Questionable Motives

February 3, 2010

How science-savy are you and does it matter?

A majority of Americans profess respect for science, according to a recent Pew Forum report: 84 percent of people surveyed agree that “science’s effect on society” is “mostly positive.” That’s a finding likely to be met with skepticism by many secularists, who blame religion for what they believe is widespread hostility to science. Considering religion’s role in fomenting opposition to the theory of evolution (which some two-thirds of Americans reject), this skepticism is neither unreasonable nor surprising. In fact, according to Pew, people without religious affiliations are “the most likely to perceive a conflict between religion and science,” while “the most religiously observant” are “least likely to perceive this clash.”

Science and scientists are even “viewed positively by those who differ over evolution, global warming and other contentious issues,” Pew reports. When these “contentious issues” involve the disputed morality of scientific endeavors like stem-cell research, it’s not hard to reconcile contentiousness with respect (we should welcome moral debates about science, given its destructive power). But what’s the worth of the public’s positive view of science if it fails to persuade people to accept fundamental scientific facts—about evolution, say, or global warming—that conflict with their religious beliefs, worldly desires, or resistance to bad news?

It’s not surprising that the public’s reported love for science is unrequited. “While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations,” the Pew report observes. “Fully 85 percent see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem … and nearly half (49 percent) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.”

To measure (or approximate) public knowledge of science, Pew administered a twelve-question quiz. It consists of simple multiple-choice and true/false questions testing basic general knowledge. (How do you match up with the general public? Take the science quiz here.)

But a quiz like this, focusing on a few random facts, doesn’t test what may matter most—the public’s understanding of scientific inquiry; the importance of experimentation, observation, and logic; and the relationship of evidence to belief. It’s the failure to appreciate scientific methods and the role science should play in shaping public policy that enables politicians to ignore it.

The influence of personal experience on public opinion greatly complicates the challenge of changing opinions about evolution: people don’t directly experience or aren’t aware of the costs of believing in creationism or intelligent design and crusading against the teaching of evolution. A decline in science education has little if any discernible, more or less immediate impact on their lives.

And that’s a huge problem with significant and long-lasting costs.

From the article Science and Public Opinion.


  1. Evolution is not a fact. No matter how many times you say it, it does not make it any more true. Evolution is a scientific theory that is constantly changing as parts are proven false.

    Global warming has been proven to be a broken theory and those that hold to it do so for political reasons, not scientific.

    And thank you for the quote “many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations”. This shows the arrogance of “scientists” when they are challenged. Real scientists are not afraid of inquiry by anyone because their evidence will stand on it’s own.

    Comment by mcoville — February 3, 2010 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

    • So what is a ’scientific theory’? How does it differ from, say, a hypothesis or conjecture? What does evolution mean?

      You would serve yourself well to thoroughly understand the answers to these questions first before stating an opinion to the contrary. The reason to make the effort is to better inform your stated opinion. As it stands, you assert something I think because you think of these terms differently than how they are understood in scientific terminology. For example, evolution is not really a theory in scientific terminology: natural selection is a given. It is not open to debate nor questionable nor uncertain but a fact that continues to be true in every situation. It is this understanding of the terminology that informs natural selection as we come across it today and create medicines and technologies that assume evolution to be as true and real and certain as gravity. Your understanding is obviously significantly different, which makes it just as obviously wrong as if you thought you had good reasons for denying gravity as true and real and certain. Your reasons, therefore, must be as highly suspect if you deny evolution as they would if you denied gravity.

      Global warming is unquestionably true. Climate change is unquestionably true. What is debatable is whether or not climate change drives global warming (probably true) and, more importantly, does human activity drive climate change (not sure). Be careful with your terms.

      The assessment about the state of scientific understanding in the general public has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘challenging scientists and their findings. It has everything to do with literacy. It is a very sad fact and a cause of great concern that nearly a majority of Americans are scientifically illiterate.

