Religion reduces science literacy in America

December 5, 2011 • 6:44 am

It’s palpably obvious that acceptance of evolution is impeded by religion. The data are many, including surveys of different denominations, a strong negative correlation among countries between their degree of religiosity and their inhabitants’ acceptance of evolution, the statements of religious people themselves to the effect that evolution threatens their view of scripture, morality, or self-worth, and the fact that creationism throughout the world is always connected with religion.  And then there’s this, from an analysis by David Masci at the Pew Forum in 2007:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

It also seems obvious that religion impedes acceptance of not just evolution, but science in general—at least that brand of science, like stem-cell research or work on global warming—that threatens religious views.  That conclusion has just been buttressed by a new paper by Darren E. Sherkat in Social Science Quarterly, “Religion and scientific literacy in the United States.”  Sherkat’s analysis plainly shows that even excluding issues of evolution, religion in America plays a substantial role in reducing science literacy. (I’m not sure if this paper is behind a paywall. If it is, email me and I’ll send it to you.)

Sherkat took data from the 2006 General Social Survey (GSS) collected by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) here at the University of Chicago, a survey of 4,510 randomly chosen Americans who were asked questions about their race, income, immigrant status, geographic region of residence, gender, urban or rural home, and so on. To a randomly sampled subset of 1,863 of these individuals, NORC gave a 13-question science literacy exam.  Here’s what people were asked:

The GSS employed a 13-question science examination covering: (1) understanding experimental control groups; (2, 3) two questions about probability regarding disease in a brief vignette; (4) knowledge of the core temperature of Earth; (5) understanding that radioactivity is not simply manmade; (6) knowledge of male determination of sex in human reproduction; (7) understanding that lasers are light waves and not sound waves; (8) knowledge that electrons are smaller than atoms; (9) understanding that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around; (10) that a revolution of the earth going around the sun takes a year; (11) that the universe began with a huge explosion; (12) that continents have drifted over time, and continue to move; and (13) understanding that antibiotics do not kill viruses. A question about evolution was eliminated, since the purpose is to see if religious factors have a bearing on scientific understandings outside that controversial realm. The scale approximates one developed by Miller (1998) for the measurement of civic scientific literacy. A reviewer suggested that sectarians and fundamentalists might answer the “big bang” question correctly by interpreting it through the lens of their distinctive faiths; however, that should minimize rather than augment their differences from others.

The GSS also surveyed people about their religious identification and how they interpreted the Bible:

Religious identifications are classified into five broad groups following prior research on U.S. religion (Roof and McKinney, 1987; Sherkat, 2001): (1) sectarian Protestant identifications (Baptists, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, etc.); (2) other Protestants (mostly mainline groups such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans); (3) Catholics; (4) non-Christians (including Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, and other faiths); and (5) no religious identification. Religious beliefs are gauged using a question identifying whether respondents believe (1) “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word”; (2) “The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally”; and (3) “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” The first answer to this question is commonly used as an indicator of religious fundamentalism.

Sherkat then did statistical analyses of this data to see which factors affected science literacy, and also performed a multivariate analyses to see which factors were important independent of the others.  The results, especially for the effect of religion, were striking:

