Being public on the internet means having to interact with many different sorts. Recently I’ve been having to deal with a heckler on Facebook. The heckler is actually of a particular type. I’m still trying to learn genetics at this point in my life, so I don’t propose to assert that my opinions are beyond dispute. But there is a variety of discussion which is not fruitful.
An interesting aspect of talking to people about genetics is that totally novice intelligent lay people are often very easy to communicate with. Genetics isn’t that hard, and when people want to learn new concepts and have the ability to it can be a great joy. Similarly, the numerous people who know much more genetics are easy to talk to, because they operate on a domain of fluency which makes conversation effortless (obviously this may not be reciprocated on their part in terms of their perception of your lack of knowledge!).
Update: Just to be clear, I think the variation across cultures is probably explained in large part by confusion as to what is being asked, and differential sampling. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Turkey” sample is more representative than the “Bangladesh” sample, because Turkey is a more developed society.
I’ve mentioned before that many (most?) Muslims are Creationists, broadly understood. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey 42 percent of American Muslims accept that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth. This is roughly in line with the American public, if a touch on the Creationist side. The numbers are similar in Turkey. Also, it must be mentioned that unlike most I have some experience with educated (and scientifically trained) Muslims, and can attest to the fact that many are Creationists (my family).
So the results of a new survey of the world’s Muslims by Pew took me aback a bit, in that it reports widespread acceptance of evolution among Muslims. To add to the plausibility the results for Turkey are in line with previous findings: a bit more of Turkey’s population are Creationist than not. The results for highly secularized European Muslim populations are plausible, though the gap between Albania and Kosovo is somewhat strange. But look at the results for Bangladesh and Lebanon!
Earlier today Erick Erickson of RedState put up a long and meandering post titled “I Believe and Am Thankful”. As you might infer from the title it elaborates Erickson’s own theological position, and his stance toward the expression of faith in the public square. Because I am an atheist I disagree with many aspects of his position, and because I am not a liberal I agree with other elements of his argument. But there was one portion of which alarmed me a great deal, because I believe it displays an epistemological superificiality which is all too common. Erickson’s first paragraph is:
Marco Rubio is getting beaten up by the press for not decisively and convincingly saying he thinks the world is billions of years old. It has become the new litmus test in the media. Believing what was believed to be literally true for a few thousand years is now nutty. Christian homeschool kids, often taught that the world is not as old as some believe and who routinely kick the rear ends of the ivy prep kids in academics, are considered stupid.
There are two components to my reaction. One is rather general and abstract, while the other is specific. I will begin with the abstract. The fact is that you would be foolish to accept what people believed for “thousands of years” in many domains of natural science. When it comes to the ancients or the moderns in science always listen to the moderns. They are not always right, but overall they are surely more right, and less prone to miss the mark. In fact, you may have to be careful about paying too much attention to science which is a generation old, so fast does the “state of the art” in terms of knowledge shift. That was part of my critique of Richard Lewontin. A great evolutionary biologist of the 1960s, today Lewontin seems far behind the times, tackling issues near and dear to the 1970s, when we live in the post-genomic era.
If you have a pulse and follow “science news” you are aware that Marco Rubio gave a very equivocal answer to a very simple question about the age of the earth. As many have noted this is basically a way to call out Republican politicians for the fact that they have to satisfy the cultural signals of a segment of the American population which has a deep hostility to science which undercuts their naive reading of the Bible. To Mitt Romney’s credit he did not evade on this question, but gave a mainstream answer among the well educated. This sort of political pandering isn’t too surprising. Remember Hillary Clinton dismissing ‘elite economists’ when it came to her silly gas tax suspension idea? It’s a democracy, and that means you can get very far appealing to the populist sentiment.
More concretely, I want to address something Rod Dreher asserted at The American Conservative:
I wish one of these liberal journalists would go into a black or Latino church supper and ask people their thoughts about how the universe began. I’d bet that 99 percent of the people there would agree with Marco Rubio, even if most of them would vote for his opponent. People just don’t care about this stuff at the national political level. You’d better believe I’d fight over this issue if it came down to a matter of what was going to be taught in my local school. But I couldn’t possibly care less what the guy who lives in the White House thinks, unless he tries to impose it on the country.
When I hear the word “bet” I start thinking of laying down odds and stealing someone’s cash! But in this case I’ll assume Rod was being rhetorical. But let’s review the numbers, shall we?
In the comments below I expressed anger when I realized one of the readers who I had hoped was not stupid was really rather stupid. I don’t have a high toleration for this sort of stuff, which has supposedly become somewhat well known in the blogosphere (judging from comments about me on other weblogs). When I was younger I suspect I had more toleration for this sort of thing, and engaging with the dull is something that needs to be done, just like you need to change a baby’s diaper because you know they’ll soil themselves, and they can’t be left that way. Perhaps there’s a fixed amount of sympathy for people who shit themselves because they don’t know any better, literally or metaphorically. I’ve got to deal with the former right now, so maybe I’m not having any of the latter anymore.
Chatting with Dan MacArthur on twitter about the old days of Usenet, and arguing with Creationists in the days of yore (MacArthur actually flipped a Creationist!). Here’s a toast to the innocence of that bygone age around the turn-of-the-century….
(separate “shout out” to those who remember me from soc.history.what-if)
Recently over at bloggingheads.tv Matt Lewis broached the issue of science, religion, and politics. Being outside of his bailiwick Lewis seemed to be under some misimpressions. First, he seemed to think that most political liberals were not theists. This is false. In the General Social Survey the GOD variable asks respondents about their confidence in the exist of God. Below are the proportions by ideology for the year 2000 and later who espouse the atheist or agnostic position on the existence of God:
|Atheist or agnostic|
About 1 out of 7 of liberals are an atheist or agnostic. 1 out of 25 conservatives. In contrast, 50 percent of atheists or agnostics are liberal, while only 20 percent are conservatives. Among militant atheists are the proportions are probably even more skewed.
With that out of the way, what about attitudes toward evolution? The GSS asked the EVOLVED question in the year 2006, 2008, and 2010. It asks: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The responses are coded as true or false. Below are those who accepted this proposition for various classes of individuals (all political classes are for the year 2000 and later).
Muslim students, including trainee doctors on one of Britain’s leading medical courses, are walking out of lectures on evolution claiming it conflicts with creationist ideas established in the Koran.
Professors at University College London have expressed concern over the increasing number of biology students boycotting lectures on Darwinist theory, which form an important part of the syllabus, citing their religion.
But evolution? It seems as if denial of evolution comes from a place so basic — religious fundamentalism — that I wonder whether something like this could ever have even the slightest impact.
It’s hard to deny the relationship of religious fundamentalism and evolution denial and skepticism. But, I think it’s important to remember that in the United States the large critical mass of evolution-denying religious fundamentalists has resulted in a “bleed over” of the stance to people who aren’t religious fundamentalists. I know this anecdotally from friends who were of Roman Catholic and Mormon backgrounds who presumed that their religious orientation precluded an acceptance of evolution. In fact, my own first awareness that people might actually not believe in evolution came via a conversation with an evolution skeptic friend who was a nominal Roman Catholic. Nominal in that his family actually never went to church.
What Paul Bloom’s research suggests is that humans find the Creationist narrative intuitively plausible. But, the critical issue is that those who aren’t indoctrinated against the idea of evolution can be convinced of its plausibility.
Let’s look at how this distributes across society using the General Social Survey. The variable BIBLE asks if people think that the Bible is the actually word of god, the inspired word of god, or a book of fables, etc. This seems to be a reasonable approximation of whether one is a fundamentalist, a non-fundamentalist who still accepts the revealed nature of the Bible, or someone who denies the supernatural grounding of the Bible in totality. There are two evolution related questions I can cross with BIBLE. EVOLVED, which asks if humans developed from an earlier species of animal with a true/false response, and SCITEST4, which asks the same question but has a more graded set of responses. Please note that EVOLVED was asked in the mid-to-late 2000s, while SCITEST4 was asked in the 1990s.
One of the most interesting things to me is the nature of Creationism as an idea which evolves in a rather protean fashion in reaction to the broader cultural selection pressures. For me the weirdest example of this was an interlocutor who kept bringing up Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. This sort of argument is well above the standard set of talking points which are easily rebutted with Talk Origins. But to some extent it isn’t what people say, but how they say them. One reason that Creationism seems to be a position of the dull is that it is a position of the dull, and the dull are not as eloquent as the smart.
So I invite you to watch a clip of Richard Land defending Creationism (Intelligent Design) below:
If we look at each wordsum category separately, which ones are significantly different? I ask because the trend seems to reflect the liberal-conservative split (low and high lean left; middle leans conservative). It also seems to mirror educational attainment–moderately educated people (some/completed college) are more likely to be conservative.
Hard to suss out causal factors here.
Well, here’s a logistic regression from the GSS:
Don’t take it too seriously. A lot of these are categorical variables which happen to be rank ordered (e.g., most liberal = 1 and most conservative = 7). But as you can see the WORDSUM correlation disappears when you throw in other variables. In fact, even education isn’t statistically significant anymore. That seems ludicrous, but remember that Biblical literalism is strongly correlated with lower levels of education and intelligence. Once you throw that in there as an explanatory variable it sucks up all the oxygen.
At Culture of Science there’s a little discussion about whether acceptance of evolution indicates intelligence. Looking at the GSS data there doesn’t seem to be a strong causal relationship when you control for other variables. But there is a correlation. That correlation can be explained by the fact that, for example, people who are Biblical literalists tend to be duller than those who are not, and Biblical literalists don’t accept evolution (in fact, I’ve seen evidence that very intelligence Biblical literalists are more Creationist than their duller co-religionists, probably because they’re more coherent in their beliefs).
With that, I’ll leave you with a screenshot of the results for WORDSUM, a 10 word vocabulary test, against acceptance or rejection of human evolution from other organisms (note that the numbers below the proportions are weighted sample sizes):
Dressed in a traditional black robe decorated with rhinestones and a white veil that she wears “only” when she comes to the mosque, Maroua admits that she has always wondered about “the dinosaurs and the origin of man…but at school, it cannot be refuted: we’re taught that man descended from monkeys. At home and in the Koran, [we’re taught] that we descended from Adam and Eve, and that God created all living beings.”
Ali Sadun Engin, Yahya’s representative in the current tour of French mosques, seems to have convinced the young girl. “I find his explanations logical,” she says. The proof for creationism is demonstrated with some perfunctory presentations of fossils, including bear, crocodile, and tortoise skulls, and can be summarized in a few brief sentences: “If fish left the water to walk, if dinosaurs were transformed into birds, then we should discover fossils of these beings in transition. However this is not the case. Science thus shows one sole truth: creation as we know it from the Koran.”….
But it starts to get really weird:
At The Intersection Sheril Kirshenbaum posts some rather stark data from Gallup and a Canadian outfit on the differences in attitudes toward evolution between Americans and Canadians. Those Tories are different! The answers seem very similar to those on offer for the General Social Survey’s “CREATION” question. I thought I’d compare Canadians to various American demographics. The question was asked in 2004 of over 1,400 Americans. I find it somewhat ironic in that I think there has been some question as to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and his attitude toward evolution. Harper is a member of the Evangelical Protestant Christian and Missionary Alliance (and apparently has appointed known Creationists to various government positions, something controversial or notable in Canada). In contrast, Barack Hussein Obama is famously more grounded in evolution than angels.
The other day I was listening to NPR and they were discussing at length the upheavals in the Arab world. Offhand I noted how the discussants would occasionally shift between “the Arab world” and “the Muslim world,” and naturally they all took for granted the central role that Islam would play in the Egyptian polity (and likely the Libyan one). There was nothing shocking about any of this, but imagine you engaged in some substitution. Switching from “Western world” to “Christian world” would sound old-fashioned and anachronistic. The European Union famously omitted mention of Christianity in its constitution several years back, from which erupted a controversy between its more religious and secular member nations (e.g., Poland vs. France). Western societies may still have Christianity as the dominant religion, but in most cultures it does not have the same relationship to the broader culture that it once did.
This is in part due to some radicals on this continent. As outlined in The Godless Constitution the United States of America was founded with a federal government which did not operate under the explicit umbrella of a religious institution. Nor did that federal government engage in any subsidy toward religion. This was a shocking act in its age, as Western civilization had long been predicated on the favor of the gods, and later the Christian God. Not just Western civilization. Even religiously pluralistic and diverse societies, such as that of Imperial Rome or Imperial China, freely mixed the sacred and the secular, under the presumption that the polity would benefit from heavenly favor. This was not exceptional, it was universal. Church and state have been united for all of human history, and only in the past few centuries has the idea of an explicitly secular political system taken hold.
