In an unusual last-minute edit that has drawn flak from the White House and science educators, a federal advisory committee omitted data on Americans’ knowledge of evolution and the big bang from a key report. The data shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang. …
“Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools, says Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom.
For nigh-30 years, the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators report has included survey data on civic science literacy, and these questions have been part of that package since the beginning. Jon Miller, who designed those questions, has explained his goal as asking questions that will be as relevant today as they will be in 100 years, a hard task but one necessary for long-term trend monitoring.
When the NSB was preparing the 2010 report, they put the same poll in the field, with questions about evolution and the big bang. The draft report sent around for internal administration review included a section discussing the results of those questions (Science has the censored chapter). At the last minute, John Bruer – the NSB member responsible for editing that chapter, decided to spike the discussion.
He and another NSB member defend the decision. Bruer told Science “his reservations about the two survey questions dated back to 2007, when he was the lead reviewer for the same chapter in the 2008 Indicators. He calls the survey questions ‘very blunt instruments not designed to capture public understanding’ of the two topics.” Louis Lanzerotti, the chair of the NSB’s Science and Engineering Indicators Committee, added that these questions are “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.”
These arguments just don’t hold water. If Bruer had a problem with this 3 years ago, he had time to devise a new question in time for the 2010 report. Lanzerotti insisted that “officials had not had a chance to alter the questions because the volume of work that goes into producing the Indicators is ‘vast,’ unlike ‘writing a 2000-word news article.'” Which is all well and good, but Yudhijit wrote this article over the course of 2-3 weeks, while Bruer had 2-3 years. And the notion that asking people whether “humans as we know them have developed from earlier species of animals” is a question that “conflates knowledge and beliefs” is bull. By that standard, a question that asks whether the continents have moved from their current position over millions of years” would also measure beliefs rather than knowledge, but that question’s responses were still reported.
And even if the question were flawed (a position that Matt Nisbet defends), this is the wrong way to fix it. Evolution is the central organizing principle in biology. Biologists know that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” And biologists and anyone else aware of American politics knows that evolution is a contentious issue in American public life. Those two facts mean that any discussion of American attitudes and knowledge on science which omits any mention at all of evolution cannot be complete or adequate. This is why I called it “intellectual malpractice.” If the question is flawed, replace it with a better question, and do it in a way that maintains data continuity. Survey researchers have established protocols to do exactly that. According to Tom Smith of the National Opinion
Research Center in Chicago, “NSF hasn’t asked him to make any changes in the survey, which is now in the field for planned use in the 2012 Indicators.” In other words, the only step the NSB has taken to address questions it regards as “flawed” is censoring a public discussion of the question. They’re still paying for polls which ask the question, and it wasn’t until Science started poking around (prompted by questions from yours truly) that they announced plans for a review of the surveys used to measure science literacy.
Furthermore, a review of the chapter’s censored section shows that a lot more was cut than the supposedly flawed question. The chapter had a discussion of a 2008 paper which surveyed science teachers and how they teach evolution. It included a discussion of the history of the creation/evolution conflict in the US, the challenges posed to evolution education, and the complex nature of resistance to evolution. It explains how differently asked survey questions on evolution get different results, which gives readers a context for understanding of what is and isn’t measured by that question.
Is all of that relevant to public attitudes toward science? Public knowledge of science? Yes and yes.
So how does Bruer explain his objections to the evolution question?
When Science asked Bruer if individuals who did not accept evolution or the big bang to be true could be described as scientifically literate, he said: “There are many biologists and philosophers of science who are highly scientifically literate who question certain aspects of the theory of evolution,” adding that such questioning has led to improved understanding of evolutionary theory. When asked if he expected those academics to answer “false” to the statement about humans having evolved from earlier species, Bruer said: “On that particular point, no.”
The fact that some scientists question “certain aspects of the theory of evolution” does not justify omitting any discussion of evolution. As Bruer admits, those scientists still accept that humans share common ancestry with other animals. This question doesn’t touch on aspects of evolution that are subject to scientific controversy. People who reject the scientific consensus – whether for religious reasons or from ignorance – are not scientifically literate.
Bruer has expressed a hope that “indicators could be developed that were not as value-charged as evolution.” However value-laden evolution may be, it is still good science, and no one is fully scientifically literate who cannot accurately answer simple questions about evolution or the Big Bang.
It’s good to see that the White House is upset as well. Spokesman Rick Weiss told Science “The [Obama]
Administration counts on the National Science Board to provide the fairest and most complete reporting of the facts they track.” It’s clear that the 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators don’t live up to that standard. The administration will name 10 new members of the 25-member board in May. Lanzerotti’s 6-year term will expire then, while Bruer’s will end in 2012, after the next Indicators report has been issued.