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.

 

What Would Bryan Do?

H/t KT

Would William Jennings Bryan support the recent move by the president of Bryan College?  That’s the question Bryan’s great-grandchildren are asking these days.

As we’ve reported, Bryan College’s leadership has imposed a new, stricter faculty policy.  From now on, faculty must believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical persons and the real, genetic origins of all subsequent humanity.  As science pundit Jerry Coyne has pointed out, that puts evangelical scientists in a pickle, since genetic evidence indicates that the smallest possible pool of original humans had to be at least 2,250 people.  Bryan College is home to science-curriculum innovators Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner, who hope to show evangelical students that evolution does not necessarily disprove their Biblical faith.

What would the original Bryan say about all this?  The college, after all, was founded as a memorial to Bryan’s last decade of work defending the centrality of Biblical wisdom in American life and politics.  As I argued in my 1920s book, though, Bryan himself held some beliefs about both the beginnings and the end of time that have made other conservative evangelical Protestants uncomfortable.  Bryan did not believe in a young earth, nor in a literal six-day creation.  Nor did Bryan think Jesus had to come back before the earth experienced its promised thousand-year reign of peace and justice.

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Other historians, too, have noted Bryan’s complicated relationship with the fundamentalist movement in its first decade, the 1920s.  Lawrence Levine’s Defender of the Faith and, more recently, Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero both get into the gritty details of Bryan’s anti-evolution crusade.

Historians might disagree, but we all will get nervous about trying to predict what Bryan would say about today’s dust-up at Bryan College.  Because Bryan’s ideology and theology remain necessarily part of his life between 1915 and 1925.  It is mostly meaningless to ask what he would say today, because the situation today is so wildly different from what it was back then.

For example, when Bryan led his anti-evolution movement in the 1920s, the scientific jury was still out on the mechanism of evolution.  Darwin’s explanation—modified descent through natural selection—had been roundly criticized and nearly dismissed by the mainstream scientific community.  So when Bryan led the charge against the teaching of evolution, he could claim with scientific legitimacy that natural selection was not established scientifically.  It was not until years after Bryan’s death that biologists and geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and others solved the problem of genetic “swamping” that seemed to make Darwin’s idea of natural selection a non-starter.

I’ve spent my time with Bryan’s papers at the Library of Congress.  I like Bryan.  He was a successful politician, but I don’t hold that against him.  I believe he was also sincere and devoted to justice.  I came to believe that Bryan was profoundly shocked and surprised when he could not produce his dream team of scientific experts at the Scopes Trial to put evolutionary scientists in their place.

Of course, Bryan died just a few days after the trial.  I can’t help but wonder how he might have “evolved” in his thinking if he had lived.  Would his experience at the Scopes Trial have caused him to re-think his confidence that evolutionary science would soon be disproven?  And, more intriguing, how would Bryan have responded if he had lived for an even longer stretch?  An Old-Testament sort of lifespan?

Would Bryan have embraced the “new evangelicalism” of Carl Henry and Billy Graham?  Would he have worked to make sure Biblical religion remained in conversation with mainstream American culture and politics?

I can’t help but think that he would.  I agree with Bryan’s great-grandson Kent Owen, who told reporter Kevin Hardy, “My view of Bryan is that things weren’t set in stone. . . .  He was pragmatic.”

What does this mean for today’s leadership at Bryan College?  On one hand, they are continuing the legacy of their school.  Bryan College was never bound too tightly to the thinking of the original William Jennings Bryan.  From its outset, Bryan College took a firmer, more “fundamentalist” position than Bryan himself ever did.  But on the other hand, the insistence of today’s leadership that Bryan College faculty sign on to a specific understanding of the historicity of Adam & Eve does not sound like something the Great Commoner would have supported.  As long as the principle of respect and reverence for the Bible was maintained, the original Bryan thought, people of good will could disagree on the details.

