Conservatives LOVE Science

Or at least they like it very much.  Or maybe they love it, but they’re not in love with it.  That’s the argument coming out of Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition project these days.

Professor Kahan takes issue with the slanted punditry that has latched on to recent analyses of social attitudes toward science. Too often, commentators inflate their claims about the extent to which self-identified “conservatives” have lost faith in scientists and scientific institutions.

Kahan's Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

Kahan’s Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

As Professor Kahan points out, a closer look at those findings gives a much different picture. In a nutshell, since 1974 there has been a noticeable decline in the number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in the leaders of scientific institutions. Some wonks seized on this finding to claim that conservatives were anti-science.

Nertz, says Professor Kahan. The number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in scientists may have declined, but the total number of conservatives who say they feel either “a great deal” of confidence or “only some” confidence in science has remained fairly steady.

Even more compelling, Kahan notes that these same conservatives rank “science” near the tops of their lists of social institutions they trust. Since 1974, only medicine or the military has outranked science as the number one most trustworthy social institution among conservatives. Other institutions, , such as organized labor, the President, the Supreme Court, education, TV, and, yes, even religious institutions and big corporations, have ranked lower on conservative rankings of trustworthiness.

You heard that right.  Overall, conservatives have consistently voiced greater trust in the institution of science than in the institution of religion.  Conservatives since 1974 have evinced more trust in science than in big business.

Check out Kahan’s argument for yourself. He has charts and graphs ‘n’ stuff, so you know it’s true.

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

Bill Gates: Creation/Evolution Warrior ???

Bill Gates seems to be wading into the creationism/evolution controversies. But he doesn’t seem to know it. At least that’s the sense I get from an article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

Bill-Gates-bashing is a popular sport these days among progressive-education types. I don’t usually go in for it. But this article makes it crystal clear that Mr. Gates really does have more money than sense. He seems utterly unaware of the history and context of his own pet projects.

The story focuses on Mr. Gates’ new vision for teaching World History in American high schools. Mr. Gates apparently became enamored of the lecturing style of one David Christian, an Australian historian with a penchant for offering what journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin calls a “unifying narrative of life on earth.”

Gates liked it. So he thought everyone should get it. He funded a project to bring Professor Christian’s style of “unifying” world history to high schools nationwide. Instead of lumbering through disconnected areas of culture and geography, the thinking goes, students will be electrified to see the connections behind seemingly disparate events and disciplines.

Let’s ignore for a minute the other painful moments in this article, such as when Mr. Gates gleefully notes his ignorance of the history of teaching biology in secondary schools. Gates told Sorkin happily that he had no idea about this basic history. “It was pretty uncharted territory,” Gates said, “But it was pretty cool.” Of course, this history of biology as a school subject is not at all “uncharted territory.” Even a two-second google search would have offered Mr. Gates some quick historical outlines of the issues involved.

Let’s also pass by Mr. Sorkin’s apparent ignorance of the roughest outline of American educational history, as when he states that high-school education began to be mandatory in the 1850s. It didn’t. In some states, such as Massachusetts, education became compulsory at that date. In other states compulsory education laws did not kick in until the 1910s. Even in compulsory-education states, high school was not required as such. Again, I’m not expecting a journalist like Sorkin to have delved deeply into this history. But even a check of Wikipedia would have helped.

But let’s politely ignore those howlers and move on to the main question: What does this new Gates history curriculum have to do with creationism?

Both Gates and Professor Christian do not seem aware of the long history of their sort of “unifying” history. As Jon H. Roberts demonstrated so brilliantly in his co-authored book The Sacred and the Secular University, the decisive shift away from religious moralizing in mainstream colleges came with the abandonment of the effort to offer students a satisfying “unifying” narrative.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Roberts demonstrated, college presidents traditionally offered a capstone course in “moral philosophy.” This course hoped to give students a sense of the unifying nature of all forms of truth. In most cases, that truth was lodged in Christian theology. In other courses, too, professors in old-style colleges tended to suggest that there was a supernatural glue that held all knowledge together. It was the intellectual revolution that included Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism of natural selection that wrought a wholesale change in this sort of “unifying” education.

