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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Personality Types and Student Views of the Origins Debate: Part 1 – Background and Results of the Origins Views Survey

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 first in a 3-part series where Marlowe shares some of the findings of his research.

I am currently doing research that explores the correlation between personality type differences and student views of the “origins debate”. The influence of personality types in this discussion has not been adequately explored, and my initial findings suggest some interesting relationships. In this post, I will provide a background to the origins debate in the dialogue between religion and science and comment on the results of the first part of my survey that explores student views on origins. In a second post later this week I will provide a background on personality diversity and cognitive styles, and summarize the results of the second part of my research which matches student views on origins to personality types. In a third post I will comment on what the survey shows regarding how students determine “truth”, and what they believe.

A) The Origins Debate and the Relationship between Religion and Science

A century and a half after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Americans outside the professional scientific community remain deeply divided about the “origins debate”. The majority of recent national surveys converge on the general finding that about 40-50% of Americans adopt a creationist view, roughly 40% adhere to a theistic evolutionist or evolutionary creationist view, and the remaining 10-20% affirm a secular evolutionary view. Underlying this debate is a larger dispute about the best way to conceptualize the relationship between religion and science, which has been sharpened in recent years by the writings of the so-called “new atheists”.

The rise of evolutionary psychology as a new discipline has led to aggressive attempts to explain (or, in the minds of some critics, “explain away”) religion in terms of an evolutionary artifact (technically, a so-called spandrel) related to the modularization of cognitive processes, by way of the development of a so-called “hyperactive agency detection device” in the brain. Some recent research on the relationship between religious experience and brain activity, such as Persinger’s work with his self-styled “God helmet”, have received much attention in the popular media, though they have been criticized on both conceptual and methodological grounds by others in the neuropsychology community (e.g., Mario Beauregard).

As a result of the meta-level differences that exist among those who ponder questions of how science and religion might be related, those who seek to inform themselves about these issues in order to resolve the origins debate for themselves are confronted with a plethora of mutually contradictory perspectives and may well be at a loss to know how to resolve the contradictions. It would not be surprising if many Americans, including college undergraduates, remain confused if not conflicted about these issues.

B) Student Survey on Origins

For the first part of my research, I administered a 50-item questionnaire measuring attitudes about biological origins and related matters to 429 UW Colleges students. Based on responses to the origins attitude survey, students’ level of belief in God and their degree of acceptance of mainstream science (organic evolution) were measured separately, to yield (by way of a median split method) a fourfold classification scheme: belief in God but not in evolution (creationism or CR); belief in both God and evolution (theistic evolution or TE); belief in evolution but not in God (secular evolution or SE); and, perhaps somewhat incongruously, belief in neither (other or OT).

Among students surveyed, 56% were creationists, 13% were theistic evolutionists, 16% were secular evolutionists, and 15% were “other”. The table below describes these results.

These results show that 69% of the students believe in God, somewhat below the 80% figure within the general American adult population. However, only around 29% accept evolution, which is well below the 60% figure for the general American population. It is difficult to say why these results are discrepant; it may be due to the general conservativism of the rural Midwest, or due to the manner in which I defined acceptance vs. rejection of evolution (using a more attitudinally sensitive methodology than is typically used in national opinion surveys). Utilization of my survey methodology in a wider geographic setting could prove interesting. The Baylor University survey of religious attitudes by region confirms an earlier finding by sociologist of religion Mark Silk that there are strong regional differences (for instance, religious conservativism is higher in the Midwest and South and lower in the East and West).

C) Is Theistic Evolution A Unique Position?

To some extent, this study suggests that, as students view the world, TE is an intermediate or compromise position between CR and SE. On a majority of the origins inventory items, TE respondents endorsed the items at a level in between the responses of CR and SE individuals (suggesting that a primary motive for these students is to split the difference between CR and SE or to mediate in some way between them). However, on some items, TEs respond uniquely. TEs were the most likely of the three groups to agree that “science can neither confirm nor deny the existence of God”, that “both those who believe in God and those who do not may be rational persons”, that “both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in the public schools”, and that “God used evolutionary processes to create life”. TEs were less likely than the other two groups to agree that “there is an inherent conflict between science and religion” and that “if evolutionary theory is true, it is fatal to all forms of religious belief”. To this extent, TE represents a unique point of view that is a “third way” all its own, rather than a mere compromise between creationism and secular evolution.

