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What does education really do?

September 23, 2003

Educational Dimensions and Pseudoscience Support in the American General Public, 1979-2001

A study using national survey data over twenty-three years and examining four pseudoscience topics untangles some seeming conundrums about the relationship between education levels and belief in pseudoscience. It identifies more precisely just which aspects of education influence pseudoscience beliefs.

SKEPTICAL INQUIRER readers need no introduction to the perils of pseudoscience. Here, we define pseudoscience beliefs as cognitions about material phenomena that claim to be “science,” yet use nonscientific evidentiary processes. Rather than control groups or hypothesis testing, pseudoscience practitioners employ authoritative assertion (such as scripture), anecdote (ersatz “cures”), compelling stories (alien abduction), or unelaborated “natural” causes (planet positions). Although following one’s horoscope or using lucky numbers to choose a lottery ticket can be fun, pseudoscience is also rife with ineffective or hazardous untested “cures,” costly psychic hotlines, or a fatalistic reliance on luck. Thus, factors promoting support or rejection of pseudoscience have received serious study.

Of these, education has been studied the most. A major expected consequence of formal education, especially college, is intellectual sophistication, both in factual knowledge and skillful evaluation of information. Yet pseudoscience belief relates to level of formal education or degree attainment (the most typical uses of the term “education”) in complex and inconsistent ways. Ray Eve and his colleagues (1995) found that New Age devotees can be quite well educated. When he reviewed national surveys, Erich Goode (2002) found that traditional ersatz science beliefs, especially those about Biblical creationism, declined with formal education, although other beliefs, such as time travel or alien visitation, did not consistently do so. Even science knowledge among undergraduates poorly predicted “more modern” pseudoscience beliefs.

We untangle some of these conundrums by refining what it is that educational level does to influence pseudoscience acceptance. Using more than two decades of representative national surveys of American adults, we examine four different pseudoscience topics and several educational dimensions. In the process, we identify more precisely just which aspects of education affect pseudoscience belief.

The Trouble with “Educational Level”

Confusion about how education affects pseudoscience belief occurs partly because the concept level of education consists of more dimensions than knowledge or skill attainment, the typical foci in studies of science literacy and pseudoscience support. When everyone studied is a college undergraduate, of course, educational level hardly varies. Among non-student adults, educational level may represent social class or relate to other factors such as age or gender, which could also influence acceptance of pseudoscience. Adults with higher levels of education have more exposure to science courses or may be more favorable toward science.

Pseudoscience belief may be affected by these related factors as well as by pedagogical experiences. Goode (2002), for example, identifies traditional religiosity as influencing susceptibility to Biblical creationism appeals; most American researchers also report finding that women or those less educated are more traditionally religious. Partly because those born after World War II are more likely to have attended college than those born earlier, and partly because different generations have unique experiences, in any one year, age could predict pseudoscience belief. Adults maturing in the 1960s became familiar with space exploration; teens in the 1990s saw animal cloning and recombinant DNA become reality. Age intertwines with generation, and so time itself should be considered. Moreover, America’s educational average rose over time, science may be taught differently now, due to studies such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) or endeavors such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061, and specific ersatz science beliefs may rise or fall in popularity. Thus, the effects of educational level on pseudoscience belief may decrease when factors such as time, age, and gender are controlled.

Second, something directly related to educational experience could be important. Individuals who have elected more science courses may more easily distinguish between science and pseudoscience. College science majors may distinguish more rigorously than those trained in other fields. Finally, intellectual “products” of education, such as basic knowledge, may affect pseudoscience support, especially for “traditional” ersatz science such as astrology. Traditional religiosity generally declines with education level, while appreciation of science rises.

It is important to disentangle what it is about education that affects these beliefs. Are educational level effects simply statistical artifacts that occur because educational correlates independently influence belief? If so, we should pay more attention to the factors that act as a bulwark against a “demonhaunted world.” How influential are aspects of the educational experience, such as major field of study? And what roles do intellectual products of education, such as attitudes, play?