As Roberts’ co-author James Turner argued, this shift in university attitudes was pushed and accompanied by the rising prestige of disciplinary knowledge. In older schools, professors were supposed to pursue knowledge as such, to pursue the unifying sorts of knowledge that David Christian seems to prefer. In modern universities, that knowledge was parceled out into the academic disciplines we’re familiar with today.

What does any of this have to do with Bill Gates’ Big History Project?

Gates and Christian seem utterly unaware that the notion of a “unifying” sort of history class is not a new idea. It is, instead, a discarded idea. As philosopher Philip Kitcher might say, this is not “bad history” or “new history,” but rather “dead history.”

In its older incarnation, a sweeping history that unified all sorts of knowledge suggested that the unifying element was God. The reason students should seek knowledge in all its forms, the thinking went, was because all knowledge pointed toward the Creator.

Whether they mean to or not, Gates and Christian will have to choose what sort of unifying idea they prefer. And they seem surprisingly unaware that this choice is precisely at issue in our century-long culture war over evolution and creationism.

The Big History Project doesn’t put God at the center of its narrative. It begins with the assumption that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. It explains the roots of humanity in other forms of life. These are ideas at the center of the continuing creation-evolution controversies.   If Gates and Christian are looking to produce a Cosmos-like statement about the intellectual weakness of creationism, fine.

But they don’t even seem aware of the issue. In the NYT article, at least, Gates seems to worry only about educational bureaucrats getting in the way of his big idea.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps Gates deliberately plans to bypass creationists entirely. Perhaps he hopes that by not mentioning creation/evolution controversies, he won’t have to engage with them. But for anyone even mildly aware of the current state of cultural tension over the teaching of humanity’s long history, such a curriculum seems fraught with controversy.  It seems like something they might want to think about.

Do You BELIEVE in Evolution?

It’s a deceptively simple question and it lies right at the heart of the creation/evolution controversies.  Unfortunately, Keith Blanchard’s recent opinion piece on the subject seems to miss the point.  Not because Blanchard doesn’t understand the issues, but because he deliberately hopes to change the conversation.  But it’s not that simple.  In at least two important ways, we need to wonder more deeply what we mean when we say we “believe” in evolution.

Can you BELIEVE this???

Can you BELIEVE this???

Blanchard writes from the heart of mainstream science.  We shouldn’t say we “believe” in evolution, Blanchard writes.  As he puts it,

if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t…

Of course, we see what he means.  I even agree with his position.  But IMHO, this line or argument is nearly entirely beside the point.  It puts us evolution-supporters in the silly position of insisting that there is no debate about evolution.  Like Blanchard, we mean that the scientific facts of evolution are not open to debate, any more than is the fact of gravity or the fact of blue.

But so what?  How does that position get us anywhere?

Because there IS a debate about evolution, obviously.  Lots of influential people do not accept the facticity of evolution.  They do not accept that evolution explains the deep history of species on this planet.  Therefore, it matters to say that we believe in evolution.  Saying we “believe” in evolution, politically, means taking a stand about educational politics and cultural politics.

On a more basic level, too, saying that we believe in evolution has a value beyond Blanchard’s knee-jerk empiricism.  After all, in our society, we believe all sorts of things about which we only have a tentative or tenuous understanding.  For instance, when we have a serious medical malady, we trust in what medical experts tell us.  Not blindly, of course, but we talk to several experts and decide on a treatment course that seems to make sense to us.  We don’t necessarily understand every jot and tittle of the medical science.  But we take the life-or-death advice of doctors.  When it matters, we trust our experts.

And that is also the case here.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means something different than saying we understand its meaning.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means we trust a certain set of authorities over others.  Not blindly, of course, but in general outline.  So, for instance, when the National Center for Science Education mounts its Project Steve, I’m convinced.  The sheer numbers of mainstream scientists who publicly announce their “belief” in evolution convinces me.