How Richard Dawkins Begat Ken Ham

Why is there creationism?  Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic makes the argument that today’s young-earth creationist movement is nothing more nor less than a theistic outgrowth of Richard Dawkins-style materialism.

Today’s sort of Ken-Ham-style creationism, Barnes correctly observes, is an entirely modern phenomenon.  Barnes doesn’t make the point, though he could have, that ignorant partisan anti-creationist hack jobs like that of Mark Stern in Slate miss the boat entirely when they accuse creationism of being “medieval.”  Nonsense.  Today’s creationism is a thoroughly modern affair.  Even the briefest familiarity with the history of the movement makes that point abundantly clear.

Today’s creationism, Barnes argues, is not a wholesale repudiation of the materialist viewpoint, though it falsely claims to be.  Materialism, after all, in this sense, means the assumption that life and everything has purely material origins.  Primordial soup somehow got a transformative spark, perhaps from undersea volcanic vents.  Life came from non-life due to purely material causes.  Similarly, life itself, though it may feel like it has transcendent spiritual meaning, is nothing more than biochemistry.  When the switch goes off, the magic ends.  Back to carbon.

Such a view of life separates God out entirely, Barnes points out.  And Ken-Ham-style creationists make the woeful mistake of simply plugging God back in, from the outside.  In other words, Barnes argues, young-earth creationists stupidly think that by insisting on a God who popped into time, created life and the universe, inspired a Bible, and sent his kid in to fix things, they have refuted materialist assumptions.  Not so, Barnes contends.  That sort of outsider God, a God who creates, judges, and saves, all from somewhere outside of, beyond the creation itself, actually endorses the materialist vision of life.  Instead of electricity as the prime mover, though, Ken Ham’s style of creationism plugs in a Bearded-Guy-in-a-Throne sort of God.

God, in this YEC vision, is a mere competitor with electricity for the role of life’s spark.  God, in this YEC vision, is simply the materialist understanding of life with a quick substitution of God for an unintelligent spark.

Instead of falling for this materialist presumption, instead of simply rebutting one part of materialist assumptions about life, real creationism needs to posit an entirely different relationship between the world and its Creator, Barnes argues.  As he puts it,

God is not simply the Creator of the material order, and the theistic tradition has never made such laughable claims. The concept of God as Creator has always been the source of existence as such. This means that God does not just answer the material question of “Where came this rock, that plant, or the entire conglomerate of material thingmabobs we call the universe?” He answers the ontological question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

 

 

Evolution Is Racist

Evolution is racist, says thinking-man’s conservative Rod Dreher.

But before we anti-creationists pull out our handy refutations of the Darwin-Hitler smear, take another look at Dreher’s real argument.

Dreher is no knee-jerk creationist.  He wants public schools to teach evolutionary science.  For that matter, he wants ALL schools to teach evolutionary science.  He explicitly rejects the simplistic equation of “Darwin” with “racism.”

But Dreher yet objects to the ways liberals hasten to conflate creationism with anti-scientism.  Too many liberals, Dreher argues, pick and choose from their scientific principles.  Just as do creationists, liberals begin with the notion of “forbidden knowledge,” of facts that may or may not be true, but in any case are too dangerous to be widely shared.

For Dreher, the implications of Darwinian natural selection are just such ideas.  Too often, the facts of genetic variation among humans have led all-too-fallible humans to a sinister conclusion.  As Dreher explains,

I flat-out don’t trust our species to handle the knowledge of human biodiversity without turning it into an ideology of dehumanization, racism, and at worst, genocide. Put another way, I am hostile to this kind of thing not because I believe it’s probably false, but because I believe a lot of it is probably true — and we have shown that we, by our natures, can’t handle this kind of truth.

