A month ago, I posted a link to an op-ed in the LA Times which referred to as-yet unpublished research which purported to show no difference in science literacy between people who don’t take part in religion and evangelical Christians.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.


  1. #1 Rturpin.wordpress.com
    November 9, 2011

    The article is behind a paywall, but I’m curious whether the study tries to control for the portions of science that are denied directly by evangelical ideology? If evangelicals are less likely to understand evolution (or even broader biology), the obvious explanation is that it is a branch of science opposed by their ideology. That likely creates considerable resistance in students. But if they also are less likely to understand sciences such as chemistry and physics, which their ideology doesn’t explicitly oppose, that has somewhat different implication.

  2. #2 Anthony McCarthy
    November 10, 2011

    (3D barplots! grey backgrounds! lack of self-sufficiency! excessive labels on the y axis! general chartjunk!)

    Oh, the humanity.

    Just what does “science literacy” consist of? Just as with the idea of “intelligence”, any list of things to know would have to be arbitrary and would leave out things that are important to know. Given that many of the sci-fans on these blogs don’t seem to understand even some of the most basic methods and limits of science, I’d guess some who would rate high on some surveys would flunk one other people would think was more valid.

    And then there’s the reason for why a non-scientist would need to know about science. Obviously, those deal mostly with intelligent voting and practical applications of knowledge in their own lives. Clearly, being able to understand the clear evidence of human-caused climate change is among the most important of those things,. intelligent use of contraception, nutrition, toxicology, also important to most people. A knowledge of the hobby horse of the pro-science side, evolution, is not nearly as important to a lay person. Being current with the ever shifting dogma of cosmology is about as useful to most people as a knowledge of early Etruscan pottery.

    Any measure of “science literacy” is going to be so selective as to make the measure totally subjective, probably giving more insight into the biases of the person defining the literacy than into what is actually going on in the general population and the consequences of that.

    Science education in the public schools might be more successful if it was structured to be more useful to the majority of students, with actual applications relevant to the experience if students and their families, than the pretense that students need to prepare in a career in science which only a small number of them will ever even want to pursue. It’s a mistake they make in teaching history, they waste so much time on trivia of topics like the Age of Discovery that they never get around to giving students an understanding of the experiences and choices of their grandparents and parents which have produced the world they have to navigate.

  3. #3 Wow
    November 10, 2011

    > A knowledge of the hobby horse of the pro-science side, evolution, is not nearly as important to a lay person.



    Do you think that the flu is of no importance to a lay person?

    It evolves.

    It’s why we have to continue to have innoculation against flu.

    Now, what importance in our lives is religion?

    Obviously, there are the annual holidays where you don’t have to go to work. Then there are the presents at Christmas. Oh, and chocolate easter eggs at Easter.

    Apart from that?


  4. #4 Anthony McCarthy
    November 10, 2011

    Wow, I can ignore you on two threads as well as I can on one.

  5. #5 bibliovore
    November 10, 2011

    Anthony McCarthy: “ever shifting dogma of cosmology”?

    You are demonstrating the limit and method of your science literacy.

  6. #6 Anthony McCarthy
    November 10, 2011

    I’m describing what I’ve seen cosmologists claim during my lifetime.

    Do you think cosmologists have all been of one mind for the past sixty years?

    And what do you propose any of us do about it?

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    November 10, 2011

    Rturpin: They omitted the GSS question about evolution, using 2 questions about experimental control groups, 2 questions about probability, and questions about the core temperature o the earth, radioactivity, which parent’s genes control a child’s sex, what lasers emit, the size of an electron relative to an atom, whether the earth orbits the sun, how often the earth orbits the sun, the Big Bang, continental drift, and whether antibiotics kill viruses. The Big Bang question might have influenced some of the result, but that’s just 1 of 13 items, and isn’t enough to explain the magnitude of this effect (especially since the Big Bang can be integrated into a creationist worldview more readily than common ancestry can). People espousing a “literal” reading of the Bible got 54% of the questions right, compared to 68% for those who say it’s merely “inspired,” while those who say the Bible is a book of fables got 75% right. Evangelicals got 55% right, other Protestants got 68% right, Catholics got 65%, and non-Christians gt 68%. The nonreligious got 72% right.

    Controlling for age, education, income, race, ethnicity, gender, rural residence, etc. brings the nonreligious and evangelicals into parity, and reduces the performance of Catholics.

  8. #8 Wow
    November 11, 2011

    “whether the earth orbits the sun, how often the earth orbits the sun”

    The second question hinting at the answer to the first, I note…

  9. #9 Wow
    November 11, 2011

    “I’m describing what I’ve seen cosmologists claim during my lifetime.”

    You didn’t describe a damn thing. Just your usual “I hates you because my god doesn’t exist” whine.

    How many cosmologists claim that you don’t need to know about evolution?


    Just as an example of where you’re not describing what cosmologists claim.

    I note that you haven’t explained what’s “Practically Useful” about religion by the way.

    I take it as agreement that religion is of no practical use whatsoever.