After all, for educated folks these days, the un-interpreted evidence of our senses has long been suspect.  Blanchard writes that we should all trust the “evidence of [our] own senses.”  If we do so, he concludes, we’ll be convinced about the fact of evolution.  But educated people know that their senses might mislead them.  After all, the intuitive case for creationism is very strong.  Things seem to have been created according to some system, some plan.  Creationists might regularly appeal to people’s senses to prove their point, along the lines of Paley’s watchmaker.

As careful studies have proven, people who reject evolution don’t necessarily have a spottier understanding of science.  Contrary to what Blanchard says, people can and often do understand evolution yet reject it.  Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for example, concluded from their large-group study of science teachers that creationists have an edge beyond the logic of folks like Blanchard.  Even among those Americans who understand that mainstream scientists agree on evolution, Berkman and Plutzer found, a large majority prefers that public schools teach both evolution and creationism.  That’s right: Even those Americans who know what mainstream science says about evolution still want schools to teach creationism.

In a world like that, Blanchard’s argument seems at best irrelevant.  Insisting that evolution is a simple fact, either to be understood or not understood, makes no sense in these circumstances.  On the other hand, if we say we “believe” in evolution, we’re doing something important.  Something with necessary political weight.

But there is one sense in which we should not try to “believe” in evolution.  Not Blanchard’s sense, but a more nuts-and-bolts kind of meaning.  As I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel, public schools need to get out of the belief business when it comes to evolution education.  That is, the goal of evolution education must not be to convince students to “believe” in evolution.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure all students understand it.

In a way, this is what Blanchard is saying, but I wonder if he would recoil in disgust from the implications.  Blanchard wants people to understand evolution.  We don’t “believe” in something that is obviously true.  We don’t “believe” in facts of nature.

In contrast, our prescription for public schools is that teachers adopt the goal of leading students to an understanding of evolution, and no more.  Students should be led to understand the principles of evolution, its mechanisms, and its evidence.  If they then choose not to “believe” evolution, that is an entirely private matter, beyond the realm of public school goals.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this sort of “understanding-not-belief” is not what Blanchard has in mind.

What about you?  Do you “believe” in evolution?  What does it mean to “believe” it, rather than to just “know” it?  Or, from the other direction, what does it mean to “dis-believe” it, even if you understand it?


US Government Employs Creationist Scientists

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of plans to open a new, enormous creation museum near Boise, Idaho.  But in exploring the announcement of this planned mega-museum, we came across an interesting tidbit: Two of the creationist scientists involved in this project worked for the US government as geologists.  Does this mean that the government is funding creation science?  And does it prove the creationist claim that their experts are engaged in “real” science?

As reported yesterday by the Boise Weekly, the Northwest Science Museum has big ambitions.  Its founders want to open an enormous display area, 300,000 to 450,000 square feet.  They hope to build a full-size replica Noah’s Ark that could rival the plans of the more-established Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Big Plans for Boise

Big Plans for Boise

Whether or not the Idaho creationists succeed in their lavish plans, they will likely end up adding another stop to those who want to tour the nation’s many creation museums.  More interesting, the announced plans also raise crucial questions about creationism and government support for religion.

In their attempt to raise funds for their new project, the leaders of the Boise museum published a prospectus that includes information about themselves.  According to this document, the leadership team includes two experienced geologists.

Douglas J. Bennett, founder of the museum, has degrees in geology and science education from Boise State University.  For the past eighteen years, Bennett has worked as a geologist for the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Similarly, museum founder Brent Carter earned a degree in geology from a large public university and worked for 42 years as a geologist for the same US Bureau, retiring with the title of Chief Geologist of the Pacific Northwest Region.

More than the opening of a new creation museum, these careers raise important questions for those of us interested in issues of evolution and creationism.

