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The Elephant in the Room of Science Illiteracy

by Donald Prothero, Jan 11 2012

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.

145 Responses to “The Elephant in the Room of Science Illiteracy”

  1. Tom says:

    “Certainly, the issue of why Americans are so ignorant of science is a complex one…Whatever the cause, the consequences are severe.”

    Really? They don’t look so severe. According to your data only 40% believe in evolution and yet the USA has the highest per-capita GDP (I’ll exclude Norway since they are sitting on a tub of oil). Isn’t there another conclusion from this? That it just doesn’t matter.

    Don’t get me wrong…I am with you as far as distress about scientific illiteracy. However, this graph doesn’t serve to ratchet up the alarm level. I suppose one could argue, “Watch out! We’ll lose our lead because of our ignorance.” Maybe so, but there is no evidence for that so far.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      If you saw Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk at TAM9, or paid attention to the news, the evidence is already in: China and Japan are now rapidly exceeding the US in published peer-reviewed science, as is Europe as a whole, over the past decade. It takes a while for the decay to set it, but based on what I’ve seen of the American scientific community (and the appalling ignorance of American kids in science), it won’t take too long before we’re left behind.

  2. Shane Brady says:

    Europe’s economy is “thriving” ?

    • Karolus says:

      Well, Germany’s is.

    • Nyar says:

      Thriving, on the verge of collapse… Same difference!

    • Somite says:

      Just like the US was. Only that there wasn’t a foreclosure stamped and most citizens still have access to health care and education.

      GDP is a measure of economic robustness but it doesn’t show how it benefits a country’s citizens.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    Why are we supposed to worry about this?

    Seriously: how does other people’s “belief in” (telling phrase) evolution make a difference? If you’re talking about national income, there’s a huge question about what is the cause and what the effect — having a college degree correlates to higher income, but giving everyone a degree wouldn’t make them rich.

    Ignorance of statistics, logic, and basic economics are FAR more serious problems on a day-to-day basis than the fact that American evangelical Christians reject abiogenesis (which is what they mean when they say they “don’t believe in evolution”).

  4. Luis says:

    Whenever I’m teaching experimental methods and I get a plot like this, I ask my students “What are we missing here?”. If they’ve been paying attention, they know that the right answer is “a control”.

    In principle, it is easy to figure out if the low position of the USA on the vertical axis is a consequence of the influence of creationism or low educational standards overall. You just need to construct a second plot (or a bunch of them) involving science questions whose answers are not likely to be affected by creationist dogmas. There are plenty of these. Of the top of my head, I can think of “a water molecule is composed of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms: true or false?”; or “when in free fall, heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones: true or false?”; or “pi (3.1416) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius: true or false?”. If these questions get a score consistent with those of nations with similar GDP, then you could have an argument to the effect that the outlier above is caused by religious doctrine. Until you do that, you only have a conjecture.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I HAVE seen such studies, and even if you filter out the evolution-related questions, Americans are just as ignorant of basic chemistry and physics as they are about cosmology and biology–and most other topics, for that matter. If you’ve paid attention to the news in this area, people have been looking at whole range of possible reasons why US kids test well below kids in equally affluent countries like Japan, S. Korea, or those in northern Europe. My point is that one factor they neglect to mention is the lack of fundie influence in their cultures…

      • laursaurus says:

        “Welcome to Calamities of Nature, a comic that focuses on topics of social commentary, science, religion, philosophy, and lots of bacon. If you’re new here, checking out the best of Calamities of Nature is a great place to start.”

        Excuse me, but…
        You got your data from a comic? What’s next, links to the Onion? What exactly makes satire any more factual than dogma?
        You realize the church didn’t execute Galileo, right? Seriously, they didn’t!
        So where did you see “such studies?” Was it The Daily Show or the Colbert Report? Those are satire, too. Funny how the people who watch those shows for news love to look down on people who watch Fox. I know, that whole Poe thing gets very confounding.

        When skepticism is manipulated to justify ideology, it’s no longer skepticism. Religion opposes science. Always has. Always will. So there’s no need to fact check evidence that confirms that bias. Heck, Rebecca Watson KNEW the church executed many scientists. Galileo just didn’t happen to be one of them. And Christians are still stupid!

      • tmac57 says:

        Personally,I watch Colbert and The Daily Show for a good laugh…and I watch Fox news for the same reason.

      • tmac57 says:

        Oh,and by the way,an argument can be made,that the ones who MOST look down on the people who watch Fox News,are the people who produce Fox News.
        Why else would they assume that their bias,distortions,demagoguery,and lies would go completely unnoticed by their audience? They assume that they are too dumb to check.
        Makes for great satire though…so the Comedy Channel is indebted to them.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      TRUE, FALSE, FALSE. Nailed it, woohoo!

  5. Somite says:

    This graph is a warning of what may happen to this country if religiosity and conservative regression is not limited very soon. Although people might be able to hold conflicting believes simultaneously like evolution and deities it also shows you the person is capable of fuzzy thinking.

    This is why accomodationism is dangerous. It keeps and validates fuzzy thinking and you can’t tell when it is put in effect. Like Dawkins said, the only purpose of accomodationism is fund raising. It is certainly dangerous and incorrect.

    One great example is Daniel Loxton’s evolution book. An excellent book that is a great intro to evolution for young readers until it directs them to seek answers from parents and clergy. How many kids beliefs were positively challenged by the book only to have the questions squashed by a priest?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I’m glad at least SOMEONE agrees with me! I was surprised no one commented on my remarks about accommodationism in the post! But a priest might not squash the question, since the Catholic Church accepts evolution and some cosmology…

      • Somite says:

        Reverend or Rabbi then? :)

      • Frank Rommey says:

        Catholic Church accepts… not really, it is a qualified acceptance. God does the evolution trick… See Teilhard de Chardin for the hurdles that they put in the path of evolution…

      • MadScientist says:

        Oh no, the catholic church does *not* accept evolution. The church claims it does, but the evolution it believes in is what Francis Collins believes in – some fairy-guided evolution – that is not the evolution described by Darwin or the evolution accepted by most scientists in the field. Oh dang, Frank beat me to it.

    • David says:

      Why is evolution the one subject skeptics aren’t skeptical about?

      From Loxton’s book, “Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be”:–KidsCanPress–FB.pdf

      Page 13:

      “On one island, the [Galapagos] finches had large beaks for cracking tough seeds. On another, they had long thin beaks for catching insects and so on. But if that was true–if one species could turn into several new species–how did it happen?”

      Jonathan Weiner (“The Beak of the Finch”, 1994) said beak changes during a severe drought (1977) was “evolution in action”, even though the changes were reversed after the drought ended, and no net evolution occurred. The beak changes can be more accurately described as “minor variation in action”.

      Page 21:

      “Most of these insects [peppered moth] were light colored with dark pepperlike speckles, while a rare few were dark all over….Within a hundred years, almost all the moths were dark colored. A change in the environment led to a physical adaptation in the moths. That’s natural selection and evolution in action!” (p. 21)

      Edward Blyth, English chemist/zoologist (and creationist), wrote his first of three major articles on natural selection–although not using the specific term–in The Magazine of Natural History, 24 years before Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published. Why then do evolutionists think of natural selection as Darwin’s idea?

      As for peppered moths, did a new species emerge, or did it already preexist?

      Page 44:

      “How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?….It’s just not true that eyes need all those parts [lens, iris, muscles, etc.] to work. As Darwin pointed out, nature today is full of eye designs much simpler than ours.”

      Ian T. Taylor writes: “If Darwin turned cold at the thought of the human eye at the end of the evolutionary cycle, what, one wonders, would he have thought of the trilobite eye near the beginning?” (“In the Minds of Men”, Fifth Edition, 2003)

      For Loxton not to include scientific information that questions evolution is to teach evolution as dogma.

      See my online article “Evolution: The Creation Myth of Our Culture”

  6. Max says:

    Turkey really bent that curve down. It looks lonely down there, but the graph doesn’t include other Muslim, Latin American, and African countries, which are the most religious. What happened to science in the Muslim world?
    “Out of more than five hundred Nobel laureates in the sciences, only two have been of Muslim lineage.”

    • MadScientist says:

      Uh .. what curve? I think the claim of a curve of best fit is ridiculous really – is a curve better than a line in this instance and why?

      • Max says:

        Had they excluded Turkey from the fit, a line would’ve been sufficient. But I suspect that Turkey isn’t really alone on the bottom left, since the plot is missing even poorer and more religious countries. Also, I’d expect China and maybe Russia to be at the top left.

      • MadScientist says:

        I suspect so too – the more actual data you put in, the less the plot appears to have a curve or a line.

      • Faul_Sname says:

        A line would have absolutely been the best fit for this data. You need at least a 10x increase in accuracy to justify a curve of this complexity (as there are at least 10 curve types this complex as opposed to just 1 class of lines). Also, I strongly suspect the data were handpicked to show the US as much in the light of ‘outlier’ as possible.

        The problem here is a lack of understanding of scientific practices by the author, ironically enough. The correlation between income and religiosity is not best measured through science literacy.

      • Nathaniel Brottingham says:

        As someone with a scientific background, I’d also like to add that creating a curve formula like that without giving some good solid reasons on why the formula is plausible and what the parameters mean is highly suspect, since increasing the number of parameters will almost always give a better fit, even when the extra parameters don’t make sense. This is sometimes known as overfitting.
        Then, there is the issue that even though the US is excluded as an exception, Turkey isn’t. Why not? Data points at the ends of the data set tend to have a much greater influence on your results than data points more towards the middle. Where is the justification for all this?
        As it is, Adnan Oktar could look at the graph and say: ‘See, we’re supposed to be like this, leave us alone you filthy Western imperialists!’
        The thing is, this should have been clear to Donald and I think it’s terrible that not only he refers to this graph, but that he uses it as the window piece of the article. I remember that this was discussed before (either here or on another well-known sceptical forum) and the general consensus back then too was that the correlation appears to be more or less linear.
        As it is, the graph is not just deceptive, but also incomplete; if we were to add more data points we might even find out there is no single curve or line at all, but rather a few distinct and separate curves.

      • Somite says:

        No one has made a quantitative claim based on that graph. The only relevant point and what Donald uses for the essay is that the US is an outlier, nothing else.

      • MadScientist says:

        The question remains: is the USA indeed an outlier and what are the parameters used in declaring it an outlier? And if it were indeed an outlier – so what?

