Sunday, July 09, 2006

Orthodox Students' Denial of Science - A Study

Recently on the Frum Skeptics Group, Mis-nagid sent out a link from Skeptic magazine which had an article regarding a study done to investigate the rates of disbelief of modern mainstream scientific ideas in college-going Orthodox Jews.

Suffice it to say, the results were far from encouraging. As the abstract of the article explains, "The sample of 176 Orthodox Jewish students surveyed showed almost complete denial of evolution and other central tenets of modern science (such as the age of the universe); the survey also revealed that these students received their scientific beliefs not from their college science courses, but from rabbinical authorities, or from Orthodox Jewish scientists, who in turn propagate the anti-science views of rabbinical authorities. Perhaps the most surprising result of the survey was that the Orthodox Jewish students who were science majors were even less accepting of mainstream science than those who were not science majors."

The survey was done so that the participants would give a true or false response to the series of statements offered.

For the statement “Evolution correctly explains the origin of life,” 14 responded true, while 156 responded false. To the statement “Human beings evolved from apes,” 11 said true while 163 answered false. Only 45 of 168 respondents answered that “The age of the universe is about 15 billion years old, as opposed to about 7,000 years" and 159 answered true to the statement “Current land animals descend from those on Noah’s ark,” while only 16 answered false.

To see further questions and their responses, do refer to the article.


Now, while the results themselves are interesting in their own merits, what is particularly interesting to me is that I took part in this little experiment. No joke. The article says that "Students who sat at the kosher area of a New York City public college cafeteria were surveyed about their attitudes on evolution and other scientific issues...Only the answers of participants listing themselves as Orthodox Jews in the survey were retained in the results below."

This was in Brooklyn College and I was one of the students polled! I even had to do some thinking about how to classify myself, but I stuck with Orthodox because it really did describe me best, from my own perspective (and no doubt from most others' perspectives as well), even if I had some issues with the title. I don't remember exactly what the date was, but it had to be from two or three years ago. This was before I had started to blog.

I was sitting in the cafeteria with a couple of my friends and this guy comes over and asks us to take part in a little experiment and fill out this survey. We all said sure. It wasn't as if we were doing anything important and the survey was short. But I didn't realize until after it was already in my hand on what kind of survey it was.

So I got a little scared at first. Not frightened really, but wary of my friends' reactions to what they might consider heretical thoughts. I really had no desire to get into a big debate. So I filled my form out quickly while listening to my friends discuss when the Tower of Babel occurred and whether Hebrew was universally spoken 4,000 years ago.

As I was getting up to return my form (not giving my friends a chance to get a good look at it) one of my friends asks to see my responses. He was curious of my thoughts. I do have some reputation of an interesting thinker among my friends. But I responded curtly, "Nope. It's private," and I went off and delivered it to the surveyor. My friends never gave it a second thought (or in any case, they never mentioned it again) and that was the end of that.

This article though is bringing it all back and what I find particularly funny about the results is that they also broke it down between science and non-science majors. Here's one prime example:

"[F]or the statement “Human beings evolved from apes.” For non-science majors the results were 10 true and 111 false, while for science majors it was 1 true and 49 false. Thus while only 8% of non-science majors answered true, for science majors it dropped to 2% answering true."

I was a science major (I am now a bearer of a science degree) and I wrote true for that statement. That means that I am that one and only true response for science majors to this question. I am the lonely two percent representing all Orthodox Jewish science majors who actually know what they're talking about. It boggles the mind.

And I actually feel just a little bit more lonely knowing this.

28 comments:

Manny said...

For the statement “Evolution correctly explains the origin of life,” 14 responded true, while 156 responded false.

It is false! Evolution has nothing to do with the "origin" of life. That's abiogenesis, for which the theories are completely speculative.

Unfortunately, this fundamental error places the whole study in doubt...

Orthoprax said...

Manny,

Actually now that you mention it, I remember that question and how I had a moment of hesitation for how to answer. I knew what they meant, "the origin of life as we know it," so I wrote true. I knew what they were getting at.

"Unfortunately, this fundamental error places the whole study in doubt..."

At best, it puts that one question in doubt since the rest of the questions can stand independently. And since the results on this question match sensibly with similar questions it doesn't hurt the study all that much.

DAG said...

Disturbing article linked in a Jew School post http://jewschool.com/?p=10880. The article in question is from a periodical known as "Skeptic" (as if that has any credibility). Read the article and see how a person who purported to represent science, rejects the scientific method to prove that Jews reject science.

http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/featured_articles/v12n03_orthodox_judaism_and_evolution.php

Here is my response:

"Orthodox Judaism and Evolution" is one of the WEAKEST studies I have ever read. The author foregoes all objectivity in pursuit of specific unflattering results that fit the preconceived notions of his publishers.