First, some might suggest that long governmental careers for these ardent and active creationists implies government support for religion.  But does it really?  After all, the government likely hired them to do specific jobs.  They had the necessary qualifications.  Whatever they chose to do in their private lives wouldn’t be any of the government’s business.  Nor would the government be supporting these men’s religious work, as long as each geologist didn’t do his creationist research while on the clock.

More interesting, we have to ask what these careers tell us about the intersection of mainstream science and creation science.  In the recent debate between leading creationist Ken Ham and leading science pundit Bill Nye, Nye repeated his charge that creationism blocked kids from learning science.  Ham retorted with several examples of successful creationist scientists and engineers.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to help the creationist case.  After all, if they have both had successful careers as geologists, how can we say that creationists can’t do science?  One might suggest that the sorts of engineering tasks these creationists engaged in were not primary science.  But it seems to me a stretch to say that these creationist geologists did not have careers specifically in the science that is contested.  In other words, both of these men worked as geologists, though their religious beliefs gave them very non-mainstream ideas about that geology.

Consider—again from the museum prospectus—the tasks Bennett claimed to have worked on for the US government.  As part of his job, Bennett

Performed surface and subsurface geotechnical studies and exploration programs utilizing diamond drill, power-auger, test pits, tunnels, and other processes to secure data for seismotectonic, ground-water, and other special studies of dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, spillways, power plants, and related structures.

One might say that none of this engineering work includes primary geological research.  And if it did, someone who believed in a young earth and a recent world-wide flood would be at a crippling disadvantage.  But anti-creationists sometimes make a different point.  Bill Nye, for instance, has warned that a creationist nation will soon fall behind in technology and engineering.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to demonstrate the weakness of that argument.  Indeed, Nye argues that creationism will turn kids away from science-related careers.  But in the case of these two men, at least, it was precisely their religious beliefs that led them to careers in geology.

So does this case show government support for creationism?  Not really.  But it does offer evidence that creationism does not necessarily deter young people from going into science-related careers.  Indeed, because of the tumult over the nature of biology and geology, perhaps creationist beliefs actually drive some young people into careers in science.



Evolution Rock

I ran into some mysterious evolution-related lyrics in a trademark song by my favorite band ever.

Of course, this is not the first time rockers have messed with evolutionary themes.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember our ponderings about Bruce Springsteen’s muddled ideas about evolution.  And thanks to Jonny Scaramanga we all learned something about the vibrant creation-rock scene.

But I guess I had never listened closely enough to the lyrics of MC5’s “Sister Anne.”  The Detroit outfit’s signature song starts out like this, the best I can decode:

Sister Anne don’t give a damn about evolution

She’s a liberated woman, she’s got her solution

Like a dinosaur, she’s going off the wall

She’s gonna make it her own crusade

It raises two obvious and difficult questions.  First, how much more evolution-rock is out there?  Not to be too nerdy about it, but how deeply do the questions of evolution and creationism sink into the marrow of American culture?  If we hear the echoes of creationism even in the skudjiest of Motor City rock anthems, is there anywhere we won’t find them?

The second question is much simpler: What the *@#% do these “Sister Anne” lyrics mean?  The title character seems to be some sort of soul-saving, evolution-hating, sexy Catholic nun.  I know she can…but can what?



Evangelicals and Evolution: A Closer Look

We all know large numbers of evangelical Protestants disbelieve in evolution, right? But among evangelicals, who does and who doesn’t? Thanks to Professor Thomas Jay Oord and the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project, we can see a breakdown of evolutionary disbelief in one large evangelical denomination. In the Church of the Nazarene, at least, most academics allow for God-guided evolution and an ancient earth, while among the laity there is a more pronounced split.

For those outside of the kaleidoscopic world of American evangelicalism, the Church of the Nazarene is part of the Holiness tradition. That means, in a very crude nutshell, they are part of a tradition that emphasizes an experience of sanctification and sanctified work. In the analogy of one early holiness evangelist, sinful human nature is like a weight, but that weight can be lifted up by the hot-air balloon of the Holy Spirit. The sin is still there, but earnest Christians can be buoyed up to perform missionary work if they open themselves to the Holy Spirit.

