J.C. Moore Online
Current Events from a Science Perspective

Science Literacy and Religious Beliefs

Scientific literacy cannot be measured by a litmus test such as belief in the Big Bang or evolution.

Every two years the National Science Foundation produces a report, Science and Engineering Indicators, which surveys the public’s attitudes toward science. (1) The report found for instance, that the public’s opinion of scientists ranks at the top of 23 other occupations and there is broad support for public funding of science research.  In spite of that, Dr. Lawrence Krauss, is unhappy because a section of the 2010 report about the public’s  science literacy was omitted.

In a Scientific American article, he responds:

“And every two years we relearn the sad fact that U.S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries. Except for this time. Was there suddenly a quantum leap in U.S. science literacy? Sadly, no. Rather the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, chose to leave the section that discussed these issues out of the 2010 edition, claiming the questions were ‘flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.’ In short, if their religious beliefs require respondents to discard scientific facts, the board doesn’t think it appropriate to expose that truth.”

However, the National Science Board was right that the section  confused knowledge and beliefs. For example, there is evidence for the Big Bang theory and many people know about it, but they have not incorporated it into their beliefs.  Only physicists and mathematicians would likely know what a singularity is, let alone believe the universe arose from one. Then, there is the problem of how the singularity came to be. Likewise, many people know of the adaptation of species to their environment such as resistance of viruses and bacteria to antibiotics and of insects to DDT. They may also be aware of our ancestors such as Luci and Ardi and know of the evolution of the horse. However, if you insist that the spontaneous generation of life is part of evolution, it may be rejected.

Dr Krauss is missing something important.  Aristotle established science as a method for understanding nature by using observation and reason. It is not a body of facts to be memorized and believed. As scientists gather more evidence, what we now regard as fact may be replaced with better ideas. We should not make “accepting evolution and the big bang as factual” a litmus test for science literacy. Just as scientists think religion should not be dogmatic, scientists should also refrain from dogmatism. Insisting people accept scientific theories which conflict with their religious beliefs  just makes them more likely to mistrust science on issues where it really matters.

As a practical matter, it is not likely that someone’s mind can be changed by claiming their beliefs are wrong or that they are based on mythology. Science teachers must deal with students who already have a belief system established. Their strategy should be to present science as a method that uses observation and reason to understand the physical world. Teachers must focus on the background knowledge and the evidence, and hope that at some point the student would see any conflicts and try to resolve them.


2) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=faith-and-foolishness

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