A new study showed that when people have a better understanding of scientific topics, they’re much more likely to accept them, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. Conversely, when people don’t understand scientific concepts, they’re much more likely to reject them.

Image Credits: Nick Youngson // Alpha Stock.

The growing divide between science and the general public has reached a dramatic level, up to the point where even basic science is often disregarded. We’ve come to accept that people’s religious or political beliefs affect what they think about objective, scientific realities. Take climate change, for instance. People on the conservative spectrum of politics are much more likely to reject man-made climate change, even though the vast majority of scientists agree that this is happening, regardless of their political beliefs. Similarly, religious people are much more likely to reject the theory of evolution.

But what this new study found is that religion and politics don’t necessarily direct people’s beliefs about science — rather, it’s the fact that they just don’t understand the concepts.

“We find the traditional relationship between your religious beliefs and evolution, and between your political beliefs and evolution, but we also find that those are not the only factors that matter,” said Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn’s psychology department in the School of Arts and Sciences. “They do matter, but if you know more about evolutionary theory, if you understand it better, you’re more likely to accept it.”

In order to reach this conclusion, researchers polled a group of 1,100 people, demographically representative of the United States. They found that 26 percent of participants held creationist views, compared to 32 percent who believed in evolution. They also gave participants a quiz, to assess their understanding of the theory of evolution — out of them, 68 percent “failed” the questionnaire, meaning that they didn’t properly understand the concept. So with these two points, the team wanted to see if there’s a correlation between the knowledge and acceptance of evolution. Lo and behold, there was. The better people understand it, the more likely they are to accept it.

“When we talked to people about what they did or didn’t accept about evolution, there was such a gigantic range of views,” said M. Weisberg. “The crux of this research is that even once you factor in religious and political ideology, some of the variance is explained by knowledge level.”

“For controversial topics — evolution, climate change, vaccines — no doubt the controversy is explained in relation to a person’s identity. But actual knowledge of the science seems to play a role, and we’ve documented that here for evolution for the first time in a representative population,” Weisberg concludes.

This really is good news. It means that if we can get people to better understand science, we’re golden. But can we?

Journal Reference: Deena Skolnick Weisberg et al. No Missing Link: Knowledge Predicts Acceptance of Evolution in the United States. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix161

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