  7. mrG says:

    LOL — yes, illiteracy in Science, and predicated on an illiteracy in data gathering!! Consider your founding premise: “humans beings, as we know them, evolved from earlier species of animals”, is this a reasonably good metric of true acceptance of evolution? Perhaps, but HOW DO YOU MEASURE THAT VALUE? You cannot. You grab a self-selected sample through a website? Hardly. Perhaps you tag a few university students in a campus or two? Guess again. Now you additionally assert to know this value (to whithin 2 sig-figs!!) in Turkey too?! C’mon.

    And so off you go on a tangent based on hilarious data!! And it gets picked up because the Internet traffic is (measurably) weighted to the USA who will be incensed at it one way or the other, the whole thing becomes ripe for the National Inquirer and here we are, uproariously ignorant! :)

  8. Donald Prothero says:

    Here’s a study:

    which surveys questions about photosynthesis, earth moving around the sun, etc., that are not evolution related..

    • Fatboy says:

      Every two years, the NSF releases the Science and Engineering Indicators report. On my blog, I pulled out a table from Chapter 7, which shows the results of such a survey. It also includes results from other regions/countries, including EU-25, Malaysia, India, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. And while the U.S. did do depressingly poorly in such basic questions as whether the Earth orbits the sun or vice versa (1 in 4 got it wrong), the rest of the world did nearly just as bad, or worse. In fact, in the questions asked that were included in that table, the U.S. seemed on par with Europe and Japan.

  9. Chris Howard says:

    Personally, I feel it has more to do with a culture that was taught, from the early 70’s to the early 00’s, that self-esteem (an indicator of, nearly, nothing) is paramount, for healthy child development. It’s legacy has been one of overinflated egos. My generation were taught that “everyone has a right to their own opinion.” (personally, I think that’s bunk. Some opinions are monsterous, and lead to tragic ends) and in some instances, that “all opinions are equally valid.” The first concept can lead to ethical nihilism, and the second to cultural relativism.

    In reality what one encounters is more an attitude of “I’m right, you’re close-minded.” or “I have the right to my own opinion, and you do too, as long as your opinion is just like mine.”
    This has led to a culture that simply changes the channel if they encounter an idea, concept, or fact that they don’t agree with. The Internet, one of the most powerful learning tools ever devised, has become an echo chamber where one goes to seek out information that conforms to their preconceived attitudes, values, and beliefs.
    So, the first thing that must be taught is humility. We should start by teaching children that certainty is a much lesser virtue than the abilty to say “I could be wrong…” and we have to teach the value of failure. We have to instill the idea that being wrong is okay, and an essential part of all learning. “I don’t know, but I’m willing, and humble enough to learn.” should be seen as the most honest, and ethical thing one can say.

    Perhaps, before one can be scientifically literate they have to be willing to learn? Or
    Maybe It’s not that they don’t want to learn, it’s that they”re scared that what they learn may offend, and contradict what they already believe. In other words, their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, are more important than discovering the truth?

    Bringing it all together, science requires humility, and sublimation of ones ego in the service of knowledge, and discovery. Other beliefs, specifically sectarian beliefs, require one to believe based upon what they want to believe, or have been indoctrinated to believe, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Rather than cultivating humility it allows for the rationalizing of psychological projection(s). Ergo the person of faith is always “right” and true debate is useless because the person of faiths mindset is such that they can’t be taught. Their mind is closed to methodology because they don’t possess the humility, or the ability to admit that they could be wrong, regarding matters of their specific flavor of superstition. Scientific literacy will always be low, in the U.S., as long as people are taught that they have a right to hold unsupported, ignorant, illconceived, and opinions of dubious ethical natures. Being right requires effort, and humility, not pride in intellectual laziness, and turning willfull ignorance into a virtue by calling it faith.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Well-said, Chris.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Thank you.
        Does anyone know of a metric that actually measures scientific literacy?

      • badrescher says:

        It’s tough. Most of these surveys and “tests” measure knowledge of facts, but science literacy includes an understand of epistemology, too. That’s a little more difficult to test.

        Trying to get adults to take tests is tricky, too. These phone surveys usually involve fewer than 10 questions and are not framed carefully. They tend to measure opinions rather than understanding. Although more than half of Americans accept evolutionary theory, that doesn’t mean that they all understand it any better than those who claim to reject it.

      • Ubi Dubium says:

        This was under discussion at Skepchick last week, as a response to a “scientific literacy” test that only measured knowledge of factoids. Sam has said that he will have a discussion of how to adequately measure literacy in the near future, and will be taking suggestions for questions for a real “test of scientific literacy”. So keep an eye out for the Afternoon Inquisition on Skepchick for more on this.

    • badrescher says:

      Well said Chris.

    • Somite says:

      The reference is a peer reviewed Science paper. I am willing to take this at face value over Skepchick.

      • badrescher says:

        As would I and I have serious problems with communities of laypersons trying to conduct reliable scientific research by committee (or suggestions).

        However, I’m confused by your comment – to which reference are you referring? If it isn’t a paper about a measure of scientific literacy, it should discuss the measure they used and cite its source, so I’d like to know. In my experience, most of these use the annual phone surveys conducted by Pew and other groups. Those don’t claim to measure “scientific literacy”, but once it’s filtered through a few sources…

      • Somite says:

        The reference is there in the graph. Haven’t looked up the details yet. However, consider we are discussing knowledge of evolution only which is more comprehensive knowledge than math or basic science.

  10. badrescher says:

    The relationship between science literacy and religion is not, IMO, a matter of religion “getting in the way”, but rather that the more educated one is, the more likely they are to abandon religion. You can’t educate people about science when they see scientists as the enemy and they will see scientists as the enemy if scientists and educators insist that religious beliefs are an indication of low intelligence.

