Two and a half years ago, I rebutted the notion that Americans are worse at science than people in other developed countries, in this post. It wasn't as hard as you might think. As it turned out, the very article that an anti-Christian Australian, John Grove, cited to prove that Americans were numbskulls because of their religion, actually demonstrated pretty much the opposite: that adult Americans do better on international science surveys, than people in any other country, except for Sweden.
In addition, I pointed out, also rebutting the author of the study, Jon Miller (Michigan State University, who also obviously despises Christianity too), that if anything, "fringe science" like Intelligent Design and "Global Warming Denialism" may actually increase awareness of science. While Miller's study was clearly biased against Christians, loaded with questions designed to yield "correct" results, the evidence for this was nevertheless evident in his results.
Today I was wading through old files, prepping for my debate with Phil Zuckerman next month, and came across Miller's study again. I can't resist combing through his results once more. There's nothing quite as satisfying as being shot not only without effect, but with rubber bullets that bounce off one's chest and take out the vehicle your would-be assassin is driving. Opposing arguments that actually support one's own view are worth quoting for three reasons: (1) Credibility. One can't accuse someone so hostile to Christian influence as Miller of doctoring results to favor OUR theory. (2) Laziness. As a Taoist Christian, it seems so much more convenient when the other side brings the heavy weapons to the battle for us. (3) Irony, a sense of which adds spice to life.
Miller asked Americans 31 questions about science. Most were true or false questions, though some required open-ended answers. Miller took it that anyone who answered at least 70% of the questions "correctly," should be deemed "scientifically literate."
As Miller showed (the full list of countries is provided in the article linked above), Americans did far better than people of practically any other nation on this test, or the versions Miller used elsewhere, which may have been somewhat different. While 28% of Americans "passed" this test with 70% (my boys, one then in high school the other in 8th Grade, got 96% and 85%, respectively), aside from Sweden, at 35%, only four other countries broke 20%, barely: Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. Great Britain AND the EU both stood (or sprawled) at 14%, Ireland at 9%, Japan at 5%, while Turkey just mustered 1.5% success. (On a parallel survey, China appears to have done quite poorly, as well.)
I made two additional points, which flew in the face of Miller's own biases, and which I would like to repeat, in one case with a little more detail now.
First, Miller's survey was actually loaded against Americans Christians: it appears to me that he jimmied the questions against us. Which means the actual state of affairs even more strongly favors Americans. I don't mean to offend people of other nationalities, here -- my real point is next.
Second, and more importantly, it seems likely that the controversy over evolution and global warming in the US probably greatly contributes to the fact that Americans know more about science, than do people in countries where such controversy is relatively absent.
And that tells us, I believe, about the optimal state of society.
(I) Loaded Questions
Of the thirty-one questions on Miller's survey, fewer than 53% of Americans get the "right" answer on eight questions.
There are ten questions on the survey (by my count) which touch on issues that are controversial for ideological reasons in the United States. Six of these questions, arguably the most controversial, are among the "bottom ten" in terms of response. None of them are among the top twelve.
The question that got the most "wrong" answers on Miller's survey also, "paradoxically," should from Miller's view been one of the easiest to answer:
True or false: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
Only 37% of Americans got this question "right."
But is that a matter of scientific ignorance, or heresy? The two are different. It is different to say, "I never learned that humans came from animals," and "My teacher told us this, and I generally trusted teachers, but then found independent reasons for doubting this particular claim." You might call this pig-headed, but it's not the same as sheer ignorance, nor need it reflect on a failure of the schools to teach the rejected doctrine.
Should we think that humans "as we know them today" developed from earlier species of animals? As someone friendly to common ancestry, just to irritate Miller, I might choose to answer this question "no," on the grounds that while the physical bodies of humans probably did develop from earlier species, at some point God seems to have planted some new software into the biological hard drive. Now Miller might be able to argue this point with me, but some extremely scientifically-literate scientists and philosophers would be more or less on my side in that debate, I think.
The second-to-worst success rate came in response to:
True or false: one of the effects of global warming will be that some species of plants and animals will thrive and other species will become extinct.
Again, in a good mood, I would check the correct box in an instant. But Miller knows that "Global Warming" is controversial. He knows that a lot of Americans, whether or not they are more ignorant than others, simply deny the doctrine. He ought to know, also, that the term is ambiguous: does it mean (a) past warming, in which case, why is this question phrased in future tense? Or (b) future warming? And (c) are we assuming (Miller does not mention this, but he knows this is a usual part of the "package") that global warming is caused by SUVs and coal plants, etc, and will devastate the Earth unless we all start recycling and riding bikes to work like compliant Danes?
Personally, I do not know that warming will continue into the future, though I am pretty familiar with the arguments that it will. And of course, it hasn't continued much over the past 15 years, though one could argue that it has some. So I think it proper to be dogmatic about the past, but less so about the future. For all we know, an enormous fissure volcano will erupt tomorrow, and send Earth into a dramatic cooling cycle.
Four other questions fall among the "bottom eight" that have an ideological component:
True or false: The primary human activity that causes global warming is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. (47% "correct")
Does this imply that human activities are primarily responsible for global warming? Then why did so much of it occur before 1950?
True or false: The Universe began with a huge explosion. (49% "correct")
Was that really the beginning? Or the beginning of what we know?
True or false: Humans have somewhat less than half of their DNA in common with chimpanzees. (50% "correct.)
What does that mean? Are we counting identical atoms? Or nucleotides? Or genes? If the latter, what about genetic drift in the non-coding portions of the genome? Here I would almost automatically say "no," but come to think of it, this is a rather ambiguous question, again.
