A month ago, I posted a link to an op-ed in the LA Times which referred to as-yet unpublished research which purported to show no difference in science literacy between people who don’t take part in religion and evangelical Christians. Then I did my own analysis of the data, which found significant differences between evangelicals and the nonreligious.
Now, in a special issue of Social Science Quarterly,
Darren Sherkat again shows that evangelicals are less science literate than other groups. The analysis I reported in my previous blog post is actually a bit more sophisticated, and Sherkat’s graphs are heinous offenses against all principles of clear data presentation (3D barplots! grey backgrounds! lack of self-sufficiency! excessive labels on the y axis! general chartjunk!), but the point comes across clearly:
The gap between sectarians [i.e., evangelicals] and fundamentalists and other Americans is quite substantial. Indeed, only education is a stronger predictor of scientific proficiency than are religious factors. … The religion gap is larger than the gender gap, which places women at a deficit of 0.85 when compared to men. Controls for religious factors eliminate the significance of the negative impact of southern residence on science scores, suggesting that regional differences in scientific literacy are a function of the concentration of sectarians and fundamentalists in the South. Deficits remain between rural Americans and others, but the difference is not as large as the religious differences.
Berkman and Plutzer’s excellent Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms also found the same basic factors explained most of the variation in teachers’ willingness to teach evolution: fundamentalism, rural life, and low education were the major predictors. Rural areas tend to have less-qualified science teachers (though there are certainly excellent rural science teachers), and also tend to have cultural aversions to science that more urban communities lack.
As Sherkat writes:
the religious effects are not a function of the differential impact of education on scientific literacy, nor are they simply a function of particular religious regional cultures. …
In contrast to expectations of structural sociological theories, which root educational, occupational, and income deficits in material circumstances, this research shows that religious factors have persistent negative effects on scientific literacy even after controls for educational attainment, ethnicity, immigrant status, and income. Further, the magnitude of the impact of religious factors on scientific literacy is substantial. Religion plays more of a role in structuring scientific literacy than does gender, ethnicity, or income.
I’m not terribly surprised by the results for income. If we had reliable data on the parents’ income during a person’s childhood, that might tell us a bit more, but an adult survey respondent’s income is driven substantially by education, which this model already accounted for. Looking at parents’ income would tell us more about the respondent’s socioeconomic status at the time when his or her view of science largely gelled, while current income is really a proxy for a host of consequences of that worldview, including education in general and scientific attitudes in particular (science-oriented careers – including in medicine and nursing or engineering or technical positions in labs or factories – tend to pay better than other career options). In other words, I’d expect all sorts of odd causal interference between current income and attitudes toward science, which is why I didn’t include that in my previous model. I should have included rural status, but it wouldn’t have changed the magnitude of the result.
Sherkat’s summary of the dangers posed by this cultural/religious gap is perfectly stated:
In an era when citizens are called on to evaluate scientific evidence for issues like evolution, global warming, health-care policy, environmental pollution, and the like, the low levels of scientific literacy in the United States are a substantial barrier to reasoned discourse and informed political action. Although conservative Christian activists claim that their conflict with science is primarily related to theories of evolution or the propriety of stem cell research, this research shows that the effect of sectarian religious identifications and fundamentalist religious beliefs extends well beyond these two issues. Given the low levels of scientific literacy prevalent among fundamentalist and sectarian Christians, they may have difficulty understanding public issues related to scientific inquiry or pedagogy, and they may have a limited capacity to understand technical information regarding their own health and safety.
I’ll just add that this is why it’s so critical to engage those religious communities through trusted avenues like their pastors, or scientists speaking in their churches. If they’re culturally averse to science (at least, to certain forms of scientific knowledge and certain claims of science’s competence), it’s key to find other ways to reach them and bring them closer to the mainstream. They need to be able to engage with science not just on hot button issues, but on uncontentious matters of personal health, workplace safety, and professional advancement.