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Yale Law School Professor Says Evolution Doubts Cannot Be Attributed to Ignorance

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Wesley Smith referred to a NY Times article touting a new study by Dan M. Kahan in the journal Advances in Political Psychology. The article is being spun by Brendan Nyhan in the Times and now Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True as evidence that skepticism on evolution may be attributed to and thus explained away by reference to religious belief.

The article is actually much more interesting than that and puts to rest a talking point by Darwin defenders who previously tried to dismiss skeptics as nothing more than ignoramuses, the victims of substandard science education in the United States. That, as Yale Law School's Mr. Kahan shows, is not going to fly anymore.

There are many ways to assess the quality of instruction that U.S. students receive in science. But what fraction of them say they "believe" in evolution is not one of them.

Numerous studies have found that profession of "belief" in evolution has no correlation with understanding of basic evolutionary science. Individuals who say they "believe" are no more likely than those who say they "don't" to give the correct responses to questions pertaining to natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance -- the core elements of the modern synthesis (Shtulman 2006; Demastes, Settlage & Good 1995; Bishop & Anderson 1990).

Nor can any valid inference be drawn about a U.S. survey respondents' profession of "belief" in human evolution and his or her comprehension of science generally. The former is not a measure of the latter.

Evaluated for their "Ordinary Science Intelligence" (OSI), evolution doubters -- defined as those who resist the insistence on universal common descent -- are not unaware of the relevant science. On the contrary, Kahan does find a correlation to religious belief; but among religious believers, doubts about evolution are more pronounced, slightly, with those who measure higher in OSI.

You can download the article here, in a draft form. It is primarily concerned with analyzing climate skepticism, but that is introduced with the material on evolution.

As I said, Kahan's study is being spun as a fallback for Darwin defenders. Having been deprived of the familiar accusation that skeptics are dummies, they now say all doubts about Darwin may be written off and assigned to religious fanaticism.

Kahan shows that more religiously committed people are aware of what evolutionary theory says. However, they doubt its conclusions. Kahan attributes this to "cultural identity":

Under these conditions, one would have to possess a very low OSI score (or a very strong unconscious motivation to misinterpret these results (Kahan, Peters, et al. 2013)) to conclude that a "belief in evolution" item like the one in the NSF Indicatory battery [referring to the National Science Foundation's Science Indicators (2014), a measure of "science literacy"] validly measures science comprehension in general population test sample. It is much more plausible to view it as measuring something else: a form of cultural identity that either does or does not feature religiosity (cf. Roos 2012).

One way to corroborate this surmise is to administer to a general population sample a variant of the NSF's Evolution item designed to disentangle what a person knows about science from who he or she is culturally speaking. When the clause, "[a]ccording to the theory of evolution . . ." introduces the proposition "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" (NSF 2006, 2014), the discrepancy between relatively religious and relatively non-religious test-takers disappears! Freed from having to choose between conveying what they understand to be the position of science and making a profession of "belief" that denigrates their identities, religious test-takers of varying levels of OSI now respond very closely to how nonreligious ones of corresponding OSI levels do.

Coyne translates:

[T]hose who reject evolution do so largely on religious grounds, not because they don't know what evolution is. In other words, Kahan concludes that American rejection of evolution is not due to lack of information or ignorance; it's due to adherence to one's faith community that rejects evolution. You reject evolution because your "community" does, and you want to get along with them.�

But as far as I can tell from Kahan's article, there's no grounds for saying only evolution doubters can be dismissed this way, as merely parroting what they think their "community" expects them to say. Kahan, in fact, is explicit in saying that considerations of "cultural identity" are universal:

Every individual, I want to suggest, employs her reasoning powers to apprehend what is known to science from two, parallel perspectives simultaneously: a collective-knowledge-acquisition one, and a cultural-identity-protective one.

"Every individual" is influenced by group identity. Obviously, we all are, including Jerry Coyne. Is it possible that Coyne's belonging to a cultural group, aligned with materialism, gives him superior insights into the nature of reality? Yes, but it's also possible that it misleads him. It's possible that a picture of reality that allows for something very different -- information, wisdom, ideas being at the head and source of what's real, with material stuff being a mere epiphenomenon of an ultimate immaterial reality -- in fact gives the truer picture. It is for such a worldview that William Dembski argues in his forthcoming book Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information.

If Dembski is right, then it's very natural that religious people, aligned with a similar worldview, would look skeptically at some key assertions of orthodox evolutionary theory, the touchstone of materialism. And they would be right to do so. In that case, we would reasonably look for cultural reasons to explain widespread acceptance of the opposing materialist view. Along with "cultural identity," you might point to considerations of personal prestige.

But neither Kahan, nor Coyne, nor Nyhan seems to consider that possibility. Coyne, we know, at least on the question of design in nature, refuses to consider counterevidence. But objectively analyzing the evidence is the only way to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. How about that as an alternative to thinking up ways to dismiss opponents for their supposed motivations? The evidence, after all, is accessible to us all, while my motivations must remain a mystery to you, as yours are to me. Thinking you understand anyone's true motivations is a fool's preoccupation. Stick, then, to the argument, if you're wise.

Two Final Observations

First, Kahan thinks he's been able "to disentangle what a person knows about science from who he or she is culturally speaking" by rephrasing a question about evolution, asking what the "theory of evolution" says rather than querying the respondent on what he himself thinks. But notice that there is no comparable question about what the "theory of intelligent design" says. It would be fascinating to know how many people who say they reject ID have the foggiest idea what advocates of intelligent design actually say. If the leading lights of the Darwin defense community are any indicator, I would guess that most self-styled ID critics have very little idea what intelligent deign means.

Last, Dan Kahan comes close to endorsing an approach to science education worthy of hearty endorsement. He observes that, given what we know about how people arrive at their scientific views, "treating profession of 'belief' as one of the objectives of instruction is thought to make it less likely that students will learn the modern synthesis."

Rather than trying to stuff evolution down students' throats, teaching it as unquestionable dogma, instead take a critical approach. He quotes an article by Lawson and Worsnop in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching:

[O]ur experience and results suggest to us that a more prudent plan would be to utilize instruction time, much as we did, to explore the alternatives, their predicted consequences, and the evidence in a hypothetico-deductive way in an effort to provoke argumentation and the use of reflective thought. Thus, the primary aims of the lesson should not be to convince students of one belief or another, but, instead, to help students (a) gain a better understanding of how scientists compare alternative hypotheses, their predicated consequences, and the evidence to arrive at belief and (b) acquire skill in the use of this important reasoning pattern -- a pattern that appears to be necessary for independent learning and critical thought.

Well, well, that rings a bell, doesn't it? Science education aimed not at broadcasting a favored message or winning converts, but instead a pedagogical method that allows students to weigh "alternative hypotheses," necessarily by means of comparing their strengths and weakness, thus acquiring vital skills in reasoning.

That sounds like something we could get on board with. In fact, we already are on board and have been for quite some time. See here for some of our coverage of the academic-freedom issue.

I'm on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

Image: Yale Law School, Timo Kosig/Flickr.