Rejection or Ignorance of Science?

In summary, Gallup writes:  “almost half of Americans today hold a belief, at least as measured by this question wording, that is at odds with the preponderance of the scientific literature.”  What are they talking about?  “The 46% of Americans who today believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years is little changed from the 44% who believed this 30 years ago”.

Gallup poll Origin of Humans.jpb

The existence or not of the creative entity we call God is unprovable.  Many folks are encouraged by their belief in God to do good.  Some throughout history have felt justified to torture others who do not share their belief.  Fervent belief is the problem.  That can lead to believing others should be forced to the same belief.

It is not necessarily a problem that: “78% of Americans today believe that God had a hand in the development of humans in some way“.  It is a serious problem that so many Americans reject “the preponderance of the scientific literature”.  This is not the only science being rejected.

How can it be that almost half of all Americans reject tools for understanding the world?

Our educational system is failing disastrously and I do not at all understand why.   I’ve joked about its pretensions but there was after all some merit in my alma mater, “Richard Hale’s Free Grammar School for the Deserving Sons of Impecunious Gentlefolk, Founded in 1608” and there must be something different about the schooling of my fellow citizens who do accept facts and believe in reasoning.

I’ll try to say what was good about my school experience.  The British school system drove students at an early age to study either science, popularly considered to depend on reasoning, or arts, defined as nonscientific knowledge.   I was fortunate because I resisted being driven in that way; I studied both physics and literature.  I was also fortunate not to resist my English teacher’s insistence that I understand both what I read and how the language worked.

And, although physics did not yet cover quantum theory (matter and energy have properties of both particles and waves and physical systems can only have properties like energy in discrete amounts or quanta) I did get enough of an overview to see how science progresses.  Imaginative leaps verified by experiment enable theories that don’t explain all the facts to be replaced by ones that explain more.

I was taught how to use all humankind’s thinking tools.  I learned to value reason, inference and intuition.  I learned not to imagine any theory to be a final explanation.  I was encouraged to question all theories and evidence.  I was taught, in other words, how to investigate, how to learn.

Also, my parents taught me to work hard, practice and be persistent.  No question, it would have been better to try harder but that’s a different issue.

14 comments on “Rejection or Ignorance of Science?

  1. A teacher friend says many respondents may not have been taught the relevant science, or were so young they’ve forgotten. They may not have rejected the science, just not known it. They may not have thought about the origin of homo sapiens and probably don’t care about it one way or the other, so they pick the answer they imagine their church leader would approve.

    This can happen because there is no nation-wide curriculum as I imagined (an example of my own ignorance). The curriculum is defined separately by each school district, “defined” meaning they choose the textbooks. The textbooks are written for the largest markets, i.e., the most populous states, making them less satisfactory for smaller states like Maine, and more importantly making them shy away from controversial topics.

    What kids are actually taught is determined by each teacher. Students pass or fail based on questions set by those individual teachers and answers they consider correct.

    School officials set some rules about what can be taught, e.g., limits on what can be taught about sex education and at what age. States also set rules. A school district or state can, for example, require that when evolution is taught, creationism must be, too. That rule could be honored by teaching both, or by not teaching evolution. 1st or 2nd graders might be taught a bit about dinosaurs but nothing about Neanderthals etc at a later age when they might ask difficult questions.

    The funding for schools comes from people in each district. If there’s enough pressure not to teach certain topics, those topics will not be taught.

    There are some Federal standards in some areas but it seems that any aspect of science that sufficiently vocal citizens do not want taught will not be taught.

    Based on one set of knowledgeable input it seems there may be more widespread ignorance than I imagined but less rejection of science and thinking tools.

    Please, those of you with knowledge about schools, help me understand this better.

  2. Julie Osinski replied on Facebook (and gave me permission to re-post her reply here:

    “Interesting..I think Martin’s first paragraph in re god comes closer to addressing the root of the issue than an overwhelming lack of education. God and religion are powerful concepts. When home/community conflicts with school education/science I have to believe many people ( possibly to avoid any cognitive dissonance potentially associated with two conflicting teachings) turn back to their life system (religion). Being an atheist ( who was raised catholic and rejected the teaching early), I’m pretty sure that some proof of god would turn my world upside down. I have no idea how I would integrate what I already believe with new material (of course proof of god might just shove god into the science realm which would also be interesting). The staggering numbers are something else altogether. I don’t think I know anyone who holds creationism as a belief yet the numbers (even with demographics/fundamentalist south considered) suggest otherwise. Even evolution with a god overseeing the scheme somehow is off the reservation to me. Too much education? Definitely an interesting conversation.”

    • I think you’re right, Julie. That leads to the question, how much does it matter if for a large segment of the population, home/community does conflict with science/education?