In more mundane terms, according to its Wikipedia page, the Church of the Nazarene claims 2,263,249 members in 29,007 churches around the world. That’s a lotta Nazarenes. And while we can’t make any claims that Nazarenes somehow represent the totality of evangelicals, we can learn something about evangelicalism and evolution by looking in close detail at what Nazarenes say on the subject.

In general, American evangelicals are one of the most skeptical groups about evolution. As a recent Pew survey found, sixty-four percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that humans “have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Only a small minority (15%) of white mainline Protestants hold that view. And while it is notable that so many self-identified “evangelicals” don’t believe in human evolution, we can see that a significant minority of evangelicals DO believe.

Oord’s more nuanced look at one evangelical denomination allows us to get a better inside scoop on this breakdown.

In brief, Oord and his colleagues found that most Nazarene academics believed that evangelicalism and evolution could co-exist without traumatizing Nazarene theology. Your regular Nazarene-in-the-street, however, is much more likely to insist on a young earth and on hostility to evolutionary theory.

For example, among Nazarenes as a whole, 14.39% strongly agree, and 7.37% agree, that the Bible requires “Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.” Among lay Nazarenes, 18.95% disagree with that statement, and 55.09% strongly disagree. We see that this evangelical denomination does not, by and large, go in for “young-earth” creationism, though clearly a significant minority of its members does.

Lay Nazarenes and a young earth

Lay Nazarenes and a young earth

But look at the results when Nazarene academics answer that same question. Absolutely ZERO strongly agreed that biblical beliefs require belief in a young earth, and only 1.23% agreed. In contrast, a whopping 81.48% strongly disagreed with the notion that Christianity requires belief in a young earth.

Academic Nazarenes and a Young Earth

Academic Nazarenes and a Young Earth

Check out Professor Oord’s essay in the BioLogos Forum for more details. You will see, for example, that among lay Nazarenes there is much more hostility to the notion that “Humans likely became a species as God worked with the evolutionary process.” Academic Nazarenes feel much more comfortable and confident with that idea.

Lay Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Lay Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Academic Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Academic Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Friday Night Lights: Evolution in Schools

How can evolutionary ideas help education?  This Friday, biologists and evolution mavens David Sloan Wilson and Richard Kauffman of Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program will be giving a talk about using evolutionary theory to improve education.  And you’re invited.

Professors Wilson and Kauffman will not just be talking about teaching evolution as a subject, but about ways to use evolutionary ideas to help increase learning in all subjects.  As they put it,

Evolutionary theory is highly relevant to education in ways that go beyond the need to teach evolution in public schools. We will make two additional evolution-education connections in our talk. First, evolutionary theory can be used to design social environments that are maximally conducive to learning all subjects. Second, evolutionary training can increase general cognitive thinking skills, including the ability to transfer knowledge across domains. We will illustrate these points with two studies, involving a program for at risk-high school students and a college course that teaches evolution across the curriculum, respectively.

The talk will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Friday, May 9, between 5-7 PM, in room 124 of Academic Building B.  All are welcome, but the talk will be targeted toward graduate students and science educators.  There is no need to register and the event is free.

For those of you who are unable to travel to Sunny Binghamton, the presenters will be talking about two academic studies: “A Program for At-Rish High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science,” and “The Evolutionary Biology of Education: How Our Hunter-Gatherer Educative Instincts Could Form the Basis for Education Today.”



Americans Know that We Don’t Know about Evolution

Smoking will kill you. Americans are confident about that scientific fact. But we are far less confident in the scientific truths about evolution, the Big Bang, and creation. A new Associated Press/GfK poll of just over a thousand American adults reveals some fairly predictable results. It also raises important questions about the meanings of knowledge and ignorance. As this poll shows, most Americans are not entirely confident in either our incorrect knowledge or our correct knowledge. What the poll only hints at, though, is the way most mainstream American scientists are heartily ignorant about the thinking of the majority of Americans.