    The issue of evolution and other science education in public schools is a political one. It is not about personal beliefs, but about freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Fighting for secularism is a fight for our rights, not a battle against religion.

  11. 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.

    Don, I have to say, this “accommodationists” label is bogus in my opinion. “Accommodationist” is pejorative jargon, not a group or a viewpoint. It’s a buzz-phrase used to artificially diminish a variety of arguments, and much like the right wing use of the word “socialist,” appears to mean whatever rhetoric requires. The phrase lumps a wide variety of principled positions (such as the position that science educators are obliged to describe empirical science accurately) into some pretend ideology of scheming cowardice.

    As well, I’m not sure how you reach the conclusion that “Only the decline in dogmatic religious beliefs seems to predict a greater science literacy rate.” Your very next sentences present a shopping list of other factors which also correlate with higher science literacy, including “a very high standard of living and better sense of well being…strong social safety nets (guaranteed health care, job security, good retirement and vacation benefits, good child care). …their economies are thriving, their standards of living are very high, and they have relatively few people who are poor.”

    • Somite says:

      I do not think it carries negative connotations besides its meaning. Someone who believes it is Ok to hold rational and irrational points of view simultaneously. Note that the accomodationist does not necessarily believe irrational things. He/she only believes it is ok for other people to do so.

      • badrescher says:

        By that definition, anyone who is not an accommodationist is arrogant beyond reason.

        It is unlikely that any human being does not “hold both rational and irrational points of view simultaneously”. Of course, there’s a whole discussion about the definition of “rational” and how one knows when another person’s argument is unsound, but that’s not an argument for blog comments and I stand by my statement that nobody is 100% “rational”.

        An accommodationist is simply someone who accepts that the personal conclusions that others come to are not always relevant to shared goals.

      • Somite says:

        I disagree. The difference is whether you think holding both rational and irrational thoughts is acceptable. I am sure I hold irrational beliefs but I strive to improve myself by clearing those out,

        An accomodationist would be ok with other’s irrational beliefs. Your definition is more managerial and certainly more Machiavellic than mine! :)

      • Somite says:

        Also I would think integrity and truth trumps goals?

      • tmac57 says:

        So you would disagree with the concept of ‘sometimes you just have to pick your battles’? Are we talking an ‘all or nothing’ situation here?

      • Somite says:

        With regards to basic questions of logic and evidence I don’t think we have a choice. If you compromise these you are not helping the effort in the long run.

        Something as basic as “no evidence, no claim” should not be accommodated by skeptics.

    • Chris Howard says:

      Do you know who else got accommodations? Hitler! Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. Why CAN’T we all just get along. ;-)

  12. Carter says:

    “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.”

    On the PISA test of science literacy, white American students had a higher average score than students in every OECD country except Finland, Japan, and Korea.

    • badrescher says:

      So the top-performing ethnic group in the U.S. outscores the average students in other countries? Not a very interesting bit of information when trying to improve education, but it’s great if you’re looking for way to lie with statistics.

      • Carter says:

        It is interesting, if you believe American students are being dragged down by “the stultifying influence of creationism”.

      • MadScientist says:

        The top performers in the USA will generally be better than top performers from Finland, Japan, and Korea – even if all other things were equal it is a matter of having the sheer numbers to select your top performers from. That is what statistics predict and it’s what we observe.

      • Carter says:

        The PISA tests are taken by a representative sample of 15 year old students.

      • Max says:

        The top-performing ethnic group in the U.S. is Asians.

  13. MadScientist says:

    Honestly, there is so much scatter that the USA doesn’t look like an outlier at all, unless perhaps you put the limits at 0.5sigma. And what about S.Korea, China, and Singapore – is there something wrong because they’re outliers by the same criteria that the USA is an outlier?

  14. Insightful Ape says:

    There is another reason I disagree with accomodationists. If you ask most “people of faith who accept evolution “, they don’t even understand it. They may know about shared ancestry but they dismiss any notion of neo-Darwinian evolution as atheist propaganda. According to them, if evolution did happen it must have been directed by God. Among those who attend church weekly, acceptance of evolution as a phenomenon purely due to natural forces (the way Darwin proposed it and has been the backbone of geology and biology for over a century ) is only 1-2%.
    The answer is not accommodating religion. The answer is less religion, ie, secularization.

  15. Insightful Ape says:

    So what is your point Carter? That the school system is still segregated? That minority schools are doing a worse job than the school system in general? Or that whites are more likely to be able to afford private schools?
    Gee, who would have guessed.

    • Max says:

      Aren’t most private schools religious?

    • Carter says:

      You can’t make claims about science literacy between countries without taking into account demographic differences between countries, because of racial differences in IQ.

      • Somite says:

        Seriously? Racism at skepticblog?

      • Carter says:

        Human beings are evolved, so it makes sense different populations have different cognitive capabilities.

        Seriously, you do take evolution seriously?

      • Somite says:

        Just like some populations have different numbers of fingers and some have extra heart chambers….


      • Faul_Sname says:

        Yes, seriously enough that we can do the actual math. The 1000 or so generations of weak separation and low selective pressure between groups is not sufficient to cause significant differences between them.

        Science does not always agree with what is politically correct, but in this case, the politically correct thing to say also happens to be true.

