Friday, June 08, 2007

Scientific Knowledge in the US by Religion

by B. Strong

The latest General Social Survey has been released, and it contains a new module on Americans' beliefs about science. Other sociobloggers have offered glimpses at these data, and in particular the two questions on heliocentrism. Omar gives simple frequencies, Jeremy breaks them down by gender, race, political identification, and education.

I was curious about how the numbers stack up by that other hot-button issue, religion, so I did a bit of Friday-afternoon playing myself. (Gee, I know how to have fun...)

In each graph, the wording of the question is at the top. The religious categories are based on self-reported religion, combined with a NORC-coded variable on the degree of fundamentalism of the respondent's denomination. For each of the "outcome" questions, I've combined the "don't know" and "no answer" respondents, but there are very few of the latter (i.e., <5). Click on each picture for a bigger view, I hope.

Without further ado (and with relatively little commentary), here are the responses to the two questions on heliocentrism, in concatenated form:

Here are responses to a question on the Big Bang:

And here are responses to a question on the origin of man:

Fundamentalists' beliefs about evolution don't seem to vary all much by education. Here are data from the same question, but limited to respondents with at least some college. (Caution: Ns get quite small for the smaller religious categories.)

I know one can't make causal claims from these data about the college "effect" or lack thereof. Nonetheless, I still find all this rather depressing, in a professorial angst, "it's all selection effects and we have no impact" sort of way.

Update: After I posted this, it occurred to me that I should look at a less religiously charged scientific knowledge question, e.g., on the experimental method. The question asks how best to test a new drug: with or without a control group. (This is explained in the question.) Ns are the same as in the other graphs.

Total: 79% w/control, 16% without, 4% DK
Fund prot: 76% w/control
Mod prot: 81%
Lib prot: 84%
Catholics: 75%
Jews/lib others: 82%
None: 85%

So, Fundamental Protestants are a bit below the other groups on this form of scientific knowledge, too, but the difference is less extreme.

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"The universe started with a huge explosion" is a poorly worded question since the universe technically did not begin that way. I think that, as a result, the responses to that question will not be useful.
Mr. Bozzo - your graphs are generating quite the discussion on Pharyngula, and I was hoping you might comment to clarify how you set up your religous categories.
Anon: It may be a poorly worded question, which could explain why there are so many "don't know" answers. (In a nationally representative survey like this, questions have to be both short and simple, and there are often tradeoffs with "technical accuracy".)

However, unless you can tell a plausible story about why the wording is more misleading for some religious groups than others, it doesn't obviate the comparisons that I'm making here.
Oh dear me - I wasn't paying attention to the name of the poster. Kim, I apologize.
The only graph that matters is the first graph showing how many know that the earth revolves around the sun. A sad percentage from every group could not answer that non-controversial question correctly. The rest of the graphs are about controversial scientific topics. What you are measuring with the rest of the graphs is the intensity of the controversy. Even though there is a correct scientific answer, failure to get the right answer shows not the lack of knowledge about science, but how strongly political divisions guide people into different opposing camps who selectively choose different scientific claims for themselves. Thesecontroversies exist as ways of dividing people and keeping them divided. While people can do scientific discussion of evolution, big bang, etc, what happens in the public sphere is a decidedly non-scientific debate, even when scientists are charging in with their opinions. People choose their sides in controversies based on group loyalty, on prejudicial stereotyping of the other side (left and right and middle are equally to blame here)So, be very careful about using this as a guage of scientific knowledge. Pick the right question, and you will find that liberal Christians, or atheists have weird beliefs based in bad science.(eg GM foods fear mongering, and liberals (like everyone else) often ignore or reject economic science or social science facts they don't agree with)
But most importantly, remember that it is the politics that is choosing the religion, not the religion that is choosing the politics. Note how Christians are all over the spectrum, in liberal, moderate and fundamentalist camps. Why wouldn't Christians just be one camp, since they share a single faith? Well, Christians have been drawn into political groupings (like everyone else). Jerry Falwell didn't bring religion into politics, he brought politics into religion.
The questions are a little problematic, especially the big bang one. Specifically, because the big bang is the state of the art in cosmology origin thinking, but it's not the only viable theory out there (cycling expansion and contraction caused by the collision of branes is the most compelling alternate.

But I'm pretty sure most people don't have that in mind if they hedge on getting behind BB theory. Rather, they might have a general rule about 'knowing' as having been there. Since nobody was there, nobody 'knows' for sure. I can see lots of people both religious and secular applying that thinking on the question of the origin of everything. It's kind of the biggest question we know how to ask.
Correct me if I'm wrong. Are we not still searching for the missing link? I beleive there still remains a DNA ie genetic (leap of faith) jump from primates to Humans. I agree, the telling the issue is the ignorance of basic scientific fact like the earth orbiting the sun. (Everyone I know, knows the world revolves around me. But not everyone knows me so the answer can remain elusive):)

Consider this my kids study the planets for a few classes in elementary school. It was not until I was an adult we could really view pictures of these planets ie Hubble telescope and advanced computer enhanced imaging. So until now( recent history) we had to believe the scientists.

The power of religion is the opportunity to influence people on every Sunday and discourage citical questions. And it appears there is a level of ignorance that remains despite access to information.

Meanwhile the scientific communitiy does itself a disservice by creating doubt on a myriad of subjects. From weight loss to how best to build airplanes.
I'll just be shaking in my boots that some 40% of Americans don't know that it takes the earth one year to go around the sun. How many of them think that the earth is flat, I wonder?
The big bang question is the only one that I think has some skewed results, especially with college educated pol-lees. If I were asked that question on a physics exam the answer would be false as it did not start, in any big bang theory, with a big explosion, but with a cooling and expansion.
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