The point, for Dreher, is not the crude creationist mantra that evolutionism leads directly to Hitler.  The point, rather, is that capital-s “Science” has and will be misused to justify humanity’s darkest impulses, just as Religion can be so misused.  Dreher’s point, as I understand it, is that those anti-creationists who smugly wave the flag of Science to discredit religious opposition unwittingly expose themselves as shamefully ignorant of the real issue.  As Dreher concludes,

liberals who love to put the Darwin fish on their cars and rail against fundagelicals who want to teach Creationism in public schools should be honest with themselves and admit that they don’t really want to teach Science and nothing but either. Their enthusiasm for just-the-facts science typically stops the moment science tramples upon one of their sacred principles.

Evolutionary theory may not be racist, in a simple sense.  But Dreher gives us an important reminder that any idea can be misused as a smear to discredit one’s opposition.

 

Year-End Poll: America and Evolution

Do Americans think humans evolved?  Sorta.

Thanks to the watchful folks at the National Center for Science Education, we see a new year-end poll from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew folks talked to about 2,000 respondents over the phone.  All told, about sixty percent of them seem to accept evolution, while a third rejected it.

As always, the wording of these questions matters.  In this poll, respondents were asked if they thought humans or animals had “existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” or if they had “evolved over time.”

When interviewers put it that way, a significant majority of Americans seems to agree that humans or animals had evolved over time.  In contrast, when the Gallup pollsters ask people to pick between three options, a larger percentage–nearly half of respondents–tend to agree that “God created humans beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so.”

It seems Americans have an easier time agreeing that humans had evolved over time than they do agreeing that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”  Indeed, many of the respondents who agreed that humans or animals had evolved over time also believed that God had directed this process.

Breaking it down by demographic groups, we see some predictable results.  White evangelical Protestants tended to reject evolution in the largest numbers (64%).  Republicans tended to reject evolution more often than Democrats.

One surprise: no one seemed to care much if they were talking about human or non-human evolution.  In the past, as historians such as Ron Numbers have demonstrated, the sticking point of much resistance to evolution has been specifically human evolution.  In this poll, however, the answers did not change much when the questions were about human or animal evolution.

 

 

God, Darwin, Creationism, and UFOs

What do Americans believe?

A new Harris poll suggests that Americans believe all sorts of things.  Folks who think religion is a bad thing might be heartened by recent increases in the numbers of people who claim not to believe in God.  But the same anti-religion types might be depressed by the high numbers of believers and by their descriptions of their belief.

Consider some highlights: the number of respondents (out of 2,250 overall) who claimed not be “not at all religious” was 23%, up from 12% in 2007.  And the numbers of respondents who said they thought the Bible was the “word of God” was down 6% since 2008.

But before the American Humanist Association breaks out the bubbly, consider some countervailing numbers: even though the number of Bible-believers may have declined slightly, it still represents just under half of respondents. That is, almost half of Americans—if we can extrapolate from these responses—will tell you that the Bible is the Word of God.

And though the number of respondents who said they “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution” is up five percent, the new total is still under half, far fewer than the number (58%) who say they believe in the Devil.

How about creationism?  Here are a few numbers to chew on: 29% of respondents say they don’t believe in “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” but 36% of them claim to believe in creationism.

Here’s my hunch: science pundits might fixate on the lead sentence that “36% each believe in creationism and UFOs.”  Some folks who don’t like creationism but don’t know much about it might conclude that belief in these things is somehow similar.  Those who don’t know enough real science, these pundits might assume, are prone to believe in all sorts of kooky non-science.

Such mistaken assumptions misunderstand the nature of creationism.  Belief in UFOs might come from all sorts of backgrounds, from eccentric FBI agents to rural isolation.

But in the USA, creationism represents something more than the lack of knowledge about evolution.  Instead, creationism comes from its own intellectual tradition, one that does more than simply ignore evolution.  You would be hard pressed, for example, to find a network of colleges and universities dedicated to teaching a worldview centered on the existence of UFOs.  But there is indeed a strong network of religious schools that teach creationism.

Certainly, belief that humanity resulted from God’s special creation can have lots of intellectual sources.  But it is a fundamental mistake of outsiders like me to assume that such creationist belief is a lack of something, a deficit of knowledge about evolution.

