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Science Education and Attitudes toward Evolution and Related Issues: A Survey of University Students

By Alexander Nussbaum

Posted August 1, 2008

Abstact:

A survey on students in a public university found little belief in a young earth, a much higher than expected degree of belief in the historicity of Noah's ark, and that 67% accepted the evolution of humans. A Science education was found in this survey to be related to greater acceptance of empirical reality and the findings of objective science. This finding in a general university population was in contrast to what I had found when previously surveying a dogmatically religious sub-group. There those exposed to science courses were even more motivated to espouse religiously mandated young earth creationism.

Introduction:

I conducted surveys on the attitudes of Orthodox Jews toward evolution, the age of the universe, and other science issues. One such survey on Orthodox Jewish college students was featured in an article in Skeptic magazine [1]. At the time I also had the opportunity to obtain data from the general student body at the public University. This data from a sample of 72 college students was never written up or published before. The survey items were written to tap into the belief system of Orthodox Jews, thus the phrasing and selection.

Demographic data:

Seventy-two college students at a public college completed the survey. Forty were graduate students and 32 were undergraduates. Thirty of the students had majored or were majoring in a science area, and 39 were not. Twenty-nine students described themselves as very religious or religious, 27 described themselves as somewhat or non-religious, and 14 described themselves as no religion or atheistic.

Survey Results and Discussion;

Main Items

Let us start with some good news. The number of "Young Earthers" was negligible, as where those who believed humans and dinosaurs co-existed.

1. The age of the universe is
About 7,000 years -3
about 15 billion years -68

2. Which of the following is true of dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs lived at the same time as the first humans. -2
Dinosaurs became extinct millions of years before the first humans. -69
Dinosaurs never existed. -1

The third option above was given because it is the required belief in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which is the largest single Orthodox Jewish group, accounting for 23% of all Orthodox synagogues [2]. Unlike the Creation Museum, the participants did not buy saddled dinosaurs. A difference between fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews is that Fundamentalist Christians consider the Flintstones a science film and Orthodox Jews consider the Flintstones as forbidden pornography because Wilma and Betty wear short skirts.

The next five items were specifically designed to allow Orthodox Jewish beliefs to emerge. I expected few "trues" from the general college population, but nevertheless got a surprising number of them.

3. Secular scientists know that evolution has been discredited but are deliberately lying-
True: 8
False: 62

Apparently 8 people watched too much "X-files" in their formative years! And after all some people believe the moon landing was faked. At least one Right-wing Orthodox Jewish rabbinical authority had his followers watch the Fox special on the moon landing being a government conspiracy (on tape of course, so commercials showing females could be removed). Though exposure to the popular media is forbidden among the right wing Orthodox, this exception was made as it offered proof of the rabbinical belief that the moon is a spiritual being, hence no landing possible. At one of the secular degree granting college under orthodox auspices, despite the disparagement on television watching, a large number of students had access to that Fox special, and delighted that it provided evidence as to gentile sciences that contradicted the torah being frauds.

4. Statisticians have proved that the first cell could not arise by chance and evolution could not occur.
True-15
False-57

That's over one in five answering true; a truly bizarre, and discouraging, result.

The "statisticians have proved" item is based on the Orthodox Jewish urban myth of the great mathematician, an atheist Jew, who discovers to his abject horror through math that evolution could not have occurred, and tearfully confesses this to a great rabbi. The name of the great rabbi varied, the name of the "great mathematician" was not given. Of course this idea has since become part of the "science" of Intelligent Design.

5. The sun revolves around the earth
True: 11
False: 61

Geocentrism is the required belief of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and is making a return in orthodox Judaism in general. A few of the true answers here may have been carelessness, rather than doctrinaire geocentrism, still I would not have expected this many "trues". The degree of ignorance is frightening.

6. Current land animals descended from those on Noah's ark
True 19
False 45

Thus 30% of the participants believed in the historicity of Noah's ark. This may be taken to illustrate the persistence of beliefs acquired as children, but the blame here must also be borne by "educational" cable channels which seem to have a program on the search for, if not the finding of, Noah's ark seemingly weekly.

7. All languages descended from Hebrew, which was spoken universally until about 4000 years ago.
True 16
False 66

Over 1 in 5 answered true! - an unexpectedly high number for this general student population.. It is the accepted view among orthodox Jews that until the tower of Babel all the world spoke Hebrew. I had phrased this question based in the books of Isaac Mozeson who "proved" that English words are all (d)evolved from Hebrew, the language of creation, and whose works have got rave reviews from some Orthodox Jewish sources including at Yeshiva University [3]. However his approach represents an attempt at a "scientific" Orthodox Jewish linguistics. On my Orthodox Jewish surveys, some of those who answered false may have shared the view that Hebrew was the one language at creation, but strongly objected to and disagreed with the term "descended".

One participant there literally yelled at me that she could not answer this question because the other languages did not "descend" from Hebrew, but appeared instantly at Babel, and answering true implied accepting "descent", a code word for the heresy of evolution. Other participants had hand written or said much the same thing. Orthodox Jews tend not to believe other languages "descend" from Hebrew, but at a precise second in 1764 B.C., at the tower of Babel, instantly appeared!

