There’s been a fair amount of talk about the Miss USA interview question “should evolution be taught in schools,” and a fair amount of attention given to the answers provided by the contestants. For the most part, people have gotten mad at these women because they are both beautiful in a classic patriarchal-normative-way and are handmaidens or hobgoblins or whatever of the sexist system in which we live, and because they are all wrong about evolution and whether or not it should be taught in schools.

But, it is not so simple.


I’ve actually seen it written that all but two, or all but one, or some other dismal ratio, of the contestants “got it right,” and I find it interesting that science-oriented (as in pro-evolution) observers would just make that up, because it is not true. In fact, when I listened to each and every answer, I was surprised to find a number of pretty good responses. I quickly add, however, so I don’t get thrown out of the club and all, that overall their answers were at the same time a bit more encouraging than one might have expected, and indicative of the fact, plain and simple, that creationists are winning one particular battle: Getting everyone to think that there are “two sides” (or some other number of sides) to the story, and that “all sides” should be taught. Because, in the end, that was the modal answer.

The video is below. You can watch it, and score it, yourself, but here’s the numbers as I see them. There are 51 contestants (50 states and DC).

Number of contestants who said “yes” as part of their answer to “should evolution be taught in schools”: 49
Number of contestants who said “no”: 2

So, the take home message is that the vast majority of Miss USA contestants are “pro” on the issue of teaching evolution in schools. Yay.

Now, for some more details:
The number of contestants that explicitly said that they don’t believe in evolution: 4
Number of contestants that explicitly expressed acceptance of evolution and perhaps even enthusiasm for science: 5

Of those contestants who said “yes” to “should it be taught” a small number were very weak in their statement suggesting that it should only be an elective or otherwise burying the topic in with other academics and minimizing it. The overwhelming number of those who said “yes” to this question couched their answer in terms of giving choice between “other theories” and evolution, or in some cases, religious beliefs and evolution. The number who explicitly said that evolution should be taught as one of several ideas (mentioning religion or not) is actually only 29. A handful of others said that evolution should be taught as an alternative, but they were being pretty clear that they meant as an alternative to what kids learn at home “with their families” … presumably religious creationist beliefs … not as alternative curriculum.

It is that last category that I find most interesting, but also hardest to code from the video (and thus I’m not giving a number … but if I did it would be around five or six). Here’s what I think some of the contestants are thinking: Our society is religious, families are religious, people go to school already having a religious view, and so they should have their horizons expanded and thus be taught evolution. That is actually an interesting perspective and just might become part of my own argument. And in these cases, there is no specific mention of requiring that other “theories” or points of view be taught along side of evolution. Miss Delaware is a good example of this point of view. In fact, Miss Delaware may be a pro-evolution contestant, but I did not count her among the five who are pro-evolution and science-enthusiastic.

In the end the pro-science lobby may have a victory here as well. While creationists have succeeded in making many people assume that there are “two sides” and that the only fair thing is to teach both of them, the pro-science lobby may have succeeded (a little) in causing people who might otherwise be making more explicit statements about how evolution is evil and Darwin was a Nazi to shut up about that and tone down their rhetoric when required to do so because they are being judged on their thoughtfulness.

I have not coded the percentage of contestants who said “yes” who also said that it should be required vs. offered as an elective because, while some made statements that were clear on that issue, most did not. Rather, I’m going with “Most say yes” so if these women were representing their states as members of the Senate of the United States of America rather than as pageant winners, we could probably get some sort of national standards passed tomorrow.

And, I’m so very glad that the “science geek” won the contest.

Comments

  1. #1 Lynn Wilhelm
    June 22, 2011

    I don’t think the answers given show much of a science victory. Only a couple of these women said that evolution should be taught because it’s good science, Miss New Mexico did it best. Miss South Carolina was close, but added “only if parents agreed to it”. Miss Vermont was pretty good too but still put it in religious context. Miss Washington said that “facts, not theories” should be taught, implying that evolution is a theory–at least I think that’s what she meant.

    Most of them described or implied that evolution is a sort of belief system. Some used the word perspective, some used theory (read hypothesis the way they said it) others used opinions or options. I also heard point of view, perspective and philosophy.

    One contestent said “credited theories” should be taught and included creationism as one of those.

    I think these women display a typical USian response to the question. Religion wasn’t even mentioned in the question, yet nearly all these women mentioned it in their response. What needs to be done is to remove any comparision to religion when discussing evolution. That would be real progress.

  2. #2 Rich Wilson
    June 22, 2011

    As best evidenced by Miss “Now someone is mad” we should keep in mind that their goal is to give the answer that they feel will give them the best chance of winning the contest.