Most Americans now agree that smoking is unhealthy. Just over half think that life is too complex to have happened on its own. And only minorities of adults seem to have great confidence in evolution, an ancient earth, or the Big Bang.

There Are Known Unknowns...

There Are Known Unknowns…

These poll results can tell us more than just the raw numbers, though. Perhaps most interesting, this poll did not quiz respondents about their scientific knowledge. Rather, it asked people to rate their confidence in these scientific facts. Most Americans were very or extremely confident in their knowledge that smoking causes cancer. Only a minority, however, felt the same way about evolution.

As the Associated Press commented, these results struck mainstream scientists as particularly troubling, since these questions represented “settled scientific facts.” Mainstream scientists, in other words, are extremely confident in these ideas. Overwhelmingly confident.

Clearly, there is a more complicated dynamic going on here than simple non-knowledge of science. As historian Robert Proctor argued, tobacco companies spent a good deal of time and treasure to promote a certain sort of ignorance about the connection between smoking and cancer. This poll suggests that those efforts at manufactured ignorance have been foiled by mainstream science and public-health campaigning. Americans are now confident in their knowledge about the dangers of smoking.

But in the case of evolution and creation, skepticism about mainstream science still flourishes. A slim majority of Americans are “extremely” or “very” confident that life is so complex it must have been created by a “supreme being.” Most Americans are confident about this knowledge. And most Americans lack confidence in evolution.

When Americans lack confidence in the dangers of tobacco or the truth of evolution, they are doing something very different than simply being unaware of facts. They are expressing—some of them at least—confidence in a different set of facts, a different system of knowledge. There is a vast difference, after all, between the “knowledge” tobacco executives had in the 1960s about the health dangers of smoking and the “knowledge” most Americans in the 1920s had about the health dangers of smoking. The tobacco executives carefully built their non-knowledge in the 1960s. Most Americans in the 1920s, on the other hand, were simply unaware of the health dangers.

Similar complexity swirls around Americans’ current non-knowledge about evolution. Many of the people who are most furiously opposed to mainstream evolutionary science “know” a great deal about it. But they have very little confidence in the truth of those evolutionary ideas. That is a vastly different sort of non-knowledge than when someone is simply unaware of modern evolutionary thinking.

In short, it is not that Americans simply don’t know about evolution. We know that we don’t know.

Elite scientists, on the other hand, seem simply to not know things. Most elite scientists, it seems, don’t know much about what non-elite-scientists think. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund argued in her book Science vs. Religion, elite academics tend to be woefully unaware of mainstream religious ideas. The fact that so many Americans are so radically unconfident in ideas that mainstream scientists call “settled scientific facts” underlines this cultural divide once again.

If we want to talk about ignorance, we have to do it very carefully. Scientists are ignorant about Americans. Americans are ignorant about science. But scientists seem simply not to know about the ideas most Americans feel confident about. Most Americans, on the other hand, even when we know about scientific ideas, express very little confidence in them.



What If Stories: Creationism and World War I

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

What if World War I had never happened? As the centenary of the start of that cataclysmic war nears, the National Center for Science Education has asked a group of eminent historians (as well as yours truly) to speculate how things might be different.

The first post in the NCSE series was penned by the Dean of Creationism History, Ronald L. Numbers.* Numbers, the author of the definitive history The Creationists, argues this morning that World War I was central to the shape of the creation/evolution struggles that emerged in the 1920s. As Ron notes, this sort of “counterfactual” game is tricky for historians. There are so many factors at play, such a varied interplay of contingencies and possibilities, that academic historians tend to shy away from guessing what might have happened. Nevertheless, Ron makes a strong case that the 1920s would have looked very different—in terms of creationism—had there been no big war. But does Professor Numbers think there would still have been a creation/evolution battle in the 1920s without a war? You’ll have to read his full post to find out.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the posts in this series. My own humble offering will come at the end of the series, I’m told.

* Full disclosure: Ron was my PhD mentor at the University of Wisconsin and is still a personal hero and friend of mine.



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