  • The percentage of correct answers on the science exam was strongly (and statistically significantly) affected by religious beliefs.  Those who take the Bible as the literal word of God scored 54% correct, those who see the Bible as “inspired by God” got 68% correct, and those who see the Bible as a “book of fables” got 75% correct. This classification explained 13% of the total variation in science literacy.
  • Dividing up people by religious identification rather than by how they regarded the Bible, we also see strong effects on science scores. Sectarian Protestants scored 55% correct, Catholics 65%, “other Protestants” and non-Christians 68%, and nonbelievers (yay!) 72%.  The difference between sectarian Protestants and the others is statistically significant, as is the difference between Catholics and everyone else, though the difference between Catholics and “other Protestants” is a small 3%. All together, these religious identifications explain 15% of the variation in science literacy.
  • To put these figures in perspective, race accounts for 9% of the variation in science literacy, education for 20%, income 9%, and gender 4%.  Sherkat concludes that “religious factors are as important for predicting scientific proficiency as are many common sociological characteristics such as race, education, income, and gender.”
  • One must, of course, control for cross-correlation of factors (for example, perhaps sectarian Protestants are less educated than nonbelievers, and do worse solely because of that) by performing multivariate analysis.  When one does this, we still find that sectarian Protestants have significantly lower science literacy than do “mainline” Protestants and nonbelievers.  Catholics, too, remain significantly lower in science literacy compared to other Protestants and nonbelievers, but Catholics now don’t differ from sectarian Protestants in their lower degree of science literacy. Remember, this analaysis measures the effect of religious affiliation with all other factors held equal, and these factors include whether or not one has a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.
  • Biblical interpretation by itself is also significantly associated with science literacy with other factors (like religious identification) held equal. Fundamentalists are less science literate than those who see the Bible as inspired by God, who in turn are less science literate than those who see the Bible as a book of fables.
  • Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the South is not a hotbed of science ignorance by virtue of geography alone.  When one removes religious factors (for the South harbors more sectarian Protestants and fundamentalists), the South isn’t associated with less science literacy, though rural areas remain less science literate than urban ones.
Sherkat concludes that:
The gap between sectarians and fundamentalists and other Americans is quite substantial. Indeed, only education is a stronger predictor of scientific proficiency than are religious factors. . . .Scientific literacy is low in the United States relative to other developed nations, and this research suggests that religious factors play a substantial role in creating these deficits. This study adds to a growing body of research demonstrating the importance of religious commitments for structuring stratification outcomes, and pointing to the negative impact of sectarian Christian commitments for life chances.
Sherkat also found that Catholicism is a significant factor reducing science literacy, though given the common perception that Catholicism is science-friendly (the Church, for example, accepts the fact of evolution), this result awaits explanation.  His suggestion:
Catholic deficits in scientific literacy are less pronounced, and mostly arise after controls for education. This suggests that while Catholics have achieved considerable gains in educational attainment (Keister, 2007), their scientific proficiency does not match their educational position. It is possible that Catholic scientific disadvantages are a function of limited scientific offerings in Catholic colleges and high schools. However, the lack of a significant interaction between educational attainment and Catholic identification suggests that Catholics’ social networks may de-emphasize scientific knowledge, and channel intellectual curiosity into other pursuits.
Note, too, that science literacy is lower for religious folks than for nonbelievers even when you don’t consider evolution but ask questions only about things like continental drift, antibiotics, astronomy, and so on. This is independent of  the respondents’ education.  One may ask why, when you eliminate hot-button issues like evolution and global warming, religious belief remains associated with lower science literacy. Readers will have their own take here, but I suggest that the willingness to believe in fables and superstition makes one more resistant to believing things that are true, especially when those things fall into a category, “science,” that can be perceived as a threat to belief systems based on superstition. Regardless, Sherkat’s data provide additional evidence, as if we needed any, that science and religion are incompatible.

Sherkat, D. E. 2011.  Religion and scientific literacy in the United States. Social Science Quarterly 92:1134-1150.

105 thoughts on “Religion reduces science literacy in America

  1. *I’m not sure if this paper is behind a paywall. If it is, email me and I’ll send it to you.*

    It is. Er, where might I find your e-address, please?

      1. Good thought! I’d followed every link on the WEIT site and gotten nowhere, but Google’s done the trick — thanks. Too early in the morning.

      1. Don’t want to put words into Mettyx’s keyboard here but I inferred that this was a reference to the witless politicians that have their hands on the levers of power.

  2. Start with critical thinking – evolution is too big a step without a foundation in critical thinking.

    I start by asking my students: “If your child had to have a delicate, lifesaving operation, what would you want to know about the Surgeon, the hospital, the surgical team?”

    1. I’ll second that… religious education, at least from my Sunday School/confirmation experience as an Ex-Lutheran, is less education and more low grade brainwashing. Its not that just it doesn’t teach you critical thinking, but I feel like it discourages *learning* as a whole.

      Everything they teach you comes from work books, where they have already cut up the Bible into bits, and explain how you should think and feel. A Lit class teacher expects you to form your own opinions on various characters, but in Bible class, you *have* to love Jesus, you *have* to love God. So they manipulate the lesson plans, edit the Bible down to the level of phrases, and don’t encourage you to think about them in other ways. And all this happens from early childhood…. I think I probably heard “Jesus loves me, this I know” long, long before I ever actually had any Bible verses read to me to explain to me *why* I should.

      1. Yep, I never felt comforted by that either.

        What I’d like to see is an analysis of when the exhortation to fear God dropped off and was replaced with the love business. I suspect it correlates with development of antibiotics & the polio vaccine, but also suspect that it would be hard if not impossible to gather the data. As an alternative, references to death & dying in roots/traditonal/bluegrass/country music seem to drop off in the early ’50s, and I suspect that’s the reason.