    Ok, not completely. I’m sure there’s some level of personal opinion and honesty there. But a lot of the couching of the answers was in trying to please everyone.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    June 22, 2011

    A very important fact remains: One of the few contestants who both said “yes” (as did 40 out of 51) and did not explicitly state “along side [fill in the blank] (as did only 29, remarkably, though more probably meant that) and in fact showed enthusiasm towards science (as a mere handful did) is the one who won the contest. So, either “yes, and it is science and science is great and I like this stuff” is the correct answer, or at least, the judges were not turned off by this as a wrong answer.

    And Lynn, I agree with everything you said, but what you are saying is mostly what everybody else is saying … that the situation is dire … but that is simply not the only take home message, and if someone did not actually listen to the answers, they would never know or understand that in fact almost every single contestant did NOT say “no” and 49 did in fact say “yes.” All we need now is to get everybody else to say “yes” to a vaguely worded question, and THEN leave the details to the professionals!

    And, yes, the overall tenor and how this broke down was pretty close the US population.

  4. #4 Matt
    June 22, 2011

    I do not see a science win here. These kids are parroting the popular religious viewpoints of ‘teach both sides’, ‘people have different beliefs’, ‘people should learn about all theories of everything’, ‘decide for yourself’.

    Very few (4?) made a simple statement of “yes” without using words like ‘both sides’ or ‘among other things’ or ‘everything should be taught’ which I would consider the absolute minimum to qualify as a correct answer to the question.

    I didn’t see a single person say “Of course it should, and speaking to the reason you are asking religion does not have a place in the science classroom” or “Of course, what kind of question is that?”

    The other reason I do not see a science win is how many explicitly state that religion should be taught in school and how many more imply it.

  5. #5 Lorax
    June 22, 2011

    I see this as an overall loss. The fact of the matter is that evolution is a fundamental aspect of biology. Unless we consider biology nothing but classification and description, then evolution is being taught from kindergarten on (albeit in a level appropriate manner). What I am interested in, although I probably won’t do it, is how many contestants are unaware of the central position evolution plays in biology. Its like taking chemistry without dealing with the issue of molecules.

    The fact that so many contestants fail to understand the importance of evolution in biology (regardless of the details of evolution) counts as a loss in my book.

  6. #6 V. infernalis
    June 22, 2011

    The problem is as much with the question as it is with the answer. Why wasn’t the question “should creationism be taught in schools?” or “Give me one good reason why evolution should NOT be taught in school”.

    They may have well have asked contestants “Should gravity be taught in schools?” for all the sense most of the answers made.

  7. #7 BGT
    June 22, 2011

    I am sort of glad that the “science geek” won, but it is a somewhat hollow victory. Here answer wasn’t along the lines of “everyone is entitled to their own belief, but no one is entitled to their own reality”. Given that disappointment, she at least wasn’t as much of a raving lunatic as some of the others.

    This video is more an indictment of the state of education (public and private) than anything else.

  8. #8 BGT
    June 22, 2011

    That, and the conflation of a scientific “theory” with sloppy/wishful thinking is painful.

  9. #9 Aki
    June 23, 2011

    Kaithlyn Smith, Oklahoma “…every version of everything…” Is she a mathematician talking about a (in)finite state machine?

  10. #10 Tom
    June 23, 2011

    Ideally, the purpose of asking a Miss USA contestant a question like this is not to see if she knows the right answer. I suspect that, as far as the judges were concerned, there was no right answer, and that they were merely awarding points for a coherent (I’m looking at you, Miss Nevada), interesting, well-composed answer. These women are supposedly the embodiment of poise and grace, and will be expected to represent the pageant and her sponsors. To that end, they need to be able to hold up their end of a conversation.

    To a certain extent, that involves not offending anybody, and I think that’s what most of these women were aiming at with their “all sides should be represented” responses. But it should be a lesson to them and future contestants that the winner didn’t worry too much about that, and it apparently didn’t hurt her. Miss California’s answer wasn’t necessarily ideal from the standpoint of a conversation or public speaking, but it did stand out from the crowd.

    In the same way, I have at least a little respect for Miss Alabama, who took a real stance in the opposite direction, although she certainly could have supported it with something more substantial than “I don’t believe in it, so it shouldn’t be taught.” Well, on second thought, maybe she couldn’t.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2011

    Yeah, Ms Alabama was just wrong and offensive.

    But overall you are obviously correct. The idea is to see how they perform, not what their opinion is.

    One answer that would have killed all the other answers, though also wrong, would have been: “Evolution? That we descended from apes? Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us hope it will not be generally known!”

  12. #12 Lenoxus
    June 23, 2011

    This post’s title suggested that you would also give us a breakdown of the US Senate’s equivalent on this. So of course now I’m curious‚Ķ what, if anything, would be a good source for that?

