70 years of scientific materialism doesn't make you pro-science

By Razib Khan | April 9, 2010 3:56 pm

Chris Mooney points me to some data on scientific knowledge indicators published by the NSF. There’s a controversy whereby evolution and Big Bang related questions seem to have been removed because American religious Fundamentalism tended to produce a rejection of sane consensus in these areas. Science pointed to the unedited chapters which have some international comparisons. I’ve reformatted a figure from page 103 below. No surprise that American comes out badly on evolution and the Big Bang, but what always strikes me when Russia is included in the list is how skeptical citizens are to conventional science. If you poke around the World Values Survey you don’t find the Russians to be a particularly religious nation, at least compared to Poland or the United States, despite a general shift back toward nominal Orthodox Christian affiliation after the fall of Communism. Rather, I suspect Russian rejection of mainstream science probably has its roots more in a broader skepticism of institutional elite knowledge. After all, the Marxist ideology under which they were tyrannized for 70 years made the pretense of being scientific and positivistic.


The line in the middle of the bar graph is 50%, and all the bars represent correct responses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism, Culture
  • znz

    Off-topicly, I’ve got to protest that the Earth-round-the-Sun versus Sun-round-the-Earth one is an ill-posed and meaningless question and what they are really getting at is “what is the most convenient reference frame in which to view the motion of the Sun and the Earth?”

    But I suspect you and your readers know that already.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    znz, sure. but i’m pretty sure most people got this wrong because they don’t think about this often and spit out the intuitive answer without thinking about it. a lot of these questions can be deconstructed so that the wrong answer is the right one, or that the question is not even wrong. but i think that’s really not the point of this broad-based survey.

  • znz


  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    The USSR had its own anti-evolution problems, and without church-state separation, the entire field suffered.

  • John Emerson

    In most of the post-Communist countries, religion has never really come back (Poland is an exception, I think). Large atheist-secularist contingents remain, even where Communism is completely discredited. Communism’s positive ideas are in disgrace, in other words (not for everyone, though), but their anti-religious stance was effective (relatively — there are still believers).

    Something like that was true after the French revolution. After 1815 monarchy was dominant for 55 years, and the aristocracy remained important though less dominant, but the Catholic Church never regained its power and became mostly a regional, rural, peasant phenomenon (with exceptions of course).

    This fits with my theory that the main reason anyone believes in religion is that when they were growing up, everyone around them believed in religion (or pretended to). It becomes an unthought presumption.

    Converts from secularism to religion are rare and rather peculiar, and a lot of them do religion-hopping. Some guy I read about went from mainline Protestant to secular to Episcopal to Catholic to tarditional Catholic to Orthodox.

  • bioIgnoramus

    I knew a family that went Communist -> Roman Catholic -> Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least the wife did; the husband balked at that last move. She had the children convert, though.

  • John Emerson

    JWs are among the most anti-Catholic, so there’s some tension there.

  • Richard

    Some of the questions are really bad.

    The Universe did not begin in a “huge explosion” – it started when a point (small?) begun to expand.

    The question will be answered as true by people who have a popular science knowledge of the big bang theory, those that think it describes a “big bang”. It must be answered as false by people who studies the big bang theory more and it will be answered as false by religious people.

    The same is of course true for the question about the Sun and the Earth, as pointed out by znz.

    I think it is kind of wrong to put the people who have knowledge and accept the scientific theories together with the fundamentalists. I think this might cause the study above to point at something which is false – in other words, it makes people seem more ignorant than they really are. I think they should at least bother to check that the questions can not be mis interpreted in this way.

    Anyways, seeing as the rest of the study turns out negating my preconception – people are more stupid than I thought they were – I think that just a small sample of people think like this.

    On another note;

    You might have hit a string with why people distrust science in Europe in this article. Politicians, at least in my country, use a lot of numbers and data to present their truth – as if saying that X% more people are unemployed since an election equals that the losing side would have done a better job (if you have ever listened a creationist or ID-fan talking about evolution, you know the drill). The other side always counter with something like that there is Y% more working opportunities since they got elected and so on.

    The use of ‘scientific language’ by European politicians might influence you to stop liking science. No matter who you vote for and no matter who gets elected – you will know someone who lost their job during their period in charge.

    Though I don’t think people remember what happened over 20 years ago so vividly that it influence the Russian people’s distrust of science today. Time changes a lot. They did elect Putin, right? And that guy is pretty similar (remove a lot of the horrible things they did) to previous leaders of Russia. If they can elect someone that reminds them of the days of the past – I do not think they remember enough to hate science for the reasons you have mentioned. I think it has to be something continuous like my hypothesis of the language of politics in Europe.

  • deadpost

    I notice the questions where the other countries do better than the US are those that deal with large-scale things spanning time and space (continental drift, cosmology etc.). I suppose this is because these things are more easily tied to creationism and “God did it.”

    On the other hand, the US seems to be tops in of the more practical, applied or small-scale scientific questions (technology and physics, medicine and genetics etc.). I mean it probably has obviously better exposure to science than the poorer Asian countries (China, Malaysia, India etc.), but why does it edge out other developed countries like (supposedly sciency) Japan, or to a lesser extent (on questions like radioactivity and antiobiotics) the EU?

