Sunday, August 10, 2008

Do you believe in evolution ... and why?

Greetings, fellow minions. Sastra OM, here, belatedly logging in as guest blogger #4. My smooth entry into the blogosphere was temporarily delayed by my fierce objections to signing Seed's contract, which to my horror appeared to involve some sort of ritualized Cthulhu chanting to the Elder Gods. Turns out it simply needed reformatting. My bad.

Unlike some of the other guest bloggers this week, I do NOT have a strong background in biology and impressive credentials from prestigious universities and research labs. Instead, I have a BA in English Lit from Western Illinois University (everybody go OOooo) and a passing familiarity with various skeptic and atheist organizations and issues.

So I am starting out my guestblogging by passing on a link to a survey on the public understanding of evolution from Michael Shermer's Skeptic Society at Cal Tech. It's part of a study they're doing "on general knowledge of and beliefs about evolution," and it only takes a few minutes. So, by the powers of Pharyngula invested in me, I command you go forth. Only if you feel like it, of course.

One thing I found particularly interesting (and challenging) about this survey was that it

requires essay answers, instead of the usual multiple choice. Good choice. I think that approach is more likely to get down to the nitty gritty of what and how people actually think.

First question: "To the best of your understanding and in your own words, please explain what 'evolution' means." And you may enter up to 1001 characters. Just like a test.

How easily can you do it - summarize the theory of evolution while being brief, accurate, and even eloquent, just off the top of your head? In your "own words?" I found it a bit difficult myself.. I wasn't sure where to start, what to put in, and what to leave out. I was also concerned about getting terms right, and not making a sloppy or fatal mistake.( I hated exams, too.)

The next question is more personal: "If you accept the theory of evolution, please explain in your own words why; if you do not accept the theory of evolution, please explain in your own words why not." And another whopping 1001 character limit. They then have you select your education level, religious belief, location, age, ethnicity, sex, and so forth.

I find that I usually try to "psych out" the goals of any survey I take, partly to know how I'm supposed to interpret any ambiguous questions, and partly out of curiosity. What are they expecting to discover: what are they trying to isolate? What would I expect to find? The big payoff in any study, I think, is being surprised by the result.

One of the interesting results of a similar survey on religious belief - also done by Shermer - was that people of faith have a strong tendency to think that other people believe in God because that's what they were taught as children - but that they themselves had used reason and evidence to evaluate and confirm their views. I would have expected their rose-colored interpretation of God's convincing evidence would have been extended to other believers as well. I'm not sure what interesting bits will come out of this one.

Here it looks like Dr. Shermer is once again seeking to dig beneath the statistics and try to understand the psychology behind them -- "why smart people believe weird things." The most obvious thing they may be looking for is to see if the people who accept evolution understand it, and the people who don't, don't. I think that's a reasonable prediction. It might be especially useful to see what types of errors creationists are making. But I can think of a lot of other possibilities they might be exploring. I suppose it depends on how closely they're going to look at and dissect the answers.

Do evolutionists - or atheists - approach the questions differently than creationists/theists? Is one side more likely to use narrative, or focus on mechanism? Does the process of science get emphasized, or only the particulars of evidence? What about when you look at sex? Or country? Are there consistent distinctions?

And for the second question, on WHY you do (or don't) accept evolution, they could also separate the answers according to different criteria. There would be answers that were personal, and answers that are impersonal. Emotional motivations vs. factual conclusions; authority vs. self-discovery; consequences vs. process. You could also look to see which side, if any, was more verbose. Or used ALL CAPS. One could have all sorts of fun and games sorting the data.

On the issue of science and religion, there are presumably 3 basic groups here: theistic creationists, theistic evolutionists, and atheistic evolutionists (if there's a 4th group of 'atheistic creationists,' that might set off its own new survey.) What sorts of distinctions would you expect to find? What would surprise you? It will be interesting to compare what the different groups think - and how they think -- about evolution, when the results are out, and no doubt summarized in the very excellent Skeptic Magazine (a plug).

Good luck then to the Skeptic Society, and sympathies to the poor grad students and flunkies who are going to have to wade through and categorize what will probably be multiple complex factors teased out of a lot of complicated and long-winded essays.

Now then - what answers did you give? To start you off, here are my own (and now that I look at them again I see they certainly could have been better):

To the best of your understanding, and in your own words, please explain what "evolution" means.

Descent with modification, through replication -- variation -- and selection. Through a simple, mindless, algorithmic process, plants and animals have become more complex by adapting over time to fit their environment; those which were slightly better adapted tended to leave more offspring, and pass on the slight changes in their genes.

If you accept the theory of evolution, please explain in your own words why; or if you do not accept the theory of evolution, please explain in your own words why not.

The theory of evolution is the best explanation for the evidence across many disciplines, and has generated testable hypotheses, made successful predictions, withstood stringent criticism, and today forms the underlying basis for our understanding of how living things got to be the way they are. It is the overwhelming consensus of expert opinion, and is constantly being modified and improved. Scientists do not "believe" in evolution: they use it, and accept it because it continues to work.

Ok. Your turn.

Original here

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