There are numerous methodological problems with this "study." The author makes too many unsubstantiated presumptions. A perfect example is the assumptions he makes about his sample. He claims that because the data were collected between 12-3 P.M, the students questioned must represent the more modern students who were allowed to attend college full time. Perhaps Yeshiva students came to college for lunch, either for class or to use the Library? Perhaps his unsubstantiated assertion that Yeshiva students only attend college at night is incorrect?


His sample was obviously not scientific and referred to a small group of self identified students at 1 particular University, evidentially taken all on one day. One could reasonable claim, for example, that his sample was taken on a Tuesday, and therefore only represented Tuesday/ Thursday students. The same study on a Monday that queried only Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday students could have yielded drastically different results. One can also claim that if the author went to ANY other University he would have gotten a completely different result, etc. Given his methodology, there is NO generalizability to his study at all.

Even more disturbing, The author's questions were biased and could produce nothing but skewed results. While he acknowledges that Modern Orthodoxy has, at least at times, allowed for alternative explanations for the age of the Universe and other such questions, he gives NO indication that he allowed for those possibilities in the questions HE asked. It appears that he gave the students two possible choices, each of which represented an extreme, as opposed to the standard 7 choices one would expect in a Likert scale. (A fair study would have allowed students to choose at least 4-5 options between the extremes).

This is the equivalent of asking "Is killing always right or is killing always wrong" and then berating those who answered killing is always wrong in a journal article for their irrational support of genocidal regimes that can kill with impunity because the pacifism of the respondents precludes the ability to respond militarily.

An unbiased study would either provide those two extremes (always right, always wrong), as well as 5 other possibilities, such as killing is wrong when it is done for no reason, killing is right when it is done for no reason, killing is wrong when done to save innocent lives, killing is right when done to save innocent lives, etc. OR, alternatively,would ask numerous questions that statistically establish the nuanced positions of the respondents. Fair questions would ask if the respondent agrees or disagrees and to what extent they agree or disagree to multiple questions that define the question at hand more specifically.


So, in essence, the author is a person who ridicules Orthodox Jews for rejecting what he believes are scientific proofs, but in order to reach his conclusion, he rejects the very science he is trying to defend. This is advocacy, not academics. I believe he is worse than the people he describes. At least they were trying to be honest.

Orthoprax said...

Dag,

"Perhaps Yeshiva students came to college for lunch, either for class or to use the Library? Perhaps his unsubstantiated assertion that Yeshiva students only attend college at night is incorrect?"

Perhaps, but my personal experience says otherwise. He may have indeed gotten a few Yeshivah students in the mix, but that doesn't mean that he didn't get a much bigger helping of non-Yeshivah students.

"His sample was obviously not scientific and referred to a small group of self identified students at 1 particular University, evidentially taken all on one day."

What's wrong with self-identification? That's been an acceptable aspect of statistics for a long while. And I don't see anything leading to the belief that the study took place on one day. Though you do have a point with sample size and the place of the test.

Though since it was Brooklyn College, a commuter school, and the cafeteria is the known Orthodox socializing place, I would find the survey descriptive of the general perspective of non-Yeshivish Orthodoxy in Brooklyn. At least for the younger people. Maybe if you took the same survey in Teaneck you would get different results.

"least at times, allowed for alternative explanations for the age of the Universe and other such questions, he gives NO indication that he allowed for those possibilities in the questions HE asked."

You make a point. But what are the scales between the the "human beings evolved from apes" question? It's either a yes or a no.

Most of the questions are like that. Actual questions of fact, which cannot be given degrees and can only logically be given a yes/no answer. Though I agree, you do make a point that the way the questions were asked could draw a more extreme position.

However, I don't think that such a drawing affected the results that much more than my personal experience implies. Friends of mine who attend Brooklyn College frequently announce how Evolution is bogus and is "just a theory."

"So, in essence, the author is a person who ridicules Orthodox Jews for rejecting what he believes are scientific proofs, but in order to reach his conclusion, he rejects the very science he is trying to defend."

That's harsh. The science is imperfect, but that doesn't mean he was intentionally trying to come to a contrived conclusion. How much different do you believe a better statistical survey would present?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

?non-Yeshivish Orthodoxy in Brooklyn

Non yeshivish Orthodoxy != "Centrist" or "Modern Orthodox."