Glenn Beck said some dumb, but unsurprising, things about evolution:
How many people believe in evolution in this country? I’d like to see. I mean, I don’t know why it’s unreasonable to say this. I’m not God so I don’t know how God creates. I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet. Did evolution just stop? Did we all of sudden — there’s no other species that’s developing into half-human?
It’s like global warming. So I don’t know why it is so problematic for people to just so, I don’t know how God creates. I don’t know how we got here. If I get to the other side and God’s like, “You know what, you were a monkey once,” I’ll be shocked, but I’ll be like, “Whatever.”
First, Glenn Beck is an adult convert to the Mormon religion. Therefore if he is exalted to godhood he could create a universe of half-monkeys/half-men for kicks. Second, note the details of Beck’s background. He was raised Roman Catholic, and secular for most of his adulthood, before coming to the Mormon church. None of these affinities entails a rejection of evolution. You are probably well aware that the Roman Catholic church has made its peace, broadly speaking, with evolution. And there’s nothing about secularism which necessitates a rejection of evolution. But what about Mormonism? This is the peculiarity. Mormons are broadly sympathetic to Creationism, but there’s nothing in the religion’s teachings which imply this as being the orthodox position. This is why Mitt Romney can robustly support the teaching of evolution. So what’s going in?
Christine O’Donnell has said a lot of kooky things. Right now people are focusing on her Creationism. Though I’m obviously not a Creationist I think mocking someone for this belief in a political context is somewhat strange: the survey literature is pretty robust that Americans are split down the middle on opinions about evolution. More specifically most of the polling shows that around ~50% of Americans tend to reject the validity of evolutionary theory when asked. This is what I like to call a broad but shallow belief; for the vast majority of Americans attitudes about evolution are really just cultural markers, not stances of deep feeling or impact. One point of evidence for this conjecture is that polling on evolution is easy to massage through framing. Another is that Republican candidates for the presidency do not invariably hew to a Creationist line despite the likelihood that the majority of primary voters are Creationist. Politicians react to incentives, and my own hunch is that there isn’t a strong push from the Christian Right on evolution as there is on abortion or gay marriage.
I’ve posted plenty on how Creationists are more female, less intelligent, more conservative, more likely to be ethnic minorities, less educated, etc. Here I want to put the spotlight parameters which might shed some light on the O’Donnell race. Is her kooky opinion on evolution a particular liability in Mid-Atlantic Delaware? Are Creationists less likely to vote? And what are the regional breakdowns which might explain the bi-coastal shock and amusement at O’Donnell’s opinions?
One of the trends that makes me less pessimistic about the inevitability of an idiocratic end-point to technological civilization is that it seems young Americans are more likely to accept evolution than earlier age cohorts. The EVOLVED variable asks whether one believes that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animal.” It was asked in 2004 and 2008, and its response is dichotomous between true and false. The favorable age trend I was aware of, but almost randomly I decided to control for some demographic variables, and I stumbled onto something which surprised me a bit, but in hindsight shouldn’t have: much of the greater acceptance of evolution among the youth has to do with a closing of the sex gap between men and women. Traditionally women have been more religious and Creationist in their inclinations, but far less so in Gen Y. Chart below of EVOLVED.
A comment below about intelligent people who believe in dumb ideas made me want to revisit the Creationism demographics in the GSS. More on point I wanted to look at the relationship between IQ and Creationism crossed with demographic variables. I used the WORDSUM variable as a proxy for IQ (the correlation is ~0.70). WORDSUM scores range from 0 to 10; 10 being a perfect and 0 being not so perfect. To get a sense of the range, here are mean WORDSUM scores by highest degree attained, constrained for the years 2004 and later:
|No High School Diploma||4.57|
|High School Diploma||5.91|
I decided to limit the year to 2004 and later because to explore Creationism I want to use the variable EVOLVED, which was asked in 2004 and 2008. I selected EVOLVED because the sample size was not that small, nearly 1,500, and, the response is dichotomous. Here’s what EVOLVED asked:
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Is that true or false?)
Querying Americans about human descent from animals primes them to be a bit on the Creationist side. True and false come at at about 50:50 for the above question. Below is a table where the columns have mean WORDSUM scores for non-Creationists and Creationists, and the rows indicate the particular demographic. I have put in bold those variables where the horizontally adjacent cells are outside each other’s 95% confidence interval. Additionally I constrained the sample to non-Hispanic whites (so the N is closer to 1,350).