Americans may be more scientifically literate than evolution questions show

Dan Kahan has an interesting post showing that when Americans are asked the, “Did humans develop from earlier species?” question, it matters how it is asked.  As it’s usually asked, when people answer, they are often asserting a religious cultural identity.  But if it is asked with the qualifying “according to the theory of evolution”, the affirmative response rate goes up dramatically.

I take two things from this.  First, Americans are more scientifically literate than many people assume.  They just don’t always agree with that science.  Of course, many will insist that the lack of agreement is itself science illiteracy, but I think a person who understands the science, but still rejects it, is in a different category from someone who is clueless about that science.

My second takeaway though, is confirmation that the primary obstacle for people accepting evolution from natural selection and the big bang theory is their religious identification.

There’s a brief discussion in the post about how science teachers should address this.  I’m not sure it’s productive for them to try.  If someone learns about the science, but still rejects it, any attempt to “force” them to agree with evolution will probably only make them dig in deeper.  Sometimes, all you can do is lead a horse to water and hope it eventually drinks.

13 thoughts on “Americans may be more scientifically literate than evolution questions show

  1. My second takeaway though, is confirmation that the primary obstacle for people accepting evolution from natural selection and the big bang theory is their religious identification.

    I agree with this, of course, but I don’t see how that study shows it. They could be rejecting the theory of evolution because they think it’s simply incredible irrespective of their religious views.


    1. Good catch. The linked post actually has another graph that shows the relationship between religiosity and people’s answer, but I didn’t give enough info in my post to make that clear.


  2. While I’m here, I’d like to take this moment to contrast this with presuppositional apologetics. Whereas the presuppositionalist will tell you that they know that you know that a god exists, when people respond ignorantly, we assume they don’t know.

    But apparently many do.


    1. It’s pretty annoying when people tell you what you know, though I’ve had people from various ideologies do it to me.

      Something many of us who are data driven often fail to understand: if someone else isn’t data driven, they’re unlikely to be swayed by more data.


      1. There’s always the 2×4

        Which would be ok, because I’m pretty sure presuppositionalism is specifically intended to infuriate.


  3. I’d like to note that I went to a Catholic college, and my biology teacher was a Catholic priest. He taught us evolution, he taught us it was true (to the best of our knowledge), and that the Catholic Church doesn’t take the Genesis story as literal truth anyway. I can’t think of any more effective way to teach evolution to a religious audience.


    1. Good point. I was raised Catholic myself and evolution was never contested. Biblical history for us started with Abraham. In truth, creationism is the orthodoxy of only a few conservative fundamentalist denominations. However, a lot of adherents on the non-fundamentalist ones haven’t caught up with their faith’s orthodoxy.


  4. Changing the question and answer can have some surprising results. One preliminary study suggested that adding a “don’t know” answer to the evolution question dramatically reduces the number of people who would say it is false.

    As for this study, I find it interesting so many people say “false” in the modified question. Presumably they don’t fully understand the theory of evolution (as regardless of what you think, there’s no denying that’s what the theory says) yet in the original question would have answered true/false. In other words 1/4 of people professing a belief/disbelief in evolution don’t know what evolution is. That’s very interesting.

    I wonder how that figure would break down. Is it an even split, or do most people who don’t fully understand evolution believe it? Or disbelieve it?


    1. That’s an interesting question. I suspect a portion of the people who still answer false on the “according to the theory of evolution” question might still be asserting their religious identity, that they simply aren’t mollified by the qualifier. To find the breakdown, you might could do a follow up question asking why they answered false. Do they just not understand the theory, or are they answering false because the Bible, Quran, or whatever contradicts the theory?

      That said, when you get down into 25-30% or so of the population, all kinds of beliefs (witchcraft, astrology, etc) start showing up.

      Click to access Harris%20Poll%2097%20-%20Beliefs_12.16.2013.pdf


      1. Perhaps another slight rephrasing would be all that’s needed. “does the theory of evolution…..”. Make it explicit we’re talking about the idea and not personal beliefs. Then a follow up about personal beliefs to see if there is a correlation. Perhaps you could even expand it out and ask some evolution trivia and then about belief. See if there is a relationship between general evolutionary knowledge and acceptance.

        Liked by 1 person

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