Religious Literacy—Another Dead End?

“Religious literacy.” Nerds say it is a “critical dimension of understanding human affairs.” In some cases, it might be a question of life and death. Even your humble editor makes a plea for it in his new book. But as we’ve seen from other fields, it might just be a waste of time.


The deadly consequences of angry ignorance.

The latest call came from Peter Feuerherd in the pages of JSTOR Daily. He made a strong case that poorly informed religious antagonisms fueled the deadly government assault on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, c. 1993. Seventy-six people died. With a little more “religious literacy” on the part of the government forces, Feuerherd argues, the death toll could have been avoided.

As Feuerherd put it,

with a little more patience and understanding of biblical theology, the massive loss of life could have been avoided. . . . Religion scholars argued that the FBI’s impatience at Waco grew out of theological ignorance and unquestioned assumptions. . . . Waiting longer, by offering Koresh the attention he felt his theological views deserved, would have averted the tragedy, said religion scholars who spoke out in its aftermath.

We might dispute Feuerherd’s conclusion, but it seems likely that a soldier who views his enemy as a “desperate apocalyptic cult” is probably going to be more aggressive than one who views his enemy as a “church meeting.”

As the Religious Literacy Project of Harvard Divinity School argues, religious illiteracy is a significant human problem: “it fuels conflict and antagonisms and hinders cooperative endeavors in all arenas of human experience.”

As I work on my new book about American creationism, I too fall into a sort of “religious literacy” argument. People need to understand creationist religion as it really is, I argue, not as some sort of Creation-Museum, Jesus-on-a-dinosaur cartoon.

But are all these arguments about “religious literacy” doomed from the start?

After all, in the field of creation/evolution debates, we’ve seen that notions of “scientific literacy” miss the point. Creationism is not simply an “illiteracy.” Creationists don’t yearn for knowledge of mainstream science. Rather, creationism is a strong and internally coherent alternative science.

If we want to change people’s minds about evolutionary science, thinking about them as “illiterate” won’t help. If we do, we will fall into Bill Nye’s ineffective brand of “save-the-world” missionary endeavor. As Nye sees it, creationism represents one facet of America’s “striking science illiteracy.” Nye’s answer is to go on TV and go to the Creation Museum and explain, explain, explain.

It won’t work. Bill Nye won’t save the world. Why not? Because the notion of “science literacy” is at heart naïve. As science-communication guru Dan Kahan might say, “literacy” is not a helpful concept in this case.

Bill Nye will not save the world by explaining science to it. Creationism, climate-change denialism, and other zombie sciences do not merely reflect an absence of knowledge about science. They do not suffer from “illiteracy.” Rather, they are obstreperous and lively alternative sciences. If we want to convince their adherents of anything, we need to do more than just tell them about better science.

Is the same true with “religious literacy?” I agree wholeheartedly that people can and should be better educated about all religions, especially ones that we tend to think of as threatening or hostile. But precisely because people think of many religions as threatening and hostile, I think we need to do more than just spread information around. We need to think of this as something other than “illiteracy.”

People KNOW things about religion in most cases, but those things can be false and those falsehoods can be dangerous, even deadly. Talking about “literacy” obfuscates this crucial point. So what would be better?

We could copy Dan Kahan and toss out “religious literacy” in favor of “religion communication.” Or, as many activists do, we could switch from talking about “literacy” to talking about “toleration.” Or even “appreciation.”

coexist bumper sticker

Is THIS the goal?

None of those options feels right. We don’t want to imply that we are trying to convert people from one religion to another. We don’t want to fall into the go-nowhere liberal trap of calling on people from different religions to merely “co-exist.” To my mind, anyway, that approach downplays the vital universal claims of many of the religions themselves.

What are we really after? Informed understanding about religious traditions besides our own…right? That’s more than “literacy,” and “literacy” implies that the knowledge is coveted by all and value-neutral. We need another term to describe this important goal.

What is it?

Can We Vote on Evolution?

Is there a democratic way to decide difficult technical questions? Last week, voters in Greece soundly defeated a complicated economic proposal. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it raises an interesting question: Could we vote on evolution?

It's all Greek to me.  Except for the parts in English...

