Belief in Creationism Doesn't Necessarily Mean You Don't Understand How Science Works


Jesus on a dinosaur

Dan Kahan over at the invaluable Yale Cultural Cognition Project has conducted an interesting poll of 2,000 Americans inquiring into what they know and believe about creationism and evolutionary biology. Based on his results, Kahan concludes that "belief" in evolution is more of a measure of who people are and not what they know.

Specifically, Kahan contrasts the responses to versions of survey questions about the origin of human beings as asked by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the General Social Science (GSS) survey. The NSF asks: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. True or false? 55 percent selected true.

The GSS asks: "According to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. True or false? 81 percent selected true. Kahan observes:

By adding the introductory clause, "According to the theory of evolution," the GSS question disentangles ("unconfounds" in psychology-speak) the "science knowledge" component and the "identity expressive" components of the item.

In other words, the NSF question comes off as asking people about their religious beliefs, not their understanding of what science says. Evidently many religious Americans can understand the scientists' explanation for how evolutionary biology works while still believing in the special divine creation of Adam and Eve.

In any case, the new results of the Values and Beliefs poll by Gallup were just reported. Since 1982, Gallup folks have every so often asked:

Which of the following statements come closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings? (1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process; (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had not part in this process; (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

In this latest iteration, 42 percent of Americans believe that humans were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 31 percent believe that a Celestial hand helped guide the process of evolution; and 19 percent believe that humans evolved without Divine intervention.

The Gallup poll researchers further observe:

Sixty-four percent of those who are very familiar with the theory of evolution choose one of the two evolutionary explanations for the origin of humans, compared with 28% among the smaller group of Americans who report being not too or not at all familiar with it. The majority [57 percent] of those not familiar with evolution choose the creationist viewpoint.

These relationships do not necessarily prove that if Americans were to learn more about evolution they would be more likely to believe in it. Those with less education are most likely to espouse the creationist view and to be least familiar with evolution, but it's not clear that gaining more education per se would shift their perspectives. Many religious Americans accept creationism mostly on the basis of their religious convictions. Whether their beliefs would change if they became more familiar with evolution is an open question.

Kahan's point is that it is possible for people to understand the workings of evolutionary biology without changing their religious beliefs.

Nevertheless, and with due respect, I can't quite bring myself to think that such a position is an example of F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.