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2011

    Good question. The NCSE might have something on that.

  14. #14 Coturnix
    June 25, 2011

    I have been thinking for a week now – how do answers of contestants correlate to their states’ stats on evolution acceptance? I understand your title as proxy for the same question (assuming that a Senator would be a good representative of his/her state’s general population). I was also wondering if NCSE has a state-by-state stats of evolution acceptance and how would such stats correlate with the Miss USA contestants’ answers.

    Each contestant is:

    a) a product of her own culture, so more likely to be a creationist if born deep in the Red State territory and vice versa,

    b) appealing to her home audience by stressing the part of the answer that she thinks would be more comfortable to the majority of people in her state, and

    c) appealing to the judges as representatives of the “big, evil world that is out to get us”, i.e., a contestant from a very fundamentalist state may have the impression that the rest of the world is all elitist evolutionists, while a contestant from a big, liberal urban area may have the impression that the whole rest of the country are backward creationists. So they hedge their bets accordingly.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2011

    Coturnix,

    My thoughts as well. There was certainly some correlation to state … MN, MA, a few other blue states (including CA) vs. some of the deep south states make for good places to pin opposite ends of the spectrum, but for many cases I think they were a little unexpected.

    I didn’t put this in the blog post because it was too rough, but here’s the raw data, my notes as I watched the video:

    Alabama: I do not believe it and it should not be taught in schools

    Alaska: I do not believe in it but it should be taught in schools (as a Western belief system)

    Arizona: Yes, give people both sides of the story

    Arkansas: I was not taught it in school. Yes, it should be taught in schools if the school wants to.

    Califonria; I was taught it. I’m a huge science geek. Yes, it syould be taught

    Colorado: Yes, let the students decide what to believe in.

    Conn: Yes

    Delaware: Yes, but esp high school, and as a contrast to parent’s belief to give students choice.

    DC: Yes, to see difference in perspective and choose

    Florida: Yes.

    Georgia: Yes, but also the biblical version as well, choose

    Hawaii: Yes, creatonis is already out there, evolution should be included.

    Idaho: It should be mentioned but not pushed. (Knowleged) as an option . choose

    Illinois: Yes.

    Indiana: Let the government decide. It’s their job.

    Iowa: Yes, as an elective

    Kansas: Yes, as an elective

    Kentucky: You can never have to omuch knowlet but it’s complex so no. It’s a minor belief system

    Louisiana: Yes.

    Maine: Yes, along with faith, chose.

    Maryland: Yes, teach all of the different theories. chosie

    Massachusetts: Yes. ONe of many vies, all should be taught choise

    Michigan Yes, both sides.

    Minnesota: Yes, and it does not conflict with religion, choice

    Missippi: Yes, as one theory

    Missouri: If it is, as a choice.

    MOntana: Yes, as an option. both sides

    Nebraska: In public school, give all credible theories thus creatoi and evolution yes

    Nevada: Yes, everything evolves. Nevada evolves.

    Hew Hampshire: Yes, as one point of view.

    New Jersey, yes, as an option

    New Mexico: Yes, i’ts good science.

    New York: Yes, as well as religion.

    North Carolina: I don’t belive in evolution but yes, as an option.

    Miss NOth Dakota: Yes. Both sides.

    Ohio: Yes. As an option

    Oklahoma: Yes. As one of the versions

    Oregon: Yes, as one of the versions

    Pennsylvania: Yes, as one of the theries

    Rhode Island: Yes, as one of the theories

    South Carolina: Yes, as an option

    South Dakata: Yes, but don’ts tep on the bible

    Tennessee: I don’t belive in it but yes, as one idea

    Texas: Yes The school should decie

    Utah: Yes, as a belief system

    Vermont: Yes, Science is important

    Virginia: Yes, some of it as a theory, as an option.

    Washington: Yes, it’s science, facts. NOt theories

    West virginia: Yes, but keep religion in

    Wisconsin: Yes, it’s a great subject

    Wyoming: Yes, both, choice

  16. #16 Coturnix
    June 25, 2011

    Oh, thank you, good to have the list handy.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2011

    OpenNotebook

  18. #18 Dave WIsker
    June 26, 2011

    Washington’s answer, about teaching facts, not theories, depressed me the most.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    June 26, 2011

    Well, it could be used against her…

  20. #20 Alsee
    December 18, 2012

    Overall pretty appaling results, but from an amusement point of view my favorite had got to be Miss Louisiana (@ 5:46). It looks like the interviewer just spit a bug into her mouth. Miss Indiana (@ 4:25) is a pretty good runner up though. She fails to answer the question at all, and she waves her arms in the air in some desperate attempt to push the question away. If you single-step through the frames you can see a whole slew of revolted express stream across her face.

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