It’s all Greek to me. Except for the parts in English…

In Greece, voters faced a dauntingly worded ballot. In English, it read as follows:

Should the deal draft that was put forward by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of June 25, 2015, and consists of two parts, that together form a unified proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the Completion of the Current Programme and Beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.’

Hrm? What would an “oxi” vote mean in this case? “Nai?”

Of course, the SAGLRROILYBYGTH will say that voters could simply look up the two documents and decide intelligently if they deserve support. But to think that most voters would do that seems woefully naïve, or perhaps refreshingly optimistic. In the United States, after all, poll data suggest that large numbers of Americans think that humans and dinosaurs lived side-by-side, and, as Rick Shenkman has pointed out, most of us don’t know basic facts about our government and society.

Many Greek voters, similarly, seemed to have only a tentative grasp on the question at hand. Instead of voting on the specifics of either of the reform plans, Greeks likely voted based on their impressions about the two sides of the issue. Voting “yes” was generally perceived to be a vote in favor of the euro, and against the leftist policies of the ruling Syriza party. A “no” vote, in contrast, was often seen as a vote against economic austerity and in favor of Syriza.  Even more confusing, some voters seemed to think that a “yes” vote meant taking pride in Greece’s place as a European nation, while others thought a “no” vote was the way to express Greek national pride.

Even after the vote, the results are confusing. Will the government now negotiate for an economic bailout? Will the government accept austerity measures after all as a condition?

One thing seems clear: many Greek voters used the referendum as a way to express something about who they were, whom they believed, rather than as a way to make a specific policy choice.

When it comes to evolution and creationism, we see similarly confusing commitments. Support for creationism remains high, not because people have not heard of evolutionary science, but because people want to show their support for traditional religion.

As Dan Kahan of Yale Law School puts it so well,* our positions on evolution/creation tell us about who we are, not about what we know. People who say they “believe in” evolution do not actually know any more about it than people who say they do not.

With all this in mind, could we imagine a scenario in which America voted on evolution? What would such a referendum look like?

These are preposterous questions in many ways, but bear with me for a minute. We’ve seen time and time again that large percentages of Americans believe that humanity has been created fairly recently. We’ve also seen that large percentages of Americans favor teaching evolution and creationism/intelligent design side-by-side in public schools. What if we tried to agree upon our school curriculum in a democratic way, by holding a national referendum on the issue?

It seems to me the wording of such a ballot might be crucial. If we asked voters, for instance, to vote on whether they thought evolution was true, we’d likely have a huge negative result. Americans just don’t want to agree to that, for a host of religious and cultural reasons.

But what if we asked voters if they wanted public schools to teach the best available science? And what if we asked voters if they believed most scientists thought evolution was the best scientific explanation of the development of life?

As I argue in an upcoming book, the wording could make a big difference. What do we really want our public schools to teach about evolution? Do we need children to believe that evolution is true? Or, rather, do we want to insist that children have a deep understanding of the science of evolution?

We can do more than guess. In 2012, the National Science Board experimented with two similar questions about evolution. When they asked respondents if “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” just under half (48%) said “true.” But when they changed the wording, that percentage leaped. When they asked people if “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” a whopping 72% of respondents agreed.

What if we were to vote on evolution? To my mind, if we did something like that, the ballot should have two simple questions:

1.) Do you want public schools to teach the best available science? And

2.) Do you think that scientists say humans evolved from other species?

With questions like that, we would get a whopping public voice of support for teaching evolution in public-school science classes.

*Exciting update! Professor Kahan has firmed up the date for his visit to our scenic campus. He’ll be giving his talk to our Evolution Studies Program on Monday, February 22, 2016. Good seats still available!

Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?

Creationism and Job Security

Creationism is more than just an idea, more than just a choice. In the United States, creationism represents a complete set of dissenting institutions: Schools, churches, publishing houses, summer camps, etc. These institutions do more than create an intellectual subculture. As we are reminded this morning, they also provide the nuts-and-bolts support creationists need in order to thrive.

For some of us outsiders, it can be difficult to understand how a creationist can remain so firmly entrenched in her beliefs when the claims of mainstream science seem so compelling. Recently, for example, Professor Dan Kahan drew attention to the ways creationist students can do well in mainstream science classes. He described the case of “Krista,” a high-school senior who excelled in her biology class while holding on to her creationist beliefs.