      In one way, it doesn’t matter whether one believes evolution or creationism explains humankind’s origin. Our platform for action, so to say, is how we are now, not how our distant ancestors used to be.

      In another way, it matters very much because if we believe in creationism as the origin of humankind despite overwhelming evidence that it’s a false belief, it means we don’t care what’s true. It means we’re willing to base our actions on a view of our situation that does not fit the facts.

      Ignoring facts and their implications doesn’t matter much in some cases. It matters very much in others.

    • Maybe I should declare my own belief. I’m agnostic. I see no reason to think there is a god who created our world but it would make no difference to me if I learned there is one. What I believe is, what we do matters. I know Catholic, Protestant and other kinds of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and believers in other religions all of whom attribute their good behavior to their religious practice. I’m happy they found a supportive path and have no urge to criticize any of those paths. The one I’m on is Buddhist, which is not a religion because it has no god who created the world. It’s a path that helps me train to behave better. I don’t say I’m Buddhist because that implies I’m different from Christians, Muslims, Hindus and so forth. I don’t feel different. I don’t want to be mistaken for a member of one tribe among humankind. I’m just trying to be a good human.

  3. Another friend commented on Facebook: “The number sounds suspicious,since of all the people I have ever met, I don’t know anyone that believes that.”

    I replied: “It’s from a Gallup poll they’ve been doing periodically since 1982. Gallup is reputable enough that I think we have to accept the results even though they’re so startling. They’ve been pretty consistent for three decades. I have met people who believe this, including a couple of good software developers. I may well have met more because I’d known those guys for a while before the topic came up. If I lived in other parts of the country and had worked in a different field I’m certain I’d have met more. […] This seems to be an indicator of great weakness in our education system.”

    • Here’s a more detailed version of the Gallup report I read originally. That one included demographic cross-tabs (e.g., Republican vs Democratic) I decided not to comment on because they’d tend to inflame and confuse, not enlighten:

      This longer report includes some detailed stats from previous surveys (2001, 2005 and 2007) including “How familiar would you say you are with each of the following explanations about the origin and development of life on earth — very familiar, somewhat familiar, not too familiar, or not at all familiar?” In 2007, 41% said they were very familiar with the evolution and 50% with creationism. Only 17% said they were not too familiar or not at all familiar with the explanation of evolution.

    • The most recent (2007) follow-up quesstions in the Gallup report have 18% viewing: “Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life” to be definitely true, 35% probably true, 16% probably false, 28% definitely false and 3% no opinion. In answer to the next question 39% viewed: “Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” as definitely true, 27% probably true, 16% probably false, 15% definitely false and again 3% with no opinion.

      That says 28% considered evolution to be definitely false and 66% considered creationism to be definitely or probably true.

      In answer to: “How familiar would you say you are with each of the following explanations about the origin and development of life on earth”, 41% said very familiar with evolution, 41% somewhat familiar, 12% not too familiar, 5% not at all familiar and 1% no opinion. About creationism, 50% said very familiar, 36% somewhat familiar, 9% not too familiar, 4% not at all familiar, and 1% no opinion.

      That says, 82% claimed to be very or somewhat familiar with evolution and 86% with creationism, but there is probably less in those answers than meets the eye because I would say I’m somewhat familiar with creationism although I have read nothing about it.

      In answer to: “How much have you, personally, thought about these different explanations for how human beings came to exist on earth”, 41% said “a great deal” and 35% said ” a moderate amount”.

      It seems unlikely that 41% of the population really has thought a great deal about the alternate explanations of humankind’s origin. I interpret this to mean many people care a lot about the answer.

      That looks to be confirmed by the answers to: “How much does it matter to you which of those theories is correct”. 40% said “a great deal”, 26% said “a moderate amount”, 19% said “not much” and 14% said “not at all”.

      In 2005 in answer to: “If the public schools in your community taught the theory of evolution, — that is, the idea that human beings evolved from other species of animals — would you be upset, or not?” 34% said they would be upset.

      That says there is substantial pressure on school districts not to teach about evolution.

      In 2005 in answer to: “If the public schools in your community taught the theory of creationism — that is, the idea that human beings were created by God in their present form and did not evolve from other species of animals — would you be upset, or not?” 76% said they would not be upset.

      Maybe I’m over-interpreting but that suggests the majority (76%) does not care one way or the other if creationism is taught even though, as Gallup points out, it is “at odds with the preponderance of the scientific literature”. It seems to imply that many people also might not care if other theories that have been disproved by evidence-based reasoning, e.g., the sun rotates round the earth, the earth is flat, etc, were taught to our children.

