New study: Scientific aptitude better explains poor responses to teaching of evolution

A new paper just published in Nature Ecology & Evolution reports on a study of relative influences on the acceptance and understanding of evolution in students. (Link at bottom.) The authors seem to be addressing the hypothesis/claim that rejection of evolution does not strongly reflect lower intelligence or educational attainment, at least in adults. They compared two potential influences on learning of evolution: “scientific aptitude” and “psychological conflict” and conducted the study in secondary school students in the UK. They had about 1200 students in 70 classes from various schools (public and private), and teachers were blinded to the goals of the study.

The abstract is not very well written (IMHO) but describes their findings:

It is considered a myth that non-acceptance of scientific consensus on emotive topics is owing to difficulties processing scientific information and is, instead, owing to belief-associated psychological conflicts, the strongest non-acceptors being highly educated. It has been unclear whether these results from adults explain variation in response to school-level teaching. We studied a cohort of UK secondary school students (aged 14–16) and assessed their acceptance and understanding of evolution. In addition, to address their aptitude for science we assessed their understanding of genetics and their teacher-derived assessment of science aptitude. As both models predict, students with low initial evolution acceptance scores showed lower increases in the understanding of evolution. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this effect is better explained by lack of aptitude: before teaching, students with low acceptance had lower understanding of both evolution and of genetics; the low-acceptance students sat disproportionately in the foundation (rather than higher) science classes; low-acceptance students showed lower increments in the understanding of genetics; and student gain in the understanding of evolution correlated positively with gain in the understanding of genetics. We find no evidence either for a role for psychological conflict in determining response to teaching or that strong rejectors are more commonly of a higher ability. From qualitative data we hypothesize that religious students can avoid psychological conflict by adopting a compatibilist attitude. We conclude that there are students recalcitrant to the teaching of science (as currently taught) and that these students are more likely to not accept the scientific consensus. Optimizing methods to teach recalcitrant students is an important avenue for research.

The “myth” they are addressing is mentioned in this non-scholarly overview of results of Pew research from a few years ago. I don’t know whether there is/was a strong scholarly consensus about the lack of correlation between intelligence and/or education and science denial, but that’s the claim the authors seem to be challenging.

I find their results encouraging, to the extent that they suggest that seemingly damaging barriers to scientific understanding, in the form of religious commitments and other memes, are not as daunting as they often seem. (To me.)

The paper is not open access (I don’t think) but I can help others get a copy on request.

This statement to me seems to contradict the supposed claim of the study.

Interesting study. I just wish it was based on U.S. data, rather than the U.K. As others have often noted, the U.S. has a stand-alone problem when it comes to Christians denying evolution and climate change, among other hot-button scientific topics. Taking a look at the “non-scholarly overview” of Pew’s research, I was struck by the last “myth” the author addressed:

8. Public trust in science has decreased.
Although trust in scientists among conservatives and churchgoers has declined, overall trust in science among the general public has stayed rather stable.

The paper she referenced is Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. From the article:

Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance, and region.

I think we can lay this outcome at the feet of the Culture War. Just look at the ID movement and its claims that the scientific method is “biased” against God. I could go on, but you can fill in the blanks just as easily as I can.


Fascinating stuff. The abstract states:
"that there are students recalcitrant to the teaching of science (as currently taught) and that these students are more likely to not accept the scientific consensus."
My question is: why are they recalcitrant, and what can be done about it? I suspect that much is environmental, family life, religious upbringing, culture of distrust of authority perhaps, although if you look at fundamentalism, it tends to encourage submission to authority internally, but reject outside authority (except perhaps to right wing politics, but perhaps should avoid going there)

I think you misunderstood that sentence, because I misunderstood it too, until I read the paper. What they are saying is that perhaps the reason they saw no influence of psychological conflict is that the conflict is there but it is being avoided. (An alternative hypothesis would be that this cohort of students lives without psychological conflict induced by religious or other anti-scientific belief.) Elsewhere in the paper they suggest that this may explain why studies in adults do seem to indicate psychological conflict as a significant problem, whereas their study didn’t: perhaps younger students are avoiding conflict by adopting a different stance toward the conflict (e.g. compatibilist) and/or because their beliefs haven’t hardened enough to make the conflict unavoidable.

So, the statement doesn’t contradict their findings; it is trying to explain them.

I was a YEC for many years (I obviously denied both evolution and the Big Bang), but I always got better marks in biology than my classmates.

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This is an unfortunate choice of words by the authors, IMO, because it brings connotations of stubbornness or other negativity, which isn’t what they mean. Regardless, I think it is important to note that they saw that responses to evolution were not specific to evolution, and that’s why they claim that this is recalcitrance to “the teaching of science” and not just to the teaching of evolution. In the Discussion, they note that their comparison is between evolution (conflict-rich) and genetics (conflict-free) but that genetics might not be the best comparison, as it might not be as conflict-free as the authors suspect.

But your question remains: why? They don’t explore that, and I agree that factors of relevance in science-faith discussions are still relevant to that question even if they don’t create “psychological conflict” that is specific to evolution or even to biology.


By the way, the same authors published a study a few years ago using the same methods, and this one is in PLoS Biology, which is open access. It’s also interesting.

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Since the study was done in the UK, one would assume that the participants were probably not as religious as you would find in the US, so that is interesting. Perhaps the post-modern tendency to rejection of objective truths plays a role. Even in the conservative church world that fights it, post modernism has a big influence on how people believe and react.

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Hmmm. Interesting contrast in UK science curriculum vs. US. For comparison’s sake, the middle school standards for the Next Generation Science Curriculum include these:

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

MS-LS4-1. Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on finding patterns of changes in the level of complexity of anatomical structures in organisms and the chronological order of fossil appearance in the rock layers.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the names of individual species or geological eras in the fossil record.]
MS-LS4-2. Apply scientific ideas to construct an explanation for the anatomical similarities and differences among modern organisms and between modern and fossil organisms to infer evolutionary relationships. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on explanations of the evolutionary relationships among organisms in terms of similarity or differences of the gross appearance of anatomical structures.]
MS-LS4-3. Analyze displays of pictorial data to compare patterns of similarities in the embryological development across multiple species to identify relationships not evident in the fully formed anatomy. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on inferring general patterns of relatedness among embryos of different organisms by comparing the macroscopic appearance of diagrams or pictures.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of comparisons is limited to gross appearance of anatomical structures in embryological development.]
MS-LS4-4. Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using simple probability statements and proportional reasoning to construct explanations.]
MS-LS4-6. Use mathematical representations to support explanations of how natural selection may lead to increases and decreases of specific traits in populations over time. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using mathematical models, probability statements, and proportional reasoning to support explanations of trends in changes to populations over time.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include Hardy Weinberg calculations.]

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Wow. College level stuff here for a lot of kids, if even then.

Well, the examples and the math are simplified versions, but it’s introducing the basic concepts. The fun part for me, as a special ed. teacher, was translating this info to my students, who lacked any aptitude for science! Lol

Edit: This is also a good example why the Common Core curriculum became a target of Discovery Institute and other Culture Warriors. Casting their fight against national standards in science curricula as a “state’s rights” issue made as much sense as the South claiming the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” not slavery.


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