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Thanksgiving reading list

November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving week DINE readers! Here’s some reading for the next few days:

1. The Atlantic highlights that religious communities rather than schools affect what people believe about evolution:

According to a new report by Calvin College assistant professor Jonathan Hill, many Americans do not think it’s that important to have the “correct beliefs” on the origins of human life. His research was funded by the BioLogos Foundation, a pro-evolution, Christian organization founded by National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins.

“It’s important to know that a large portion of the population is unsure about their beliefs, and there is a large portion of the population that doesn’t care,” Hill said in an interview.

Love that quote. Why should anyone care about evolution or, for that matter, astrology?

2. While I won’t comment on the electoral politics (remember I mostly don’t go there), and I don’t endorse the climate skepticism (I am, after all, a certified tree-hugger formerly associated with the EPA), I think Daniel Payne’s recent Federalist essay asks some excellent questions:

What on Earth is a “supporter of modern science?” Is there a 501(c)3 organization run by an entity known as “Science,” to which its “supporters” can donate? How does one “support” an observational and experimental mode of inquiry like science? And what do the “prevailing political winds” have to do with it?

3. Okay fine, I’ll get a little political. Like my boy David Bruggeman (and apparently Daniel Payne), I don’t buy the idea that people are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ science. Heck, I don’t even think the term can be meaningfully defined. Since the idea has no meaning, I don’t see how it makes sense to brand conservatives/Christians/the right-wing ‘anti-science.’ To be stronger, the idea of some groups as ‘anti-science’ is just false.

If Dan Kahan didn’t exist, I would have to make that argument with data. Luckily for me, he does exist! As usual, I’ll let Kahan make my case for me. Kahan responds to some recent survey data in a post aptly titled: ‘Conservatives lose faith in science over last 40 years–where do you see *that* in the data?’ (emphasis in original):

This post examines Gordon Gauchat’s Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere, Am. Sociological Rev., 77, 167-187 (2012).

PSPS is widely cited to support the proposition that controversy over climate change reflects the “increasingly skeptical and distrustful” attitude of “conservative” members of the general public (Lewandowsky et al. 2013).

This contention merits empirical investigation, certainly.

But the data analyzed in PSPS, an admittedly interesting study!, don’t even remotely support it.

PSPS’s analysis rests entirely on variance in one response level for a single part of a multiple-part survey item.  The reported changes in the proportion of survey takers who selected that particular response level  for that particular part of the single item in question cannot be understood to measure “trust” in science generally or in any group of “scientists.”

Undeniably, indisputably cannot.

Actually—what am I saying?

Sure, go ahead and treat nonselection of that particular response level to that one part of the single survey item analyzed in PSPS as evincing a “decline” in “trust of scientists” for “several decades among U.S. conservatives” (Hmielowski et al. 2013).

But if you do, then you will be obliged to conclude that a majority of those who identify themselves as “liberals” are deeply “skeptical” and “distrustful” of scientists too.  The whole nation, on this reading of the data featured in PSPS, would have to be regarded as having “lost faith” in science—indeed, as never having had any to begin with.

That would be absurd.

It would be absurd because the very GSS survey item in question has consistently found—for decades—that members of the US general public are more “confident” in those who “run” the “scientific community” than they are in those who “run” “major companies,” the “education” system, “banks and financial institutions,” “organized religion,” the “Supreme Court,” and the “press.”

For the entire period under investigation, conservatives rated the “scientific community” second among the 13 major U.S. institutions respondents were instructed to evaluate.

If one accepts that it is valid to measure public “trust” in institutions by focusing so selectively on this portion of the data from the GSS “confidence in institutions” item, then we’d also have to conclude that conservatives were twice as likely to “distrust” those who “run . . . major companies” in the US as they were to “distrust” scientists .

Can we get a boo-yah?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    November 26, 2014 5:37 am

    Boo . . . yah.

    1) Your point in #1 doesn’t seem to match the quote in #1. I could be missing something in my thinking.

    2) The #3 quote was good, but it would be better to explain some of what was written for those people who do not know about those statistical terms. I mean it’s Kahan’s writing, and I don’t know what audience he was writing to, but there may be readers who will not follow all the terms (variance, response levels, non-response, etc.) and thus the meaning of the argument.

    • November 26, 2014 9:49 am

      on 1: I guess I was thinking that the origins of the Earth simply aren’t important to many people. I may have needed to be more careful there…

      2: I agree. You can chalk that up to my laziness:-)

  2. November 27, 2014 10:55 am

    IMO most people aren’t really interested in science, period. Most people don’t look into primary sources, perhaps especially the professional scientific literature. “There is a large portion of the population that doesn’t care” about evolutionary theory or climate change is a symptom of the larger problem of general science apathy.

    Daniel Payne’s questions are posted in the context of climate change denialism, and not anti-evolutionism. Unless you want to discuss the former, then we can reasonably dispense with Payne’s column, especially the questions that you quote from him.

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