The Surveys of Public Attitudes Toward Science and Technology

To address issues about education level and pseudoscience support, we turned to the National Science Foundation Surveys of Public Understanding of Science and Technology 1979-2001 (Miller and Kimmel 1999), an archive of probability sample surveys of the American general public. This series comprises 21,965 interviews with adults at least age eighteen. Respondents for the year 1979 were interviewed in person, those thereafter in random-digit dial telephone surveys.

Figure 1. Pseudoscience beliefs over time.

The surveys assess science and technology interest, knowledge and acceptance of science, and science-related activities. Although specific items vary across time, collectively they include more material about pseudoscience belief than any other national survey. The archive also contains a wealth of educational detail: not only level, but major field and exposure to science courses. Unlike Goode, unfortunately, we lack direct questions about an individual’s religion. We do use an item tapping traditional religiosity in which respondents indicated how much they agreed that “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith.”

Our Basic Science Knowledge Score sums ten items asked from 1988 to 2001, the longest time series in the archive. The items address “basic topics” that students encounter in grade school and review during middle school (Earths center is hot; oxygen comes from plants; smoking causes lung cancer; electrons are smaller than atoms; continental drift; lasers focus sound waves; antibiotics kill viruses and bacteria; humans and dinosaurs coexisted; which travels faster, light or sound; whether Earth goes around the Sun or vice- versa). Counting each correct answer as “1,” total scores range from 0 to 10.

The Science Beneficial Index averages up to three items with a score ranging from one (negative) to five (positive). The first item assesses whether an individual believes the benefits of science outweigh the risks. The other two assess agreement with the statements: science “makes life healthier and easier” and “science makes our way of life change too fast.”

We use four pseudoscience items with the longest time series. One item asked whether “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” An Astrology Index combined how often one reads a horoscope (daily, quite often, occasionally, or almost never) with their perception of astrology as very, sort of, or not at all scientific. A third item asked how much the person agreed or disagreed that “some numbers are especially lucky for some people.” Finally, a true-false item read: “Some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations.”

With the exception of the modest correlation between the astrology and lucky numbers questions (r=0.31), the answers to these items were generally unrelated. The low across-item correlations suggest that the astrology and lucky numbers areas may tap traditional superstitions, but in general these four topical areas are distinct pseudoscience domains.

Pseudoscience Acceptance Over Time

Pseudoscience beliefs are popular among Americans. Over the total 1979 to 2001 period, 37 percent of the general public said that astrology is “very” or “sort of” scientific and nearly half admitted reading their horoscope at least occasionally (one in six “quite often” or daily). One third accepted lucky numbers and 30 percent felt that some UFOs were alien spacecraft. About half rejected the evolution statement.

The 2001 figures were comparable. Thirty percent felt astrology was at least “sort of” scientific, 44 percent read their horoscope at least occasionally (14 percent frequently), 28 percent agreed “some numbers are lucky”and 29 percent agreed with the UFO item. Forty seven percent rejected the evolution item. Sixty percent of Americans also agreed that “Some people possess psychic powers or ESP”; 89 percent agreed that “There are some good ways of treating sickness that medical science does not recognize”; and half said magnetic therapy was “sort of” or “very” scientific.

In figure 1, we show how these beliefs changed over time. We consider overall trends more significant than annual fluctuations, which, in any one year, could reflect sampling or other methodological vagaries. Astrology, lucky numbers, or UFO-logy acceptance decreased over time, particularly in the late 1980s. This decline agrees with other research from the mid to late 1980s, such as the General Social Surveys, showing that personal reports of paranormal experiences among the general public fell. In early 1988, Donald Regan described how First Lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer, and imparted advice she received to the President. The White House consequently bore the brunt of extensive media ridicule. We suspect that for some time after that, members of the general public were more circumspect about agreeing with items that smacked of superstition. In contrast, support for evolution, barring two upward “blips,” remained level.

Figure 2. How degree level affects support for evolution (before and after adjusting for other predictor variables).

The apparent time changes in figure 1 help illustrate why multiple controls are important. Between 1979 and 2001, educational level itself increased; any apparent effects of time could reflect events such as the Regan expose-or be due instead to rising educational levels. We also found that older people were more negative, more often rejecting lucky numbers, astrology, space aliens, and evolution. Women were more positive toward astrology and more often rejected evolution (there were no sex differences on the lucky numbers or space aliens item).

Educational Level and Support for Evolution

Pseudoscience beliefs are unevenly distributed in the American adult population. Since the Statistical Abstracts reports that one- third of adults had at least one year of college in 2000, we used the following four basic educational levels: a high school degree or less; a two-year college degree; a baccalaureate; and an advanced college degree. With no further controls, initially all four pseudoscience beliefs declined with higher degree levels. High school graduates were 50 percent more favorable toward astrology than graduate degree recipients. Seventy percent of advanced degree holders supported evolution, but only 41 percent of the high school educated did so. Forty percent of the high school educated endorsed lucky numbers, compared with 18 percent holding advanced degrees. Finally, one third of the high school educated subscribed to UFO- logy compared with less than one-quarter of advanced degree holders.

We used a procedure called Multiple Classification Analysis (MCA) to adjust how educational level affected pseudoscience support, controlling for gender, age, survey year, the number of science courses, elementary science knowledge, favorability toward science, and endorsement of “faith over science.” MCA allows us to examine the “net effects” of educational level, taking all the other factors into account. What typically happens is that differences by degree level become much smaller once other predictors are controlled than they originally were, when the controls for other predictors were ignored.

Figure 2 presents a “before and after” example using the evolution item. Initially, those with at least a baccalaureate were over 20 percent more likely to agree with this item than high school or junior college respondents. However, educational level differences shrank by half as soon as we considered correlates of education (e.g., age), aspects of the educational experience (e.g., exposure to science classes), and consequences of education (e.g., basic science knowledge). Adjusted evolution support increased among the high school educated, and decreased among college graduates. Over half of the original or “gross” difference by educational level in support for evolution was due, in fact, to factors other than educational level.

Similarly, when educational correlates, direct science exposure, or science knowledge and attitudes were also considered, the effects of educational level on astrology support dropped by two-thirds and those on lucky numbers dropped by three-quarters. Even the UFO-logy educational level differences dropped from 10 to seven percent after controls were instituted. We think it safe to say that, on the average, at least half of what are typically considered “educational level” differences in pseudoscience belief is due to variables other than simple educational exposure.

What’s Your Major?

How educational level affects different beliefs or attitudes is often explained by allusions to the college experience. But there are many aspects to the “college experience.” Colleges can be public or private, large or small, secular or sectarian, research universities, vocational schools, or liberal arts colleges. College major and exposure to science classes are the most straightforward dimensions of the college experience that should relate to pseudoscience belief.

Figure 3. Astrology index and percent supporting or accepting evolution, lucky numbers, and UFO aliens by educational level (after adjustments for controls).

However, we found major field only weakly influenced pseudoscience beliefs. Further, any initial effects of a specific major (e.g., life or physical science majors knew more basic facts, and accepted UFO-logy less, while business majors knew somewhat less, rejected evolution more, and supported astrology or alien spacecraft slightly more) vanished when we controlled for how many science courses an individual had taken.

On the other hand, the effects of electing science courses withstood controls for age, time, gender, religiosity, degree level, college major, general basic knowledge, and positive attitudes toward science. Adults with more science training more often rejected astrology or lucky numbers and more often accepted evolution. However, the number of science courses did not have net effects on the UFO item.

