We introduced this topic yesterday and referred to an Associated Press story, in which Richard Leakey suggests that the debate over evolution will end sometime over the next 15 to 30 years. Leakey’s thesis was:
If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.
We also introduced research completed at the University of Michigan entitled When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions by researchers Brendan Nyhan, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Jason Reifler, Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. This study, although in the realm of political behavior, has strong implications for science education, especially in the teaching of science-related social issues—-namely the evolution debate, and climate change.
As these researchers reported, pre-existing beliefs are preserved even with contrary information. The first mechanism that they shine a light on is that individuals may “engage in a biased search process, seeking out information that supports their preconceptions and avoiding evidence that undercuts their beliefs. A second mechanism is called the “backfire effect.” In this case, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—i.e.–the backfire effect.
So when Dr. Leakey suggests that with knowledge and a persuasive argument, people may come around to believe that evolutionary theory is a valid explanation for the creation and development of life on the earth, we have to wonder how Nyhan and Reifler’s research findings play into this prediction.
For example, the Figure 1 shows views people belonging to different political parties have on climate change and evolution. The study was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in the Fall of 2011. In their study they found that 57% of Americans believe that humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 38% who say humans and other living things have existed in their present form since creation. Nearly 70% of Americans believe there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, compared to only 26% that disagree.
Since we are interested in why people have a particular view, we looked at the results by people’s political party affiliation. According to this survey, there are differences in views of these two issues based on party affiliation and religious group affiliation. The majority of Republican and Tea Party members disagree with Democrats and Independents that the earth is warming up, and that evolution is due to natural selection. Less than 20% of Republicans and Tea Party members think that human activity has caused earth warming.
White evangelical Protestant (33%) were more likely than other religious groups to believe that created within the last 10,000 years. And they are significantly less likely to believe the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, while mainline Protestants (43%), catholics (50%), or the unaffiliated (52%).
One’s world view is influenced by many factors including political party affiliation or not, and religious identity or not. Republicans, Tea Party and White evangelical Protestants were more likely to disagree with the science that supports evolution and climate change. Why do these three groups hold these views, when Democrats, Independents and mainstream Protestants and Catholics have clearly different views?
Conservative and Progressive World Views
We might be able to gain some insight into why political party and religious affiliation might affect people’s believes in various issues such as climate change, evolution, by comparing progressive world view to conservative world views.
formulated the nation-as-family metaphor as a precise mapping between the nation and the family: the homeland as home, the citizens as siblings, the government (or the head of government) as parent. The government’s duty is to citizens as a parent’s is to children: provide security (protect us); make laws (tell us what we can and cannot do); run the economy (make sure we have enough money and supplies); provide public schools (educate us).
In Lakoff’s research he has shown that this conceptual metaphor produces two very different models of families: a “strict father” family and a “nurturant parent” family. In his view this creates two fundamentally different ideologies about how the nation should be governed. I am suggesting that these two views can teach us why people would have such different views on controversial issues such as evolution and climate change.
Progressive View. In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturant parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturant parents are authoritative but with out being authoritarian.
If we apply the nurturant parent model to politics, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy. The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:
- Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
- Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others. (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)
Conservative View. The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”.
In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):
- The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
- The father is the head of the house
- The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
- A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
- Children are weak and lack self-control
- Parents know what is best
- Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
- When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.
This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we examine schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.
In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:
Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)
How do these two world views helps us understand people’s views on evolution and climate change.
Beliefs about Evolution & Climate Change
In the conservative world view, hierarchical rules are established abiding by the notion of a strict father family, and children would be brought up to accept with out questioning views that the “father” held, with no questions asked. In conservative religions, there is little acceptance of a questioning attitude, and people’s views are often limited to what they have been told, and over time, come to believe. This is not to say that people’s ideas can not change as they get older. But the important point is that authority and discipline are core values in a conservative view.
In the progressive world view, ones political views would emerge from a nurturing parent family model in two-way communication is respected, in a context of building open relationships. In the progressive view inquiry would be seen as a fundamental way to acquire knowledge of science, and religion, and thus views on issues would be different than views from an authoritarian source or background.
Beliefs, however, can change. Winslow, Staver and Scharmann (JRST, 2011) report that in a mid-Western Christian university biology course for undergraduates, students, who had been raised to believe in creationism, came to accept evolution through evaluating evidence for evolution, discussing the literalness of Genesis, and understanding that evolution was not a salvation issue. They were also influenced by their Christian professors as role models who accept evolution.
Beliefs about evolution and climate change have become highly charged in recent years with these two issues being entwined with each other as politically motivated groups work to effect the teaching of these topics in K-12 public schools. Conservative groups such as the Discovery Institute, and the Heritage Foundation have worked with state legislatures around the country to influence the way science is taught by insisting that topics like evolution, climate change, and global warming be treated differently than other scientific ideas such as gravity, plate tectonics, and light.
Although conservative right-wing overtures have been pushed back by the courts, the latest wedge of slipping legislation into the books has been making progress in quite a few states such as Louisiana and Tennessee.
We return to Dr. Leakey’s view that the debate about evolution will end over the next 30 years. Because scientific ideas such as evolution and climate change have become politicized, its difficult to see that more knowledge and data will change the debate. There has been veracious attempt to influence the public’s thinking about issues such as evolution and climate change. We only need to think back to 1962 when a famous book was published by a woman who had spent years studying the effects of pesticides on the environment. And then we should be reminded of what the tobacco industry did to claim that the science on the risks associated with tobacco use was not settled, and indeed much of the research was simply junk science.
What do you think? How do you see people’s views being influenced by the type of family that were raised in, as well as their religion, culture and race? Let us hear from you.
Tags: climate change, evolution debate, political party affiliation, Religious beliefs, Richard Leakey, science education, science teachers