        1. This reminds me of an old saying among Muslims that goes something like ‘Trust in Allah put make sure that you tie up your camel properly’. Someone also remarked that the argument between religion and science was over the second that they started fitting lightning rods to church towers.

          1. Thank you. I had no recollection of the details of the blasted church, but remembered the gist from, I think, an Asimov science article about 35 years ago.


  3. Heh, I was asked to take part in a similar-sounding questionnaire just this Saturday, though I’m in the UK. Those 13 science questions were all in it, with some extra ones. The one that took me the longest to answer was when I considered a baby to be a human being; I ended up going with 3 months after fertilisation because there were no choices between that & “after birth” & my own opinion lies a bit earlier than this.

    I also wasn’t sure about my answer to the gene being the basic unit of human inheritance – I guess the individual nucleic acids are the most basic units, but as they get collected into 3 base-pairs for making proteins… I know it was only a questionnaire but I do hate getting answers wrong!

    The guy with the questionnaire seemed very grateful that someone had taken the time (it took quite some time!) to answer all the questions, I don’t think he’d been having much success going door-to-door!

    1. New questions are periodically added; for example, 2010 introduced one asking whether only genetically modified tomatoes had genes, or all tomatoes did.

      1. One of the ecologists in my department likes to tell this story. I have no reason to doubt her (and she has no reason to have made this up). When she was interviewing for her position some dozen yrs ago, the dean (previously from the physics dept) asked her somewhat sheepishly, “Um, could I ask you a question? Do plants have DNA?”

        Aah, the deleterious effects of Administratium!

        1. One of my students this semester was surprised to learn that organisms other than humans had DNA! But at least she had an excuse, being a first year biology student and all…

  4. Fascinating, not that this is much of a revelation, but it’s great to see it in a properly conducted survey. I’d be really interesting in seeing the full article if you’d be able to email me.

    1. I assume that what you are implying is that if the “non-religious” supernaturalists could be removed from the ‘religious disbeliever’ group, their superior performance would have been even more pronounced – that’s would be my hypothesis anyway.

      Of course, if you do start partitioning your participants in such a way, the study becomes increasingly tautological: the conclusion of the study is: People who believe stupid things are … stupid! People who don’t believe stupid things are smarter!

  5. Let’s remember that:
    – Religion is simply ideology/false beliefs
    – The goal of all ideologies is power/control over others
    – Evidence, “science” and data/facts, fully available challenge pretty much all power/control strategies, ideologies and tactics since the individual is made more autonomous. Also, the price of supporting the false beliefs goes up.

    However, we need to understand and explore why adherence/following false beliefs and attacking or ignoring empirical facts would be selected for and adaptive — now and in the evolutionary past.

  6. I think you’ll find that the catholic question is simple, Bill Donohue. The influence of the Catholic league on catholics means that what the church says is less importnat than what bill says the church says. Also just because your Catholic doesn’t mean you’ve benifited from good education as a result. It would be interesting to contrast catholics in America with other catholics in europe then add in catholics from a catholic dominant country.

    1. I would be surprised if Bill Donohue and his Catholic League has much direct influence on Catholics as a whole. More likely that he reflects a wider trend in the culture to dumb things down and see everything in terms of an ultimate battle between the good guys and the bad guys.

      Which kind of describes religion as a whole, when you think about it.

  7. Sherkat’s study finds that moderate religions, such as Roman Catholicism, which is frequently claimed as ”science friendly” (so long as that particular scientific discipline doesn’t impinge on the ‘soul’ of a blastocyst), are only intermediate in scientific knowledge. The difference between the scientific abilities of evangelicals (55%) and Catholics (65%) is almost the same as between Catholics and those who claim no religion (72%).
    A valid question here is whether the aim of improving the scientific knowledge of the public might be better served, not by trying to get evangelicals to embrace a worldview that runs contrary to their fundamental beliefs in the inerrancy of the bible, but by concentrating on bringing Catholics and mainline Protestants into the ‘no religion’ category.

  8. If I encountered a serious-sounded analysis saying Libertarianism is good for poor people I would still reject it and cling to my liberal beliefs. Furthermore, if I heard a burning bush talk or saw a man walk on water, I would try to figure out the “trick” rather that believe my eyes. I don’t think the religious are the only people disinclined to abandon their beliefs.

  9. What these results say to me is that even successful atheist outreach is not going to have the impact improving general education will. Recognizing its not an either/or situation and one can support both, its still the case that we should try and get the kids into science classes and (mainstream) colleges as a first priority. This will improve science acceptance more than the most successful bus ads and other outreach efforts.