Krista wants to be a veterinarian. And, as Kahan points out, she might not be able to maintain her “cognitive dualism.” If she doesn’t, though, Kahan insists it will not be due to some sort of “logical or psychological contradiction.” To the contrary, Kahan concludes, Krista’s eventual “upsetting incompatibility” will be the result of

an imperfection in the constitution of an aspiring Liberal Republic of Science that hasn’t yet acquired the knowledge, created the institutions, and cultivated the public mores necessary to quiet the forms of cultural status competition that force diverse citizens to choose between using their reason to know what is known by science and using it to express their defining moral commitments (Elsdon-Baker 2015; Hameed 2015; Kahan 2015; Kahan in press).

In other words, if future Krista is forced to choose between the mainstream science she uses in her day job and the dissenting science she uses in her faith life, it will be because the United States has several competing scientific authorities. Our society, Kahan argues, has not yet figured out a way to decide between the scientific claims of creationism and the scientific claims of mainstream evolutionary science.  People like Krista (and the rest of us) are forced to rely on authorities to tell them which science is appropriate for them.

In her day-to-day life, though, Krista will likely be able to get by without straddling the boundaries between these competing scientific realms. More likely, Krista will continue her science career without ever needing to wrestle with its apparent contradictions. Her potential success will be due at least in part to the fact that creationists have successfully created institutions and cultivated creationist mores that allow creationists to use mainstream science without giving up their theological reservations. Perhaps even more important on the day-to-day level, Krista may succeed as a creationist veterinarian because her job might depend on it.

In academic realms, at least, creationism can be a big career boost. It has always been thus. As Bradley Gundlach has described in his great book Process & Providence, creationist colleges have often guaranteed steady work for creationists. In 1878, back when Princeton University and Princeton Seminary remained dedicated to a religious interpretation of emerging evolutionary science, school leaders worked hard to woo top creationists. The school took unprecedented measures to lure John William Dawson away from McGill University in Montreal. At that time, Dawson was one of a dwindling band of scientists with mainstream credentials who still disputed the transmutation of species.

Take this job and love it...

Take this job and love it…

Dawson didn’t come. But Princeton’s herculean efforts to get him demonstrate the possible career upside of creationism. If a geologist, or a veterinarian, or a science teacher can represent a dissenting creationist idea, then he or she will be uniquely attractive to the many institutions that insist on creationism.

Don’t believe it? Check out this morning’s job post on Ken Ham’s blog. As Ham explains, he doesn’t usually post such things, but he recently met with a school administrator from Kansas City. That school principal needed a science teacher, and he only wanted one who signed on to Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism. The school required a teacher who knew creation science and was “trained in apologetics.”

For students like Krista, as Professor Kahan argues, belief in a young-earth need not lead to any sort of intellectual discomfort at all. And, as this job posting reminds us, Krista might feel significant practical incentives to ignore any discomfort she might feel.

Commitment to a young earth and a special divine creation might, after all, offer increased job security in the nationwide network of dissenting creationist institutions.

Can It Work?

Is it possible for conservative religious people to know and understand evolution without believing it? And, if it is possible, what does it look like? What does it mean? At the ever-challenging Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan challenges the notion of “cognitive apartheid.” Do Professor Kahan’s ideas match real experience?

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, I’ve written a new book with philosopher Harvey Siegel suggesting a different approach for evolution education. Too often, the implicit goal of evolution education is to encourage student belief in evolution. Students from families who dissent are sometimes made to feel unwelcome in public schools, as if their dissent disqualifies them as science students. Instead, we argue, the goal of evolution education must be to foster knowledge and understanding of evolution. If students choose not to believe it, that is their right.

But is it possible? It seems difficult to know something and not believe it. Do I really know that 2 + 2 = 4 if I don’t believe it, like some sort of Orwellian thought-victim?

Studies of real students have shown that it is not only possible, but a relatively common practice. In 1996, W.W. Cobern suggested that resistant students commonly practice what he called “cognitive apartheid.”[1] Students who don’t want to believe the philosophical or religious implications of evolutionary theory, Cobern thought, could segregate out those ideas for use only in specific situations. When they needed to pass a science test, for example, students could pull up their knowledge of evolutionary theory, but in other contexts, they could keep those ideas separate from the rest of their thinking.

