Jul 29, 2013

Even in secular Australia, some don't accept scientific consensus

Australia is pretty thoroughly secularized. Nearly a quarter of Australians say they are not religiously affiliated, about 70 percent say religion isn't important in their lives, and less than 10 percent are regular in church attendance, a number that's declining. More than 80 percent of Australians said the world would be better of without religion, according to one study, and another report found that half of those born between 1976 and 1990 have no belief in God.

Australia is irreligious, and has secularized pretty much exactly as one would expect if one held to the secularization thesis.

A new study on scientific literacy shows that some Australians struggle with the ideas of evolution, though. This shows it's not true that the United States is the only industrialized country where creationist ideas persist. It also raises questions about the relationship between religiousness and science education.

As Adam Laats writes, "Significant percentages of Aussies, for whatever reason, do not agree with fundamental tenets of mainstream science. Sorry, Bill Nye, but creationism is not 'unique' to the United States."

According to the study, more than 30 percent of Australians don't think evolution is currently occurring. Of that group, 9 percent said they don't believe in evolution, 10 percent they didn't believe evolution was happening now, and 12 weren't sure whether evolution was only historical or not. There are also 27 percent of Australians who think dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time.

The study doesn't do a good idea of contextualizing these survey responses. There have been occasional reports of creationism and Intelligent Design taught in Australian schools, but whether or not these poll's findings can be connected to committed anti-evolution thought or just generally to ignorance isn't clear.

The lack of knowledge wasn't just evolution specific. There were 42 percent of Australians -- and half of all women -- who could not correctly say how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun.

Australians still have a much higher rate of support for the scientific consensus than one finds in the US. But it seems scientific ignorance persists at significant rates regardless of religion's influence in society.

It's been a long, long time since any dominant religious group anywhere has opposed the heliocentric model of the solar system, for example, and yet in the late '90s Gallup found that 18 percent of Americans thought the sun revolved around the earth -- and 19 percent of British people thought that too, as did 16 percent of Germans. In each of the three countries, there were not-insignificant portions of people who didn't know what Nicholas Copernicus knew in 1543.

It's clearly true that sometimes, in some places, knowledge of science is retarded by religious influences.  It turns out, though, that even when religion is marginal or irrelevant, scientific knowledge isn't universally accepted.