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How Culture Wars Hijack Science Discussions

Questions about evolution and climate change measure identity, not knowledge.

Last week, I wrote about how scientists and their advocates overreact to surveys showing widespread American skepticism of evolution and the Big Bang. Thanks to former TAC intern Robert Long, yesterday I encountered Dan Kahan at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project detailing the evidence of how certain beliefs about science are absolutely more reflective of cultural identity than scientific knowledge.

While his primary focus is climate change, Kahan takes up evolution as a similar issue, and finds:

if you think the proportion of survey respondents who say they “believe in evolution” is an indicator of the quality of the science education that people are receiving in the U.S., you are misinformed.

Do you know what the correlation is between saying “I believe in evolution” and possessing even a basic understanding of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variance”—the core elements of the modern synthesis in evolutionary science?


Those who say they “do believe” are no more likely to be able to give a high-school biology-exam-quality account of how evolution works than those who say they “don’t.”

In fact, he recounts that the National Science Foundation recently proposed removing the true/false evolution question from its survey of scientific knowledge altogether, because they found “giving the correct answer to that question doesn’t cohere with giving the right answer to the other questions in NSF’s science-literacy inventory.” As Kahan continues, “What that tells you, if you understand test-question validity, is that the evolution item isn’t measuring the same thing as the other science-literacy items.” While the other scientific knowledge questions did cohere, the NSF researchers found that their evolution question was instead measuring cultural identifiers, especially “the significance of religiosity in their lives.” Given the fraught cultural history behind the evolution debate, it makes a great deal of sense that a question that has been explicitly framed, by both sides, as an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion would come to be determined by attitudes towards religion.

What was a more surprising result, to me at least, was that “as their level of science comprehension increases, individuals with a highly secular identity become more likely to say ‘they believe’ in evolution; but as those with a highly religious identity become more science literate, in contrast, they become even more likely to say they don’t.” This result is repeated on climate change, as “as their score on one or another measure of science comprehension goes up, Democrats become more likely, and Republicans less, to say they ‘believe’ in human-caused global warming.”

As Kahan takes pains to emphasize, then, arguments over evolution and climate change are absolutely not matters of scientific education, or knowledge vs. ignorance. They’re culture wars. One can obtain an “impeccable” Ph.D. studying paleontology, or practice neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, and still answer an evolution true/false question in the negative. Likewise, one can enthusiastically and indignantly affirm evolution’s truth while not having the first idea of how to explain genetic mutations.

Kahan emphasizes that “we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.” And, “you must take pains not to confuse understanding evolutionary science with the ‘pledge of cultural allegiance’ that ‘I believe in evolution’ has become.” Rod Dreher recently made a similar point regarding conservatives and environmentalism.

As I pointed out last week, antibiotic resistance is one area of real public concern and true danger where the public seems to have a decent grasp on how it happens. Well, recent red-state icon Chick-fil-A, whose corporate purpose is “to glorify God,” has announced that it will source all of its sandwiches from antibiotic-free chickens. Mixing antibiotics into the feed of livestock to get them to grow faster is a significant source of the antibiotic resistance scientists and public heath experts are so worried about. Fast food chains directing their substantial purchasing power against this practice would be a significant, concrete step in the right direction. And insofar as such efforts are burdened with blue-state culture war baggage, science will only be set back.

Kahan closes with an example of a Florida project where broad public support was marshaled across Democratic and Republican counties to address sea-level changes and climate effects. And in his experience, “the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything like the culturally assaultive ‘us-vs-them’ YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for American are flooding national discourse.” Red staters can be just as polarizing in their culture war salvos. Both sides should conduct their cultural arguments in the open, and stop hiding behind science.



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