  4. Anon commented on the 76% who said they would not be upset in answer to this question: “If the public schools in your community taught the theory of creationism — that is, the idea that human beings were created by God in their present form and did not evolve from other species of animals — would you be upset, or not?”

    The comment was it depends what respondents understood by “taught”. I would be upset if creationism was taught as the truth. I would also be upset if it was taught in the same spirit as comparative religion, i.e., either evolution or creationism could be true so believe whichever appeals to you more. I would be OK with it being taught as an example of something many people believe despite overwhelming evidence that it is false although I’d wonder how many teachers could make that a truly productive endeavor.

    In the context of the Gallup survey I think the majority answered the question within the framework set by the first question: “Which of the following statements come closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?” I think they assumed they were being asked their feelings about creationism being taught as true.

  5. Chris, an excellent software developer who gave that up to teach wrote:

    “Hi Martin, the numbers are definitely staggering. I’m not sure why it is. I’m not sure it can all be blamed on education. There is currently a push to teach more critical thinking skills. But like Julie said for some reason when religion comes into play all form of reasoning goes out the window. I have a friend, who is a programmer and most of the time a very reasonable, logical person. But, there are some topics that you just can’t have a debate with him about, because his only argument is that it says so in the Bible!! It’s flabbergasting. But, I also think there are a lot of uneducated people in this country who don’t think for themselves and just believe whatever is shoved down their throats. It is definitely scary though. I have a friend I’m going to share this with who might have something interesting to add.”

    • I’d like to know more about the “push to teach more critical thinking skills”. Where is the push coming from? What support tools, e.g., lesson plans and training, are being supplied? What are the forces being pushed against, e.g., inertia among teachers, active opposition from communities, and how strong will they be?

      I’ve discovered that I know very little about how what’s taught gets decided or monitored.

      I should probably write a separate post specifically about education. The origin of this one was my amazement when I saw how little science and critical thinking are valued in our society.

    • Chris replied: “about critical thinking skills. It’s basically just a shift in the way we teach. It used to be that kids sat all in a row and teachers stood in the front and lectured and students memorized facts and information and completed worksheets, etc. Now, the idea is to engage the students more in their own learning and the teacher be more of a guide. That involves more hands-on activities, group activities, and assignments that challenge students to think more. Have you heard of Bloom’s taxonomy? It’s a pyramid of verbs that are used in objectives. The bottom level are words like name, list, recite, etc. The higher level ones are words such as evaluate, analyze, synthesize. Of course this way of teaching is somewhat more work (in the beginning anyway) and hard for some teachers and some students frankly. But, it is certainly a more interesting way to learn. I think technology plays a role in it, as do STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs. Hope that helps a little! Hope that helps a little!

      • I hadn’t heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy. There’s a good description in Wikipedia saying it’s based on “the belief that remembering is a prerequisite for understanding and that understanding is a prerequisite for application”. Application encompasses analysis, evaluation and creation.

        The teaching method you describe, Chris, sounds like my understanding of the method used in Waldorf schools. It also seems related to the “discovery method” used in some business education, e.g., sales training.

        I’m still eager to understand the source of the push for this method of education. It sounds potentially much more effective than more traditional methods and would address the concerns I’ve tried to express in my post today about The Purpose of Education. Basically, I don’t know the extent to which curricula, teaching methods and monitoring of results are established locally vs for the nation as a whole.

  6. Comments by Anon on how curricula are established and the difficulty of switching to a new one:

    “Standards for most subjects are usually set at a state level and then each district bases their curriculum on those standards. The textbooks they choose have a lot to do with it, so textbook writers have a pretty big influence on what gets taught. However, there is a new set of standards called the Common Core, which are national standards. The idea is that all students in the same grade will learn the same things at roughly the same time. It is a pretty different way of teaching math especially.

    Our district this year has all new textbooks (therefore new curriculum) for Math, Science and Reading. It is a huge adjustment for all the teachers and students. The Math is called Singapore Math. It is really supposed to be introduced at the K-1 level and then moved up
    with them. We are adopting it immediately at every grade, which means the teachers are having to back teach to fill a lot of the gaps. Also, this year’s CMTs (standardized test for students in grades 3 through will be based on the old standards, not the Common Core, so we are expecting a lot of scores to tank.”

    • I hadn’t heard about Common Core so I went to their website. It sounds like a very important step in the right direction.

      What is Common Core? “The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort that established a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt.”

      What is its purpose? “High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations that are aligned to the expectations in college and careers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad.. Unlike previous state standards, which were unique to every state in the country, the Common Core State Standards enable collaboration between states on a range of tools and policies.”

      How does it work? “The Common Core State Standards are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level to ultimately be prepared to graduate college and career ready. The standards establish what students need to learn, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.”

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