to be some confusion about the relation between the two.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

PS: Looking again at my first comment on understanding and belief, I realize that I need to take this back: "... but it's hard to see how one could understand something and not believe it" -- thanks for the correction.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


Agree about "binary" measures. So do the panels that the NSF asked to address the adequacy of the Indicators following the controversy in 2010, when the NSF decided that it itself would no longer include E & BB in the overall "science literacy" score. See my response to Nick's comment. The NSF tries to be more agnostic now -- score things however you like!, it prudently advises. But the real point is that a set of "true/false" questions can never be much of a test of the public's knowleddge of anything -- even when those questions don't come across to members of the public as tests of their cultural identity (as E & BB do for many)

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@Eric: I have no idea how best to measure these things - I'll leave that to the experts. By "ideally" I meant "in an ideal world" - I wasn't trying to make a practical proposal.

Whether and how strongly the measurements correlate is the empirical issue under investigation - best to wait for results on that one.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

I am hoping that someone in this group is one of those experts and can explain the design to us. By correlate, I mean that it the two measures are not designed to be independent then they will correlate by design independent of the actual data. I try to be aware of any underlying intrinsic correlations of design.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Konrad & @Eric:

On continuous vs. binary measures....

I myself meant to agree w/ Konrad to the extent that he was suggesting that it is not tendable to think that one can measure understanding of evolution w/ a "true-false" question. It's a great litmus test for affiliation w/ a cultural style, certainly. But "true" is consistent w/ having an understanding of evolution that would get an "F" on a highschool biology test and "false" doesn't rule out being able to give an account of the modern synthesis that would warrant an "A."

The issue I understand us to be discussing is whether it is plausible to think that people can in fact acquire the sort of understanding of the modern synthesis that warrants an "A" without their being made to form the identity that makes them say they "believe" in evolution.

It's logically *possible" for them to do that, certainly. That was the point of saying "look at Behe & other ID theorists." They understand evolution very well; they don't "believe" it b/c they think that it can't explain the data-- but that doesn't mean they they don't understand the modern synthesis.

however, I didn't offer Behe or ID theorists as evidence that the process of education that would enable people to understand the modern synthesis wouldn't tend to cause them to "believe" in evolution. That's an empirical question, not a logical one. And it's a qustion about what happens to people in general, and can't be answered by pointing to individual cases.

For that we'll need evidence to make appropriate measurements with a valid and adequate sample.

Konrad, I see, also says that the sort of evidence we we ought to measure should be continuous -- or at least not binary in form. I'm not sure about this.

It could be done, I think.

Certainly the "knowledge" of evolution 'variable' could be measured in a more fine-grained way than "know" vs. "not know" or "understand" vs. "not." High school biology teachers presumably grade on a "curve," not a "cliff": they can ask a series of questions that display greater or lesser comprehension of how the dynamics of genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection work within the modern synthesis.

So one could measure "knowledge" that way & then see if imparting it in students makes them more likely than they otherwise would have been to say "Yes, I believe in evolution!"

In fact, the studies I linked on teaching high school and college students tested in that way & concluded that effective acquisition of knowledge didn't incrase the likelihood of "believing."

But Konrad might also like to have a continuous measure of "belief." Not all or nothing.

Here I'm inclined to disagree -- disagree that this would be useful.

It could be done. One could have a measure that says, "Do you believe? Okay, how confident our you in your belief/disbelieve on a scale of 1-10?"

Or one could say, "What do you think the probability is that evolution is 'true'? 0% 10% ... 100%?" etc.

But I'm not sure those measures would be either reliable or valid. People would likely have differing views of what the degrees of confidence or probability measure (I myself woudl be confused about what is being asked). We'd be confused -- or at least I would -- about what such an outcome variable like this is measuring.

But in any case, if anyone is still thinking about what we can do with the data at our disposal (or at mine) to test the competing hypotheses -- that being enabled to "know" does vs. doesn't induce "belief" -- then this is all "academic."

I have "belief" items. I have science literacy items. I have religion items. I have demographic items. I have worldview ones too. And edducation level.

So can you formulate a test using these data that give us more reason or less to believe that one or the other hypothees is true?

I propose correlationg "science literacy" -- w/o the E and BB items; if they are included, the predictor and outcome variables are no longer genuinely distinct from one another! -- w/ "belief" in evolution.

those "high" in science literacy aren't certain to "understand' the modern synthesis but I think it is reasonable to think they are more likely to than those who are "low" in science literacy.

If there is a correlation between science literacy and "belief" in evolution, that's consistent with the view that "knowing" conduces to "believing.'

If there *isn't* a correlation, then that is evidence more consistent with "knowing" doesn't induce or depend on "belief."

June 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

A couple of belief tests

If you claim to believe in physics, walk across a bed of hot coals. Physics says you will be fine if you keep your feet flat on the coals.