True or False: Astrology is not at all scientific.
Again, that depends on what you mean by "scientific" and "at all." Wikipedia describes science as "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe." Here we have nine elements -- system, enterprise, building, organization, knowledge, testable, explanation, prediction, regarding the universe. What if astrology includes one of these elements, or three, or five? Surely it is often systematic, and an enterprise, and an explanation that involves predictions, and about the universe.
I am not playing games, here. I know Miller means "astrology is a pseudo-science which does not except by accident tell us what is true about the nature of the planets and how they influence our lives."
But to be a pseudo-science, you have to be somewhat scientific. To be a pseudonym, a word has to share some of the characteristics of a real name.
So I don't know if the people who said "False" to this question (a) think astrology works, in spite of contrary evidence; (b) don't know about that evidence; (c) were reading too fast to finish the test, and read "n" instead of "l;" (d) don't know what the word "astrology" means, and confuse it with astronomy; or (e) found the question confused, as I do.
Only people who answer "false" because of (a) or (b) should fairly be described as scientifically ignorant. If you don't know what "astrology" means, that may be a fault with your vocabulary, but since as Miller assumes astrology is not science, it is not a scientific error.
But I am not just picking apart Dr. Miller's survey for fun (that, too). The bigger point is that ignorance should not be confused with disagreement. One can't blame a school if a student "learns" something in class, but rejects it because he hears an alternative theory and buys into it. These two conditions should be clearly distinguished.
Miller's survey, however, seems designed to confuse these two matters, to the disadvantage both of people who read the survey carefully (as we have seen), and of Americans generally, who may know the science very well, but hold to unorthodox views.
If one were to throw out such questions and substitute more neutral questions for them ("True or false: glaciers have retreated partly as a result of slight warming in the atmosphere over much of the northern hemisphere over the past century"), it seems probable that Americans would have done even better on this survey -- maybe beaten the Swedes. (And somebody needs to beat them.)
II. How "Junk Science" Makes Americans Smarter
Here's what I said on this topic last time around:
Looking down Miller's list of questions, I'm not sure I learned the answers to
any of them in college. I think I first garnered answers to ten or so of them in
the process of exploring heretical thoughts about Evolution and Global Warming.
So Miller must share some credit for the success of American scientific
education with Michael Behe and
Perhaps there is an indirect connection between the
religiosity of Americans and their scientific success. I suspect enthusiasms of
both sorts are encouraged by a free market for ideas. (And freedom, in turn, I
agree with Bunyan and Locke, is a proper implication of the Gospel.) Freedom is
also why heretical ideas like Intelligent Design, and opposition to
Anthropogenic Global Warming, catch on in the US: we have an open market of
ideas, with alternative institutions like home-schools, Sunday School, Talk
Radio, and conservative think tanks and magazines. Ideas thus have a better
chance to clash than in countries where ducks open their mouths and have them
filled. And when our ducks go out and forage for themselves, they develop
healthy but discerning appetites, and learn not to blindly accept everything
from our governmental Master’s hand.
Let's now look at some of those questions that "junk science" helped teach me, and the percentage of Americans who got them right:
Provide a correct definition of DNA. (75%)
The anti-evolution books I read as a young man, were great for learning about DNA and the cell -- stuff I wanted to read, not that I had to read. I still regard Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box as a beautiful introduction to the world of the cell. Of course, you can also get a lot of that from polemicists on the other side, like Richard Dawkins. But why bother learning the details without debate quickening one's blood to plunge in?
True or false: nuclear power plants destroy the ozone layer. (68%)
Thanks, in this case, to left-wing junk science -- this sort of thing was a hot issue in my youth.
True or false: Global warming is increasing primarily because the level of direct radiation from the Sun is increasing. (65%)
This one might belong in both categories. Some people no doubt have the vague notion that solar cycles are causing the trouble, which they may have picked up from debate. And I think they are wrong. But who would know about radiative forcings, sonar tests in the Pacific, or the history of the Martian atmosphere, apart from the challenge?
True or false: For the first time in recorded history, some species of animals and plants are dying out and becoming extinct. (59%)
I doubt anyone who has walked through Ken Ham's museum would buy this claim. It is, admittedly, bizarre that 41% of Americans would claim in effect to have never heard of the carrier pigeon or the dodo bird. Perhaps some people thought the "right" answer would be to default to, "We moderns are always guilty, the crisis is getting worse" mode. But that's just a guess.
So what should we conclude?
(Added) It may be, as Miller argues, that the requirement that Americans take college courses in science is partly responsible for these results. (Though I find his argument only somewhat convincing -- he show that there is a correlation between taking those courses, and higher scores, as one would expect, even if the courses did not help with the scores at all.)
But also, I think these results show that there is something to be said for a free market of ideas. Americans go to public schools, which generally do their best (but see my upcoming post on pro-Islamic, anti-Christian bias in public school history texts). But because of American diversity and, in some quarters, family breakdown, a lot of kids fail to learn the bare minimum that is achievable in traditionally homogenous societies like Japan or Denmark.
But the open market of ideas, fostered by grassroots civic organizations, ensures that top-down education is balanced by a budding creativity from below. Churches provide alternative forums for views that oppose the top-down orthodoxy. Given an old two-party system, and the competition that engenders, it is likely that minority views will find political support as well as expression in alternative forums. Because of this lively open market, people feel that they have a real stake in the discussion, and are therefore more likely to "read up" on the issues, both in books and on-line.
This is all described in the social theory of Rodney Stark and his colleagues, working from the insights of Adam Smith a couple centuries ago. This may not be the whole story, but it does seem to be part of it.