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Every other year, the National Science Board publishes its Science and Engineering Indicators report: data points from various aspects of academia, industry, and public life that aspire to gauge the nation’s scientific strengths and weaknesses. One of the more interesting indicators is a survey given to adults and students about basic scientific questions, i.e. does the Earth circle the Sun or vice versa. This year, however, the questions about evolution and the big bang were dropped at the last minute, under the reasoning that many respondents know the correct answers but give the incorrect ones for religious reasons. Matt Nisbet of Framing Science and Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas have different takes on whether this argument holds water, but where they (and the Obama Administration) agree is that by dropping the questions entirely, the NSF isn’t helping to promote a better understanding of the state of scientific literacy. Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles also jumps in to discuss why we ignore some of the less controversial questions at our own peril.

Also, check out the Science news item that got this story rolling–Josh is quoted in it.

My take on this has a lot in common with something Dave Munger wrote about the problem inherent in simply defining science literacy. One can say it’s irrelevant whether ignorance or idiosyncratic beliefs causes someone to say the wrong answer; wrong is wrong, and if you can’t master the basic facts of science, you can’t be said to be scientifically literate.

But the situation that Matt points out, that 74% do know the facts, but almost half choose their religious beliefs over them, points to much harder educational challenge to solve. Being able to pass a multiple choice test on scientific facts gives you the what of science, but says nothing about one’s understanding of the why and how.

Surely understanding the process of science–iteratively refining knowledge about the world by testing hypotheses–is more foundational to science literacy than knowing whether lasers are made of sound or light. And while questions like the latter might give us important clues to where there are holes in our scientific curricula, the disparity we see in the responses to the evolution questions necessitates a different approach.

As Chad says, there aren’t groups actively spreading disinformation about how lasers work (though the same might not be true about magnets), so those questions give us a clearer picture of one facet of our science education system. But I would argue that, for the things we think having better scientific literacy will get us–namely, a populace that is better able to participate meaningfully on issues like climate change or public health–the tendency to actively choose a wrong answer over a right one is the fundamental problem to address.