The item that held the greatest interest for me was :

8. Human beings evolved from apes
True: 46
False 23

The total of "trues" was 66.7 %. This could be taken both as bad news and good news, depending perhaps on whether one is a glass half full or glass half empty person.

In a 1991 survey conducted by the International Social Survey Program, the percentage in the USA answering true to "Human beings developed from earlier species of animals" was 35.4% [4]. In CBS polls conducted in 2004 and 2005 the percentage of Americans agreeing with "God created humans in present form" was 54% and 51% respectively [5].

So the participants here accepted human descent at a higher rate than in the USA as a whole. But these were students at a public university in one of the most liberal cities in the country. That 33.3 % of the participants answered "false" can be seen as troubling.

Especially since, as we all know, evolution is a fact as certain as anything in science, as certain as anything humans can possibly know. Evolution is not just the central concept of biology, it is also the central concept of cognitive science, neuropsychology, computer science, the study of culture, and information processing. It is also the central concept in my area of cognitive/social psychology.

Indeed psychology is the search for and understanding of evolved cognitive mechanisms. Evolution, with its telling imperfections, with its reliance on jerrybuilding, with it being the very antithesis of intelligent design, has built our brains with all the biases and imperfections, it has created and explains our culture. Ironically it may be that Homo Sapiens have not evolved the cognitive architecture to accept being the product of evolution. In addition to the survey on Orthodox Jewish college students mentioned above, I did another survey in modern Orthodox synagogues [6]. The combined percentage on these two surveys who answered true to "Human beings evolved from apes" was a miniscule 7.2 %

Effects of Religious Level and Science Education on Acceptance of Human Evolution

When presenting the results of the surveys on Orthodox Jews, I received criticism that the "Human beings evolved from apes" item was somehow misunderstood, contributing to the very few "true" answers. Yet here, being able to breakdown answers by level of religion, it is clear that the item measured what it was designed to measure. There was an inverse relationship between degree of religion and answering true. This result was certainly not unexpected. A large number of studies have found that acceptance of evolution goes down as religious belief increases. For example, Lawson and Worsnop (1992) found religious commitment and belief in evolution to be negatively correlated [7]. And as stated above, in my previous surveys, the percentage of modern Orthodox Jews (who are fanatically religious by contemporary standards) who answered true was 7%.

Human beings evolved from apes

Level of ReligiontruefalsePct. answering true
very religious or religious171160.7
somewhat or non-religious18869.2
no religion or atheistic11284.6

Students majoring in, or having a degree in, a science area showed a higher acceptance of human evolution, that those not science majors.

Human beings evolved from apes

truefalsePct. answering true
Science majors22775.9
Not science majors21 1656.8

Both in the survey on Orthodox Jewish college students and survey I did in modern Orthodox synagogues, those with a science background were even more rejecting of evolution and other scientific facts than those without such a background.

As those with a science degree, or studying for one, were more likely to have been exposed to heresy, they were under greater pressure to more militantly defend the approved worldview. Orthodox Jewish scientists with sterling credentials and impressive careers believe in a 5768 year old universe.

Taking my previous surveys of modern Orthodox Jews together, the percentage of those without a science background who answered "true" on the above item was 9.2 %. Of those who were science majors or had a science degree it was 2.7%!

Exposure to western values does not necessarily mean acceptance of western values; in those conditioned by their culture/social group to disparage them, it leads to ever greater hatred of such values.

Writing on Moslem extremism Mark Steyn points out "There's plenty of evidence out there that the most extreme "extremists" are those who've been most exposed to the west - and western education" 8. Many terror cells seem to consist primarily of medical doctors 9.

In the West, college education has become almost universal, yet "multiculturalism" has allowed honor killings to flourish. Clearly mere exposure to science, humanism and liberty is not the answer concerning those whose identification is not with mainstream Western culture.

References

1. Nussbaum, A. (2006). Orthodox Jews and science: An empirical study of their attitudes toward evolution, the fossil record, and modern geology-. Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp.29-35.

2. Schwartz, J., Scheckner, J. & Kotler-Berkowitz, L. (2002) Census of U.S. Synagogues in American Jewish Yearbook: The American Jewish Committee, p. 136.

3. see <http://edenics.homestead.com/prj.htm> last accessed July 25, 2008

4. see <http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_comp.htm> last accessed July 25, 2008

5. see <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/10/22/opinion/polls/main965223.shtml> last accessed July 25, 2008

6. Nussbaum A., (2006, May). Orthodox Judaism: Creationism and a 5766 Year Old Universe. Poster presented at 2006 Association for Psychological Science convention, New York, N.Y.

7. Lawson, A. E. & Worsnop, W. A. (1992). Learning about evolution and rejecting a belief in special creation: Effects of reflective reasoning skill, prior knowledge, prior belief, and religious commitment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29, 143-166.

8. http://corner.nationalreview.com Come west, young man March 27, 2008

9. Witness the following telegraph article from the available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1556553/45-Muslim-doctors-planned-US-terror-raids.html

Discussion