Furthermore, he couched centrist/ modern orthodoxy exclusively in "Torah and parnassah" terms, without even acknowledging the existence of Torah U-madda.

And many other flaws, which I shall get to.

Weak piece.

Avi said...

I wonder if they took this poll at a different college the results might be different. Remember all the " frummies go to Brooklyn College". In my days there it was practically a Yeshiva.

Orthoprax said...

MSM,

So is this whole study inconclusive or can we derive some useful data from it?

Avi,

"I wonder if they took this poll at a different college the results might be different."

I suspect so. Brooklyn College's Orthodox group is more fundamentalist than other Orthodox groups.

DAG said...

The problkem is that it is possible the researcher approached certain people wholooked orthodox, buyt ignored others who didn't who DO self identify as Orthodox.

There may be no scales for the questions he asked, but that means he dneeded to spend more time devloping his questions.

And need I add, that your experince is irrlevant to whether the sample is represenative or not.

I hav no idea how a true statistical study would have come out...but I do question what kinds of research they publish in "Skeptics" and if the publisher played a serious part in his conslusions

DAG said...

I did misraed one statement..I dont know that the questions all took place on one day. But I do know it was only conducted with those who chose to eat/socialize in the Cafeteria

aj said...

First: Maybe this is just me being a non-Science major or something, but isn't it inaccurate to say that humans evolved from apes -- its more accurate to say that they have a common anscestor? (i.e. both evolved from some now-extinct ape-ish mammal)

Second:I agree with DAG and MFM...I think going to many colleges, sampling a wider portion of the people, etc...would probably have gotten different answers. I consider myself "Modern Orthodox" or whatever, and I know that most of my peers who self-identify like me do believe in science and evolution and all that stuff. Many tend towards the 'compatability' view (i.e. Gerald Schroeder, which "Godol Hador" so eloquently called "kiruv kvetch") which may have slightly questionable scientific basis, but when it comes down to it, most would say that they believe in evolution and evolved from apes (or common anscestors).

Too bad they didn't ask us...

Orthoprax said...

Dag,

"The problkem is that it is possible the researcher approached certain people wholooked orthodox, buyt ignored others who didn't who DO self identify as Orthodox."

If you read the Method of the study you'll see that surveys were given out to anyone who was sitting in the kosher area of the cafeteria and that only a fraction of the surveys filled out were by Orthodox Jews who self-identified that way on the survey.

"There may be no scales for the questions he asked, but that means he dneeded to spend more time devloping his questions."

Maybe for a more in-depth type of survey, but true/false surveys are useful for general data.

"And need I add, that your experince is irrlevant to whether the sample is represenative or not."

That's true. My experience will hardly convince you. You don't know me. But this survey serves to augment my experience which are more or less in accordance to the data from this survey.

"I hav no idea how a true statistical study would have come out...but I do question what kinds of research they publish in "Skeptics" and if the publisher played a serious part in his conslusions"

I don't think the study was done for the magazine. It was first presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association. That's fairly reputable, I think.

Orthoprax said...

AJ,

"First: Maybe this is just me being a non-Science major or something, but isn't it inaccurate to say that humans evolved from apes -- its more accurate to say that they have a common anscestor? (i.e. both evolved from some now-extinct ape-ish mammal)"

Well, yes, but the common ancestor was still an ape. My issue with the question was actually that humans didn't evolve from apes - we are still apes!

"I think going to many colleges, sampling a wider portion of the people, etc...would probably have gotten different answers. I consider myself "Modern Orthodox" or whatever, and I know that most of my peers who self-identify like me do believe in science and evolution and all that stuff."

I agree. That may very well be the case. Though as recent Jewish Press attitudes suggest, that kind of compatibilist attitude is on the decline.

DAG said...

Beliefe in evolution, creationsim is a very nuanced belief system. Yes or no questions like theese are worthless b/c they dont allow for true expression of belief...

here is quote from methods: "Students who sat at the kosher area of a New York City public college cafeteria were surveyed about their attitudes on evolution and other scientific issues (Figures 1–12)."

Doesnt not indicate if surveys were offered to all who sat there (for example, if there was a chirstian with a cross sitting in the section, was he offered a survey?) or only to those the researcher though appropriate.

a flawed study that confirms your experince is worht no more than your experince. So, anyone looking for a diss?

Orthoprax said...

Dag,

"Yes or no questions like theese are worthless b/c they dont allow for true expression of belief..."

Like I said, you had a point.

"Doesnt not indicate if surveys were offered to all who sat there (for example, if there was a chirstian with a cross sitting in the section, was he offered a survey?) or only to those the researcher though appropriate."