    1. I agree. Science & maths is hard. It’s not well paid.

      I would like to see critical thinking as an ACTUAL SUBJECT in infant & junior schools. Non-elective. Thus, those who gravitate towards the arts in their teen education would have at least a basic understanding of logic & analysis.

      1. Michael, I think technically it already is. If you look at various state curricula for early (e.g. 8th grade) general science courses, before the subjects split out, you’ll see that most curricula are supposed to cover topics like ‘critical reasoning’ and ‘the nature of scientific enquiry’ and such.

        My guess is that either the support materials for teachers on such subjects aren’t that great, or it gets lost among other curriculum items, or perhaps it is taught well but doesn’t stick. It may be the sort of skill that needs to get reinforced multiple times.

        1. In my UK experience the foundations of critical thought are not brought out. It is a teaching-to-test mentality that has led to children being fed facts rather than how to think. The how-to-think approach should be the basis for all subjects ~ not just science. I have met many school teachers & I know that they are under extraordinary pressure to boost their school performance ~ I suspect the never ending & counter-productive multiple choice tests do not capture sophisticated thinking

          THIS HERE explains it better than I can. [today I have a hangover ~ brain on 50% setting 🙂 ]

          1. I was fortunate to go to an English Grammar School in the Midlands – now 60 to 50 years ago. The unofficial motto of the school was, “Question Everything,” and this has remained with me all my life. Political correctness and a general dumbing down of education has ruined a once great country. I had never heard of Creationism until I moved to the US – still can’t figure it out how people can just ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence against the idea. Perhaps that’s why I am now retired in secular France?

          1. I think it’s more of a meta-skill. If you want to know if someone can think critically, you need to look at how well they do at reading comprehension AND logic puzzles AND argument construction AND… etc.

            But I am not really in disagreement with any of the other posters here. Certainly there’s more we can do in this area.

        2. Critical Thinking as a curriculum would be a huge step forward. Sure, there’s a smattering of it as described above, but what of an aggressive and continuous line of teaching on rhetoric and persuasion throughout a child’s years: How to identify when people are trying to persuade you and why. Which arguments constitute legitimate teaching? Which constitute fallacy?

          So teaching scientific method is one branch of critical thinking… analyze, test, replicate.

          But critical analysis of all truth claims in everything you read and hear (i.e. all attempts to persuade you) is an even larger area that needs to be included… K-12.

          1. Anecdotally, and I would love to have it studied (somehow!) what turned me to into a critical thinker (I think) was actually seeing the contrast between that and non-such.

            For example, in later elementary school I had at least one teacher who would, from time to time repeat the usual unskeptical things about the “king Tut” curse and other such folklore and I realized that her attitude towards these (to me implausible) things was different than some other adults I knew. My father, a chemist, somehow always seemed to stress (without saying so explicitly) that we should check things out. But then I thought it was largely already somewhat too late – because I remembered back a few years still earlier where classmates yammered on about a so-called “haunted house” somewhat nearby. So eventually, sick of hearing about it, my father took my sister and I over to see it, telling us to be careful looking around – and not to go inside without him right there. We could clearly see after a bit of time walking around the debris on the property that all it was was an old, likely long abandoned building. Somewhere between those two or three years or so, I adopted the attitude of careful investigation, tempering belief to evidence, etc. at least in general terms.

            All that said, I wonder how much is temperment that is hard to determine where it comes from? Some psychological investigation suggests that somehow some of it is very “basic” to our psychological makeup, but I’m skeptical to some degree of strong innateness, so … 🙂

      1. I don’t think that religion necessarily inhibits learning. I grew up in a religious home and went to a Lutheran high school and I can tell you that my education was far superior to the public schools where I live. Including in science even where evolution is concerned. Was it taught to us as fact? No but we were still educated on that subject. I don’t believe in evolution and I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent human being.

        1. I don’t “believe in” evolution either. I just consider that in view of the overwhelming in its favour, it is only reasonable to assume it is a fact. But then I consider myself to be pretty stupid.

  10. One may ask why, when you eliminate hot-button issues like evolution and global warming, religious belief remains associated with lower science literacy.

    Removing the hot-button issues from the questionnaire doesn’t remove those issues from real life. It could still be that it’s these hot-button issues that hurt some people’s trust in science as a whole.

  11. Hmm… I’m wondering if the difference in science literacy between sectarian/fundamentalists and other religious groups (when controlled for factors like education) comes from a greater inclination by the former to give a religiously dogmatic answer based on belief (even if they are aware of the scientifically “correct” answer). I’m guessing that the latter may be more inclined to respond with the scientifically “correct” answer (even if they don’t really accept it or know how to reconcile it with religious belief).

