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.