Remember when I invited readers to take a survey on the Miss USA evolution answers? And I was kinda vague about why I was doing it? At last it can be told, I was working on a guest blog post at Scientific American. You should read the whole thing, but here’s the bit about how I used the survey data:
Watching the video and reading the transcript, it is obvious that many contestants were conflicted in their views, and quite a few had to discover their views on the spot. Instead of mocking these women for struggling with the issue, it should be said that most Americans probably go through a similar struggle when confronted with evolution questions by pollsters or by assignments in their children’s homework. …
The answers given by Miss USA contestants give us a unique insight into that process, precisely because the stakes are so low (at least for science education), and because they did more than say “true” or “false.” They explained themselves, and in doing so laid bare the sorry state of science education, as well as some of the biases and misguided intuitions that make it so hard to talk about evolution in America.
Simply evaluating the merits of each candidate’s answer was a challenge. Some, like Miss Connecticut’s succinct “I do think evolution should be taught in schools” or Miss Alabama’s dismissive “Evolution, no, I do not believe in evolution, I do not think it should be taught in schools, and I would not encourage it,” were easy to judge. Others started strong and then faded, like Miss Kentucky, who opened: “I honestly don’t think you could ever have too much knowledge on any subject,” but still felt, “evolution shouldn’t be taught in school … I just personally don’t think it’s a good topic for school subjects, at all.” Others seemed to misunderstand the basic concepts (like Miss Rhode Island: “I believe that evolution should be taught in schools because I think that kids need to know all different perspectives on how the world came to be”) or else tried to avoid the question (Miss Indiana: “I don’t know. I think that we should leave that up to the government. I don’t think… I’m not sure, I think a lot of people would have an issue if evolution was taught in school, I think we should just leave that out of the equation”).
Some clearly wanted religious alternatives taught in schools, like Miss West Virginia: “Yeah, I do think that evolution should be taught in schools, but I also don’t think that religion should be taken out. If you don’t believe in evolution, that’s fine, but you should at least be informed about it. And if you don’t believe in religion, that’s fine, but you should at least be informed about it. So I personally feel like they should incorporate both.” Others brought in that same idea of balance, but didn’t necessarily think religious views belonged in school, like Miss Idaho: “I believe that evolution should be mentioned in school. The thing is it’s all about what you believe in and it shouldn’t be pushed on you but again you should be knowledged [sic] about it I guess just different options. Because growing up in a family, you learn to live off of those values and morals and if you don’t have other options to believe in that’s what you’re gonna go by for the rest of your life.”
Devising a consistent way to judge these responses wasn’t easy. Rather than imposing my own (somewhat) arbitrary standard on the sometimes subtle distinctions between answers, I decided to open up the judging to scienceblog readers. I posted a survey, linked to it on my blog and twitter feed, and thanks to my own readers, and those of other sciencebloggers who retweeted the request, I soon had 713 responses. Because most of the folks taking the survey were referred by a scienceblog or related twitter stream, it seemed likely that the responses would be generally aligned with the scientific view of evolution, but to check, I included a short science quiz (including a question about the common ancestry of life, a key evolutionary concept).
I also asked respondents to rate the 51 statements by Miss USA contestants on a scale from 1-10, with 10 representing an ideal response (in the survey-taker’s opinion). To give those ratings some context, I added three additional statements from scientific societies, and two more statements from creationist groups. Those statements were from: The American Association for the Advancement of Science … The Inter-Academy Panel (a global body bringing together over 100 national academies of science)… and The Society for Amateur Scientists…
From the creationist side: the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research… and the intelligent design creationist Discovery Institute… (To avoid confusion, I removed any labels identifying the origin of the 5 statements from societies, including replacing organization names with the first person, and omitted ellipses and brackets, and I randomized the order of questions between survey-takers.)
The ratings given were quite consistent across surveys, which can make us much more confident in picking winning and losing answers. Interestingly, statistical tests showed that people’s answers on the science quiz had little impact on how they scored the Miss USA answers, which may simply reflect the science-friendly population recruited to complete the surveys (fewer than a third got even one question wrong). [Good job, survey-takers!]
The statements from scientific societies give us a context for evaluating the ratings of Miss USA contestants. Encouragingly, the three statements from pro-evolution groups all got high ratings, all having average scores above 9 (out of 10). And as we’d expect, the creationist statements were rated lower. The ICR statement – which was issued in 1987 as a reaction to a US Supreme Court ruling that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional – was given an average rating just over 2.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Discovery Institute statement – written with an eye toward avoiding legal challenges, such as the 2005 court ruling that intelligent design is a form of creationism and thus unconstitutional to teach in public science classrooms – got an average rating of 7.29. That rating is essentially the same as that given to “huge science geek” and pageant winner Miss California. Only two pageant contestants’ statements rated higher than the Discovery Institute’s policy of attacking evolution in the classroom: Miss New Mexico (scoring 8), and Miss Connecticut (8.4). The other 47 contestants were rated substantially worse than the Discovery Institute’s policy, while only 5 were rated worse than the ICR statement (Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Nebraska).
Overall, the correlation between the ratings of each state’s Miss USA contestant and Berkman and Plutzer’s estimates of statewide support for teaching evolution was 0.5, showing a strong relationship between statewide attitudes and the responses of these candidates (correlation of 0 would mean no relationship, correlation of 1 would mean that the numbers move in perfect unison, and correlation of -1 would mean that the numbers are exact mirror images of one another; correlation of 0.5 is considered quite large for social science research).
Understanding this dynamic, the way that Americans outside the scientific community tend to think of evolution as a metaphysical concept, is an important first step in changing America’s longstanding aversion to evolution. A calm and rational explanation of the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution will often have little or no effect because the public sees the issue through the lens of metaphysics, of personal identity and morality. If science advocates do not engage those underlying issues, and engage them in ways that satisfy their audiences, we will remain in the awkward limbo represented in the Miss USA pageant, hovering indecisively between overt creationism and cryptic creationism, with only a few brave souls standing up for the position expressed by my personal favorite response from the Miss USA pageant, Miss New Mexico’s: “I think evolution should be taught in schools because evolution is based off of science and I think science is a huge thing that we need to continue to enrich our schools with.”
The rest of the post includes a graph and more analysis, so please give it a read. I’m pretty excited about it, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.