    My attempt at a point is that maybe sectarian/fundamentalists aren’t as scientifically illiterate as the survey suggests in terms of their awareness/knowledge, but rather their dogmatic beliefs prevent them from demonstrating/disclosing it. No less of a problem; maybe it’s even worse.

      1. Nice turn of phrase; better than “willful ignorance”. Another might be pious illiteracy or pious intellectual dishonesty.

  12. I can understand the level of denial of evolution to be a indicator of the religiosity of someone. What I don’t understand is how global warming threatens religious belief. Isn’t climate change denial (and other forms of anti-environmentalism) mainly associated with Randian libertarian zealots? The folks who think the free market is pure and good and government the embodiment of evil? I can understand why that group is opposed to the evidence for global warming but religious people denying it does not add up to me.

    There are some Christians (such as the lovely Ann Coulter) who interpret the natural world to be given by God for man to have dominion over and to exploit recklessly but how many Christians actually accept this brand of toxic thinking?

    1. The dynamics and processes we call “evolution”:
      – Are fundamental to all life forms
      – Accurately predict other physical processes

      It is impossible to accept modern evidence based knowledge, we dislike the term “science,” without accepting evolution as a universal law of nature.

      Like in medicine or engineering, accurate predictions, explanations and understanding is not a matter of personal choice of facts and ideas.

      Some predict — others do not.

    2. its more like, well, ‘god’ gave us this wondrous earth and ‘he’ wont let anything happen to it, no matter our best efforts to completely destroy it. cognitive dissonance at its best

  13. It is true that scientific inquiry and experimentation can disprove literal claims of fundamentalists about historical events or natural processes. But literal fundamentalism is NOT the be-all and end-all of religion. There is spiritual and psychological MEANING in the symbols, allegories, parables and metaphors of religious traditions. When science claims that it has ‘disproved’ the inner meaning of myth and scripture, it is being just as silly as any fundamentalist who takes the story of Balaam’s talking donkey literally.

    1. No, the fact is:
      – There is no empirical, inter-subjective, evidence for any supernatural or magical “mind over matter” statement/belief/prediction
      – There is endless evidence disproving

    2. There is spiritual and psychological MEANING in the symbols, allegories, parables and metaphors of religious traditions.

      Nobody denies that.

      When science claims that it has ‘disproved’ the inner meaning of myth and scripture

      When has any scientist ever claimed that?

    3. Andrew Cort #15 wrote:

      There is spiritual and psychological MEANING in the symbols, allegories, parables and metaphors of religious traditions. When science claims that it has ‘disproved’ the inner meaning of myth and scripture, it is being just as silly as any fundamentalist who takes the story of Balaam’s talking donkey literally.

      Unfortunately, the “inner meaning” of those spiritual and psychological symbols is not always making a reference to psychology: sometimes they are making reference to ‘the spiritual’ — giving us insight into truths which aren’t exactly …. true. “Spiritual and psychological meaning” is a phrase one can take apart.

      You can’t just wave off skeptical analysis by saying it’s a metaphor. Metaphor for what?

  14. I’d suggest that CONDRIFT and BIGBANG are probably also “controversial” to creationists.

    I also wonder whether strength of religious identification (RELITEN) plays a role.

    1. Of course they are. They suggest that the world isn’t perfect and unchanged since its creation 6000 years ago.

      On a side note, has anyone noticed how frequently fundamentalists try to “disprove” something like evolution by saying that it doesn’t explain something like the structure of the Milky Way or the like? Because I’ve found that to be pretty common.

      Found a good comeback, though- I ask them how the fact that I drive a Chevy explains why tomatoes are red.

  15. > (9) understanding that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around

    I’m not sure I knew that…. I’m pretty sure this is entirely a matter of reference frame. It’s just that using the sun as the center makes calculations about the solar system much simpler. Or rather, we should use the solar system’s center of mass, which I don’t think is very far from the center of the sun.

    1. Well, mathematically, you can take the origin of your coordinate system to move about in any way you please. A physicist will often, quite reasonably, take his/her reference frame to be the one that makes the maths simplest. Also for certain purposes we do take a reference frame with a fixed earth. For instance you wouldn’t get very far in court if you complained “but, your honour, according to my reference frame my car wasn’t moving.” However, as the words would commonly be understood the statement “The earth orbits the sun.” and “The sun orbits the earth.” mean entirely different things and, according to this understanding it would be correct (or, if you like more correct) to say “The earth orbits the sun.”

