The National Science Board made a deeply regrettable decision to omit questions on evolution and the Big Bang from the Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2010. As you might expect, this has stirred up some controversy.
I wasn’t surprised to learn this, as I had already noticed the omission a couple of months ago, when I updated the slides for my talk on public communication of science– the figure showing survey data in the current talk doesn’t include those questions, while the original version has them in there. I noticed it, and thought it was a little odd, but it had no effect on the point I was making with that slide. In fact, the graph works better, for my purposes, without the evolution question in there.
While I absolutely agree that this is a stupid decision, and hope that future reports restore discussion of what is one of the most important issues for science education in the United States, at the same time, this is indicative of one of the most frustrating problems in talking about public communication of science. While evolution is undeniably a critical issue in science education, there is a whole lot more to science than evolution, and it dominates the discussion to a really unhealthy degree.
When I use that slide– even the version with the evolution question on it– I point to two other survey items. They’re both true-false questions: “Lasers work by focusing sound waves” and “Electrons are smaller than atoms.” In both cases, right around half of the US population surveyed gets those right– essentially the same as guessing. And the US is among the world leaders in correct responses to those questions– China and Japan are in the 30% range.
I emphasize these two partly because I’m a physicist, and thus those hit closer to home for me. But there’s a more important reason why these are better questions to illustrate the problems with science education than questions about evolution: they’re not controversial. There is no large, well-funded and politically connected organization out there pushing the notion that lasers are based on sound. There is no Church of the Large Lepton telling its members that salvation depends on a bogus model of particle physics. Failure to teach the correct answers to these questions is purely a failure of education, not a political or religious issue.
As Matt Nisbet notes there are legitimate problems with the wording of the deleted questions, and they probably reflect more about beliefs than knowledge. This isn’t an issue for the laser and electron questions, at least not in the same way. People aren’t getting these questions wrong because the wording is running into a conflict with other beliefs, they’re getting them wrong because they genuinely don’t know the right answer.
Those questions don’t draw the same amount of attention as the evolution question, though, precisely because they don’t connect to any hot button political issue. They’re not fodder for great fundraising letters or angry blog posts, because there’s no convenient and readily identifiable villain. The educational problem they point to is a systemic problem, something that will require hard work over an extended period of time to fix, and it’s not glamorous or controversial.
And that’s the big problem with discussions of science education, particularly on the Internet. If some whack jobs in Texas try to take evolution out of textbooks, you can easily mobilize an army of people to denounce them. If a generation of school kids quietly receive dismally bad instruction in fundamental ideas related to modern chemistry and physics, that passes without notice.
One of the items in my list of recommended actions in those talks I linked to above is “Support science education across the board.” It’s easy to support science education on hot-button topics like evolution or climate change. But it doesn’t do us any good to have textbooks with a correct description of evolution, but our schools offer terrible instruction in mathematics. Not knowing math is arguably much more harmful than not knowing evolution– the current recession is, in many ways, the result of societal innumeracy.
So, yes, by all means, the National Science Board should take some flak for failing to mention evolution in their report. But at the same time, reading the final report should make clear that there are plenty of problems with public knowledge of science without including those questions.
There’s much more to science than evolution. And there are many more problems in science education than just the problem of teaching evolution. If any good is to come out of this whole stupid episode, it should be that: a reminder that there are problems to be fixed that go beyond the stuff that grabs the headlines. We need to pay a little more attention to those deeper issues, and not spend all our time berating people about a few high-profile topics.