There are pundits out there who assume that these poll numbers represent a victory for anti-religious activism.  I’m not so sure.  Americans seem to believe all kinds of things.  The wobble in numbers represented by these results may point toward an anti-religious trend.  That is, if the number of respondents who said they did not believe in God increased ten percent in the last ten years, we might conclude that pretty soon large majorities of Americans will join them.

I doubt it.  My hunch is that these increases in atheism and skepticism will not represent a continuing trend.  Large numbers of people believe that the Bible is the Word of God.  Large numbers of people believe in things that mainstream science would pooh-pooh.  And they will continue to do so for a long time to come.

 

Commenting, Evolution, and Public Forums

Another prominent website in the evolution/creation debates has changed its comment policy.

As you may recall, Popular Science announced recently that it was shutting off public comments entirely.  Now BioLogos has decided to vet, edit, and publish only select comments, along with author response.

For those new to the scene, BioLogos has made itself the leading voice for theistic evolution, what its leaders often call “evolutionary creationism.”  Founded by evangelical scientist Francis Collins, the organization has hoped to spread the idea that good science and good religion do not need to conflict.  Bible-believing Christians, BioLogos believes, can still embrace evolutionary science.

But that does not mean, apparently, that good manners and blog commenting can go together.  BioLogos’ Content Manager Jim Stump explained their reasoning for changing their public comment policy.  Too much of the online discussion, Stump said, was dominated by a few voices.  Instead of merely leaving comments open, editors will solicit email comments.  Those comments will be organized into a more coherent back-and-forth between commenters and original authors.  The hope is that this model will encourage more participation from more people than the open-forum approach.

Will it work?

If it does, is it worth the price of restricting open dialogue?

Ferocious critic Jerry Coyne called this a “desperation move” by an organization foundering on the shoals of reality.  Too many commenters, Coyne argued, were asking awkward questions and making persuasive arguments.  The real questions—about how God interacts with the world—proved threatening to BioLogos’ position on the compatibility of science and faith, Coyne said.  Too wide a chasm yawned between real science—which recognizes the extremely unlikeliness of humanity deriving from only two people—and evangelical religion—which insists on an historical Adam & Eve.

I don’t share Professor Coyne’s contempt for the BioLogos mission.  I believe the evolution/creation debates have plenty of room for scientific belief that rubs along with religious belief.

But I agree with Coyne that shutting down comments to preclude dominance by a few voices doesn’t make much sense.  The purpose of this sort of online publication is precisely to allow a free flow of ideas and discussion between people who might not otherwise meet one another.  If a few vociferous voices dominate that discussion, so be it.

A better way to include the unincluded would be actively to solicit short columns and opinion pieces by a wide spectrum of readers.  That way, more voices could be included from people who might shy away from the hurly-burly of an active and combative open-comment forum.

 

Charter Schools Teach Fundamentalism

Can fundamentalist Protestant educators change their packaging and call their new schools charters?

Leaving Fundamentalism’s Jonny Scaramanga argued recently in the pages of Salon that some fundamentalist leaders are doing just that.

As we’ve seen, publicly funded charter schools elsewhere have been accused of simply re-branding religious schools and siphoning off public money.

Scaramanga, a product of the fundamentalist Accelerated Christian Education curriculum and now its fiercest critic, uncovered Texas charter schools in which ACE’s rigid fundamentalist materials are paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Check out the full article.  Scaramanga describes ACE-derived textbooks that promote skepticism toward mainstream evolutionary science.  He found evidence that ACE-influenced charter schools guided students by the Ten Commandments but called them non-religious “success principle[s].”  Most headline-grabbing, the ACE-ish books blamed evolution for the rise of Hitler.

Scaramanga even cites yours truly as a source, so you know his article’s gotta be good.

 

What Went Wrong with America’s Schools?

