It is to despair. Is there really this unbridgeable gulf between people who understand science and people who do survey-based ‘studies’ and write newspaper articles?
To recap the problems with survey data:
1. You only get answers from people you ask and who are willing to talk to you;
2. You only get whatever it is that those people want to tell you;
3. The *exact* wording, order and context for the questions make a HUGE difference in the answers you’ll get;
4. These preceding 3 issues mean that drawing any Solomon-like conclusions from survey data, such as faith and science (Science!) being at odds, is an act of risible overreach.
Today’s cautionary tale comes from the Washington Post article “The surprising links between faith and evolution and climate denial — charted” in which the author discusses the work of a science educator who analyzed survey data and arranged it in the following pretty chart:
What is wrong with this picture? It purports to show that religions embraced largely by the sorts of people despised by the editors of the Washington Post tend to also contain people who are uninterested in falling in line with the positions of their moral and intellectual superiors, as represented by those same editors.
(I giggle thinking of their disappointment in discovering that Catholics are largely down with evolution. They needed to assuage their shock by ignoring that outcome and pointing out:
Second, look at all those religious groups whose members support climate change action. Catholics fall a bit below the zero line on average, but I have to suspect that the forthcoming papal encyclical on the environment will shake that up.
Yea, that should do it, as we Catholics just fall right in line with whatever the Pope says. Just look at divorce, birth control and abortion! Lockstep, baby!)
Problems? Oh, yes.
1. We hear shouted from the rooftops practically every day that science education in America is in a shambles, and that your average American can’t tell his astronomy from a black hole in the ground. Right? How else to explain how a former stand-up comic and avid swing dancer became the poster child for science education, rather than, say, Feynman. So, any survey that asks science questions of the general population is like asking a Yanomami tribesman about snow: you’re not getting an informed answer.
So, for example, say I was to ask the Man on the Street of myth and legend his opinion on the use of a multiple investment sinking fund yield on after-tax cash flows for book purposes – I’m talking gibberish to him, and he should say as much. BUT – what if he’s been lead to believe that he ought to have an opinion, that his standing as an intelligent being is at stake if he doesn’t? Then he might give an answer – and that answer would be meaningless, unless he’s one of the 0.02% of the population for whom such a question has any meaning.
Thus, this Pew study asks people to give opinions on climate change and evolution. While people may have learned no science in their 12+ years of schooling, that have been trained to believe that they have a right, nay, a *duty* to have an opinion on such matters. So they answer – and their answers are gibberish, except for those very few who work in theoretical biology or climatology.
2. But what such a survey *does* test for is compliance with the opinions of the Right Thinking Left: Do you submit to the positions of your moral and intellectual superiors as relentlessly beaten into your heads every day by school and media?
Turns out that those with religious beliefs have someplace to stand from which to judge the efforts of the self-appointed ‘leaders’ to brow-beat them into submission. They ain’t buyin’. Note that this is not – it clearly cannot be – a statement about science. Americans don’t know jacksh*t about science. It’s about how willing the sheep are to be lead. Because, ultimately, the only “problem” this sort of analysis reveals is that there are still some Americans who are not willing to fall in line.
This will not do. Therefore, the Washington Post and its like train the big guns on the target.
3. The actual questions and context, and the sampling process, do not matter here, because what we’re doing has nothing whatsoever to do with science. If they did, we’d need to do a much more detailed analysis of them in order to see what, if anything, this analysis actually reveals. All this study aims to do is reveal who the Enemies of Progress are – they are the ones who will not be lead.
For the record, I find the beliefs and practices unique to the religious groups in the lower left quadrant to be silly and often harmful. But they are my brothers in the fight against the attempt to cow us all into submission by calling ‘Science!’ on every attempt by our current batch of demagogues and preening narcissists to seize yet more power.
Afterthought: If we were looking at the actual science here, we’d need to carefully define both what we mean by evolution and climate change, and distinguish between pseudo-philosophical positions such as materialism and rabid human-hating environmentalism and the actual science itself. I’d bet my last dollar that no such distinctions were made.