      1. This always baffles me. Most kids are taught about the Solar System in mid-grade school, when they are about 10 – 12. How does any of that learning a) not stick, and b) threaten any religious belief?

        1. I’m s-o-o-o-o glad you brought that up!

          In my ninth grade science class, our teacher described the solar system. One of the kids got up and described what he’d been taught: that the sun had a bright hemisphere and a dark hemisphere; and similar nonsense.

          He was, iirc, Jewish, and had learned this somewhere along the lines of being brought up as a good Jewish boy.

          Thus, an accurate description of the solar system does indeed threaten some religious beliefs.

    2. No! Reference frames travel at a constant velocity (speed and direction) and since the earth changes direction it is not a good reference frame, and you can detect that it’s revolving around sun, and not the other way around, with a foucault pendulum (you can also detect that the earth is spinning). It’s similar to the idea that when you turn in a car (even at constant speed) you can feel it, but at a constant velocity you can’t.

      1. If you want to model the Newtonian physics of objects on a roundabout on a hypothetically fixed planet. You could do so with respect to a frame of reference that is fixed relative to the planet or one that rotates with the roundabout. In the latter case you have to invent a ‘fictitious’ force that acts on all objects pulling them away from the centre of rotation. From the mathematical point of view neither frame of reference is any better or worse than the other. One may be more convenient than the other for solving a particular problem but that is another matter. However, using the everyday meanings of the words, one frame is rotating and the other not.

        Incidentally, this insight is what is behind Einstein’s Principle of Equivalence: . Thus in considering the physics of a man standing on the Earth, instead of taking a locally Galilean (i.e. one in free fall) frame of reference, we can consider one that is still relative to the Earth and compensate for this by assuming a ‘force’ of gravity.

        If you use Riemannian geometry to model space-time, then subject to certain continuity constraints, you can draw your coordinate system any way you damn well please. What you choose depends on what you are modeling e.g. Schwarzschild black hole or a spatially flat expanding universe etc.

        Thus you can, if you find it convenient, choose a frame of reference fixed relative to a roundabout and you can choose a frame of reference fixed relative to the Earth. But this does not mean that it is a matter of arbitrary convention the Earth orbits the sun and not vice versa. In the normal everyday understanding of the words the Earth does orbit the Sun

          1. Precisely – you’ve got it. That’s what the principle of equivalence says. There is no way to distinguish an inertial force from a gravitational force.

          2. I concur with Bernard’s posts, but the relativism makes me uncomfortable, but in general relativity you can think of gravity as changing the shape of the universe (like a bowling ball pressing down on a mattress) and that the earth is actually traveling along the shortest possible path, since going straight would require it to go down, then up again, which would be longer than staying at the same elevation. This isn’t totally accurate, and where this metaphor disagrees with the science, accept the science, of course.

  16. The way that the questions were presented in the OP was not ideal but as they stand I would have scored at least 77%. Questions 2 & 3 were presented in such a vague way that I don’t know how I would have scored. The question on the temperature of the inside of the Earth had me beat because I know that it is hot enough to melt rock and would guess more than a thousand degrees Celsius but I don’t know the exact figure. My fourteen year old daughter would have scored at least as well as me and possibly better.

  17. New York city just upheld decision on ” No Prayer Meeting” in school. Several schools do so and are allowed to until the court’s decision on Law Suit vs. NYC by Angelican church.

  18. Bookmarked.

    (11) that the universe began with a huge explosion;

    Pseudoscience alert!

    Inflationary cosmology is not an “explosion” into a preexisting space but an expansion of that space itself.

    It is like saying that the rising of a bread depends on having a surface to stand on. This is no better than inserting unnecessary agents in evolutionary creationism.

    One can also criticize the implied idea that there was a big bang beginning. In an inflationary cosmology we start with a local end of inflation. It is simpler to embed the local universe in a larger volume of a generic inflationary process than to assume that it is a process out of a local singularity.

    But we don’t know either way, and that has been the case for a generation now. (Inflation is ~ 30 years old.) That the majority of physicists would want a local singularity as a beginning is not an excuse for believing that is the only possible pathway.

    The reason physicists tries primarily to suggest and explore that pathway is in most cases because it makes the idea that physical constants are uniquely decided easier to realize. There is no pesky multiverse with possible parameter variation.

    But a TOE is, as is easily seen, an expression for “eager reductionism” if you will. Nothing inherently wrong in that, but here it is as I noted in conflict with some choices of naturality.

