Knowing Science Doesn’t Mean Following the Scientific Consensus

The study being discussed indicates that people with a strong knowledge of science don’t necessarily follow the scientific consensus. (click for credit)

Some people get distressed over the fact that there are those of us who don’t blindly follow whatever is advertised as the “scientific consensus.” The distress becomes so great that such people often have to come up with some kind of explanation for this non-sheep-like behavior. For example, in response to a 2014 poll that indicated Americans are skeptical about human-caused global warming, evolution, and the Big Bang, Nobel Laureate Dr. Randy Schekman said:

Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts.

I read and hear this idea a lot. If you don’t automatically accept what the High Priests of Science say, you obviously don’t know or don’t understand science. While such an idea might be comforting to those who don’t wish to think for themselves when it comes to scientific issues, it doesn’t have any basis in reality. Indeed, some of the most intelligent, well-educated people I know do not believe in evolution (in the flagellate-to-philosopher sense), do not think the earth is billions of years old, and do not think that humans are causing significant global warming.

Of course, the people I know don’t necessarily make up a representative sample of the population as a whole. As a result, I was very interested to read a study that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors of the study analyzed the 2006 and 2010 results of the General Social Survey, which attempts to determine the views of the American people on a wide variety of issues. At the same time, it tries to get a general sense of each individual’s level of education on those issues. The results of their study seemed very surprising to the authors, but they weren’t at all surprising to me.

Because the General Social Survey not only asks the participants about their education but also asks specific science-related questions, the authors were able to rate each person on a “scientific literacy” scale. The higher the person’s score on that scale, the more educated he or she was on scientific issues. The authors then correlated the scientific literacy of the person with his or her beliefs about the Big Bang, human evolution, climate change, the safety of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), the safety of nanotechnology, and stem cell research. As far as I am concerned, here is their “take-home” message:

Participants’ general educational attainment and science education were at best weakly related to their acceptance of the scientific consensus.

In other words, those who know the science don’t necessarily agree with what is advertised as the “scientific consensus.”

Instead of scientific literacy, the authors found that political and social views correlated strongly with whether or not a person accepted the scientific consensus on four of the issues studied. Conservatives were less likely than liberals to agree with the scientific consensus on the Big Bang, human evolution, climate change, and stem cell research. There was no statistically significant difference between the two groups on GMOs and nanotechnology.

But here’s the really interesting result: the more scientifically literate the person was, the more polarized he or she became on those issues. In other words, liberals became more likely to accept the consensus the more scientifically literate they were, while conservatives were more likely to reject the consensus the more scientifically literate they were. This, of course, argues strongly against the notion that only ignorant people reject the scientific consensus.

Indeed, the biggest effect that scientific literacy had was on the issue of global warming. Liberals and conservatives with low scientific literacy were equally likely to believe the consensus that global warming has been significantly amplified by human activity. However, as scientific literacy increased, liberals became more likely to believe in the consensus, and conservatives became less likely to believe in the consensus.

Of course, this distressing news had to be interpreted, so the authors suggested two explanations. Perhaps, they mused, people first decide what they want to believe, and then the more scientifically-literate people feel more comfortable in arguing for that position. The authors also suggested that people with more scientific knowledge might be able to find a few obscure facts that help them hang on to their beliefs, despite what the majority of the data indicate.

I think I have a better explanation, however. Those with more scientific literacy are more likely to investigate issues for themselves and come up with their own conclusions. Those conclusions then help to inform their political and social beliefs. That’s certainly how it works for me. It would be much easier for me professionally if I blindly followed the scientific consensus on each issue. However, I can’t do that and maintain my scientific integrity. Thus, I investigate the issues myself and come to what I think is the best scientific conclusion. Those conclusions then affect how I live and how I vote.

If nothing else, research like this argues strongly against the absurd notion that those who reject what is advertised as the “scientific consensus” are ignorant when it comes to science.

9 Comments

  1. Victor Da Silva says:

    I think the words: “Dogma” and “Consensus” don’t sound very well in science. Some months ago, almost a year, I came across an articule about epigenetics. One section that really prove my point is when he said that, it was used to believe that when an epi mark was laid in the cell, it was unchangeable. However, when more research were made, they discovered that the “Central Dogma” was false.¹

    And about the global warming, I think Dr. Jay already addressed here, but I found a rather curious articule by Dr. Judith A. Curry.²

    [1]https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article-lookup/doi/10.1525/bio.2011.61.8.4

    [2]https://curryja.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/house-science-testimony-apr-15-final.pdf

  2. Sandy Kramer says:

    One needs to go no further than to the computer to realize the ludicrous belief system used by Darwinists.

    Evolutionists would never accept that computers could come into being without intelligent designers. Yet they stubbornly cling to the myth that life, which is exponentially more complex than your computer, is the result of undesigned and undirected events of randomness and pure chance.

  3. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    This study was received for review on March 23rd of this year, I wonder why they didn’t include the results from the 2016 survey? if the results weren’t yet available, they wouldn’t have had to wait that long…

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I suspect their analysis took a long time, so they probably started well before the 2016 results were ready. They probably didn’t want to wait, or at least thought that they had enough responses to make statistically-valid conclusions.

      1. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

        Ah well, just goes to show that even “back then” (2006-2010) people didn’t have to be scientifically illiterate to accept creation science and/or reject the ideas of macroevolution and global warming. One can only hope that people have gotten wiser in 2016.

        As a sidenote I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your blog every since I found Proslogion a few months ago. I “stumbled across” your blog while researching tree ring cronology after watching Ham and Nye’s debate on youtube, and after I read your “top 5 reasons for believing in a young earth” I was hooked! I’ve read all your blog entries since then, and I’ve FINALLY caught up to the present day, and I have to say I’m “tickled pink” to finally be able to comment on you’re blog!

        I know you get this a lot, bu it’s so refreshing to have a voice of reason in the scientific community and I appreciate the way you take the time to respond to questions and rebuttals! I remember you said in your entry titled “When Someone really believes the words of Jesus,” that you often fail in following the second commandment (don’t we all), but in the way you respond to people, just in you comments section, though it may seem like a small thing, I definitely see you exibiting the love of Christ for your neighbors. I also appreciate everything you do for the homeschool community. I myself was homeschooled, but unfortunately didn’t use your texts, but if your textbooks are anything like your blog I can fully understand why you inspire so many young people to pursue careers in the sciences! Anyway, keep up the good work! I shall continue to enjoy reading! God bless!

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Thank you so much. That means a lot!

  4. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    My pleasure. FWI I have heaps of questions to ask you, but I’ll try to post them as they become relevant to the posts. This one kind of is: Have you ever read The Battle for Truth by David Noebel? It compares and contrasts the four prevailing worldviews of the western world: Secular Humanism, Marxism/Leninism, Cosmic Humanism and Biblical Cristianity. It compares them in areas such as religion, politics, history, law, education and business. It’s definitely biased toward Christianity, even as it discusses the other worldviews, but I think it does a pretty ok job of giving the basics of each worldview in the different areas. Also, the creation/evolution controversy is pretty prevalent throughout the whole book (surprise, surprise). Anyway, you might consider checking it out, it might be worth your time, it might not be, but as a layman I found it entertaining and informative, although I’m sure much of the science in it could stand to be updated (it was published in 2001).

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for the book suggestion. I have not read it, but it does sound interesting.

  5. cjl says:

    In just about every generation of scientists, some elements of consensus have been proven false by a following generation. In just about every generation of scientists, some consensus is influenced by political and social peer pressure. “In the end, then” (wink, wink), if you aren’t interested in investigating the consensus you’re probably not much of a scientist.

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