In a 2012 study, Ronald S. Hermann looked at the ways this apartheid worked in practice. Hermann located students who did well on tests of evolutionary ideas. Then he talked to two of them who knew and understood evolutionary theory very well, yet refused to believe it. “Krista” and “Aidan” both described the ways this process worked for them.

For those of us from secular or liberal religious backgrounds, these interviews provide fascinating insights into the ways conservative religious people justify their seemingly conflicted knowledge and belief. Hermann argues that the mental processes involved are “unclear and ambiguous in nature.”

For Aidan, his thorough knowledge of evolutionary science jostled along uncomfortably with his religious beliefs. As he tried to explain to Hermann,

I don’t know enough to make a real good judgment. I just try and take the Bible as its literal interpretation, and kind of leave the science stuff alone.

Krista had an even more complex relationship to evolutionary knowledge. As Dan Kahan points out, she did not simply wall off her knowledge in one segregated part of her brain. That is, she did not simply memorize a list of facts for use on rare occasions such as tests. Rather, she served as a tutor in Hermann’s class and planned a career as a veterinarian. She was able to teach evolutionary concepts to other people. And she planned to use basic evolutionary ideas in her future career. Yet she says she does not believe them.

From the snippets of her interview provided by Hermann, Krista does not seem to wall off evolutionary knowledge in her mind. Rather, she seems to be able to switch back and forth from knowing it and using it in some situations, to disbelieving it in others. Or, more precisely, she seems to know evolution in a different way. She tells the interviewer at one point, “I don’t think I, like, put my emotion into it.”

Professor Kahan wants to call this something other than “cognitive apartheid.” A better description, he suggests, is “cognitive dualism.” Some people, from Pakistan to Kentucky, seem to believe mainstream science at work, but disbelieve it at home.

In K-12 public schools, too, I think we see similar effects. Students tend to believe all sorts of things at school, then switch to a different set of beliefs at home. This is not only about controversial ideas in science, literature, or history. Rather, students do this constantly with their social identities. They might be one kind of person at school, with peers and teachers, then present a very different persona to their families at home.

As usual, I don’t have much personal experience with this kind of cognitive struggle, whether it be “apartheid” or “dualism.” Have you experienced such struggles in your life? Do you remember maintaining a dual belief system in your youth, only to move more firmly in one or another direction as you grew older?

[1] Cobern, W.W. Worldview theory and conceptual change in science education. Science Education 80, 579-610 (1996).

Do You APPRECIATE Evolution?


I don’t often wish I went to Yale. To my provincial mind, Yale = The Bad Guy from Back to School. Me, I’m more of a Thornton Melon type. But Professor Dan Kahan’s class on the science of science communication at Yale has me wishing I was there.



Happily, Professor Kahan is sharing his current syllabus and reading list on his Cultural Cognition blog. This week, he asks probing questions about the relationship between “knowing,” “understanding,” “accepting,” and “believing” evolution. I’m starting to wonder if we need to add a new word to this list: “appreciating” evolution.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are painfully aware, I’ve got a new book on the subject coming out soon. In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue that science teachers need to be aware of Professor Kahan’s questions. Specifically, teachers need to be aware that there can be an important difference between “knowing/understanding” evolution and “believing” evolution.

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

In a nutshell, we argue that teachers must insist on student knowledge and understanding, but remain intentionally and explicitly neutral on the question of student belief. As sharp critics have pointed out, this might be an impossibly delicate task for classroom teachers who have their hands full with more prosaic questions. As a colleague of mine put it, the most common question most real-world teachers ask is not “Am I crossing a line into ‘belief’ when I should be more concerned with ‘understanding’?” Rather, most real-world teachers are asking questions like, “Is Bob sleeping back there?” and “How can I make this more accessible to students?”

Professor Kahan’s blog reminds us of another difficulty with these distinctions. The belief/understanding split has one meaning among mainstream scientists, but it has a very different meaning among the regular joes in K-12 science classes.

