Article

Scientific aptitude better explains poor responses to teaching of evolution than psychological conflicts

  • Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages388394 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0442-x
  • Download Citation
Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

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.

  • Subscribe to Nature Ecology & Evolution for full access:

    $99

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

References

  1. 1.

    Sherkat, D. E. Religion and scientific literacy in the United States. Soc. Sci. Quart. 92, 1134–1150 (2011).

  2. 2.

    McKeachie, W. J., Lin, Y.-G. & Strayer, J. Creationist vs. evolutionary beliefs: effects on learning biology. Am. Biol. Teach. 64, 189–192 (2002).

  3. 3.

    Festinger, L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. (Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, 1957).

  4. 4.

    Kahan, D. M. et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nat. Clim. Chang. 2, 732–735 (2012).

  5. 5.

    Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. The roles of information deficits and identity threat in the prevalence of misperceptions. Preprint at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/opening-political-mind.pdf.

  6. 6.

    Steele, C. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Vol. 21 (ed. Berkowitz, L.) 261–302 (Academic, New York, 1988).

  7. 7.

    Nickerson, R. S. Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Rev. General. Psychol. 2, 175–220 (1998).

  8. 8.

    Dodick, J. & Orion, N. Introducing evolution to non-biology majors via the fossil record: a case study from the Israeli high school system. Am. Biol. Teach. 65, 185–190 (2003).

  9. 9.

    Allum, N., Sturgis, P., Tabourazi, D. & Brunton-Smith, I. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: a meta-analysis. Public Underst. Sci. 17, 35–54 (2008).

  10. 10.

    Bauer, M. W. The evolution of public understanding of science-discourse and comparative evidence. Sci.Technol. Soc. 14, 221–240 (2009).

  11. 11.

    Fischhoff, B. Risk perception and communication unplugged — 20 years of process. Risk Anal. 15, 137–145 (1995).

  12. 12.

    Smith, P. J. et al. Parental delay or refusal of vaccine doses, childhood vaccination coverage at 24 months of age, and the health belief model. Public Health Rep. 126, 135–146 (2011).

  13. 13.

    Eveland, W. P. & Cooper, K. E. An integrated model of communication influence on beliefs. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 14088–14095 (2013).

  14. 14.

    Joslyn, M. R. & Haider-Markel, D. P. Who knows best? Education, partisanship, and contested facts. Politics Policy 42, 919–947 (2014).

  15. 15.

    Burke, K. L. 8 myths about public understanding of science. American Scientist (9 February 2015).

  16. 16.

    Raine, L., Funk, C. & Page, D. An Elaboration of AAAS Scientists’ Views (Pew Research Center, 2015); http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2015/07/Report-AAAS-Members-Elaboration_FINAL.pdf.

  17. 17.

    Lawson, A. E. & Worsnop, W. A. Learning about evolution and rejecting a belief in special creation: effects of reflective reasoning skill, prior knowledge, prior belief and religious commitment. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 29, 143–166 (1992).

  18. 18.

    Williams, J. D. Evolution versus creationism: a matter of acceptance versus belief. J. Biol. Educ. 49, 322–333 (2015).

  19. 19.

    Mead, R., Hejmadi, M. & Hurst, L. D. Teaching genetics prior to teaching evolution improves evolution understanding but not acceptance. PLoS Biol. 15, e2002255 (2017).

  20. 20.

    Donnelly, L. A., Kazempour, M. & Amirshokoohi, A. High school students’ perceptions of evolution instruction: acceptance and evolution learning experiences. Res. Sci. Educ. 39, 643–660 (2008).

  21. 21.

    Rutledge, M. L. & Warden, M. A. Evolutionary theory, the nature of science & high school biology teachers: critical relationships. Am. Biol. Teach. 62, 23–31 (2000).

  22. 22.

    Ehrle, E. B. Notes on the teaching of evolution. Am. Biol. Teach. 22, 418–419 (1960).

  23. 23.

