Note: I have joined the “virtual class” component of Dan Kahan‘s Science of Science Communication course at Yale University. As part of this I am endeavoring to write a response paper in reaction to each week’s set of readings. I will post these responses here on my blog – my paper for week ten is below. Previous responses are here. I will also be participating in the discussion on Kahan’s own blog.
This week’s “questions to consider” (a reading list is here):
1. What is the relationship—empirically—between “accepting”/“believing in” the evolution and “understanding”/“comprehending” it? Are they correlated with one another? Does the former have a causal impact on latter? Vice versa?
2. What is the relationship—psychologically— between “accepting”/“believing in” the evolution and “understanding”/“comprehending” it? Is it possible to “comprehend” or “know” without “believing in” evolution? Can someone “disbelieve” or “not accept” evolution and still use knowledge or comprehension of it to do something that knowledge of it requires? Are there things that people are enable to do by “belief” or “disbelief in” evolution? If the answer to the last two questions are both “yes,” can one person use knowledge or comprehension to do some things and disbelief to do others? What does it mean to “believe in” or “disbelieve in” evolution? Is it correct to equate the mental operation or state of “believing” or “disbelieving” in evolution with the same mental state or operation that is involved in, say, “believing” or “disbelieving” that one is currently sitting in a chair?
3. What—normatively—is (should be) the aim of teaching evolution: “belief,” “knowledge,” or “both”?
4. If one treats attainment of “knowledge “or “comprehension” as the normative goal, how should science educators regard students’ “beliefs”?
5. If one treats attainment of “knowledge” or “comprehension” as the normative goal of science education, how should one regard political or cultural conflict over belief in evolution?
The empirical relationship between knowledge, understanding and belief
The evidence points strongly towards a distinction between knowledge and belief, for the simple reason that so many students have been able to demonstrate the former without the latter (or vice-versa):
- In Hermann’s (2012) study, there was no statistical difference in understanding of evolution concepts between two extreme sub-groups of students, one believing in evolution and the big bang theory, and one not.
- Sinatra 2003 (cited in Hermann) similarly suggests no relationship between belief and understanding of evolution
- Blackwell found what could be termed a disjoint between understanding/application and belief: although an overwhelming majority of students selected appropriate answers when asked to categorize examples of specific evolutionary processes, the percent considering evolution the primary basis for progression of life on earth was 34-35 percent (with slightly different percentages for the two classes surveyed). The percent considering evolution compatible with their belief system was 27-29%, but only 6-9% said they could never believe in evolution.
- Other studies found that it is common for students to believe in evolution without understanding it (Lord and Marino 1993, Bishop and Anderson 1990, Demastes-Southerland et al 1995, Jakobi 2010, all cited in Hermann).
A section from Blackwell’s study, in which students had to categorize examples of various evolutionary processes.
On the other hand, according to Hermann, several studies (Lawson and Worsnop 1992, Sinclair and Pendarvis 1997, Rutledge and Mitchell 2002) found that adherence to a religious belief system influenced the extent to which evolution was understood.
Defining our terms: the psychological relationship between knowledge, understanding and belief
The vagueness of the terms “belief,” “understanding” and “knowledge” obviously should give us pause when we are trying to make sense of these empirical findings.
I think we should try to define the terms in the way that is most fruitful to the problem at hand (while also seeking as much as possible not to create conflict with existing common usage, and to allow the above empirical findings to be applied). That problem is often put thusly, “Many students understand evolution, or demonstrate knowledge of evolution, without believing in it. Does this matter, and if so, what should we do about it?”
With this in mind we can come up with some rough working definitions:
- Knowledge: Retained and retrievable true facts about physical properties and processes.
- Understanding: A deeper form of knowledge accomplished by forming multiple connections between true facts on the subject at hand (evolution) and between the subject and others. (Similar to Gauld 2001’s definition, cited by Smith 2004.) An example of one such connection may be between a scientific theory and its supporting evidence (as suggested by Shipman 2002, cited by Hermann).
- Belief: A committed, often emotional attachment to a proposition, which itself may be true or untrue, falsifiable or not. I would argue that it is sensible to talk both of faith-based belief in religious precepts, and of belief in scientific theories, which can be driven by thorough understanding of their scientific basis, or by blind faith in scientists. (I subscribe to the summary by Gess-Newsome 1999 [cited by Smith], of knowledge as “evidential, dynamic, emotionally-neutral”, and belief as “both evidential and non-evidential, static, emotionally-bound.”)
These definitions mesh well, I believe, with most of the empirical findings we read about this week, including Hermann, Smith and Everhart (2013). Hermann, for example, builds on Cobern’s partitioning concept to conclude that religious students view science ideas as “facts,” categorized differently than beliefs, which have a stronger emotional attachment. This helps students compartmentalize because they have created an “emotional distance” between scientific conceptions and religious beliefs.
In creating these definitions I have had to dismiss definitions that I think are unhelpful for the problem at hand. For example, according to Hermann, Cobern (1996) stated that knowing “is the metaphysical process by which one accepts a comphrehended concept as true or valid.” But this definition is actually much more like belief, as most of this week’s reading understands it.
I’ve also had to discard the philosophical convention that belief is a necessary condition of knowledge (Smith). When describing the way that people learn, and knowledge acquisition’s interaction with existing belief systems, this stipulation just doesn’t make sense (given the evidence we have of knowledge without belief). By casting off the impractical philosophical definition, I resolve a problem that Smith recognized – that if knowledge is dependent on belief, science education must foster belief.
There will always, I think, be messy edges and overlap between these realms. For example, it is hard to think of much useful knowledge that we can retain as utterly isolated “facts.” Facts that are part of a coherent schema are easier to retain or retrieve. We do, however, remember groups of facts that are connected in greater or lesser degree, both to each other and to other facts and schema in our brains. The difference between knowledge and understanding is thus one of degree.
