Science knowledge and biblical interpretation

Recent General Social Surveys have included measures of science knowledge. This article reports Darren Sherkat’s analysis of religion and science knowledge items that appeared on the 2006 GSS, and this article reports my analysis of religion and science knowledge items that appeared on the 2008 GSS. There are substantial differences between the two research designs: a different survey year, different control variables, and a different set of items measuring science knowledge. But both studies concurred that biblical literalism correlated with lower scores on an exam of the science knowledge items.

The studies differed, though, on whether a non-literal belief in biblical inspiration correlated with lower exam scores in the presence of control variables: my analysis did not uncover a statistically significant correlation, but Dr. Sherkat’s analysis found a statistically significant 3 percent difference compared to biblical disbelief: 0.41 items on a 13-item exam.

Dr. Sherkat removed an item on evolution from the science exam, because

the purpose is to see if religious factors have a bearing on scientific understandings outside that controversial realm (p.114).

But the exam retained items on continental drift and the big bang theory, which might have conflated knowledge of a scientific consensus with acceptance of a scientific consensus: the big bang item asked respondents whether the universe began with a huge explosion, which is a statement that some Christians perceive to be compatible with the biblical accounts of creation but other Christians do not; moreover, the continental drift item required a respondent to agree with an old-Earth chronology that many biblical literalists do not accept:

The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. Is that true or false?

Dr. Sherkat kindly and quickly helped me replicate his analysis. The code and files that he provided were for the SPSS program that I do not have, but I was able to come close to replicating the exact numbers presented in Table 2 of his analysis.

The table below presents coefficients from Dr. Sherkat’s model using all 13 science knowledge items (Model 1), coefficients from my attempted replication of the Sherkat model (Model 2), coefficients from a model removing items on continental drift and the big bang (Model 3), and coefficients from a model with items only on continental drift and the big bang (Model 4).

Slight differences appeared between coefficients in Model 1 and Model 2 due to a few different codings; for example, for the measure of sectarian Protestantism, Dr. Sherkat coded individual religions, but I used the GSS fundamentalist religion measure to generate a binary fundamentalist-or-not-fundamentalist variable.

Black cells in the table indicate statistically significant coefficients that differ from zero, and the number in the black cell is the point estimate for the effect of the variable on the science exam score. For example, the 0.42 value for biblical disbeliever in Model 1 indicates that biblical disbelievers scored 0.42 items higher on the 13-item science exam than the omitted category of persons who think the Bible is inspired but not meant to be interpreted literally.

The last column of the table presents results from a model of correct responses to the big bang and continental drift items, with an added control for science exam scores for the other 11 science knowledge items. Biblical disbelievers scored 0.22 items higher on the 2 items than those who think the Bible is inspired but not meant to be interpreted literally.

The main takeaway from this table is the lack of statistical significance for the biblical disbeliever variable in Model 3, which indicates that — when items about the big bang and continental drift were removed from the science exam — the data did not reveal a discernible difference in science exam scores between persons who do not accept the Bible as the word of God and persons who accept the Bible as the word of God but do not interpret the Bible literally (p-value of 0.418).

The data presented in the table indicate that science knowledge is not incompatible with belief that the Bible is the word of God, but they do suggest that certain styles of biblical interpretation might inhibit science knowledge, if certain religious beliefs foster a perception that science and religion are incompatible.

Science teachers and other science advocates should therefore work to eliminate a perception of conflict between science and religion. Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education struck the correct chord summarizing Dr. Sherkat’s results here:

I’ll just add that this is why it’s so critical to engage those religious communities through trusted avenues like their pastors, or scientists speaking in their churches. If they’re culturally averse to science (at least, to certain forms of scientific knowledge and certain claims of science’s competence), it’s key to find other ways to reach them and bring them closer to the mainstream. They need to be able to engage with science not just on hot button issues, but on uncontentious matters of personal health, workplace safety, and professional advancement.


Click here for a list of the 2006 GSS science knowledge items used in the analysis and for Stata commands to replicate models presented in the table.