I don't know the answer. But the article does indicate that they threw out a lot of surveys.

"a flawed study that confirms your experince is worht no more than your experince. So, anyone looking for a diss?"

A diss? I do agree that it has its flaws, but I don't think its results are completely without merit.

aj said...

Well, yes, but the common ancestor was still an ape. My issue with the question was actually that humans didn't evolve from apes - we are still apes!

Cool! I guess I can learn stuff even on summer break :-). Taking math, literature, and economics I guess doesn't give us enough background in taxonomy.
I checked the ultimate arbiter - Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape -- "Apes are the members of the Hominoidea superfamily of primates, which includes humans." -- I guess what I was thinking of is "The phrase 'Humans are descended from Monkeys' is false"

I agree. That may very well be the case. Though as recent Jewish Press attitudes suggest, that kind of compatibilist attitude is on the decline.

Does the Jewish Press accurately describe "Modern Orthodox"????

DAG said...

Ortho..Diss = Dissertation..somone to study this in a more structured, developed methodologicaly correct manner

Orthoprax said...

AJ,

"Cool! I guess I can learn stuff even on summer break :-)."

Always good to learn something new. ;-)

"Does the Jewish Press accurately describe "Modern Orthodox"????"

Well, I know that Modern Orthodox schools and such advertise in that paper. So at worst, it represents the right-end of Modern Orthodoxy. But I suspect that nowadays it could be right in the center.


Dag,

"Diss = Dissertation"

Ah, gotcha. It would be interesting to see a more in-depth study.

Baal Habos said...

Daniel, the thought occurred to the survery is flawed because it was not conduced in privately and anonymously. Maybe your friends who took the survey with you really believed in the scintific answers but were afraind to answer their true beliefs because you were all in each others company. Just as he asked to see your responses, he may have thought that you would want to see his and thus tempered his answers.

But in the end, you're probably right. Things look bleak.

Baal Habos said...

Pardon my atrocious typos.

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

"Maybe your friends who took the survey with you really believed in the scintific answers but were afraind to answer their true beliefs because you were all in each others company."

Also true, but I don't think they were afraid of my answers. I can see other groups being paranoid of each other though.

hayim said...

I read that article and failed to be impressed by the analysis. But the data, if it truly represents the beliefs and disbeliefs of Jewish students, is indeed frightening. Yet I wonder ... is it indeed possible that 22 of 173 answered that the Sun revolves around the Earth ??? Lubavitchers ? It boggles the mind.

Orthoprax said...

Hayim,

Yeah, I agree. The methodology does leave something to be desired, but even with all the problems there has to be something going on if results that poor are coming in.

Nobody will deny that Orthodox Jews don't accept mainstream science as readily as the average secular American - the only question lies in the degree of difference. And there's no way around the fact that almost two dozen college-going Orthodox Jews answered that they believe the Sun goes around the Earth. Even one person answering that way is too many.

Rebeljew said...

“Human beings evolved from apes”

You may have been the only "true" for a reason. No one proposes that humans evolved from apes. The theory is that humans and apes evolved from the same pre-human, pre-ape ancestors. It is also proposed that the breeds of human did not descend directly from each other. Neanderthal and CroMagnon breeds may have lived as contemporaries for some time.

Orthoprax said...

Rebel,

"You may have been the only "true" for a reason. No one proposes that humans evolved from apes."

As was gone over previously in the comments, even the last pre-human species was still an ape. Humans are still considered to be apes taxonomically. So while modern apes and modern humans split off 5-10 million years ago, they both came from animal precursers which were still apes.

Whether that misunderstanding of the question may have lead people to choose false more than they would have if it had been more generally phrased - that I don't know. But I doubt it.

seraphya said...

Well let me just say that at Yeshiva University in our Intro to Biology lecture to which all pre-med students(with out AP BIO) were required to attend, the Professor spoke of the truth of evolution all the time.
As a required text for english we had a book by stephen Jay Gould.
My rabbi in YP was liberal by YU standards so I don't know what the rabbeim think of evolution there.
But, certainly we treated scientific fact as fact, sure some people believed in a Jewish verision of ID, but this is not the standard anti-science ID this was usually more along the lines of "G-d makes the whole world work in all the little details, so why would G-d not be involved in the evolutionary process"

Orthoprax said...

Seraphya,

Do you think YU students are more scientifically literate than BC students? Evolution is taught at BC too, but how much of it is understood and accepted?

I'm sure not every YU guy is going pre-med.

To note though, you can get a biology degree at Touro without once ever directly learnng about the biology of evolution. Now that is education at its finest.

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