Time and again, smart science types have pointed out that NO ONE ought to “believe” in evolution. That’s not how science works. As FrankL commented on Professor Kahan’s recent post (scroll down to the first comment):

I think it’s entirely possible to understand evolution without believing in it. Asking me “do you believe in evolution?” is, in my mind, like asking me “do you believe in your hammer?” or “do you believe in your computer?”. The answer is no, they are just tools. If they work, I keep them, if they do not, I try to fix them, if they are unfixable, I throw them out. The theory of evolution is just a tool, it should not be deified or demonized or “believed in” or not. Part of understanding evolution is understanding its domain of usefulness. I don’t use my computer to hammer nails, and I don’t ask my hammer for my email. That doesn’t mean they are broke, it means that my tools have limited domains of usefulness. Using the theory of evolution to establish or deny the existence of God, or to determine who is “smarter” is so absurdly far from its domain of usefulness that it would be laughable if it were not so sad, because that’s the approach that the partisans take.

FrankL is not alone in pointing out the central undesirability of “belief” in evolution, even among evolution’s most fervent supporters. A few months back, Keith Blanchard offered a similarly smart argument in the pages of The Week:

So 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.

To my mind, Blanchard and FrankL have offered wonderfully clear articulations of the difficulties of “belief” from the perspective of mainstream scientists. But that is not the perspective in which we are really interested. What we really care about are the resistant students who fill America’s K-12 public-school science classrooms.

What do we want from those students? We agree with Blanchard and FrankL that no one wants to push “belief” in evolution. But we mean it in a different sense. We are concerned about students for whom the central ideas of modern evolutionary theory have an intensely religious meaning. For those students, to “understand” evolution in the Blanchard/FrankL sense would roughly equate to “believing” it. That is, if creationist students “accept” that evolution is simply the truth about what is unquestionably happening, they must wrestle with a theological crisis.

We hope instead to allow students for whom evolution presents a religious problem to sidestep questions of belief.  Or, to be more precise, we want to move those questions of belief out of public schools and into homes and churches. We want students to “understand” what FrankL and Blanchard are saying. We want them to “know” why evolution has become the intellectual coin of the realm in modern science. But we also want to protect their right in public schools to dissent, to say to themselves, “But it’s not really the truth of existence.”

And perhaps for that we need a different word. A recent lecture by a colleague about the history of literary appreciation got me thinking. Maybe we want to push for student “appreciation” of evolutionary theory. The word “appreciation” might be closer to our educational goal for K-12.

After all, we want something more than for students to just parrot back, “Scientists say that species evolved from a common ancestor. [But only because scientists are deluded.]” We want them to “know” why scientists embrace evolution. We want them to be able to “understand” the idea of evolution well enough to see why it has come to dominate modern thinking in biology.

Do you "understand" this?  Do you "appreciate" it?

Do you “understand” this? Do you “appreciate” it?

When my co-author Harvey Siegel uses the term “understand,” it includes these meanings. Professor Siegel does not argue that students should be encouraged to skate by with a surface knowledge of evolution—one that is enough to pass any state test, but does not properly engage with the idea. Rather, for Professor Siegel, “understanding” evolution must mean grasping the deeper implications of evolution as well.

Perhaps “appreciation” would be a better match for the way most people think of these things. After all, we can all “appreciate” a painting, even if we don’t like it. We can understand where it’s coming from, understand why it has become a famous work of art. We can do all those things—get a profound understanding of the painting—and then say equally truthfully, “I don’t think it’s good.”

Isn’t that what we mean when we say we want students to “know” and “understand” evolution, but not (necessarily) to “believe” it?

Should Everyone Be Forced To Learn Evolution?

I admit it. I love evolutionary theory. I think evolutionarily. Like my colleague David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University, I want to encourage Evolution for Everyone. Does that mean that public schools should force every child to learn evolution? Recently, friend of ILYBYGTH Praj Kulkarni made his case to the 14 billion readers of Dan Kahan’s blog that public schools had no legitimate purpose in shoving evolution down every student’s throat.

I’m a big fan of Kahan’s work. As Kahan argues, much of what people think about evolution reflects who they are more than what they know.

Praj is a big fan, too. But in this recent post, Praj challenges Dan’s notion that our society should insist that every child learn the rudiments of evolutionary theory. As Praj put it,

Not only is it illiberal to insist students profess “belief in” evolution, it may be illiberal to force them to learn it in the first place. It’s not obvious–to me at least–why learning evolution is mandatory.

