International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-R515
Organized session / standard talks
Are half of Americans really creationists?

Michael Weisberg (University of Pennsylvania, United States)

The American public seems strongly resistant to evolutionary theory. Some polls suggest that almost 50% of Americans are young earth creationists. The participants in this section are actively engaged in studying and trying to explain acceptance of and understanding of evolution in the US. Each paper builds a more nuanced picture about exactly what Americans accept and reject, the extent of their biological understanding, and what could explain deviations from the overwhelming biological consensus about evolution.

Creationists' criteria for credence: An account of the conflicting frameworks of evolution and creationism

Emlen Metz (University of Pennsylvania, United States)

Interviews with a cross section of Americans suggest that the conflict between creationists and proponents of evolution arises in part from their allegiance to different criteria for what makes a belief more likely to be true.  This may be one reason that deeper cognitive reflection can increase ideologically motivated reasoning (Kahan, 2013).  Kahan suggests that reasoning about controversial beliefs is often not purely truth directed, but used to signal loyalty to ideological affinity groups.  However, interviews with creationists and evolutionists suggest that the frameworks of creationism and science themselves include different conceptions of ideal reasoning even as directed at truth-finding.  Philosophy of science acknowledges multiple epistemic values which sometimes conflict, such as simplicity, scope, and generativity.  Within contemporary science, different epistemic values are emphasized in different disciplines.  Creationists and non-creationists also seem to hold different epistemic values.  Those who believe in evolution emphasize openness to empirical evidence (i.e. responsiveness to publicly accessible reasons), while the creationists emphasize the knowledge of the heart (i.e. faith or revelation).  Each considers their own way of thinking more disciplined, because their notion of what counts as epistemic discipline is different.  Each view is thus supported by its own internally specified criteria for what makes a good view.  Insofar as creationists’ confidence is founded on their preference for alternative modes of reasoning, an accumulation of scientific evidence will have little effect.  Changing minds would require a conversion of ideals of reasoning.

The disentanglement project

Dan Kahan (Yale University, United States)

“Evolution” refers not only to a scientifically grounded account of the natural history of life on earth but also to a symbolic issue positions on which signify membership in one or another cultural group.  The confounding of the former and the latter are at the root of a cluster of related societal problems. One is simply how to measure individual comprehension of evolutionary science and science generally. Another is how to impart collective knowledge on terms that avoid needlessly conditioning its acquisition on an abandonment or denigration of cultural commitments collateral to science.  And a final problem is how to insulate the enterprise of acquiring, assessing, and transmitting knowledge from dynamics of cultural status competition corrosive of the reciprocal benefits that science and liberal democratic governance naturally confer on one another.  My paper will discuss the “disentanglement project,” an empirical research program aimed at identifying an integrated set of practices for unconfounding the status of evolution as a token of collective knowledge and as a symbol of cultural identity within the institutions of the liberal state. 

Probing public understanding and acceptance of evolution

Michael Weisberg (University of Pennsylvania, United States); Deena Skolnick Weisberg (University of Pennsylvania, United States); Jane Reznik (University of Pennsylvania, United States)

In a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans reported that they believe humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years. These responses stand in sharp contrast to those of biologists, who overwhelmingly accept evolution. Why do Americans overwhelmingly fail to accept that humans have a purely naturalistic origin? And what do they believe about other species and other aspects of evolutionary theory? Although it is tempting to think that Americans’ resistance to evolution is explained solely by ignorance or religious fundamentalism, previous research suggests that this issue is considerably more complex. For example, people’s understanding of evolution is not correlated with their acceptance of it, but their understanding the provisional nature of scientific theories is. We report on an ongoing project that systematically investigates the public’s knowledge about and attitudes towards evolution by presenting probative, psychologically sophisticated instruments to a demographically representative national sample. We will discuss the range of evolutionary ideas accepted and rejected by our subjects, the extent to which these ideas are understood, and some hypotheses about what might explain our results.