Mind

Why The Scientifically Literate Can Believe Silly Things

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJul 26, 2011 2:07 PM

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If you understand motivated reasoning, then you understand that high levels of knowledge, education, and sophistication are no defense against wrongheaded views like climate change denial and anti-evolutionism. What I'll call "sophistication" may even make these phenomena worse, at least among those with deeply ideological or religious views. The reason is that when we "reason" in areas where we have strong beliefs, our emotions come first and then we rationalize our pre-existing views. And those better at generating self-affirming arguments will be better rationalizers, will fall in love with their own seemingly brilliant arguments, and their minds will become harder to change (but they'll love to argue). According to a recent report in Science, those designing the National Science Foundation's next Science and Engineering Indicators report--and particularly the much cited Chapter 7, which discusses the public's views and knowledge about science--are now grappling with this problem. The issue involves measuring scientific literacy, and how to treat survey questions over evolution and the Big Bang--questions where religious conservatives who may be otherwise perfectly scientifically literate are going to say they don't accept what science tells us. Here's Science:

Can a person be scientifically literate without accepting the concepts of evolution and the big bang? To many scientists and educators, the answer to that question is an unqualified “no.” But the National Science Board—the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF)—isn't sure that rejecting evolution for religious reasons automatically undermines a person's scientific literacy. And its attempt to distinguish between knowledge and belief in how people respond to an NSF-funded biennial science literacy survey has drawn fire from critics who view the changes as surrendering scientific ground to religion. For 2 decades, the survey has included two true-false statements: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and “The universe began with a huge explosion.” Two expert panels assembled last year by NSF have suggested qualifying those statements with the phrases “According to evolutionary theory” and “According to astronomers.” The board has decided to ask NSF to give the new versions of the questions to half the respondents on its next survey and to analyze the results. The change infuriates Jon Miller, a science literacy expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and architect of the original questionnaire, which is now used by several countries. “If you are altering the questions in that way, you are doing it for religious reasons,” he says. “We don't make statements like, ‘According to some economists, we had a recession’ or ‘According to the weatherman, we had a tsunami.’”

I'm sorry, and I know he's an expert and all--and has pioneered research on scientific illiteracy--but I think Jon Miller is wrong here. The proposed alterations to these questions are important, because many religious conservatives both know what the evolutionary and Big Bang theories are, and yet also reject them--and the smartest of them can probably generate many arguments for why they do so. It doesn't make any sense, in my mind, to call such people scientific illiterates or ignorant. That would suggest that they lack knowledge, but they obviously don't. There is, however, a much stronger argument for calling such people evolution or Big Bang "deniers." The key point here, though, is to recognize that illiteracy/ignorance and denial are not the same phenomena, because denial is often highly informed and sophisticated. The sooner we recognize that, and separate these two problems, the sooner we'll be able to tackle both of them--independently.

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