D) Conclusion

The results of this first survey on student views on origins were used to map these views to personality types. In my next post, I will summarize my findings on this relationship by connecting the results of this survey with these students Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I will also include a summary of Carl Jung’s taxonomy of personality for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Copyright © 2009 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved


Steve Martin said...

Hi Marlowe,
Re: the differences on the acceptance of evolution between your students and that of the national polls, yes, I think part of the answer is regionalism. I too would be very interested in seeing this type of survey repeated in other areas of the US (and in Canada too!). However, I think the key point is that your questions and their answers give us a much more nuanced (and maybe more accurate) view of peoples attitudes. Sometimes the simple questions just simply give inaccurate results.

Still, were you surprised at how low the acceptance of evolution scored in your survey of students?

Bill Ather said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

I was surprised, but remember that these are freshman-sophomore students who are just beginning to make the transition from high school. There is a developmental element to this, which is explored in more detail in Part Three to follow.

A look at the full score distribution of attitudes about evolution showed that the average student was agnostic about evolution, meaning I presume that s/he was not sure what to think about it and so was taking a neutral (or slightly more skeptical than neutral) position as an interim posture. This strikes me as an intellectually honest position for a student to take, actually, while s/he continues to think and gather more information!

Beth said...

Intriguing questionnaire. Are there any plans to conduct this survey at other colleges? Are you planning to repeat the survey in future years?

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

Concrete plans, no (not yet), but I'd very much like to do this in future years. There are administrative hurdles to be overcome, but I'm working on them.

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

By the way, I am very interested in what impressions people might have of the "other" quadrant, which is somewhat mysterious to me. (If a person does not believe in either God or evolution, how are they accounting for the origin and development of life?) I hope in the future to use narrative psychology techniques to examine this question, but for now, I have two hypotheses:

(1) "Others" may be adherents of nontheistic religions (though, in central Wisconsin, this seems a bit doubtful - we do have a sizeable Southeast Asian / Hmong population, but I found no relationship between ethnicity of respondents and propensity to fall into the "other" quadrant). Or they may be disillusioned individuals reluctant to endorse anything that sounds like either religion or science on the grounds that all institutions are suspect (but that sounds more like a mindset one would expect in 1969, not in 2009).

(2) They may be wrestling with generalized epistemic uncertainty and thus are "confusedly agnostic" (as opposed to committedly agnostic) about both God and evolution. Note that many students endorsed the questionnaire item, "Human beings cannot know anything with certainty" (which is a question worth discussing all on its own, but probably not in this forum).

Any other hypotheses or ideas about these mysterious "others"?

Steve Martin said...

The "other" quadrant survey results may be disproportionately higher for students because of the “developmental” element you identified above. My own suspicions are that a survey of those that are 30+ would result in a much lower result in the “other” catagory.

It is interesting to compare your quadrants to Phil Wala’s witty Etch-a-sketch model of science / faith positions. You will notice that his diagram has no modern individuals in the “other” category.

RBH said...

With reference to the Etch-A-Sketch model, recall my comment here in May. And I've commented on Phil's post that intelligent design does not occupy a point on one axis, but rather a range of points on both the 'faith' and 'science' axes. Think of the distance between Michael Behe and Paul Nelson, for example, on both axes.

Steve Martin said...

Yes I do recall that comment .. and the model you use - which I think is quite good. I also recall planning on revisiting this topic at some point ... unfortunately, that has fallen by the wayside. Maybe next year.

RBH said...

I have to say I like Phil locating specific people in his space to provide some concrete referents for the abstractions of the axes.