    Banet, E. & Ayuso, G. E. Teaching of biological inheritance and evolution of living beings in secondary school. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 25, 373–407 (2003).

  24. 24.

    Lawson, A. E. & Thompson, L. D. Formal reasoning ability and misconceptions concerning genetics and natural selection. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 25, 733–746 (1988).

  25. 25.

    Lawson, A. E. & Weser, J. The rejection of nonscientific beliefs about life: effects of instruction and reasoning skills. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 27, 589–606 (1990).

  26. 26.

    Deniz, H., Donnelly, L. A. & Yilmaz, I. Exploring the factors related to acceptance of evolutionary theory among Turkish preservice biology teachers: toward a more informative conceptual ecology for biological evolution. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 45, 420–443 (2008).

  27. 27.

    Woods, C. S. & Scharmann, L. C. High school students’ perceptions of evolutionary theory. E. J. Sci. Edu. 6, http://ejse.southwestern.edu/article/view/7676 (2001).

  28. 28.

    Drummond, C. & Fischhoff, B. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 9587–9592 (2017).

  29. 29.

    Hartigan, J. A. & Hartigan, P. M. The dip test of unimodality. Ann. Stat. 13, 70–84 (1985).

  30. 30.

    Nadelson, L. S. & Sinatra, G. M. Shifting acceptance of evolution: promising evidence of the influence of the understanding evolution website. Researcher 23, 13–29 (2010).

  31. 31.

    Berkman, M. B. & Plutzer, E. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science 331, 404–405 (2011).

  32. 32.

    Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S. & Freed, G. L. Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics 133, E835–E842 (2014).

  33. 33.

    Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E. & Oberauer, K. The role of conspiracist ideation and worldviews in predicting rejection of science. PLoS ONE 8, e75637 (2013).

  34. 34.

    Dixon, R. M. & Jones, J. A. Conspiracist ideation as a predictor of climate-science rejection. Psychol. Sci. 26, 664–666 (2015).

  35. 35.

    Rutledge, M. L. & Sadler, K. C. Reliability of the measure of acceptance of the theory of evolution (MATE) instrument with university students. Am. Biol. Teach. 69, 332–335 (2007).

  36. 36.

    Ethical Guidelines for Education Research (BERA, 2011).

  37. 37.

    Rutledge, M. L. & Warden, M. A. The development and validation of the measure of acceptance of the theory of evolution instrument. Sch. Sci. Math. 99, 13–18 (1999).

  38. 38.

    Rutledge, M. L. & Sadler, K. C. University students’ acceptance of biological theories — is evolution really different? J. Coll. Sci. Teach. 41, 38–43 (2011).

  39. 39.

    Lovely, E. C. & Kondrick, L. C. Teaching evolution: challenging religious preconceptions. Integr. Comp. Biol. 48, 164–174 (2008).

  40. 40.

    Bowling, B. V. et al. Development and evaluation of a genetics literacy assessment instrument for undergraduates. Genetics 178, 15–22 (2008).

  41. 41.

    Lewis, J. & Wood-Robinson, C. Genes, chromosomes, cell division and inheritance — do students see any relationship? Int. J. Sci. Educ. 22, 177–195 (2000).

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank J. Milner and the Evolution Education Trust for funding.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. The Milner Centre for Evolution, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University Of Bath, Bath, UK

    • Rebecca Mead
    • , Momna Hejmadi
    •  & Laurence D. Hurst

Authors

  1. Search for Rebecca Mead in:

  2. Search for Momna Hejmadi in:

  3. Search for Laurence D. Hurst in:

Contributions

L.D.H., M.H. and R.M. devised the programme of work. M.H. and L.D.H. supervised the project. R.M. collected the data. L.D.H. analysed the data. R.M., M.H. and L.D.H. wrote or edited the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laurence D. Hurst.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary notes; Supplementary results; Supplementary Figure 1; Supplementary Tables 1–3; Supplementary References.

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary