Perry’s Galileo Moment

In last night’s debate, Rick Perry, stumbling over his answer denying the science of climate change, opined, “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.” Of course Galileo, considered the father of modern science, wasn’t “outvoted” by other scientists, he was subjected to an inquisition by the church for being a heretic.

Although, as I wrote in my earlier post, there was little overt religiosity in the debate, Perry’s comments were clearly aimed at a religious audience. Climate change denial is not just hot for energy industry lobbyists, it’s especially rampant among religious conservatives.

New social science research by sociologist Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University shows that sectarian Christians do poorly on basic scientific literacy questions, and therefore have difficulty engaging in scientific discussions involved in public policy debates on issues like climate change.

“Sectarian Christians” is the term Sherkat uses for what most reporters and pundits call evangelicals, but by which Sherkat means denominational and non-denominational Christians who believe the bible is the literal, inerrant word of God. Sherkat writes in a forthcoming paper in Social Sciency Quarterly that nearly one third of Americans “identify with sectarian Protestant denominations” and that “resources from these organizations and their sympathizers have been instrumental for establishing religious alternatives to the teaching of evolution—fostering a vibrant industry promoting ‘intelligent design’ and ‘creation science.’” Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education says that the same strategies are now being directed at attacking the science of climate change.

For his research, Sherkat analyzed responses to 13 questions on scientific fact and reasoning from the 2006 General Social Survey, collected at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The questions really are quite basic: one covers understanding that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice-versa — the heart of the church’s effort to silence Galileo 500 years ago. Sectarian Christians performed more poorly than other respondents to these queries on basic scientific knowledge.

Sherkat tells me, “The differences are not explained by ethnicity, educational attainment, income, or region of the country. Indeed, religious factors are far larger than gender or racial differences in scientific literacy.” Although the public discourse of conservative activists focuses on rejection of evolution and efforts to stymie stem cell research, Sherkat writes that his study “shows that the effect of sectarian religious identifications and fundamentalist religious beliefs extends well beyond these two issues. Given the low levels of scientific literacy prevalent among fundamentalist and sectarian Christians, they may have difficulty understanding public issues related to scientific inquiry or pedagogy, and they may have a limited capacity to understand technical information regarding their own health and safety.” These “low levels of scientific literacy,” he concludes, “are a substantial barrier to reasoned discourse and informed political action.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email