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Stats United States Science

Americans' Evolution Knowledge Isn't That Bad, If You Ask About Elephants (sciencemag.org) 385

sciencehabit writes: In 2014, a poll showed that just 49% of Americans agreed with the statement: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." But it's difficult to tell whether those numbers measure ignorance about science, because belief in human evolution is closely tied to religious belief, especially in the United States. Yesterday, researchers at the annual meeting of AAAS, previewed data from a recent poll showing that when the word "human" is replaced with "elephant" in the evolution question, 75% of Americans agree — about 25 percentage points higher than before. Plus, the new elephant question does a better job of predicting general science knowledge than the human question, especially among those who say they don't believe in evolution. So it seems that America's dismal performance on past evolution polls can be blamed at least partially on this disbelief, rather than a lack of knowledge.
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Americans' Evolution Knowledge Isn't That Bad, If You Ask About Elephants

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  • Still bad (Score:5, Insightful)

    by slashping ( 2674483 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @02:53PM (#51513009)
    The 75% number about elephants is still shockingly bad.
    • Elephants might be too "exotic", I think that number would probably be higher if they used dogs instead.

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        That's kind of funny since the refusal to accept that humans evolved is about sticking to Dogma designed to keep evangelicals in The Party.
        Other branches of Christianity that do not rely on a God that does what he is told to do are not threatened by talk of evolution.

        If talk of reality is a danger to your God then it is indeed a puny God.
    • Re:Still bad (Score:5, Interesting)

      by physicsphairy ( 720718 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:50PM (#51513533) Homepage

      If you want to say it's shockingly bad, first establish what a proper percentage should be. It is apparently a similar result to other basic science questions in which Americans may out-perform other countries:

      To the question "Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth," 26 percent of those surveyed [Americans] answered incorrectly. . . . Only 66 percent of people in a 2005 European Union poll answered the basic astronomy question correctly. However, both China and the EU fared significantly better (66 percent and 70 percent, respectively) on the question about human evolution.

      -- NPR [npr.org]

        What result should we expect when surveying a large population of non-STEM individuals who, received their science education (if any) 40 years ago under different standards and haven't looked back since, may not ever have achieved high school diploma, may not have the reasoning skills to understand abstract scientific theories, or may just be joshing with the pollster? What result are we striving for? And, most importantly, how will achieving that result affect our scientific output?

      I am open to the idea that this represents a significant problem, but I have a suspicion that it is really not as big of an issue as people who live-and-breath science like to perceive. Some hard data on the externalities would be nice.

      • If you want to say it's shockingly bad, first establish what a proper percentage should be

        The proper percentage should be at least 99%, but I'll settle for 99% among members of the government, and 90% for the public.

      • Re:Still bad (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @04:38PM (#51513975)

        What result are we striving for? And, most importantly, how will achieving that result affect our scientific output?

        It's not just about scientific output; it's also about the ability to act usefully based on the science.

        As an obvious example, far too many decisions in government get their public support from rhetoric, short term greed, or fear. Far too few get supported by the public based on evidence and critical thinking. This can and does lead to objectively harmful actions becoming official policy.

        The chilling part of the problem is that it's also a vicious circle. When few in power even understand basic STEM issues themselves, and government is responsible for areas like education and a lot of large-scale funding, you risk a creeping decline in education and awareness that in turn makes other problems worse.

        This seems to be a particularly unfortunate situation in the US today, because its sheer scale and willingness to deploy its military power mean it's unrealistic for the rest of the world to challenge it effectively on issues like, say, wasteful use of natural resources or excessive use of antibiotics, where the consequences can go far beyond the national borders even if the accountability does not.

      • Those questions are not 'science" questions at all, they're just the basic knowledge everyone should have about the world around them.

        The reason there's a huge change in numbers between the elephant evolution question and the human evolution question is because weirdo Protestant Christians (in the US anyway) are told that humans are not animals, but are somehow special, so when they're asked about evolution, of course they answer that humans have not evolved.

        Elephants are animals however, so the mental gy

      • 40 years? You're trying to blame your parents, or your high school teachers, or what?
        First of all, we've had a reasonable amount of wide evolutionary belief since the 1870s, Mendel's work was rediscovered around 1900, the Scopes Monkey Trial was in 1925 (because evolution was sufficiently widely known to be a threat to some people's social position), DNA in the 1950s.

        The real problem has been how badly many people were taught about it. Not only was there the whole Social Darwinism thing and the Eugenics

  • Religion is poison (Score:5, Insightful)

    by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @02:57PM (#51513049) Homepage Journal

    Religion is poison for the mind, it is arsenic, meth, cocaine and cyanide of the mind, it is the murderer of intelligence, destroyer of sound logic and of critical thought.

