Saturday, August 12, 2006

Understanding America's Scientific Illiteracy

Ker Than reports “U.S. Lags World in Grasp of Genetics and Acceptance of Evolution” building from a recent study by Michigan State’s Jon Miller and then National Center for Science Education in California’s Eugenie Scott . The article begins as follows:

A comparison of peoples' views in 34 countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower.

Among the factors contributing to America's low score are poor understanding of biology, especially genetics, the politicization of science and the literal interpretation of the Bible by a small but vocal group of American Christians, the researchers say.
“American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close,” said study co-author Jon Miller of Michigan State University.

I'm thinking a stretch to explain it all about Turkey's religion, although partly true. Much of it is poverty and, while Turkey tries to remain rather secular for that neck of the woods, fuanamentalism pockets continue. There's a pull I think of fundy thinking to poor people. I'll also add that I'm convinced some in the GOP manipulate evangelical voters through fear, wedge issues, anti-intellectualism, ...

Portions of the balance of the piece include:

The analysis found that Americans with fundamentalist religious beliefs—defined as belief in substantial divine control and frequent prayer—were more likely to reject evolution than Europeans with similar beliefs. The researchers attribute the discrepancy to differences in how American Christian fundamentalist and other forms of Christianity interpret the Bible.

While American fundamentalists tend to interpret the Bible literally and to view Genesis as a true and accurate account of creation, mainstream Protestants in both the United States and Europe instead treat Genesis as metaphorical, the researchers say.

“Whether it’s the Bible or the Koran, there are some people who think it’s everything you need to know,” Miller said. “Other people say these are very interesting metaphorical stories in that they give us guidance, but they’re not science books.”

Politics is also contributing to America's widespread confusion about evolution, the researchers say. Major political parties in the United States are more willing to make opposition to evolution a prominent part of their campaigns to garner conservative votes—something that does not happen in Europe or Japan. …

… Scott says one thing that will help is to have Catholics and mainstream Protestants speak up about their theologies' acceptance of evolution.

"There needs to be more addressing of creationism from these more moderate theological perspectives," Scott said. “The professional clergy and theologians whom I know tend to be very reluctant to engage in that type of ‘my theology versus your theology’ discussion, but it matters because it’s having a negative effect on American scientific literacy."

ID proponents were heard from in “explaining” the study according to the following:

Bruce Chapman, the president of the Discovery Institute, the primary backer of ID, has a different view of the study.

"A better explanation for the high percentage of doubters of Darwinism in America may be that this country's citizens are famously independent and are not given to being rolled by an ideological elite in any field," Chapman said. "In particular, the growing doubts about Darwinism undoubtedly reflect growing doubts among scientists about Darwinian theory. Over 640 have now signed a public dissent and the number keeps growing."

Nick Matzke of the National Center for Science Education in California points out, however, that most of the scientists Chapman refers to do not do research in the field of evolution.

"If you look at the list, you can't find anybody who's really a significant contributor to the field or anyone who's done recognizable work on evolution," Matzke said.

I suppose in Mr. Chapman’s world the “ideological elite” are the folks that might actually know what the hell they are talking about. American’s United might be a good place to begin understanding this “think tank” and policy shop. Chris Mooney’s American Prospect piece “Inferior Design” is another.

I was discussing this study with a couple of friends last evening and we began talking of the home schooling trend. They seemed to be unaware of the Southern Baptist Convention moving toward this, or at least considering briefly a resolution, as the default preference. The President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary explains what seems to be the official position of the church I grew up in yet NPR also provides space for other faith communities to make their case as well.

As an educator, I’ll tell you that teaching hard shell fundamentalist kids can be a difficult task. Teaching any child in today’s climate is demanding I’ll argue. Still, once they’ve been brought up in that fundy culture it is difficult to get them to consider other views. They often distrust “science” or “history” or … I can also tell you that some of these parents can be a pain. However, many of the kids, and the parents, are super nice and are, or likely will become, solid citizens. The caveat is that “solid citizens” need to be able to entertain alternative perspectives. I want my secular government making decisions on science not superstition. I know some schools and teachers bend over backwards to avoid stirring up a hornet’s nest but if this trend continues we might even be passed by Turkey!

Finally, a tip of the tam to R.J. Matson for the above image located via Daryl Cagle’s MSNBC syndicate. Peace … or War!