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Monday, 21 December 2009

Evolution and Creation: The disconnect between how students process data and what they believe

This is a guest post by Marlowe C. Embree. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges and published the 7-part series The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate last fall. He is currently conducting some original research on whether personality differences affect a person’s conclusions regarding creation and evolution, and how likely they are to change their views. This post is the last in a 3-part series where Marlowe shares some of the findings of his research.

In my previous two posts, I presented information about student views of origins and their relationship to personality type differences. In this last post, I will address some concerns related to the nature and source of knowledge.

A) Epistemology and Metaphysics

Philosophers use the terms “epistemology” and “metaphysics” (or “ontology”) to make the distinction I have in mind. Epistemology is the study of how truth can be known, what its sources and justification (or warrant) might be, and how we distinguish truth from opinion. The underlying conclusions about what is true is the domain of metaphysics or ontology. Different persons have different ideas about what is ultimately or noncontingently real, for instance: materialists believe that only matter is real (and thus presumably, in some sense or another, eternal), while theists believe that matter exists only because of the logically prior existence of God.

B) Relationship between how students process data and what they believe

For students, the data from this survey show that links between epistemology and metaphysics were modest at best. Correlations between items of the two different types were no higher than 0.2. Though it would seem logical to presume that epistemological views of such items as the existence of extrascientific sources of truth, the religious neutrality of the scientific method, the capacity for human certainty, and the like would be correlated with worldview stances like CR, TE, and SE, this did not largely prove to be the case. Nor did personality type differences correlate significantly with epistemological items on the attitude survey.

It appears that, for most students, their conclusions about reality are not grounded in a well thought out theory of knowledge. What students believe about God, about evolution, and about the relationship between science and religion does not appear, for the most part, to be a product of independent thinking. A few remarks about this observation follow.

First, this conclusion seems true for all worldview groups. The stereotype that only certain individuals (those whose conclusions one disputes!) are subject to this problem appears well refuted. Students across the worldview spectrum appeared equally subject to this kind of epistemological disconnect.

Second, the conclusion refers only to students in my research sample and cannot meaningfully be generalized beyond the sample. Since my students are at a freshman-sophomore level, the problem is likely a cognitive-developmental one. Researchers into the development of student epistemology (e.g., Belenky et al.) suggest a five-stage model of the development of independent thinking; many of my students have confirmed to me, in informal discussions, that they perceive themselves to be at an early stage of this developmental model. This isn’t a criticism of them; it’s natural for students who are just making the transition from high school to college to be at this point.

C) Conclusions and Next Steps

Overall, this study provides modest support for the notion that personality differences significantly mediate student beliefs about the origins debate and I believe further research is warranted. In future work, I hope to explore in more depth relationships among neurology, micro- and macrocultural differences, cognitive styles, personality, and views of origins.

Future studies might examine longitudinal impacts of higher education on changing attitudes about origins as mediated by type differences. There is some indication that there are discipline-specific impacts (for instance, students of biology may end up with different views than students of psychology), though rigorous empirical examination of this question in the light of type theory has not yet been completed. Self-selection biases represent an obvious confound, since students cannot be randomly assigned to different courses and since type likely plays a major role in determining student course selection. A content analysis of qualitative information, based on student narratives about their changing (or constant) views about origins throughout their college career, could prove quite interesting.

Given the ethics governing my research, I can’t directly ask interested readers to help me collect more data at this time, but would value opportunities to dialogue about this as a future possibility. You can also review a summary of my research on my college website


Anonymous said...

Your conclusion is ---

"the data from this survey show that links between epistemology and metaphysics were modest at best. Correlations between items of the two different types were no higher than 0.2."

This is not my field of study – and maybe if it were this conclusion would be obvious from your various tables. Can you provide some specific examples of this for those of us that can’t make the connections?

Don A.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

For instance, the item, "There are valid sources of knowledge that have nothing to do with science" is an epistemological item in that it addresses the question of where truth comes from rather than what that truth might be. This item correlated +0.173 with Feeling, which given my sample size is statistically significant (Fs are more likely than Ts overall to endorse the item). No other MBTI dimension correlated significantly with the item.

