Richard Leakey says that looking at the past the way paleontologists and anthropologist do can teach us much about the future. He points out that extinction is one of the most common types of phenomena observed in nature, and that extinctions are related to environmental change. He suggests that environmental change is controlled by climate change, and now, humans are at the center of accelerating, indeed creating the kind of changes in climate that we see on Earth today.
His concern, which is shared by many scientists and science educators, is that fewer and fewer people, especially in the U.S. accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the development of life on Earth. Leakey goes as far to say that some groups are spreading the word that science is nonsense. And as he puts it, how can we really solve the great problems we have today without looking to science for reliable and truthful knowledge?
A recent poll reported that very few people in the US accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on Earth. According to the National Center for Science Education, in a 24-country poll, 41% of the respondents identified themselves as “evolutionists” and 28% as “creationists”, and 31% indicating they don’t know what to believe. In the US, 28% were “evolutionists”, with the “creationist” view held by 40%. The evolution view was most popular in Sweden, with the U.S. ranking 18.
In the most recent polling on evolution, only a bare majority of New Jersey residents (51%) believed in evolution. Democrats and independents, males, college graduates were likely to answer yes; Republicans, females, those with only a high school education or less were more likely to answer no.
Leakey’s point of course is deeper than peoples’ belief in evolution, but peoples’ view of the nature of science. Do people understand science in a way that they can evaluate information and use it to make decisions on problems such as climate change? Do people understand how science works enough to interpret findings and reports by science writers, and scientists themselves.
This is not a simple matter. Science teachers, who work to provide a bridge between the world of science, and the world of youth, have had to grapple with the meaning of what is the kind of scientific literacy that is most beneficial for citizens today. For some scientists, and science educators, the orthodoxy of science is what should be taught in schools, while for others, science literacy should be entwined with the lived world of students.
Whether we teach science from a traditional or a progressive paradigm, students come to our class with scientific perceptions that have been built up and learned over time. Students arriving in 9th grade biology have constructed ideas about inheritance, genes, cells, traits, and the relationship between natural selection and environment. Because these ideas overlap with their religious beliefs and their family’s political beliefs, there is often a conflict for them about evolution, and other controversial ideas in science. The important notion is that students enter courses in science with beliefs about evolution, climate change, and global warming, and each of these ideas has become politicized by various advocacy groups, and of course the press.
So when we do polling in the U.S. on evolution beliefs, and beliefs about whether global warming is associated with human industrial and growth activity, we have to consider the context. In many cases, the science that has led to the theory (or law) of evolution, or the theory of climate change (there are several) has been subject to derision by groups in whose interest it is to negate the scientists and their work. Ever since Darwin published his 1859 work on evolution, he and his ideas about natural selection have been front and center in science education, especially beginning with the famous Scopes Trial. There are lots of folks that would like to give equal time to religious beliefs about origins.
Climate change has also hit the buttons of what appears to be the same groups of people that don’t “believe in evolution.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading network of climate change scientists, has clearly shown that the Earth’s average temperature is on the rise, and it is due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. And of course we’ve all heard of “climategate,” which to some proves that climate change is nothing more than a scam made up by scientists. I still do not know why leading scientists, who publish their work in established and vetted journals, would want to perpetuate such misleading ideas, but there are lots of people who think they are doing just that. And the world is flat; astronauts did not go to the moon; and the Earth is 10,000 years old.
But here is the thing.
Scientific Perceptions Persist Even with Facts & Teaching
There was a very interesting study 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.
In their abstract (which follows), Nyhan and Reifler point out that even when individuals are provided with corrective knowledge about a particular issue, some respondents actually increase their misperceptions:
An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
One of the key aspects of this study for me is the authors discussion of why 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.
Simply laying out the “facts” will not change people’s views of controversial ideas like the origin of life, or whether humans are contributing to changing the Earth’s climate.
For example, it may be that ones world view may play a more important role in determining how one accepts new information and uses that information to construct ideas that might be different than when one began discussing or learning about them.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss world view, and how it might help us with Dr. Leakey’s prediction that the evolution debates will fade away in the next 30 year.
In the meantime, what do you think? Will the debate on evolution fade away soon?