Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Religion, Science, and the GSS: My Two+ Cents

by Tom Bozzo

A couple of commenters to Kim's post suggest that only the GSS question regarding the heliocentric solar system (*) is testing a matter of settled scientific fact, and that the evolution and origin-of-the-universe questions really are measuring the degree of controversy over the issues.

Comments here and at Pharyngula suggest that, if anything, the Big Bang question (did the universe begin with a "huge explosion?") is more problematic in the translation of scientific theory into the GSS questionnaire. I can't see how the segment of the population that could argue whether "explosion" is an appropriate metaphor for the event at the beginning of the universe from a position of knowledge of the bleeding edge of cosmology would end up being a material fraction of the GSS sample, and Kim reasonably suggests that there's no reason to believe that confusion over the wording would be confounded with respondents' religions.

Evolution is another matter, as there is no serious scientific controversy at all. (**)

Still, the GSS data do beg some interesting questions. One concerns the result that college education leads to a much higher (though not exactly impressive) rate of belief in evolution overall, but conspicuously not for fundamentalist Christians. My inference-at-a-glance (***) is that the sample sizes are large enough to reject the hypothesis that fundamentalists with some college education exhibit the same attitude shift as is seen for other denominations, so the result looks to be "real." PZ Myers observes:
on [evolution], they are completely refractory to education. What isn't in the data is whether that is because that group maintains its beliefs by sending their young off to bible "colleges" which reinforce erroneous ideas, or whether it's because people who start off as fundies and get a college education then stop being fundies.
The GSS data actually show that fundamentalists are a larger fraction of the total respondents (31%) than the respondents reporting some college education (22%). So there may be evidence for the latter of PZ's possibilities — otherwise, the implication is that fundamentalists select into higher education at dramatically lower rates than the general population (about 27% vs. 37%, a big difference).

As for the behavior of the college-educated fundamentalists, an additional mechanism for the result is that fundamentalist students "learn" the correct answers in order to pass their secular science classes, and just don't update their personal beliefs accordingly. Some of this must be going on, at least insofar as I'd be very surprised if most college-educated fundamentalists, like most of the rest of the college-educated, passed through public university systems. At least in principle, the GSS survey could be augmented to determine whether this is true (though it's not like I'm holding my breath).

What evidence of conservative Christian youth faking their way through school on a large scale would do for the pretensions of academic culture warriors such as David Horowitz and Dinesh D'Souza is left as an exercise for the reader. (****)

One anonymous commenter makes some interesting remarks about the direction of causality between politics and religion, and suggests that group loyalties largely determine the positions. I don't know that this explains the differential education effects across denominations, though. I also think this commenter is wrong to imply that the Christian denominations share the same faith, especially in ways relevant to these questions; in particular, belief (and associated indoctrination) in the literal truth of the Bible is a pretty big interdenominational difference.

This commenter also notes that liberals and atheists may harbor beliefs based on bad science, citing genetically modified foods "fear mongering" and selective rejection of economics or social science "facts." Another commenter contends that science itself creates doubt on "myriad" subjects "from weight loss to how best to build airplanes." I call intellectual fouls.

It isn't anything like a core tenet of American liberalism that GMOs will kill us all dead, or even that anything resembling core results of economics that a supermajority of liberals would reject just because we don't like them (see Robert Waldmann's fine post on the not-so-simple economics of redistribution [via DeLong] for a few reasons why).

Weight loss is conceptually simple (expend more calories than you eat) — the "physics diet" — but difficult in practice because people who want to lose weight have myriad reasons for it, and react in myriad ways to different programs; there's also a lot of pseudoscience in this area.

"How best to build airplanes" led me to a WTF moment, since science makes no claims that imply that one aircraft design or another is "optimal." Perhaps the commenter is referring to controversies over how wings really work, in which case the commenter seems to be confusing the initial poking at the hornet's nest of a seemingly-settled issue with an ultimate aim of better resolving our understanding of things. (*****)

(*) Indeed, the term "solar system" wouldn't make much sense if the sun weren't at its center.

(**) Regular readers will know that we don't think "intelligent design" creationism is a scientific theory around these parts.

(***) One standard deviation for the number of expressions of disbelief in evolution for fundamentalists who have been to college is about six responses, which implies that it's unlikely the true rate of disbelief in evolution is much less than about 60%.

(****) Trick question! They're totally shameless, so it would have no effect on them at all. But it would be one for the "not even trying to resolve the contradictions" file.

(*****) This is not to say that scientific theorizing does, or even can, remove all doubt on any subject. Cf. Feyerabend, etc. We note that the factoid that a theory explains phenomenon X with precision Y is commonly abused.

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Thanks for the link. As you note, I think (and think I can prove) that anonymous is wrong when he or she claims that there are, at the moment, economics "facts".

This commenter also notes that liberals and atheists may harbor beliefs based on bad science, citing genetically modified foods "fear mongering" and selective rejection of economics or social science "facts.""

I agree with your note that scientific theories are not facts, but, beyond that, I don't think that the results of economic research have the status of scientific theories yet (much doesn't even manage to be a falsifiable hypothesis).

I don't think there is anything the economics profession agrees on in the way that biologists agree on evolution by natural selection (just as well as I am 50% confident that we would be right if we agreed on a yes or no question).

The implications of economic science are, first of all, generally implications of theoretical analysis not empirical results and, second of all, always inevitably implications of assumptions made for simplicity (or to get the result) not assumptions that anyone actually believes.

I personally claim that, for any policy you propose, I can write a model such that it is optimal. If I am right, there really isn't anything for liberals to disagree with. I haven't been stumped yet (OK no one has tried but come on it would be fun no ?).

As to GMO, I am a liberal and a fanatical enthusiast for genetically modified foods, the only cause to which I ever really devoted myself (until I found that I was just getting in the way). Anonymous should at least show a positive correlation between liberalism and GMO phobia before shooting his or her keyboard off. Good luck on a correlation between atheism and GMO phobia, I'm willing to bet a modest amount that atheists are less GMO phobic.

Also, of course, we don't know all about GMO dangers and not all GMOs are created equal, so it is not a well defined scientific result that GMOs are safe (certainly one could make a dangerous GMO I, for one, aint eating nothing with HIV genomes incorporated into its chromasomes).
Chromosomes that is. I never klaymed i kould spel
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