If you claim to believe in biochemistry, drink wood alcohol. This will kill you unless you drink ethanol really quickly thereafter. Do you believe in biochemistry enough to bet your life on it?

Stated differently it might make sense to create tests for which your beliefs could have a large cost if you are wrong.

On a different tack, lack of belief, or at least lack of communication, may hinge on single points. For instance, I don't listen to evolution deniers who start by denying the geological and biological history of the Earth. I don't listen to evolution zealots who have not thought about the fact that there does not seem to have been enough time between the formation of the Earth and the rise of life to create life by any evolutionary mechanisms that we understand now. If you want me to listen, you can't have big gaps in your story.

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Unless you think Behe is lying, I think he is proof one can "know" how the modern synthesis works & not believe it.

By the criterion of being able to provide a "cogent account", Behe does not in fact know how the modern synthesis works.

Solutions to the problem of irreducible complexity have been a part of the modern synthesis since the 1930s. Behe's 352-page book on this topic claimed to upend Darwinism, but it simply does not address the modern-synthesis argument. In what sense can Behe be said to "know" how the modern synthesis works?

Suppose that someone had accurate familiarity with classical mechanics, but also claimed that current physical theories were incapable of explaining the photoelectric effect. In what sense does that person "know" modern physics?

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Parker

@Matt Parker:

Behe certainly "understands" the modern synthesis.

You know what I mean what I say this but I'll spell it out for the 100s who I'm sure are observing our exchange! Then I'll address what I understand to be your objection to my describing him as "understanding" but not "believing."

The modern synthesis-- as you for sure know!-- does in fact generate constraints on the speed at which evolution can take place -- ones relating to random mutation rates, genetic variance, and reproduction & various mechanisms that govern how they interact. Those constraints are used to test various claims about how observed biological phenomena might have evolved -- many conjectures can be ruled out as too improbable given the amount of time the specified evolutionary path would have taken to play out.

Behe's game is try to collect observed biological phenomena that he says are so improbable as to be impossible given the constraints that modern-synthesis theories themselves agree their theory implies.

So he gets that.

What he doesn't get -- what he variously ignores, misrepresents, unreasonably disputes, etc. -- are all sorts of evidence that shows the examples he amasses of "impossible" forms of biological complexity aren't -- that they can be accounted for consistent with the mechanisms of the modern synthesis.

So anyone who truly gets the logic of any of Behe's arguments will necessarily understand the modern sytnesis -- which actually can't be said for the overwhelming majority of people who say they "believe evolution." Of coruse, I'm sure only a tiny fraction of the people who say they believe "ID" actually get the logic of Behe's arguments -- they believe what they don't understand just like most everyone else...

Now your point... I think you are saying "undertanding" requires "assenting to evidence." That's interesting, but here's why I disagree.

To start, I think your hypo isn't really apt. You are positing someone who doesn't know about a theory, not someone who understands & rejects it.

A better case case would be a physicist who *does* know of & understand quantum mechanics and still doesn't *believe* it.

Do you think those physcists (admittedly only a minority!) who are unconvinced by experiments demonstrating entanglement -- & who still find EPR's realism convincing -- just don't "understand" the uncertainty principle or Bell's inequalities or other elements of Quantum Mechanics?! Einstein surely understood quantum mechanics -- & didn't "believe" it, even though every single observation that anyone had ever collected up to that time supported it.

Consider Lee Smolin, who continues to reject it on grounds that resonate w/ Einstein's views notwithstanding all that has been observed since. He says "I am convinced that quantum mechanics is not a final theory. I believe this because I have never encountered an interpretation of the present formulation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to me. I have studied most of them in depth and thought hard about them, and in the end I still can't make real sense of quantum theory as it stands."

He doesn't understand quantum theory?!

You could just be defining "understanding" a theory as "accepting evidence" for it.

But I think there'd be 2 problems w/ that.

The first would be that it would amount to a semantic response to something the importance of which isn't about the definition of words.

That important thing relates to what the public knows about science & how to measure it. There are some people who reject the modern synthesis who can accurately describe the theory they are rejecting, while most of the people say they "believe" in evolution have a defective understanding of what they believe (they know neither the theory nor the evidence). People who treat the percentage of people who say "I believe/disblieve" in a Gallup poll as a measure of science literacy are thus themselves not familiar with the evidence about what members of the U.S. public know & how to measure that.

That's a kind of science education illiteracy--and it can cause a lot of problems.

Second, no one in science is ever obliged to "believe evidence"; they can design tests to try to show the evidence people now accept isn't not adequate to support whatever conclusion it is offered for I strongly suspect Einstein would *still* be trying to poke wholes & dream up experiments to show the "incompleteness" of quantum mechanics if he were still around. The permanent provisionality of everything that's known- and everything today supported by evidence! -- is the foundation of the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

I'm not saying, I'm sure you realize!, that Behe is Smolin or Einstein, or that what Smolin is doing is analogous to ID or anything so idiotic as that.