Intellectual “Products” of Formal Education

Finally, we considered how basic science knowledge and attitudes toward science, including the religiosity item, related to pseudoscience belief. Knowledge and attitudes had important net effects upon pseudoscience beliefs-although not always in expected ways. Those with higher science knowledge scores more often rejected astrology or lucky numbers and more often supported evolution. But they also slightly more often endorsed a UFO-alien connection. Individuals who were more positive about science were more positive toward evolution, and more often rejected astrology, lucky numbers, and UFO-logy.

Individuals who agreed with the “on faith” item were substantially more negative toward evolution. The net effects of this item on evolution rejection were about as strong as all the educational variables combined. It had the strongest net effect of any predictor we considered on evolution support. However, effects of the “on faith” item were specific to evolution; they did not increase our understanding of any other pseudoscience belief.

Educational Level: “Net Effects”

The net effects of degree level, controlling study year, age, gender, number of science courses, college major, basic science knowledge, and attitudes, are shown in figure 3. Even considering these factors, degree level continued to predict rejecting superstition or sci-fi fantasy, and accepting evolution. However, as noted earlier, the effects of degree level dropped by half to three- quarters when refinements in educational level measurement were made.

These results tell us it is essential to consider other factors such as age, gender, time, science coursework, and cognitions in assessing how education relates to pseudoscience belief. Otherwise, educational level effects are inaccurately inflated. There are additional factors we did not measure, but which also probably relate to both degree level and pseudoscience beliefs, most notably media exposure and type. An individual’s choices of these channels of “informal education” are no doubt influenced by the amount and type of education they receive. However, once selected, media exert influences of their own, whether through reruns of The X-Files or CNN.

Discussion

Many Americans accept pseudoscience beliefs. On the average and to some degree, one-third support astrology, lucky numbers, or space aliens, and nearly half reject evolution. Had the evolution item more explicitly addressed random selection, we suspect rejection would have been higher. Both scholars and laypersons believe more education will discourage at least some pseudoscience beliefs. To some extent, this is true.

As we systematically refined “educational experiences,” we found that those concerned about pseudoscience support must avoid simplistic, poorly defined notions of “college exposure.” For example, the particular ersatz science must be considered. Regardless of education, astrology support fell over time, perhaps because of the “Nancy Reagan effect,” when the media discovered the former First Lady consulted astrology reports in attempts to influence American policy. Some effects attributed to “educational level” almost certainly occur because the college educated have taken more science courses. However, even considering these other factors, as degree level rises, so, too, does pseudoscience rejection, although the net influence of degree level drops dramatically when measures of education are refined. Confounded factors, such as age or knowledge, must be controlled in any assessment of educational affects on pseudoscience beli\ef.

We also cannot discount self-selection factors. Youth who value science or reject superstition disproportionately may attend college or choose science majors. Although educators cannot control who continues their schooling, they can influence how and what pupils are taught.

Some scholars, such as Morris Sharnos (1995), declare that even well-educated citizens cannot understand scientific terms and constructs at a level sufficient to read a daily paper or magazine and to understand the competing arguments on disputes or controversies (definition from Jon D. Miller, 2000: 24). Instead Shamos suggests that education should instill respect for “experts,” i.e., scientists. We suspect his assertion may be partly true, but for subtle reasons not typically considered in civic science literacy. Each year, science becomes more complex and technology more sophisticated. Comprehending nuances outside of one’s field can be difficult. Ironically, we suspect that scientific or technological progress actually contributes to pseudoscience acceptance. Consider the Victorian era: mediums and clairvoyants flourished among British and American upper and middle class adults- generally the most educated of their day. Many academics and laypersons supported Social Darwinism in the early twentieth century.

Were these Victorian beliefs really so farfetched, juxtaposed against the technological or scientific advances at the time, such as vaccination; the telegraph; telephones; automobiles; or early airplanes? Simultaneously, Darwinian theory threatened theological positions of humanity as “little lower than the angels” and Jules Verne wrote vividly of submarines and rocket ships. Compared with a steady stream of scientific and technical marvels and imaginative stories, the line between science and fiction in the eyes of the general public can begin to blur.

Our own era has seen space travel, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and the Internet. Next to these feats, alien visitation may seem more credible. Only more meticulous knowledge of the scientific and technological processes that make “speaking over wires” or air travel possible may allow adults to distinguish between what is viable and what is not. Thus, even among members of the general public with high levels of education, science discovery or applications may open the doors to pseudoscience speculation. We propose that the higher the societal level of scientific and technological achievement and the more seemingly miraculous the attainments, the greater the onus on our educational system to help produce citizens who can tell the difference between fact and fancy.

Although members of the general public cannot always follow a particular scientific argument or fully utilize a technology, many argue the public still should participate in scientific and technological development, sometimes in ethics, and other times in providing a citizen’s point of view. This perspective underscores the urgency of educators to help students learn to confront purveyors of pseudoscience. How can effectiveness in combating pseudoscience be increased? Some argue that primary and secondary schools must focus more on process than factual memorization, so that pupils better learn how to tell false science from true. We believe that when students learn effective ways to assess information, they are better prepared later in life when understanding information more informally through media. Some scholars (Goode 2002, Martin 1994) suggest discussing pseudoscience topics during science classes. By talking about why people believe in ghosts or ESP, students can learn how scientific processes and evidence differ from those of pseudoscience. Preemptive arguments against pseudoscience assertions then can provide an inoculation process, one sorely needed to prepare enlightened citizens to participate in modern society.

In Great Falls, Montana, Libertarian Senate candidate Stan Jones turned blue from drinking a silver solution that he believed would protect him from disease. In 1999, Jones, a 63-year-old business consultant and part-time college instructor, began drinking colloidal silver because he feared that millennium disruptions might create an antibiotics shortage.

Adapted from the Associated Press, October 2, 2002: “Candidate’s Skin Blue After Drink!”

Even among members of the general public with high levels of education, science discovery or applications may open the doors to pseudoscience speculation.

Note

This research was supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation (#0139458) and the Association for Institutional Research (#03-212-SRS-0086139) awarded to Susan Carol Losh. The data were made available through site license from the NSF, and were collected under the direction of Dr. Jon D. Miller (1979-1999) and ORC Macro (2001). We want to thank Jon D. Miller, Linda Kimmel, Tom Duffy, and Seth Muzzy for providing information about the data, and Raymond Eve, Douglas Lee Eckberg, Mary Frank Fox, Erich B. Goode, Dan Kimel, Melissa Pollak, Terry Russell, Alice Robbin, and Justin Watson for their insights. Of course, the responsibility for any errors or misinterpretation of the results is our own.

References

Goode, Erich. 2002. Education, scientific knowledge, and belief in the paranormal. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 26(1): 24-27.

Martin, Michael. 1994. Pseudoscience, the paranormal, and science education. Science and Education 3: 357-371.

Miller, Jon D. 2000. The development of civic scientific literacy in the United States. In Kumar, D.D. and D.E. Chubin (eds.) Science, Technology, and Society: A Sourcebook on Research and Practice. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Miller, Jon D., and Linda Kimmel. 1999. The United States Science & Engineering Indicators Studies CD-ROM: User’s Manual. Chicago: Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Shamos, Morris H. 1995. The Myth of Scientific Literacy. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Taylor, John, Raymond A. Eve, and Francis B. Harrold. 1995. Why creationists don’t go to psychic fairs. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 19(6): 23- 28.

Susan Carol Losh is associate professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University and an American Statistical Association National Science Foundation Research Fellow for 2003-2004. Christopher M. Tavani, Rose Njoroge, and Michael McAuley are doctoral candidates and Ryan Wilke is a master’s candidate in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems. For further information, please contact Susan Carol Losh: slosh@garnet.acns.fsu.edu, 850-644-8778; Fax 850-644-8776.

Copyright The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (SCICOP) Sep/Oct 2003




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