Hell in a lunchbox. 

That’s where America’s public schools have headed, according to a recent essay by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s President R. Albert Mohler Jr.

President Mohler makes an historical argument for the shocking, dangerous decline in American public education.  Does his case pass historical muster?

As I’ve argued in an essay in Teachers College Record (subscription required, but summary available), this historical argument about public education has been a mainstay of conservative thinking for at least fifty years.  Different conservative intellectuals have come up with different timelines and key events to explain the demise of high-quality, morally trustworthy public education.

Mohler echoes this intellectual tradition.

He argues that public schools began as locally controlled entities.  Beginning roughly a century ago, however, “progressive” reformers attempted an ideological coup.  Such folks, led by John Dewey, openly proclaimed their intention to turn schools into secular indoctrination camps.

Luckily, Mohler believes, such plans did not accomplish much until the second half of the twentieth century.  At that point, however, most schools were “radically transformed,” separated “from their communities and families.”

The results, Mohler warns, have been sobering:

Those who set educational policy are now overwhelmingly committed to a radically naturalistic and evolutionistic worldview that sees the schools as engines of social revolution. The classrooms are being transformed rapidly into laboratories for ideological experimentation and indoctrination. The great engines for Americanization are now forces for the radicalization of everything from human sexuality to postmodern understandings of truth and the meaning of texts. Compulsory sex education, the creation of “comprehensive health clinics,” revisionist understandings of American history, Darwinian understandings of science and humanity, and a host of other ideological developments now shape the norm in the public school experience. If these developments have not come to your local school, they almost surely will soon.

Is Mohler’s diagnosis correct?  Does his historical analysis match the record?

In this historians’ opinion, Mohler is guilty of cherry-picking and over-emphasizing.  It is demonstrably true that in the early twentieth century an array of school activists and intellectuals, clustered together under the amoebic heading of educational “progressivism” did try to implement wholesale changes in the nature of American public education.  It is also true that the US Supreme Court made decisions in the 1960s that could have revolutionary implications for the religious nature of public education.  Even more, it is true that leading organizations such as the National Education Association call for school policies that might dismay stalwart conservative Protestants. 

But contrary to Dr. Mohler’s conclusions, such historical facts do not add up to a public school system that “entered a Brave New World from which no retreat now seems possible.”

Historians have examined each of these important trends in American public education.  Arthur Zilversmit, for example, looked at the implementation of “progressive” education policies in the middle of the twentieth century.  In spite of earnest, well-funded efforts to revolutionize schooling, Zilversmit found, schools remained largely the same.  Why?  Zilversmit, sympathetic to the “progressive” project, blamed Americans’ “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.” 

How about the claim that the Supreme Court kicked God out of the public schools?  It is true that in 1962 and 1963 SCOTUS banned school-led mandatory Bible reading and prayer.  But as political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found to their surprise, most communities that prayed before the SCOTUS rulings continued to pray in public schools after them.  

Similarly, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that local school districts continue to function as local bureaucracies.  These “Ten Thousand Democracies,” according to Berkman and Plutzer, remain responsive to local demands and local values.     

This is bad news for President Mohler’s alarmist argument, but very good news for religious conservatives in the United States.  Most of America’s public schools remain closely connected to majority impulses in their local community.  Concerning hot-button culture-war issues such as prayer, evolution, and sex ed—not to mention broader notions such as school discipline, drug use, promiscuity, and general manners—local communities still control their local public schools. 

This local influence helps explain some stubborn trends that have long frustrated progressives like me.  Why, we ask, is evolution taught only spottily?  Why can’t public-school children learn honest, practical information about sex?  Why are public schools still home to coercive prayer practices?

These are all tough questions. 

But Dr. Mohler’s jeremiad raises even tougher ones:  If American public schools are so very conservative, why do conservative intellectuals deny it so forcefully?  Why don’t America’s conservative intellectuals trumpet the continuing traditionalism of American public education?

 

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