For folks in the creation/evolution trenches, this might sound like window-dressing for creationism. For decades, as historian Ron Numbers demonstrated so well, creationist pundits have explored disputes between mainstream scientists and philosophers about the nature of evolution. In order to make the case for teaching creation science in public schools, for example, smart creationists have argued that the boundaries of science are not at all clear. And if not, how can public schools rule out one form of (creation) science?

Praj is no creationist. As you’ll see when you read his full post, he’s more interested in figuring out what interest society has in insisting on this particular brand of knowledge for all students. Some things, such as literacy skills or basic mathematics, make a stronger case. Every person in our society needs these things to flourish. Therefore, public schools have a responsibility to provide them.

Does evolution fit into that same category? Praj is most interested in the intriguing possibility: What if it doesn’t?

Dan wants to give Praj an answer. A good answer; one that recognizes the legitimacy of the question. Check out the comments at Cultural Cognition. Do they provide the answer Praj is looking for? Can we offer one?

Take a Trip to a Science Museum with a Creationist

“See, fossils!  That’s science.”  So says Megan Fox, self-identified creationist homeschool mom, Tea Partyer, blogger, and Latest YouTube Sensation.

We’ve taken plenty of museum trips here at ILBYGTH: to the Institute for Creation Research’s museum in San Diego, to the big Creation Museum in Kentucky, and even to a medley of creation and mainstream science museums.  Now there is a new option: Take a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum with Megan Fox.  In this half-hour video, Fox explains all the problems with mainstream science.

Plenty of commentators have blitzed Mrs. Fox with insults.  More interesting will be an attempt for those of us outside the creationist community to find out what this creationist thinks about mainstream science.

I’m no creationist-basher, but Mrs. Fox does seem to have an unpleasantly loud and in-my-face personality.  Predictably, bloggers have teed off on her “expose” of mainstream science at the Field Museum. Atheist PZ Myers called Fox “Smug and Stupid.” At Dangerous Minds, she was called a “blithering idiot,” and worse.

I would imagine that many of the intelligent creationists out there wouldn’t have chosen Fox as their ideal spokesperson. But what if we watch her museum tour as a chance to learn more about her creationist vision of science? Historians have worked hard—maybe too hard—to explain the philosophical underpinnings of creationist and Protestant fundamentalist science.

Many agree with George Marsden, who has argued that at heart, fundamentalist science hearkens back to the scientific principles laid down in the 1600s by Francis Bacon. As Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006 edition, pg. 59):

the role of the interpreter, according to the same Baconian assumptions, was not to impose hypotheses or theories, but to reach conclusions on the basis of careful classification and generalization alone.

Other historians have agreed. Mark Noll, for example, argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (pg. 197),

Creationists regularly reaffirm the principles of Baconian science: no speculation without direct empirical proof, no deductions from speculative principles, no science without extensive empirical evidence.

Perhaps the most careful student of conservative Protestant encounters with mainstream science, Jon Roberts, argued similarly in his 1988 book Darwinism and the Divine in America (pp. 41-42 of that first edition from the University of Wisconsin Press),

Nonscientists were also enamored of the Baconian method, for they believed that it was the surest route to the certainty they associated with science. Asa Mahan, a prominent philosopher who served as the first president of Oberlin College, presented in 1872 a typical statement of the prevailing view within the American Protestant intellectual community: ‘Science is knowledge systematized. Into a scientific process, nothing but what is absolutely known can enter.’

Is this what Megan Fox is doing? More interestingly, which term fits Fox better: “blithering idiot” or “Baconian loudmouth”?

I think a better term for Fox’s scientific vision is one used by historian Ted Davis. Though the roots of Fox’s attitude toward proper science may have originated in Baconian principles, it seems misleading to suggest that Fox selected a Baconian framework out of thin air. Like most of us, Fox’s ideas of proper science seem to come from a mix of sources, some of them only dimly understood.

So, instead of calling Fox “Baconian,” I think we should use Davis’s label of “folk science.” As Davis explains, the term came from Jerome Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (1971).

Of course, it is not only creationists who practice “folk science.” As Dan Kahan argues, there is not much daylight between creationists and non-creationists when it comes to actual knowledge about evolution. Most of us have only the vaguest grasp on the real meanings and implications of mainstream science. Unlike Mrs. Fox, however, most of us are willing to learn mainstream science when we go to the Field Museum, not try to pit our folk-ish understandings against the efforts of mainstream science educators.


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.