Actually, I slightly overstated my conclusion in the main post since this item correlated +0.355 with the metaphysical item, "I believe in the existence of a personal God to whom one may pray and reasonably expect an answer". Thus, to some extent, those who believe in extrascientific knowledge are looking to religious faith as the source of that knowledge (not unexpectedly). Still, this is a rather modest correlation. Most such correlations (between "epistemological" and "metaphysical" items as illustrated above) were markedly lower.

Does that help?

I didn't provide a full data table for this because it is cumbersome.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Marlowe,

I found this conclusion in your summary table rather surprising:

Belief (as opposed to disbelief) in God is more linked to personality variables, but disbelief (as opposed to belief) in evolution is more linked to personality variables.

Has anything like that ever come up in the literature before? I can see this conclusion being used (and probably abused) in several different ways. I’m not really sure what to make of it.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

There are perhaps a few scattered hints of this sort of thing in the literature, but not many. So perhaps it is an artifact. Certainly it would be an abuse of this finding to assert that faith is a product of personality type. "Linked" means what it says -- a correlation, which does not say anything about the direction of causality.

This finding deserves a follow-up, but was hardly the main finding of my work. In fact, I might further mitigate this wording were I to re-write this material now.

Jimpithecus said...

While Dr. Embree is cautious to state that this finding relates only to his sample and that it cannot be generalized to the public at large, it tends to support every bit of anecdotal evidence that I have encountered. Most fundamentalist evangelicals that I know view the world from within the fundamentalist perspective and what does not accord with that view has to be disposed of intellectually and emotionally. They make the claim that groups like the ICR and AIG have demonstrated, using "science" that their view of the universe is correct, but when you blow the "science" out of the sky, their world view doesn't change. I have had a running argument with a particular reader, who, over the course of ten or so posts, has always said the same thing: "there are no transitional fossils." Despite the fact that I and other readers have provided him with many links to the evidence and asked him to explain why he does not accept the evidence, he has declined to do so. My guess is that he cannot, he just simply doesn't "believe" it.

Jordan said...

Jim, if your YEC friend subscribes to AiG's ministry, just remind him that "there are no transitional fossils" is listed on their website as an "argument that creationists should not use".

Kent said...

I do find the modest correlation believable, however I do not find it very enlightening—at least so far. It seems to me that social/cultural factors (such as what faith tradition your are brought up in) are at least as important as personality types. It seems there are too many factors that are not controlled for.

The study is of college students, presumably between about 18 and 23, presumably only in North America. What college they are attending? What is their major? Their cultural and religious background.

Perhaps the personality type indicates a willingness to accept authority vs. independent thinking, not a predilection towards creationism or not.

OTOH your study may explain my own journey. As an INTP I am predisposed to Secular Evolution by your data. I was saved in a YEC church and accepted it as my working hypothesis. Eventually however, the weight of the evidence pushed me to explore further and eventually embrace the TE position.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

While one would expect type-based differences in the willingness to accept authority (perhaps SJ vs. NP would be one possible polarity), I think more in terms of a tendency to view the world in personal/teleological (F) or impersonal/mechanistic (T) terms.

These are - again - only propensities. I am not, repeating not, claiming in any way that personality type determines worldview. It does, however, likely influence it, indirectly, by way of processes alluded to earlier. Obviously it cannot have a more direct effect. Type shapes the kinds of inputs one takes seriously and how one characteristically evaluates those inputs.

And, yes, future studies will seek to disentangle the "effect size" question by examining the relative influence of age, regionalism, prior religious commitment, and a host of other variables, vis-a-vis personality differences, but that wasn't my goal here.

If a person sets out to do X, he can't be faulted (though I recognize the presence of a very friendly criticism here) for not also doing Y, Z, W, and so on - one step at a time!

Note the preponderance of Ns over Ss among respondents here that have revealed a type. Very characteristic.

Jimpithecus said...

I think that Kent is on to something. I have often thought that belief/non-belief in God is more based on socio-cultural constructs than on any scientific teaching that a person gets. Since I was saved in a church in Japan that was represented by a wide range of beliefs with regard to the age of the earth, I had no push to accept a YEC view of creation until I came to the United States at the age of 18 and found a church here. When I began to study science, incorporating an evolutionary old earth into my worldview was a piece of cake. Having spoken to several of my friends that came out of the same Christian foreigner community in Tokyo that I did, I find that we all have pretty much the same perspective on origins and are all TEs (or ECs if you like).