Education’s impact

Several years ago I read a book by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, “Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms,” that detailed their research into how evolution is taught in schools across America. Part of their work “utilizes cutting-edge methods that make it possible to describe public opinion concerning evolution for each of the fifty states.” I recall that one of their findings was that scientific literacy didn’t necessarily translate into acceptance of evolution. In other words, intelligent people who had solid understanding of basic science could still reject evolution. The authors phrased it as “Americans are sufficiently knowledgeable about evolution to have an opinion on the matter.” I remember reading that and scratching my head raw. I understood and agreed with many of their fascinating findings but I had trouble wrapping my mind around that assertion that Americans are “sufficiently knowledgeable about evolution.” In my experience, they are anything but knowledgeable on the subject.

old biology book 2Then toward the end of the book this stood out to me: “The anti-evolution movement’s birth coincided with — indeed was central to — the development of the fundamentalist religious movement in the United States, and so long as many citizens view acceptance of evolution as a test of their faith in God, public education efforts will have only limited impact.”

I bring this up because a recent Pew Research poll closely examined the public’s opinions about several science subjects, one of them being evolution: “Americans, Politics and Science Issues.” A segment on evolution says:

Also of note is that the role of education and knowledge on people’s attitudes about science-related topics may be complex. Our findings show that people with more science knowledge are more inclined than those with less knowledge to consider scientists as largely in agreement about the topic of evolution, for example. Among those with more science knowledge, 79% say scientists generally agree that humans have evolved over time, compared with 54% among those with less science knowledge. Since people’s beliefs about evolution are influenced by their perceptions of scientific consensus, the total role of science knowledge in shaping a person’s opinion likely operates indirectly through beliefs about scientific consensus as well as directly through beliefs about whether humans have evolved over time. In such cases, the analysis likely understates the total effect of education and knowledge in explaining people’s views.

Is education important? It seems to me that it is. It may not be the only avenue to turning public opinion around about evolution but it’s a significant one.