    Is this because technology and medicine is still a prominent part of the North American culture? As much as anti-intellectualism is often claimed by more nerdy and academic types, these topics are still in the news and reasonably given its glory on forensics shows, medical dramas etc, as accurate as those may be.

    It doesn’t seem like mocking the US for bad science literacy is justified then, considering many other first world nations’ track record on scientific topics not so cosmological or geological in scale.

    Do you have any ideas on this?

  • bioIgnoramus

    “the US seems to be tops in ….medicine and genetics etc.”; Ive noticed that Americans are usually far more on top of medical jargon and up-to-date medical doctrines than, e.g., the British. I assume that this is caused by either:-
    (1) Americans more often pay directly, or via insurance, for medical treatment and therefore have a financial incentive to grapple with such stuff, or
    (2) In spite of their professed Christianity, Americans are much more scared of dying, and therefore have a spiritual incentive to grapple with such stuff.

    These explanations are not mutually exclusive.

  • deadpost

    Hmmm… interesting ideas, but the split that really jumps out at me does seem to be between “practical” or microscale, versus big phenomenon (evolution, astronomy, and the earth etc.) that maybe isn’t of as immediate use.

    I mean the gap seems pretty strong when it comes to the questions about, say lasers. Maybe Americans are simply more practical people when it comes to scientific knowledge.

  • http://bentudesoli.blogspot.com Mihai

    It’s not only Russia, Romania too is becoming very anti-science. Yes at first it was just a nominal shift toward Orthodox Christian affiliation but now it’s more than that. I started school just after the fall of Communism and the school textbooks were largely those of before, without of course any mention of the Party or of Communism. The difference is huge versus the current textbooks. And it shows. According to a new study just 14% of students in the VII-XII grades (that is kids between 13 and 18 years) think that the theory of evolution is correct. I can’t blame them. Priests take part at every school event. Evolution is hardly mentioned in school. Religion is a compulsory subject in school and is not some fluff multi-culti presentation of different religions but a “Why is the Orthodox church the only true one and all other people sinners destined for Hell”.Although officially is possible to have your kid not take part it is difficult especially if you don’t have another religion as the reason (no religion is not that good). My high-school religion teacher was a young lady who read us story of how you will burn alive if you wash clothes on Sunday…
    The Romanian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution in Romania according to every survey since 1989 and as such is very assertive. There are a lot of religious radio stations, magazines and associations. Although the official attitude towards science and modernity is very similar to that of the Catholic Church the actual attitude is very anti-modern (basically anything more recent than the XIXth century is has the Devil involved one way or another). This attitude is endorsed by almost everybody (44% even wanting to have criticizing the church become a criminal
    offense). The older generation is not that affected by this as most of there mental habits have formed during the communist period and so have a greater trust in science.
    The situation is similar with the Russian one because, as in Russia, there was a conflict between Westernizers and those wanting to develop a different civilization, a peasant, orthodox an nationalistic one. Communism destroyed or driven into exile the Pro-West (pro French more exactly) elites that dominated Romania before the second World War. The ultra nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies of Romanian Communism in the 80′ was the breading ground of many of the current polical and religious elites (for example most of the members of the Greater Romania Party were generals or “court poets” in the 80′).
    Romania is today one of the most pro-Eu an pro-US country in Europe but the culture war was won by anti-modern agenda.

  • Bruce Williams


    Actually, the earth orbits the sun. I could care less about the point of view. According to your theory, when I fire a bullet out of my 9MM the expanding gasses cause the entire universe to rotate about the point of the lead in the bullet and cause the target to approach the lead and then hit it.
    1. There isn’t enough chemical energy in the gunpowder to overcome the inertial energy of the universe.
    2. The amount of energy to overcome the inertial energy of the entire universe would not only explode the metal of the gun, it would evaporate the entire solar system, if not the entire galaxy we live in.
    etc. etc.
    You’re idea is provably false, as well as ridiculous.

    Stupidity comes in many forms. And one of those forms is arrogance.

  • znz


    Yeah, none of that’s actually true. Having the Sun rotate around the Earth doesn’t require any of those things. I don’t know why you would think it would, unless you’re implicitly assuming we’re going to work in an inertial frame of reference, in which case it sounds like you do in fact care about the point of view, which contradicts your statement that you don’t. You can write down valid equations of motion for the Earth and the Sun in many different frames of reference. And an inertial frame in which Newton’s Second Law holds is certainly a convenient frame to work in, giving the equations of motion an especially simple form. But it is not any more correct than any other frame.

    If you want to get more pedantic, in an inertial frame (neglecting all the other bodies in the universe) both the Sun and the Earth are orbiting their mutual centre of mass. Of course, it’s an extremely good approximation to think of this as the Earth going around a stationary (say) Sun since the mass of the Sun is so much greater than that of the Earth.

  • Margarett

    This I know:

    Infinity makes more sense than ‘no’ infinity. One is beyond my logic, the other insults my logic.

    ‘Trinity’ insults my logic. All logic.

    Plus, it gets its origin from other 3 head god worshipers. Not Bible origin.

    Lets get the small stuff straight before we get behind the wheel of the origin of the universe.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar