Consider the graph above (from the website Calamities of Nature). It shows the relationship between the acceptance of evolution (here defined as “humans beings, as we know them, evolved from earlier species of animals”, a reasonably good metric of true acceptance of evolution) in various countries around the world versus their relative wealth (as measured by GDP adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity). The main trend of countries form a well defined cloud with a reasonable curvilinear fit. At the top are a well-defined cluster of northern and western European nations (plus Japan), with the southern European nations just behind them. Near the bottom are the former Soviet bloc countries of eastern Europe, which still suffer the effects of decades of backward Soviet educational and economic policies. (China, South Korea, and Singapore are not shown, but on other surveys, they all rate high on the acceptance of evolution scale. so they would plot high on the ordinate or Y axis, no matter what their GDP).
The same relationship could be shown if you consider any of the recent surveys that measure science literacy on an international scale. The northern and western European nations (especially Germany and the Scandinavian countries plus Iceland) nearly always come out near the top, along with Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and sometimes China. The exact order differs from survey to survey, but they only shuffle within the top 10 or top 15. In other words, the acceptance of evolution in these countries is a very strong predictor of overall science literacy.
Now look at the position of the U.S. It is a striking outlier on the graph shown here, because its low rate of acceptance of evolution relative to its national wealth (and the same would be true if you plotted it against the money spent on education per student). It falls down near the bottom of the curve on evolution acceptance along with Islamic nations like Turkey, which spend much less per student. What is this telling us?
We’ve heard all sorts of arguments about why our U.S. students are so illiterate in science despite all the money spent on their education. Teachers point out that they are forced to focus on memorization of numerous out-of-context factoids for multiple choice tests, not the hands-on active learning method of doing science that is proven to really reach students. Others point to our pop culture, which stereotypes scientists as nerds or “mad geniuses” in white lab coats, plotting to destroy the world. Compared to other rich industrialized countries, scientists and engineers in the U.S. don’t have nearly the prestige that they have in Japan or Germany, for example—nor are they paid as well as others, such as sports stars, movie stars, and investment bankers. In the U.S., the most popular public figures are jocks and entertainers, not exactly role models for the intellectual improvement of our country. Mooney and Kirshenbaum (2009) put some of the blame on the poor scientific communication skills and lack of PR efforts by scientists to make their work more accessible and better known to the public.
No doubt all of these things are true to some extent, but they’re all missing the elephant in the room that is apparent in these data: the stultifying influence of creationism in U.S. science education. Most of the examples of science illiteracy revealed in common survey questions, such as the mistaken notions about the age of the earth and Big Bang, or whether humans lived with dinosaurs, or whether we share a lot of DNA with chimps, are clearly so out of line with reality because they are part of the creationist dogma. No matter what kids learn in school about these subjects, their religious training at home overcomes the best efforts of their teachers—and their ideas rarely change as they become scientifically illiterate adults.
The single biggest predictor of national success in science literacy is the degree to which a country is not dominated by dogmatic religious beliefs, whether it be fundamentalist Christianity or conservative Islam. As Jon Miller documented, most of these industrialized European and Asian countries have no such strong forces of religious dogmatism in their politics and culture, and their schools teach evolution and other scientific topics with almost no interference by religious zealots.
The accommodationists say that scientists must not offend the religious community in the U.S., because they are too numerous and powerful, and we need allies among the Catholics and the more moderate Protestants and Jews, wherever we can get them. As someone who grew up in a religious family and tries not offend them, I can understand this laissez faire attitude. But if these data are correct, appeasing the religious and trying to make evolution and astronomy and anthropology sound more palatable and less threatening to our religious notions really doesn’t help. Only the decline in dogmatic religious beliefs seems to predict a greater science literacy rate. As Greg Paul and Phil Zuckerman (2008) and many people have noted, the least religious of these European countries also have a very high standard of living and better sense of well being. They share another thing in common: they are countries with strong social safety nets (guaranteed health care, job security, good retirement and vacation benefits, good child care). In these countries (especially in Scandinavia and Germany), most people no longer worry much about these mundane matters of survival, and no longer feel the need to pray to a deity to protect them against the lack of health coverage, few benefits or job security, scanty retirement savings, and lack of child care that plagues many middle and lower class people in the U.S. Yet their economies are thriving, their standards of living are very high, and they have relatively few people who are poor.
Certainly, the issue of why Americans are so ignorant of science is a complex one that doesn’t have a simple single-factor answer. It is probably a nexus of causes, from media dominated by junk entertainment and little real science, to the problems with educating students, to the raging hormones of teenagers, to the big problem of dogmatic religion actively opposing science and reason in this country. Whatever the cause, the consequences are severe.
- Mooney, C., and S. Kirshenbaum. 2009. Unscientific America: How Science Illiteracy Threatens our Future. Basic Books, New York.
- Zuckerman, P. 2008. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. NYU Press, New York.