      Comment by tildeb — February 3, 2010 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

  2. Darwin’s greatest novelty was the variational mechanism of change within species, natural selection. Darwin did more than elaborate a theory of historical community ecology (others had done that as well), but also a theory for the transformation of lineages by mechanisms which account for both adaptation and unity of type.

    Comment by tildeb — February 3, 2010 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

  3. “So what is a ’scientific theory’? How does it differ from, say, a hypothesis or conjecture? What does evolution mean?” I guess you are scientifically illiterate. Go read a book and you will find out the answer to these questions.

    Global warming is a false political football and has no basis in science. Climate change is part of nature, no big surprise there. The effect of people on the climate is an area of study with little historic data but it is growing all the time.

    Just because the majority of the public disagree with what you want them to believe does not make them illiterate, it makes them free thinkers. I agree that not everyone knows how the scientific method works, but that is the fault of the science class room that is more concerned with pushing it’s dogma of Darwinism and not teaching kids how the scientific method works.

    Comment by mcoville — February 3, 2010 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

    • I asked you those questions so that you would think about your own basis of scientific clarity. If you are using a term with a meaning different from someone with whom you are exchanging opinions, then you are effectively talking apples and oranges. This is usually the case with evolution. The people who hold fast to the opinion that evolution is somehow false almost always are talking about something that is not evolution. You reveal as much with your ‘dogma of Darwinism’ criticism.

      There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant about a topic, meaning that one has very little knowledge about that topic. It takes courage to accept one’s ignorance and even more to do something about it. It’s not about winning; it’s about learning. I am not scientifically illiterate and could be useful to someone who wishes to learn. Those who do not wish to learn are not ‘free thinkers’; they are non-thinkers and champions of ignorance. That, by the way, is not something to be proud of.

      Comment by tildeb — February 3, 2010 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

  4. I have found that I like THIS definition of Theory, Law, and Hypothesis.

    Now as for evolution, I like the description from HERE. You may not like their conclusion at the end but it does provide a solid definition of Darwinian Evolution.

    When some one educates themselves on a topic and they come to a different conclusion than your own is not proof they are “champions of ignorance” as you put it. I do not know you and I can only judge you based on your words in this post and your comments and you are displaying blinders. You need to open you mind and realize that you may not know everything and that some one may have the correct answer and it may not be the same as your answer.

    I could be wrong, but I may be correct. I am willing to follow the evidence and learn from it to come to a conclusion that matches that evidence, are you willing to do the same? Not that this applies to you, but I find that those that put on the blinders of Darwinian evolution refuse to acknowledge any option that goes against their dogma. It is possible that Darwin and Dawkins could be wrong, and Paul and Moses where right.

    Comment by mcoville — February 4, 2010 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

    • Okay. I like your site for the definition, which clearly states A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it.

      No evidence to dispute it is a really important understanding. When almost every biologist in the world grants evolution the status of THEORY, this is exactly what they mean: there is no evidence to dispute it. So far. For the last 150 years.

      That should ring a warning bell that those who suggest otherwise – those who do dispute evolution as theory – are either unable or incapable of providing the necessary evidence to bring the theory into dispute. Please notice that evidence is a crucial feature to bring about dispute. This evidence must be in contrast to the theory, unable to be explained withing the explanatory framework of the theory. So far, no go.

      So when I switch over to your second site for a description of evolution and I see the title, “A Theory in Crisis,” I know immediately that I have left the realm of science before I read a single word. If it were science, I would expect to read about evidence that brings the theory of evolution into dispute. This evidence would be really important. It would stir up biologists the world over to look at this evidence, to re-evaluate whether or not the theory can account for the new evidence or if either the theory or the supposed ‘evidence’ needs to be thrown out. Sometimes this does happen in science because the contrary evidence withstands scrutiny and cannot be accounted for by the theory, and to remain a theory, the explanation must account for it. This is one reason why theories are rare and often require a significant amount of time to seep into the scientific world and be poked and prodded a million different ways before the explanation is granted widespread status as a theory.

