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


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.

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Fig. 1: The relationship between the acceptance of evolution and the understanding of evolution before teaching.
Fig. 2: The stratification of evolution acceptance scores before teaching and teacher-derived classification of student ability (foundation or higher ability).
Fig. 3: Relationship between the change in the understanding of evolution score and the pre-teaching evolution understanding score.
Fig. 4: Normalized gain in evolution understanding owing to teaching is positively correlated with the score in pre-teaching acceptance of evolution.
Fig. 5: Normalized gain in genetics understanding owing to teaching is positively correlated with the score in pre-teaching acceptance of evolution.


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

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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Correspondence to Laurence D. Hurst.

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

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Mead, R., Hejmadi, M. & Hurst, L.D. Scientific aptitude better explains poor responses to teaching of evolution than psychological conflicts. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 388–394 (2018).

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