      • MadScientist says:

        There are racial differences in IQ? Wow – that’s new to me.

  16. John Greg says:

    I think one of the most interesting findings in that graph is that Canada has either ceased to exist, does not have any thought one way or the other regarding evolution, or has been wholly subsumed by Brother America.

    Whoda thunk it?

  17. Insightful Ape says:

    Same thing that worked elsewhere: give them healthcare and put in place a reliable safety net. So that it doesn’t take all of one layoff plus one serious illness for the average person to go from middle class to homeless.
    See Greg Paul’s research.

  18. Insightful Ape says:

    Very convenient Carter. So have you heard of the deep homogeneity among all humans? Do you know that over 99%a percent if our genetic material is shared? That our differences are literally skin deep?
    You have the right to be a bigot but don’t claim that science is on your side.

  19. Insightful Ape says:

    Well, because the skin and the immune system are first lines of contact with outside world?
    An evolutionary basis for difference in IQ cannot be excluded, but there are more obvious explanations: hundreds of years of slavery, discrimination, segregation, institutional racism, etc.

    • Carter says:

      Universal equality is a central tenet of the liberal religion.

      If there weren’t evolved differences in IQ it would be rather shocking.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Ah, another liberal religion. I’ve noticed this with right-wingers. Everything you guys don’t understand, or decide you don’t want to understand, becomes “liberal religion”.

    • Max says:

      I agree there are more obvious explanations. Like, I don’t think race explains why there have been only two Muslim Nobel laureates in the sciences, when 20% of the world is Muslim.

      • tmac57 says:

        Yeah,when you look at the history of the great strides in science and math in earlier Muslim society,it pretty much looks like the change in their culture (specifically their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran) is responsible for their falling behind today.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Military sociologists have studied race and IQ for, at least, three decades now, and the data is pretty clear. When all “races” (an arbitrary social construct, based upon no biological evidence) have equal access to education, and their hierarchical needs are met (Maslow) subsequent generations of minority children’s IQ scores increase, and are on par with Anglo children. So, it appears that “race” has nothing to do with IQ. Access to resources, adequate nutrition, good education, health care, and the social networks that support, and cultivate learning, tend to be much better predictors.

      • Carter says:

        “an arbitrary social construct, based upon no biological evidence”

        Not true. Race can be discerned from DNA and skeletons.

        “subsequent generations of minority children’s IQ scores increase, and are on par with Anglo children.”

        If that were true, it would be big news. But that’s not true either.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Carter, it is true that you can find differences in skeletal remains, and DNA. It is also true that any one given species has a certain amount of variation within it. In biology there is no such thing as “race” there are only homo sapiens, with slight degrees of phenotypic, and genotypic variance, but genetically we are all 99.8, or so, identical.
        Race is a term applied to those perceived differences. It is used in demographic research from the perspective of the social sciences, but social scientists understand that it is a social construct, not a biological fact.

        I would invite you to actually look at the data concerning race and IQ by visiting the American Sociological Association, as well as the American Psychological Association and study the decades, of peer reviewed studies on the issue before dismissing it out of hand.

  20. Insightful Ape says:

    Carter, you don’t seem to have a clue how evolution works. Let me explain a few things to you.
    Evolution happen if a certaindifference trait leads to a difference in survival and/or mating. For example, people whose ancestors lived in higher geographical latitudes developed pale skin because they could absorb more sun rays, and could synthesizer vitamin D. There is no working hypothesis that ancestors of white people needed higher IQ to survive and have children than black people. Therefore it is not “shocking”that there is no molecular or genetic basis for different IQ among black versus white people, and no evidence whatsoever that it has an evolutionary basis.
    It is, however, shocking that you so boldly pull things out of your racist ass.

    • Carter says:

      One of us has no clue.

      • Markx says:

        Carter, you are correct that there is a genetic component to intelligence/IQ. Twins studies (for one example) show that.

        But you are incorrect if you think you will be able to somehow differentiate intelligence/IQ on a racial basis, even if you could somehow adjust for education/environment/culture.

        You obviously either don’t understand evolution, or have not stopped and considered for a few seconds how little time has elapsed and how little direct selection pressure has been applied in that direction in the 80,000 or so years since homo sapiens dispersed on its way out of Africa.

        And you are also ignoring the remarkable examples of brilliant people who ‘pop up’ from an amazing variety of backgrounds across this planet.

      • Carter says:

        “how little time has elapsed and how little direct selection pressure has been applied in that direction in the 80,000 or so years since homo sapiens dispersed on its way out of Africa.”


      • Markx says:

        Carter, that’s a concise debating method, but very uninformative.

        Consider that that major developments of this wonderful plastic human brain occurred in within Africa, as our forefeet developed into hands, and as socialization and then language developed. An important part of this socialization was probably the formation of monogamous (of sorts) relationships.

        By the time mankind headed out of Africa, these things were largely in place.

        Now perhaps you can demonstrate some time or place in very recent human evolution where (measured by today’s standards) there would have been selection pressure for ‘high intelligence’ – ie some society where only the smartest (by modern standards) either bred more successfully, or survived more successfully, or both?

        In contrast, it is easy to see where a more physical specimen (particularly a dominant male) may have had some breeding advantage, but did skill with a spear, or great strength or the ability to command one’s tribe (for part of a generation) make great changes into that tribe’ genome? And were these necessarily in the direction of greater “modern intelligence”?

        It can also be that the advantages of great physical ability may actually reduced the opportunity for that individual to breed – ie – he was always in the ‘frontline’, and so more likely to die young.

        An interesting snippet on the effects of human societal groups on genetic selection came from a region in South America, where it was noted a tribe had a disproportionately high level of albino population. The analysis revealed simply that the male albinos were spared from working outside in the sun, so spent more time with the village women and children, and the women, whilst awaiting the return of their men folk were not as faithful as they might have been.

        My take on all this is that the wonderful brain plasticity which developed in Africa leaves all societies of modern humans with the capability of adapting to new ideas and knowledge. With the same access to information, the same freedom from religious and political indoctrination, and the same resources, brilliant concepts and brilliant individuals can arise from anywhere.

      • Markx says:

        and…. ARE we still getting smarter?

        Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimetres to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion. …… major downsizing in an evolutionary eye blink… China, Europe, Africa—everywhere we look…

        1. Selection against large energy hungry brains in times of famine?
        2. Genetic mutations mean we now have more efficient brains?
        3. We have become domesticated, less aggressive?
        4. Direct related to large populations densities – specialists, not “jack of all trades”

        OR … its stopped happening, human brains are increasing in size again….!

  21. Hal says:

    Greg Paul doesn’t seem to be the last word on level of human well being/safety net environment vs. belief in evolution or diety. Similarly knee-jerk cries of “racist” the minute IQ and “race” are raised in the same sentence is not productive. Requests for data to support such an unpopular position are however in order. Charles Murry’s “Bell Curve” book tried to marshall data, but majority found its arguments a bit lacking. As was pointed out, there can be differences in population IQ, without the cause being genetic. Environment and culture certainly would be the first places to look. Early childhood nutrition and environmental stimulation have been shown to have major influences – large downside consequences where deprivation is severe.

  22. Insightful Ape says:

    Oh boy. Another mendacious creationist parroting long discredited ideas.
    So why is evolution the only major foundational idea of science you are demanding we be skeptical about? Why not gravity or the periodic table?
    Darwin was honest enough to anticipate and address criticisms of his ideas. He did “turn cold” at anything. But it has become a popular creationist lie and misquote.
    Why do we think natural selection was Darwin’s idea? Because it was. The idea of shared ancestry had been floated before but no one had come up with a mechanism for change over time. Darwin coined the phrase natural selection and explained how it could drive evolution.
    Really, do you creationist ever come up with anything original these days? You’re so boring.

  23. Somite says:

    Guys I think you are missing the point. It should be an embarrassment to our country that we score so low on the e

    • Somite says:

      ….volution question regardless on how we score on other educational metrics or IQ. Even if individuals can do well at math and can answer basic biology questions, a misunderstanding of evolution is a shame and should not happen in the 21st century.

      • Beelzebud says:

        It is amazing to me that visitors of this site wouldn’t understand what this says about our country, at the moment. When we’re ranking right along with 3rd world countries and theocracies, it does not bode well for the future of the country.

        Even more astounding is the comment up thread basically asking what is the harm if people don’t “believe” in evolution. It’s the cornerstone of modern biology, for one. Here is my question for those folks:

        Why *wouldn’t* you want a majority of people in this country to accept a solid scientific theory? Would it say nothing about us if 40% of Americans thought the Earth was the center of the solar system, or that it was flat?

        Progress can’t be made when nearly half the country is scientifically illiterate. The reason we had so many good years after world war 2 was because the embrace of science and technology. Now we seem to have a segment of the population that just wants to return to the late 1800’s.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Thanks for getting us back to the point of the blog, Beelzebub! The thread had drifted WAY away from my point, and I didn’t feel like constantly intervening to remind people of that…

      • Chris Howard says:

        Was the U.S. “less religious” or more so post WW II? Maybe it’s more to do with religion not meddling in science education, as it does now?

      • Donald Prothero says:

        As far as evolution goes, it virtually vanished from the curriculum after the Scopes trial of 1925. But it was Sputnik and the race to update our science curriculum that brought it back in the 1960s, at which time creationism as a modern movement arose in response. So there’s ALWAYS been resistance to evolution in the US, only it’s more obvious now than it was in the 1950s

      • MadScientist says:

        The problem is that with only the evidence presented the conclusion would not be that religious hegemony is a threat but that it doesn’t matter. I also have very strong objections to the plot, its claimed trend, and the claim that the USA is an ‘outlier’. If a student of mine had removed such a point claiming it was an ‘outlier’ they’d get a grilling.

      • MadScientist says:

        I’d just like to add – in addition to China etc., what about Saudi Arabia, Dubai, AbuDhabi and others? The sampling is badly biased.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        It’s not my data or my plot. I was simply trying to make a relatively straightforward point that the plot raises. You’re welcome to dig up that data and replot it if you like.

      • Markx says:

        Just goes to show the power of indoctrination.

  24. EJ says:

    First of all Darwinism is not science. I was a flawed science 150 years ago and I can’t believe that people don’t educate themselves beyond it today. Darwinism is a religion just like Christianity or Islam. I strongly suggest research to be done and truely exhaust the definition or religion and science before one replies to the comment. Beyond that, most people believe what they want to believe because it makes them feel comfortable. They will believe all sorts of lies. In fact, even from a pure phylosophical discussion, Evolution is self defeating and denies it’s own existance. And if you were to carry out the pragmatic beliefs of what true Evolution means then you will find you will disagree, even though you now say you believe in Evolution.

    • When you say “Darwinism” are you talking about the worship of Charles Darwin, or about modern evolutionary synthesis?

      • Somite says:

        The appropriate use of “Darwinism” is a shorthand to the acceptance of evolution through natural selection. It was used by Huxley so at least initially it couldn’t have referred to the modern synthesis.

        The use of “Darwinism” as a pejorative, just like scientism is a lame frame by creationists and religious people and should be avoided by the educated.

  25. CountryGirl says:

    I think the chart is totally incorrect and that is because the author made some assumptions. I suspect the author assumed everyone who professes an active belief in religion does not believe in evolution. Probably most people in America believe in evolution but are quite content to remain in their religion. For most people their church is their social life or at least a large part of it. That does not mean they believe in everything the church professes to be true.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      The graph made no such assertions. It simply took the typical poll numbers that showed the percentage of the population that accepted evolution. And contrary to what you think, polls of U.S. citizens consistently show that about 40-50% of Americans do not accept any form of evolution, but are creationists. The church question is never raised in the plot, although the only reason people in the U.S. do not accept evolution is because of the strength of fundamentalism.
      Read the plot carefully and think before you shoot from the lip!

      • Canman says:

        The 40 to 50 percent numbers for the US are troubling. I wonder if it is conservatives digging in their heels because of our highly polarized political situation.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        No, that number has remained steady since polls were first taken in the 1940s and 1950s. The recent political situation, and the fact that the GOP prez candidates embrace anti-science, has only made it more obvious.

      • Canman says:

        This brings up the question, “Why aren’t more creationists changing their minds?” I remember years ago, when Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould agreed not to debate well known creationists. They had some fairly good arguments about giving these guys more attention. But %40 to %50 — How much worse can it get?

        In 2008, Michael Shermer and Ronald Bailey debated Intelligent Design with George Gilder and Stephen Meyer at Freedomfest. They did some kind of vote at the end and Shermer and Bailey won — at Freedomfest!

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Creationists don’t change their minds because they are part of a highly insular community that learns about the world from their church, and get almost no exposure to real science–just a distorted false idea of evolution as presented by creationists. As the reviews of my 2007 evolution book showed, anyone who isn’t already dogmatic about creationism and gives evolution a fair shot typically changes their mind. And the number is pretty steady because the community of fundamentalists hasn’t changed much in decades.

        Yes, skilled debaters can do OK in the right forum, and I’ve debated and beaten both Duane Gish and Stephen Meyer, too. But most “debates” are staged by creationists with overwhelmingly creationist audiences, so they are stacked against the scientists. FreedomFest is very different: mostly libertarians who tend NOT to be sympathetic to creationist meddling in their schools (especially if the evolution cause is championed by libertarians like Shermer). More to the point, the debate format isn’t a good place to explain a subtle scientific argument like evolution, but favors those with the simplistic ideas that can be reduced to sound bites, like creationism..

      • CountryGirl says:

        It doesn’t make sense. Either the polling is wrong or the graph is wrong or both. The data does not pass the smell test. The most likely answer is that the poll was desigend to give these results to fit an agenda. Wouldn’t be the first time.

      • Somite says:

        That smell test you refer to is your bias and ideology showing.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Bias maybe. I just do not believe more then half of Americans do not believe in evolution. I don’t see that in my life experience or in my friends and nieghbors. I do see it hyped on TV and other media but it appears to me that the meme is to present Americans as backward and that’s why this is being distorted. Even religious people I know understand that evolution is true and their religion is simply stuck in the dark ages and cannot or will not change. But they choose to stay in their religion out of comfort and social reasons in spite of not believing everything professed by their religious leaders. That’s where I think this article has gone wrong. Their numbers suspiciously reflect the number of people who profess to be religious. It appears to me the author was lazy or had a agenda and simply lumped all religious people into non-believers of evolution.

        As for an ideology; as it relates to evolution I don’t have one. I believe in evolution and I am not offended by those who choose not to believe in evolution. It is just one of those issues that doesn’t rise to great importance for me.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Look it up–the polls have been remarkably consistent for decades, no matter who is doing the polling. It’s sad to think that 40% of Americans are that ignorant of science (and I don’t like to believe it either), but it’s apparently true…And it doesn’t even seem to matter how they phrase the questions, or whether they are asked by phone or in the street or anywhere else.

      • Max says:

        You mean 60% of Americans.
        They may know that science says that humans evolved from other animals, but they don’t accept it.
        Has anyone asked people if they agree that “According to modern Biology, humans evolved from other animals”?

      • Beelzebud says:

        There is a third option. Your sense of smell is wrong.

  26. Canman says:

    The graph shows a correlation between beleif in evolution and income, but is the beleif causing the rise in income?
    I think it may be the other way around. As people get richer, they likely have more leasure time to learn about evolution.

    Also, is the controversy between creationism and evolution all that bad a thing? It’s caused me to read and enjoy a lot of books by Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      1) I think it’s simpler than that: richer countries have more money to spend on education, and try to give children the best science education (including a clear and scientific explanation of evolution) they can–EXCEPT in countries that have interference from religious zealots like the US and some Muslim countries.