      Creationists who support Intelligent Design agree with the notion of irreducible complexity, that something complex HAD to be designed all at once, suggesting that an instantaneous creation needs a designer and usually a supernatural one at that. Although ID stimulated a fair amount of excitement and inquiry when it was first introduced, this hypothesis has since been poked and prodded a million different ways and has been found to wanting. As a whole, ID within the scientific community and the legal system in the US has been thoroughly discredited. Yet some people refuse to be moved by informed science.

      Complexity itself is not evidence for Intelligent Design in scientific terms. It may be good enough for those unconcerned with its scientific validity, but it is not science. There is no evidence that links complexity to design in the sense of a supernatural creator or even a singular creator, but it does offer evidence for ‘blind’ design, meaning that the element of design is not supernatural but quite natural, and we already have the mechanism that explains exactly this in testable and repeatable experiments, meaning evolutionary scaffolding. In other words, if you have a child, your child will be product of a shuffling of genes between you and your partner, and your genes have already undergone a long and detailed history of evolution that has made them very useful. Your child is not simply a product of random genetic inheritance but ‘designed’ inheritance from youre refined and time-tested genes as well as those refined and time-tested genes from your partner. Your child will then build upon your combined genetic gift (with some mutations) and pass on his or her genetic library to the next generation, and so on. In this sense, your genetic material has not been created from nothing but from a compilation of your successful ancestors… in a sense, you have ‘designer’ genes upon which your offspring will both inherit and build upon. That ‘building upon’ is what is meant by scaffolding.

      You write that you are willing to follow the evidence. That is terrific news. Many people are in fact unwilling to follow the evidence or even attempt to understand the difference between meaningful evidence and empty assertions and wishful thinking. That curiosity and a willingness to follow the evidence is an honest approach to inquiry. But when you jump the evidence ship altogether from the first web site to the second and land on assertion and assumption that has NO evidence to inform it, then I must conclude that you don’t really care about where the evidence leads you (and thus appreciate evolution as the fact it really is), but prefer instead to place more importance on a certain kind of assertion and assumption that agrees with your starting opinion about an explanatory framework you prefer to hold in higher esteem than what is true.

      I sincerely doubt (although I may be wrong) that you lend much credence to the evidence that asserts that the world was created on the back of a Cosmic Turtle and we humans emerged whole from a hollow log. The reason you don’t believe in the literal truth of this creation myth is I doubt you have come across much evidence to back that assertion up. If you did have such evidence, then we’d really have something to talk about. But the absence of contrary evidence to the Cosmic Turtle hypothesis I don’t think gives you much cause for granting the myth scientific stature, nor any reason to suggest that students in biology today should be exposed to the ‘controversy’ between the theory of evolution and our supposed origins from the hollow log. If you suggested that we didn’t need to teach all the various ‘controversies’ to these biology students – all the world’s various creation hypotheses – because there was no scientific evidence to back any of them up except evolution, which just so happens to have multiple and overlapping evidence of kinds and types from a dozen different but mutually supporting scientific avenues of study, then I wouldn’t call your position dogmatic or one curtailed by blinders. Just the opposite, in fact. I would think you were eminently reasonable to keep science in the science classroom where it properly belongs and creation myths in some other kind of class like anthropology or comparative religions or what have you.

      If you want to prove the theory of evolution wrong, then all you need to do is provide evidence that cannot be accounted for by the theory. So far, after 150 years, this has failed to happen. It still might happen, but it requires what you say you follow, namely, evidence. If your evidence that you have followed so far leads you to doubt not only evolution itself but most of the world’s biologists, then perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with what you think is ‘good’ evidence.

      Comment by tildeb — February 4, 2010 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

  5. “It is possible that Darwin and Dawkins could be wrong, and Paul and Moses where right.”

    It is, but it is also possible that sun will go out tomorrow.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 4, 2010 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

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