  10. #10 Anthony McCarthy
    November 11, 2011

    Wow, I’m ignoring you. I haven’t discussed religion here I’m not interested in discussing religion with an ignorant bigot just now.

    For anyone who is interested in the issue at hand, the matter of cosmology does raise a question, though. How would you count someone’s “cosmological literacy” if they had been taught a cosmological scheme in high school or college which has, in the meantime, fallen into disrepute? And you could come up with similar problems for other branches of science, certainly those involving evolution. Is someone who has the typical Discover Channel-PBS understanding of natural selection but who has never heard of genetic drift literate in that topic?

    More generally, it’s like any kind of standardized testing or, God help us, the still believed in faith in IQ testing. What you can get a number for is largely dependent on your choices of what to test for and how you test them. To believe that your numbers mean more than that is unwarranted.

    What is this “measurement” supposed to mean in a wider context? Clearly, it will be grasped onto by those who want to “prove” that being religious is, somehow, related to competence in science or not. But it’s an individual who is either religious or not, it’s an individual who demonstrates competence in some topic in science, or not. Your numbers aren’t going to tell you anything about those individuals, they might be able to tell you something about their experience, though that wouldn’t tell you a thing about any other individual and it might not even tell you much about their real situation.

    The best you can do is to provide public school students with a general education in science that, at least I’d hope, would be useful to them.

    I doubt that there is any such thing as general literacy in science, it’s too difficult to master a limited number of topics in science to more than a very introductory extent for even scientific professionals to gain such a thing. It’s certainly unrealistic to think that you can do that in millions of people who won’t pursue careers in science. In the end, most of what people accept within science is accepted on the basis of belief, not on understanding.

  11. #11 Wow
    November 11, 2011

    You’re unable to answer the questions, aren’t you.

    Or don’t like the only answer available: that religion is of no practical use whatsoever.

    So you make up a fake “point of this article” and then blather pointlessly and uselessly over it.

    And desperately try to hide your hilariously troglodytic post #2.

  12. #12 Anthony McCarthy
    November 11, 2011

    I will assume anyone who can think will understand that Wow or Raging Bee or any of the other irrational bigots posting comments are not credible. Not because I know that but because it will waste less time.

  13. #13 Wow
    November 11, 2011

    Says the raging bigot who thinks that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools…

  14. #14 Anthony McCarthy
    November 11, 2011

    I never advocated that evolution not be taught in the public schools, it might have been a good thing if your school had spent more time on reading comprehension and thinking.

  15. #15 robertm
    November 11, 2011

    Not surprising, I suspect being evangelical would correlate with a lack of knowledge in most subjects. Glad to see the test could be considered ‘fair’ by not including politicized topics that the science illiterate would whine about. Some evangelicals seem insistent on setting up a godly bubble in which to live and insulating it against reality.

  16. #16 Wow
    November 14, 2011

    “I never advocated that evolution not be taught in the public schools”

    Then why did you claim this:

    “A knowledge of the hobby horse of the pro-science side, evolution, is not nearly as important to a lay person.

    …Science education in the public schools might be more successful if it was structured to be more useful to the majority of students, with actual applications relevant to the experience if students and their families”


  17. #17 Anthony McCarthy
    November 16, 2011

    I said what I said because it’s obviously the case. Anyone who wants to read the entire comment you picked those to pieces out of would see that.

  18. #18 Wow
    November 16, 2011

    You said what you said because it’s obvious Creationist anti-science claptrap.

    THAT’S what’s obvious about it.

    It’s obvious you don’t think that knowing evolution helps understand things like “the common cold” or why you need flu jabs every year.

    What isn’t obvious is why you can’t explain why.

  19. #19 Anthony McCarthy
    November 16, 2011

    Wow, I posted a longer explanation which hasn’t passed through refereeing.

    Though it wasn’t meant for you but for any literate person who might not bother reading up to my first comment.

  20. #20 Wow
    November 17, 2011

    Well if you didn’t mean what you said in your first comment, why did you say it?

  21. #21 Anthony McCarthy
    November 17, 2011

    Wow, you are illiterate. Nothing could be clear enough for you to not distort. That’s not uncommon on most of the Scienceblogs, not so much on this one.

  22. #22 Wow
    November 18, 2011

    No, since I can read (note that I even understood what “illiterate” means), this means I cannot be illiterate.

    You still haven’t explained why you said what you said in your first post, just bluster and bullshit.

  23. #23 Wow
    November 18, 2011

    No, I’m not illiterate (see, I even know what “illiterate” means), therefore you’re incorrect.

    So rather than actually give a competing answer to why you posted what you did, you prefer to make up insults as if that makes your post disappear or not say what it does.

  24. #24 Anthony McCarthy
    November 18, 2011

    Illiteracy was the more polite possibility that would account for your distorting what I said, if you want to forgo that benefit of the doubt I’ve got no problem with attributing it to habits of mendacity common among those who share your ideology.

  25. #25 Wow
    November 18, 2011

    Of course, there was no distorting, therefore your claim is groundless.

    I showed everyone what you were claiming.

    If you don’t like people seeing that sort of thing, don’t say it.