      2) The “controversy” is entirely a cultural one, not a scientific one, and unlike most cultural controversies, there is no scientific “debate” about evolution. Put another way: do you think that there should be a “controversy” over other settled scientific questions, like whether gravity works? Whether water is made of hydrogen and oxygen? These are also settled scientific issues, but you don’t see fundamentalists getting worked up about them. Or more to the point: just because some fundamentalists believe the earth is flat and that it is the center of the universe, does this “controversial” view deserve equal time in the science classroom? Most of us consider this “settled” but extreme creationists deny even this.

      And finally, as the Federal courts have ruled over and over again, any intrusion of the narrow sectarian religious belief of creationism into the public school science class is clearly unconstitutional…

  27. Jonathan says:

    correllation ≠ causation

  28. MadScientist says:

    OK – can someone help out and give me a link to information on the belief in evolution by country? I’m always suspicious of plots with no information in them and no clear source of data.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      The graph gives their source: Jon Miller et al. (2006), which I think is on Miller’s Michigan State University website

  29. Brian says:

    I would love to see this graph using states in the U.S.

  30. MadScientist says:

    I had a look at the supporting documents and methods of Miller et. al. and I am not at all impressed. The authors took an already small sample, subdivided it, put in ratings, and used magic to recombine it all. I see this as a case of the conclusion not necessarily being incorrect (fundamentalism in the USA influences attitude towards evolution) but the data and method being insubstantial. It smells of a conclusion fishing exercise to me. Anyway, now I understand why other nations like China etc. are missing; Miller et. al. were using existing data, not running their own surveys to determine a representative global view. This plot is an example of an extremely bad plot. Good data was combined with dubious and far from complete data to produce a dubious plot with a ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim to an A(1-B/X) equation. Now if we were to assume that the plot were reliable (though it certainly isn’t), the question folks should ask is “what valuable information can we get from this plot?” Well, gee – you have per-capita GDP-PPP and an estimate of attitude to evolution – so what? The plot is nothing but a red herring.

    • Somite says:

      And you don’t see the US as an outlier of the cluster?

      • MadScientist says:

        No, I don’t see the USA as an outlier and I would have doubts about the numeracy of a student who did. Furthermore the list of nations is far from representative and with more data the USA would appear even less of an outlier. For example, if the USA is considered an outlier even with this data, how many sigma is it out? For this particular plot, why is a curve of the form A(1-X/B) chosen and not a line?

      • Max says:

        The curve was probably chosen to fit Turkey, and possibly to have an asymptote at 100% acceptance of evolution. But as it stands, their asymptote is at 101%, and the curve crosses 0% into negative acceptance of evolution at $9260 GDP per capita, not accounting for poorer countries.

        With the given data, I would’ve plotted a line, which would probably make Turkey and U.S.A. outliers. I think adding in more third world countries would create an obvious bend like in the graph of IQ vs. religiosity, and U.S.A would still be an outlier along with Qatar.

      • Somite says:

        Man. You are going to miss the most interesting stuff at the lab. Data like this point you in the direction of what to study and refine your hypothesis. You can always find a reason to dismiss an outlier. In my experience outliers are grant applications :)

      • MadScientist says:

        One thing which never fails to infuriate me are scientists who ogle the plots and think they see an outlier. Only a numerical analysis can determine these things with consistency; I’ve seen people accept a lot of bad data and people reject a lot of good data because they believed they had magic powers and could ogle graphs to tell what was good and bad. So for the plot presented here: (1) what are the criteria for calling the USA an outlier, (2) what is the justification for the curve, and (3) with so much missing data, what is the justification for the claim that this plot can show anything of substance?

      • tmac57 says:

        Those sound like reasonable, skeptical questions to ask.That’s what this blog is all about,right?
        We shouldn’t let our predisposition toward an argument skew our scrutiny of the actual data.Thanks for speaking out.

      • Somite says:

        All valid but not show stoppers.

        1) Because it farther from any country than any other country to each other.

        2) the curve is a visual aid or hypothesis but is unnecessary for the main point.

        3) you’d have to get the missing data to know but that doesn’t invalidate the current observation.

        There is also the fact that this was a significant finding for science magazine and peer reviewed. We probably don’t have all the details but the investigators and peer reviewers did.

      • Somite says:

        Correction: 1) Because the US is farther from any country than any other country from each other.

      • Max says:

        That’s a strange criterion. Suppose you have points (0,0), (10,10), (20,20), (20,25), and (40,40). Which one is the outlier?

      • Somite says:

        None. That’s an obvious r=1

      • Max says:

        It would be r=1 if you exclude (20,25). It’s the outlier from the linear trend, while (40,40) is the farthest from other points. Your criterion would call (40,40) the outlier.

      • Somite says:

        Really? You are saying this is the same situation? None of the points you describe is an outlier like the US is an outlier on the graph above?

        Another point is that the curve on the paper is likely generated automatically by a curve-fitting program. It wasn’t generated by the authors on a whim.

      • Max says:

        I’m saying your criterion for identifying outliers seemed strange and ad hoc. It flags lone points that are far from the rest, but may not flag points that deviate from the trend.

        I’d say the U.S. is an outlier because it deviates from the trend.

      • Somite says:

        That’s the original point of the plot but people seem to have a problem with it. In this case it is both away from the trend and other data points. Collections of data may not exhibit a trend but could still have outliers.

  31. Phea says:

    Thank’s Don, for another very interesting blog, and a very funny website link.

  32. d brown says:

    Is the point to rule over others by keeping them ignorant, or making things better for all. I know what i think is going on here now. think about how the old south hated school for ordinarily people. It was for the top only.