    1. OOps. It is incorrect to say that we “start” wit a local end of inflation. We have that, but it is preceded by a manifold exponential expansion under the inflationary process itself.

      [It is tremendously fast, so it is _very_ tempting to describe it as an “explosion”. Still very wrong though.]

  19. I noticed that at least three of Elaine Ecklund’s papers are cited, but just to back up the statement that scientists generally appear less religious.

  20. I’m not clear on whether this study can really tell to what degree religion tends to make people ignorant, v. the ignorant just often being attracted to religion.

    In my 3D life as well as on the internet it’s been conspicuous that the religious are often not just ignorant of science, but even of things that have no obvious religious implications such as English spelling and grammar. I’m sure that no religion requires that you mangle your mother tongue in order to make it into heaven, yet many believers do so, faithfully.

    They’re often even ignorant of their own religion, as anyone who’s spent any time debating religion on public message boards will testify. The atheists often end up offering Bible studies to the Christians. Why is that?

    And, this is not just my impression from my limited experience:

    I have a feeling that religion offers cheap and easy answers to philosophical/scientific issues for those who don’t want to do the work of achieving mastery of anything. If they can’t be bothered to grasp the first two chapters of Genesis, why would anyone expect them to understand 10th grade physics or to have read The Origin?

  21. 13 questions covers all of science knowledge, done on a small number of people selected from another survey who’s selection bias weren’t addressed in above?

    It doesn’t seem to speak highly of level and depth of knowledge science supposedly represents that only 13 questions would represent the level of science knowledge in the general population.

    For example only one question on understanding experimental control groups. Experiment is the foundation of the “Scientific Method” which is at the core Science philosophy. Its the approach a Scientist is supposed to use to prove his postulates. Only one question devoted to it, is sort of like asking – do you believe in God to determine if your a Christian!

    The 13 questions seem to reflect the bias of comittee that made of the question then deal with the issue. Its even stated that a question about evolution was omitted “since the purpose is to see if religious factors have a bearing on scientific understandings”. Which by itself admits that authors see evolution is a scientific/religious firewall.


  22. Sigh, yet another article belaboring well known facts. As one astute observer pointed out you cannot use reason to change views arrived at without the the use of reason! I’ve long since given up arguing with ignoramuses but I sometimes rile young Earth’ers by asking how far away the nearest galaxy is?

  23. ALL religions are losing ground and credence in the modern world. Those gullible enough to believe in 1st century Roman, Hebrew or other myths have no place governing our nation or educating our students. AND I would question their morals. Those who think religions have exclusive claims to moral behavior need to learn two things:
    1. Look at the spate of televangelist failures and corruption and Catholic pedophilia and cover-ups leading all the way to the current Pope. Then look at the hypocrisy of religious zealots NOT “practicing what they preach” everywhere in the world!
    2. Know that morals and ethics arose in the animal kingdom, long before mankind evolved and that they conveyed distinct evolutionary advantages we and our forebears benefit from to this very day. Dame Jane Goodall, Franz deWaal and other evolutionary biologists have proven beyond any doubt that morals and even altruistic behavior existed millions of years before mankind arose.

    For those wisely questioning their religious indoctrination, I always suggest reading Dr. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”, or that great world philosopher Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.”
    Atheists have better and more strongly based morals than almost ALL religious people I come across. Look at edge (dot) org to see what the greatest thinkers on the planet are saying about this vitally important topic!

  24. Global warming threatens religious views? I wonder which views those are. Really, if you stink up the place too much, there’s going to be a worldwide flood. That seems pretty biblical to me.

    It’s industrialists who doubt global warming, and the religious are just following along sheep-like.

    1. Actually, there’s a number of denominations of Christianity that believe that either God put humans in charge of the world and therefore humans can do whatever the hell they want and there won’t be any negative consequences (this is why we don’t have any African bluebucks left) or that Jesus is going to return in the next few decades and take all the good Christians up to heaven so any damage they do to the planet doesn’t matter because they won’t be here long enough to be seriously inconvenienced by it.

      Both groups oppose any sort of environmental laws because it messes up their fun.

      1. One US Congressman – can’t remember his name -says that we shouldn’t worry about global warming and rising sea levels because his God promised there would be only one flood and, since that has happened, there won’t be another one.

        There, I hope that makes you feel better.

        Sorry. What was the question again? Ah yes, does religiosity reduce science literacy?

        Can’t see how that could happen, can you?

        1. According to a Google search using the keywords “Global warming” “congressman” and “God,” it was Congressman John Shimkus of Illinois. The statement was made during an interview in March of 2009 when he was, frighteningly, trying to become head of the House Energy Committee.

  25. As I have commented elsewhere, the responsibility for the parlous state of your education system begins with the idiotic local and state school boards you ask and allow to decide on educational policies, curricula and textbook content.

    When you rely on the least qualified theological and politcally partisan dickwads such as Don The Dentist and Joe The Plumber to decide on what your kids learn in school, you end up with 25% of them not knowing that it was we Brits you fought in the War of Independance. That you let glassy eyed mentally and reality challenged educatonally sub normal twonks like Don The Dentist or Michelle Bachmann anywhere near a kids education is to we Brits hilariously funny. But believe me…we are laughing AT you not WITH you.

    The real hilarity is of course that most of the gumpos elected to these boards usually home school their own kids. Maybe deep inside they realise that out in the big world their kids will (mostly) be the dimwits, so set about hijacking the kids in public school systems educations to level out that playing field eh?

    Here are a few suggestions should you continue with the idiotic democratised education system.

    First insist that members of school boards have higher education qualifications, and preferably some teachng experience.

    Then implement laws that make school boards drectly responsble for any and all legal costs for cases arising from ther decisions on policy. So if they vote for an ID course that ends up in court, they have to pay the costs for that case themselves. That would put an end to the Kitzmller cases.

    Fnally…no more pastors or lay preachers on school boards. Separate church and state.

    Good luck my US chums.

  26. Coming from a sectarian Christian, Bible-believing background, I think the issue is that there is a fear that if one learns too much science, one will cease believing the things that are necessary for eternal salvation. Therefore, people in this demographic tend to pursue other, less “dangerous,” fields and shy away from learning about science.

  27. “Hammer away ye rebel bands. Your hammers break: God’s Anvil stands. Last eve I paused beside the blacksmith’s door And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime: Then looking in, I saw upon the floor Old hammers worn with beating years of time. “How many anvils have you had?” said I, “to wear and batter all these hammers so?” “Just one,” said he, and then with twinkling eye, “The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
    And so, I thought, the Anvil of God’s Word for ages skeptic blows have beat upon, Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard, The Anvil is unharmed, the hammers gone.”
    John Clifford

  28. Excerpt from Dokmai Dogma Nov. 17, 2010:
    To me, being a pantheist, the different religions are different cultural expressions of the same basic wonder. A problem is that many religious people are obsessed about their imperfect gurus, their words, imaginations, rituals, buildings and books, forgetting the actual creation. If you hold a religious text in your hand, you hold a text full of errors, simplifications and obsolete misunderstandings, because it was written by men, men who only shared a fraction of our knowledge. If you hold a leaf in your hand there are no lunatic middlemen or charlatans between you and the creative force. Muhammad realized people tend to forget the creation after observing the worship of the many Christian saints (similar to Buddhist or Norse spirit worship). To make sure people did not deviate from adoring the creative force and the actual creation, he banned illustrations to which people tend to cling to like teddy bears. The shahada of the Quran is ‘There is no God but Allah’, but ironically, in spite of Muhammad’s efforts to make sure people would admire the creator only, later muslims added ‘..and Muhammad is his messenger’ opening up to the worship of a series of documents written long after Muhammad’s death. Muhammad would probably cry of despair if he learnt that some modern students in medicine spend more time reading the man-made religious texts rather than studying the actual creation of Allah (science).

    The scientists are the prophets of our time. They continuously revise and expand our view of the creation way beyond the horizon of the old prophets, even explaining the beautiful mechanisms such as the divine evolution of species. Each scientist’s contribution is puny, but the combined knowledge so vast no man can grasp it in a lifetime. This fact shows the magnitude of the creation far better than a single religious text. Planting a tree is a sacred act, clearing a forest to build a temple is not.

    Eric Danell

  29. The matter of causality appears somewhat carelessly — worse, tendentiously — treated here. To “explain” some fraction of an effect statistically by a given factor is not necessarily to assign a causal role to that factor. E.g., “To put these figures in perspective, race accounts for 9% of the variation in science literacy, . . .” But nobody here is attributing a _causal_ role to “race” in science literacy, are they? Yet _religion’s_ causal influence on science literacy seems in this discussion to have been simply equated with its statistical “explanatory” power. That’s sloppy.

    Which is not to say that religion has no causal role in resistance to science — but that its role, if any, cannot be simplistically equated with its statistical “explanatory” power.

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