Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Journal Club: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology

by Salman Hameed

For our Friday Journal Club, here is a recent paper by Ronan Southcott and J. Roger Downie:  Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach.

This paper used a questionnaire-based survey to look at the acceptance/rejection of biological evolution amongst first-year and fourth-year bioscience students at Glasgow University. I actually really like the paper as the authors take a nuanced approach to the reasons why people accept and reject evolution. Let me highlight here a few items that I found interesting (this is not an exhausted list - but biased towards my interests):

1) Here is a table that looks at the response to the following question: "Do you agree that the process of biological evolution lasting many millions of years has occurred in one form or another?"

Level 1 includes first year biology students and level 4 are final year biology students. The "High" level 4 means that these students took evolution courses beyond their first years (usually the zoology students), whereas "Low" level 4 students only covered evolution in their first year. 

Couple of things immediately jump out. The overall rejection of evolution is low (around 7%) even amongst the first-years who haven't had any exposure to a university level biology course. But it is really striking that all students who took evolution course(s) beyond their first year accept biological evolution. And this is from a decent sample of 255 students. So good news here: Education actually matters! 

2) But the reasons for rejection can be complex. The authors did ask an interesting set of questions to assess if the rejection is linked to a general skepticism about the claims of science. The table below list their four questions grouped by acceptors and rejectors of evolution. While there is no significant difference between the two groups on CO2-climate change and smoking-lung cancer connections, the responses do differ on Einstein's energy-mass equation as well as on plate tectonics (you will have to click on the table to see the larger font).

The interpretation here can be tricky. It seems that smoking and climate change similarities may simply be due to media exposure of those two topics. But the difference on the other two questions may be related to general lack of exposure to science, the authors conclude, and not due to a general skepticism of science by the rejectors. I think it will be interesting to see how these responses relate to social class and the education of parents, etc. Nevertheless, I think this an interesting avenue to explore effects of media and education.

3) I think one of the most interesting result lies in Table 10 of the paper (you will have to click on the table to see the larger font):

This exemplifies the messiness of how people think. Yes - overall there is an expected trend: those who agree with evolution have a higher acceptance rate for human evolution, macro-evolution, and micro-evolution, compared to those who reject evolution. No surprise there. However, what is interesting is that a substantial fraction of students who said they rejected evolution not only accept micro-evolution, but also agree with the statement that humans have descended from ancient species of apes! Conversely, a few acceptors also reject not only human evolution, but also micro-evolution. This is fascinating! We have been encountering similarly complex responses in our oral interviews with Muslim physicians and students and it will be fascinating to explore the reasons for these contradictory responses.

4) One last thing. The authors also looked at final year students who rejected evolution. Remember, these were the ones who did not did not take any evolution course after their first year. The numbers are low (7), but it is interesting that most of them agreed that there would never be enough evidence to overcome their religious beliefs. It is a small number, but it represents an important sub-group of students. Similarly, the authors looked at those students who used to reject evolution, but then changed their mind over the course of their time at the university. The number is again small (7), but this is what they found:
Again, this is an interesting case where evidence takes a back-seat to the reason why they accept or reject an idea. This is again a small sample - but it is fascinating that the change of mind is related to their accommodation with religion.

A very interesting paper and I will be interesting in their follow-up studies.

You can find past Irtiqa Friday Journal Clubs here.
Southcott, R and Downie, JR. (2012), Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology 
Evo Edu OutreachVolume 5, Number 2 (2012), 301-311, DOI: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9


Don said...

Table 10 is a very interesting component of the paper. The way that Southcott and Downie chose to display the data (not only by acceptance/rejection but also by class year and high/low evolution exposure) provides a lot to think about.

One of the things that studies such as this get at is the variability that gets glossed over when surveys ask questions only about the whole theory of evolution. When researchers include detailed questions on the theory's components, surprising results like those described in table 10 occur.

This is supported by the difference between level 1 and level 4 acceptors. It is also telling, I think, that even amongst those few students who were level 4 rejectors, 0 rejected micro-evolution.

However, there also seem to be a solidification of sorts amongst the level 4 students who continued to reject evolution. Rates of rejection amongst that (shrinking) group of students to macro-evolution and human evolution rose. That doesn't seem like a surprising result, either- if the rejection category shrinks over four years, than perhaps only the core group of rejectors persists.

That result suggests that clarification about components of evolutionary theory helps clear up rejection amongst those groups who either a) are unfamiliar with the epistemic status of those components, and as such with evolution as a whole or b) those groups for whom the rejection of evolution is somehow crucial.

B) is clearly an unsatisfying explanation ('somehow crucial' and all), so Southcott and Downie look to both reasons for the rejection of evolution (table 11) and reasons for conversion (table 12). The most agreed upon proportion for rejection amongst level 4 students is that no evidence supporting evolution would overcome beliefs, while the most agreed upon reason for conversion is the acceptance that evolution does not interfere with held religious beliefs. In this case, it looks like we can transform my 'somehow crucial' to religious conviction.

If that's the case, the next thing I would be interested in the qualities of that religious conviction. That seems to be a good place to really locate the complexity of what we're dealing with. A good starting point would be somewhere other than with the epistemic beliefs, as those have already been dismissed by the hard core rejectors. There ought to be some other qualities of rejectors' religious convictions (and their perceptions of evolution) at work, so it's important to locate them!

Salman Hameed said...


Ah good points. Yes, I agree that there appears to be a solidification of views taking place for these bioscience students - and by their 4th year, they would have seen all the evidence for the theory. Their rejection after that would have no bearing on evidence (this is, of course, based on small number statistics. I can possibly see more students in the US following Behe and/or Dembsky to argue for "scientific" Intelligent Design. Or may be ID has not much traction at all).

I also like your point of seeing Tables 11 and 12 together. Okay - but where can we go from there? It is possible that there is a correlation with religious conviction, but we may find that correlation breakdown for those who accept evolution. I think we will have to get into questions of "values" and "meaning" (whatever that means) along with aspects of social identity. I don't know. But this may be a really interesting area to explore.

Laura said...

One thing to consider, when looking at the differences between high and low in the first table, is that a discomfort with or rejecting attitude toward evolution might cause someone not to pursue more courses in that area. In other words, there might be a selection bias in the students who choose to study evolution-heavy courses of study such as zoology. As an educator I would like to believe that more education is the ruling factor here, but I can't rule out some sort of selection bias.

Salman Hameed said...

Laura - Ah. Very good point. In order to resolve that they will have to track the same group of students from Level 1 to see what choices they make and why and/or include a question for Level 4 students. But I see your point about possible selection bias...

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