    Of-course people are free to believe whatever they want to believe, but I think it is fair to treat all religions and supernatural belief systems, so called 'spirituality' as toxins that destroy thinking abilities in ways that may be even worse than simple narcotics.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by OzPeter ( 195038 )

      but I think it is fair to treat all religions and supernatural belief systems, so called 'spirituality' as toxins that destroy thinking abilities in ways that may be even worse than simple narcotics.

      You do know that many proponents of different religions actually accept evolution don't you? Acceptance of evolution by religious groups [wikipedia.org].

      Your gross generalization is more indicative of the poisoning of your own mind than of anything else.

      • by ranton ( 36917 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:16PM (#51513219)

        but I think it is fair to treat all religions and supernatural belief systems, so called 'spirituality' as toxins that destroy thinking abilities in ways that may be even worse than simple narcotics.

        You do know that many proponents of different religions actually accept evolution don't you? Acceptance of evolution by religious groups [wikipedia.org].

        Your gross generalization is more indicative of the poisoning of your own mind than of anything else.

        While I don't agree with the original post, you do realize he never said religion is poison solely because of the rejection of evolution by many religious people, don't you? Your gross mis-characterization of his statements put you in a poor position to criticize his argument. He was referring to just one instance of what he feels is religion poisoning minds, not the only instance.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by roman_mir ( 125474 )

        I see that your thinking abilities have been compromised already. I said religion is poison of the mind, it is a toxin, like botulism.

        I didn't say that all religious people will under all circumstances deny evolution specifically.

        • I find your argument that religion and all spirituality etc is a poison of the mind to be factually inaccurate, given the scientific although circumstantial evidence that people with religion tend to be healthier, happier, live longer, etc than people without religion. If you extend religion to spirituality and meditation practices, there is direct evidence of lower levels of stress hormones and even beneficial epigenetic changes that are caused by meditating.

          Perhaps you have a problem with the specific t
          • I find your argument that religion and all spirituality etc is a poison of the mind to be factually inaccurate, given the scientific although circumstantial evidence that people with religion tend to be healthier, happier, live longer, etc than people without religion.

            What if imbeciles "tend to be healthier, happier, live longer, etc"?

            Would you still rather live a long stupid life?

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:40PM (#51513455)

        The working of your mind isn't gauged by acceptance or rejection of a single thing. There are plenty of people who "accept evolution" who don't think very well.

        Abrahamic religions generally preach faith, which is the opposite of skepticism and pretty much anathema to any kind of serious scientific thinking. Most religions seem to share a penchant for elaborate stories used as explanation. Stories are nice, but a tendency to believe them without testing is intellectually lazy.

        The OP wasn't very tactful, but some features of religion really do seem to be poison for rational thinking and scientific progress.

      • Even if proponents of different religions accept evolution, the parent post was still dead on. People who do not accept reality are ultimately dangerous and should be given mental health counseling so as not to negatively impact society.

    • "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".
      Karl Marx
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by labnet ( 457441 )

      I've never really understood the hate for Christianity.
      I'm a practicing christian who also runs a company that develops hi-tech products employing over 50 people. To say that my faith is a 'murderer of intelligence' is non sequitur. About the only area where faith and science clash is evolution, and evolution science makes up a minuscule part of the sciences but seems to cause a reaction way out of proportion to its practical significance.

      The modern christian church does a lot of good in society. I haven't

      • by Billly Gates ( 198444 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @06:40PM (#51514905) Journal

        What about gay people? What about dangerous ideologies of a political party and people being brainwashed to vote against things like healthcare or deaths in wars?

        How is that good?

        Denying science is dangerous too. Preventing sex education is harmful.

      • by Shawn Willden ( 2914343 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @07:53PM (#51515397)

        evolution science makes up a minuscule part of the sciences but seems to cause a reaction way out of proportion to its practical significance

        Not disagreeing with the rest of your post, but evolution is definitely *not* a miniscule part of the sciences. David Deutsch makes a compelling argument that the same processes that underlie evolution are responsible for all observable knowledge creation -- including science itself. You should really read a more comprehensive treatment, because my attempt to summarize will certainly butcher it, but in a nutshell the idea is that all knowledge is created via processes of variation and selection. In the case of scientific thought, the process begins in the human mind, which comes up with various ideas for potential explanations and then subjects them to critical analysis, selecting against ideas that either don't fit observed facts or don't have elegance, explanatory reach or other useful qualities. After a hypothesis survives this internal gauntlet of selection pressure, it's exposed to criticism from other people, and from experimental testing. Scientific theories that are fit enough to survive go on to spread. Similar analysis shows that all memes behave similarly... as do all other forms of self-organizing knowledge which achieve "universality" (I won't even attempt to summarize the idea of universality).

        Further, within the life sciences, evolution isn't a minor sub-topic, it pretty much drives everything. Effectively all our understanding of the physical structure and behavior of living creatures is understood within a framework of evolutionary ideas. Evolution is pervasive and incredibly powerful. It's arguably the single most powerful explanatory idea in all of science, and the most thoroughly validated.

        Evolutionary ideas are also applied all over every other branch of science: psychology, behavioral science, computer science, economics... and even in physics and astrophysics. For an example of the application of evolutionary theory to astrophysics, consider cosmological descriptions of the formation of the universe, which postulate formation of many different constructs of energy/matter and analyze which we expect to survive and which will be annihilated, then compare the projected results of this variation-and-selection process against the observable universe.

        Evolution isn't "miniscule". To a first approximation, evolution is science.

        Perhaps what you meant to say is that the application of evolution to the creation of humans is a miniscule part of science, since that's the part that many religious people have a hard time with (personally, I don't see the problem. Why couldn't God use evolutionary processes? The great thing about variation-and-selection from a creator's perspective is it provides lots of ways to tweak outcomes). I suppose that is a miniscule part of science because the origin of humanity is a miniscule part of science.

        I actually find it somewhat odd that so many people get hung up on the conflict between evolutionary speciation and religion, and not on cosmology and religion. The big bang seems much tougher to reconcile with Biblical creation.

      • by alexhs ( 877055 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @09:44PM (#51516163) Homepage Journal

        I haven't seen many 'society of atheists' running soup kitchens, or micro finance banks, or free surgery ships, or child sponsorship programs, or crisis counseling centers, or refugee support programs.

        That's because atheism is not a religion. If you cared, I'm sure you would find no lack of secular associations doing that.
        As an example, in France, we have Les Restaurants du Coeur [wikipedia.org].

      • Now that many of the Christian faiths have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into something vaguely resembling modern understandings of the natural (i.e. real) world... we are now supposed to treat Christianity as though it is not an impairment on the rationality of the world? It will not take long until the next example of a scientific truth that offends religious sensibilities starts the whole thing over again. In the meantime, there are plenty of other things which are not technically evolution but ar

  • Most people don't even know the difference between evolution and natural selection. When asked what that difference is, many will insist it's the same thing. Most people also equate evolution with constant improvement, even though that's not really what it is.

  • It matters? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:12PM (#51513173)

    If we don't want to be preachy religious types, and we don't want to be preachy Science! types, why would we talk about it at all? Besides being the newest, hipest way to try to divide otherwise happy people into warring tribes, what's the goal of polling people about evolution?

    Also, is it good or evil to try to divide otherwise happy, peacefully coexisting people into warring tribes?

    • It matters for making better informed choices about antibiotics, vaccinations, stem cell research, and various other topics.
  • by Dr. Spork ( 142693 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:14PM (#51513201)
    The blurb - actually a paragraph plagiarized verbatim from Science magazine, tsk - suggests that disbelief does not entail lack of knowledge. Can that be? Among epistemologists the near-consensus is that belief is one of the necessary ingredients of knowledge. I'd be curious how we are supposed to understand knowledge coupled with disbelief of the thing that's allegedly known.
    • You can have knowledge of something you don't believe.
    • I'd be curious how we are supposed to understand knowledge coupled with disbelief of the thing that's allegedly known.

      I have knowledge of copper and oxygen and what wires do. That does not mean I believe that deoxygenated copper audio cables distort the signals they carry less than regular old copper ones.

      I have knowledge of hydrogen generators and automotive fuel systems and the claims of some that feeding an engine hydrogen split from water by the automotive 12V system will improve gas milage, but I do not believe those claims.

      I have knowledge of a person called Orenthal James Simpson, that there was a glove that was s

    • Among epistemologists the near-consensus is that belief is one of the necessary ingredients of knowledge.

      Cite? I know lots of things I don't believe in. For example, I have quite a lot of knowledge about how magic works in various fictional systems. I find it much more likely that you're mischaracterizing the belief/knowledge of epistemologists than that they're really that stupid.

      • Among epistemologists the near-consensus is that belief is one of the necessary ingredients of knowledge.

        Cite? I know lots of things I don't believe in. For example, I have quite a lot of knowledge about how magic works in various fictional systems. I find it much more likely that you're mischaracterizing the belief/knowledge of epistemologists than that they're really that stupid.

        I feel the same way you do, but:
        http://plato.stanford.edu/entr... [stanford.edu]
        "There are three components to the traditional (“tripartite”) analysis of knowledge. According to this analysis, justified, true belief is necessary and sufficient for knowledge.

        The Tripartite Analysis of Knowledge:
        S knows that p iff

        p is true;
        S believes that p;
        S is justified in believing that p.
        The tripartite analysis of knowledge is often abbreviated as the “JTB” analysis, for “justified true belief”."

        certa

    • by Sibko ( 1036168 )

      suggests that disbelief does not entail lack of knowledge. Can that be?

      It's pretty easy to see how it works in this case:
      Elephants evolved, but humans didn't because humans are special.

      These people don't seem to disbelieve evolution, they largely seem to disbelieve that humans evolved.

  • by Cederic ( 9623 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:21PM (#51513289) Journal

    Willful ignorance is far worse than simple ignorance.

  • Writing a good survey is hard, since question order may influence the questions that follow. Consider:

    - Did humans evolve from an earlier animal ?
    - Did elephants evolve from an earlier animal?

    vs

    - Did elephants evolve from an earlier animal?
    - Did humans evolve from an earlier animal ?

    The numbers given to 'did humans evolve', would likely be different based on whether the elephant question was asked before or after. It is not simply a question of whi

  • Most people, even "educated" people, know next to nothing about biology or evolution; when you ask them "do you believe in evolution", the question is really no more meaningful than "do you believe in God" or "do you believe that the Pope is secretly homosexual": the people to ask have no meaningful, rational basis on which to answer it, all they can do is say whether people they trust have told them that it's true. And for various reasons, Americans trust government experts less than Europeans. I consider
    • And for various reasons, Americans trust government experts less than Europeans.

      It's a tough choice to generalize here. I know some government officials I trust, some I don't. I know some Europeans I trust, some I don't. Maybe the percentage of the trustworthy Euros is a bit higher...

      But then, what if some of the Europeans I know are government officials? Do I trust them or not?

  • Susan Blackmore gives definitive explanation of what evolution is all about:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    the talk covers it in the first 3 minutes and then goes on to things that are just as fascinating, but i won't spoil that for you :-)

  • Parrots (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jklovanc ( 1603149 ) on Monday February 15, 2016 @03:54PM (#51513579)

    The difference between the "humans" and the "elephants" answers shows that 50% of the "creationists" are just parroting the church's views when talking about humans but when they put their mind in gear, as in the "elephant" question, that actually believe in evolution.

    • They also have no emotional attachment to the origin of elephants, but they are shocked at the idea that they themselves are just common animals.
  • ... and they come across a neon sign that says, "Eat. At. Joes --->"

    The preacher says, "Huh. Look, at that. It's a sign!"
    The scientist says, "Yes. It has glass, rubber, steel, paint, neon gas I presume ... very interesting."
    "Wait, what? My scientist friend, it's a sign."
    "Well, we don't know that for sure, do we?"
    "Of course it's a sign! It says, 'eat at Joes'."
    "Well, who is this 'Joe'? Has anyone ever seen him? How do we know he exists?"
    "...."

    • "Well, who is this 'Joe'? Has anyone ever seen him? How do we know he exists?"

      We can test it. Follow the sign for a bit, and see if there's a Joe making food.

  • It is easy to imagine the world as something mechanical, governed by mathematical laws. But me... I must be special, I have a consciousness, and free will, I can't be described by the same laws.
    Because fellow humans seem to behave like me, and because I was born from humans, it is natural to think that they also have a consciousness, free will, etc... So they are probably special too. Elephants, nah... not special, evolution is OK for them.
    At least we made progress : only white males used to be special (for

  • Doublethink (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Noughmad ( 1044096 ) <miha.cancula@gmail.com> on Monday February 15, 2016 @04:32PM (#51513927) Homepage

    This is a textbook example of doublethink. Nobody actually believes that elephants have evolved over millions of years, but Adam was just put there. So apparently a quarter of people have an inconsistent belief system, or just two conflicting ones - let's say one from school and one from church - without realizing it. I'm sure if they were confronted with this, they would make some sort of excuses or explanations.

    • They may believe that human evolution was "guided" by god, such that they don't consider it natural evolution. Doesn't mean they believe in a biblical Adam and Eve.

  • I am sure most people with even smattering of knowledge and education know, deep in their heart, evolution is true, believe it must be true. But if you ask them to make a statement starkly contradicting their faith, they would rather conform to faith. Faith, is very close, personal and important to them. Evolution being true or not, asked by some distant researcher in white coat with a clip board... not so important.

    That is why religious people sponsored surveys make it sound as reactionary and iconoclast

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