Rather, I'm saying that there's no need to get on the wrong side of science's own principle that "understanding" a theory doesn't require "believing evidence" just to deal w/ Behe!

Behe's problem isn't what he doesn't "understand"-- it's that he is a crank.

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

"understanding" requires "assenting to evidence."

I agree that Lee Smolin and Einstein are excellent examples for why this isn't true. The question is why the term "crank" comes to mind here for Behe, and not for Lee Smolin or Einstein. If someone opposes what is considered to be a well-validated viewpoint in a field, without addressing its detailed content, then you could describe them various ways. "Knowing" and "understanding" the subject are not the first terms that comes to mind.

How low should the bar be set in saying that someone "understands" a subject? It's one thing to be able to pass an introductory college-level test on the rudiments of the modern synthesis (and maybe that's all we hope for as far as public science literacy). But how about being able to apply the problem-solving strategies inherent in the modern synthesis, to gain new insights? These strategies have been shown to actually work well for problems that Behe has claimed can't be solved (e.g., the bacterial flagellum).

So, yes, it happens every day that scientists understand theories without assenting to evidence. But if a person claims that evidence disproves a consensus viewpoint without precisely spelling out how, that is not a sign of knowing what is being criticized.

For me, the broader issue is this: what is the best response in the scientific community when one of its members has been influential in bolstering public misunderstanding of an important scientific theory? I think this blog has many compelling insights here. My instinct is that it is not helpful to say that the scientist "knows" what they are talking about.

August 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Parker


I agree with you now -- & w/o changing my position (at least not fundamentally, not yet)!

I think what has happened is that my invoking Behe has created a 2d issue.

My focus has been on "how should we measure what the public knows" & "is 'belief in evolution a valid measure of science knowledge" & a proper focus for science education. I suggested that one could "understand" the modern synthesis & espouse ID as an example of how "understanding" & "believing" are different things.

You identity Behe as an example of how someone intent on disabling public comprehension can appropriate the trappings of scientific insight. He or she might do this by falsely purporting to identify insurmountable conflicts between the theory and observation -- ignoring either evidence that dispels the conflict, if it is one, or by evincing a bad faith or unreasonable denial of the signficance of 'anomalies' in the 'normal science' life of a scientific theory. That's what Behe is doing, I'd say; he is, for the most part, recycling what were in many cases regarded as genuine anomalies of the sort that always abound within a vital theory and that focus and spur investigation by scientists who see themselves as enlarging knowledge by refining and perfecting that theory -- & deliberately excluding from his argument viable solutions that others have devised in the course of doing exactly that. It would be odd to describe actors who do this as "understanding" or "knowing" theories, I agree; and they are not what I mean to be focusing on when I suggest that treating 'belief' in evolution is a poor measure of what the public knows about either evolution or science generally.

But maybe the two things are in fact related. The second sort of practice could promote "disbelief" or give a kind of support to it that no one committed to promoting public comprehension of science could support or condone.

So I suppose I might have a difficulty.

I am, in effect, arguing that it is a mistake, of measurement but also of pedagogy, to focus on "belief" in evolution. "Disbelief" reflects a statement of identity that is orthogonal to genuine comprehension (or at least the sort of comprehension that we would aim for in an educated nonexpert); and conspicuously, dramatically carrying on about the importance of extracting statements of "belief" form those whose identity it denigrates not only distracts us from what we really should be doing but also makes it harder-- b/c it falsely conveys that comprehend or knowing is at odds with identity in a way that risks estranging many who could understand and experience the wonder of science. Essentially, I think we should tolerate 'disbelief' founded on commitments (largely sentimental, in my view) to ways of knowing that are different from science's way-- while carrying on with the program of promoting comprehension, including the teaching of the modern sythesis in public schools & the evaluation of student's performance on the basis of their genuine comprehension of it (which is not by any means signified by their profession of 'belief'!).

But if the "disbelief" is being underwritten by the sort of deception or bad faith that I'm attiributing to Behe (I actually don't know if he consciously sees things this way; I suspect not -- but I do think this is the right way to see what he is doing) then there's a problem. B/c that activity should be opposed and denounced. if there is a strong link between "disbelief" as identity & this sort of behavior, then the appropriateness of publicly taking on those who try to create confusion by concealing or distorting or mischaracterizing what science knows might generate the degree of conflict between the propogation of science comprehension & respect for cultural identity that I'm saying can be avoided.

I agree this is possible but am not yet convinced this is the situation...

But the coincidence of your comments & being forced to think about what I think of the Frank NYT op-ed has made me see the importance of trying to disentangle these two things & assess their relationship to each other. My thought was that Frank was collapsing them; but your comment makes me think I am too to some extent.

August 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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