Is lack of belief a problem? Or is it lack of understanding?
It should be noted that the issue with religious students’ non-belief in evolution is not merely one of semantics or a confusion of terms. The problem is we are not satisfied with students merely believing evolution in the way that they believe in discredited Lamarckian or Ptolomeic ideas. We don’t want them simply to believe “that evolution says x”: that implies that evolution has no special empirical status and it may as well be false, as those outdated scientific theories are. A student who can say only “that evolution says x” is merely parroting scientific language. She is in truth only a historian of science rather than truly a scientist herself – and I think that’s what so bothers us about the learning outcomes exhibited by students like Aidan and Krista, in Hermann’s study. We come away with the sense that their knowledge falls short of true scientific understanding.
I agree with Smith, however, that we should not go so far as to seek or require belief – or perhaps, I might say, “complete belief.” It is not and should not be the goal of a science class to completely overhaul students’ worldview, religion and all.
What we are seeking is for students to believe something like:
“Evolution, which says x, is the best supported scientific way of understanding the origins of various species, the way species adapt to their environment, etc etc.” (A conclusion similar to Smith 2004.)
And this requires an understanding of evolution, in the strong sense of understanding, which encompasses comprehension of justification. One may even argue that this type of belief follows necessarily from strong understanding: that is, if you understand mechanism of and scientific basis for evolution, and the comparative paucity of scientific explanation for other theories of species’ origins, then you will necessarily believe that “Evolution, which says x, is the best supported… etc, etc.” This could be a neat logical maneuver to employ because it means that we can avoid talking about the need for students to “believe in” evolution – which carries a lot of nasty cultural baggage – and just talk about understanding instead.
While several empirical studies have demonstrated that students can easily demonstrate knowledge of evolution without belief in evolution, understanding is a much more slippery eel. As previously alluded to, understanding encompasses a wide spectrum, starting from a state barely stronger than plain knowledge. But I would argue that understanding evolution, in its strong form, encompasses an understanding of the scientific justification for the theory of evolution – and that necessitates an understanding of the nature of science (NOS) itself.
Nature of science: the path to strong understanding of evolution
The best tactic for accomplishing this right kind of evolution belief, or strong understanding – and happily, a key to solving much else that is wrong with science education today – is to place much more emphasis on the scientific method and the epistemology of science. This includes addressing what sorts of questions can be addressed by science, and what can’t; and also the skeptical, doubtful tension within science, in which things are rarely “proven” yet are for good reason “believed.” Crucially this involves helping students to understand the true meaning of “scientific theory,” whose misunderstanding often underpins further misconceptions about evolution’s truth status.
This effort also involves exploring the tension between self discovery and reliance on authority – acknowledging that it is important for students to learn to operate and think like scientists, and we want as much as possible for them to acquire knowledge in this way: but that the world is far too complex for us all to gather our own data on everything. So students must learn how to judge the studies and reasoning of others, how to determine what evidence from others is applicable to what conclusions or situations, and how to judge who is a credible expert.
Misunderstandings of the nature of science (as well as certain broad scientific concepts) often lie at the heart of disbelief in evolution, as Hermann illustrates. In his qualitative study, both students showed a poor understanding of the methods and underlying philosophy of science, displaying a need for truth and proof – despite their good science knowledge performance.
Smith, rather inadvertently, gave another example of this problem. He cites a student who wrote to Good (2001):
I have to disagree with the answers I wrote on the exam. I do not believe that some millions of years ago, a bunch of stuff blew up and from all that disorder we got this beautiful and perfect system we know as our universe… To say that the universe “just happened” or “evolved” requires more faith than to believe that God is behind the complex organization of our solar system…”
Good uses this passage to justify making belief a goal of science education. Smith takes a contrary view, that “meaningful learning has indeed occurred when our four criteria of understanding outlined above have been achieved – even if belief does not follow” (emphasis in original). Instead I would argue that the student does not understand evolution in a meaningful way, having false impressions of underlying scientific and philosophical concepts such as entropy, order, and Occam’s razor.
Will nature-of-science education work with all students?
The research outlined above shows a mixed prognosis for our ability to overcome these issues and foster belief in the evolution proposition. Everhart’s work with Muslim doctors suggests that most participants considered subtly different meanings of the theory of evolution, and could consider evolution in relation to different contexts, such as religion and practical applications, with attitudes to evolution changing when the relative weights of these meanings were shifted. These meanings include a professional evaluation of the theory that could be held distinct from other evaluations. This suggests that participants may recognize the truth of evolution within a science epistemology framework, which should be sufficient for belief in our proposition, and not give evolution the same status within other, more personal epistemologies.
But Hermann suggests that students ultimately fail in integrating science and religion, which creates a fear of losing religious faith, causing the student to cling to the religious view while further compartmentalizing science concepts. This drives at the hard, hard problem at hand: even with a perfect understanding both of evolution and of the nature of science, religious students are likely to run into areas of conflict that create psychological discomfort. This is because the epistemic boundaries of science and religion are neither hard nor perfect. Some of the areas that science claims as well within its remit to explain – such as the age of the earth – run into competing claims from religion.
One way out of this conundrum is for a student to redraw the boundaries – to say, OK, I accept the scientific method where it does not conflict with my faith; but on this matter I must reject it. Hermann’s subjects appear to have done this to a certain extent, but run up against limits. I would hypothesize that this line-drawing process itself leads to further discomfort, especially among students who are brighter and/or show greater understanding of the nature of science, because they would consciously or unconsciously recognize the arbitrary nature of line-drawing. And unfortunately, one good way to resolve that discomfort would then be to discredit the scientific method.