Monday, April 12, 2010

Section About American Ignorance of Science Removed From NSF Report

Americans do not have good knowledge of science and mathematics, compared to the rest of the world. Our educational system has never been as rigorous as those in Asia and Europe, and where we typically see education as a way for underprivileged people to pull themselves up, we tend not to appreciate the actual value of higher education. Look for instance at politically motivated pundits assuming that they can address complex issues in climate science and biology, criticizing findings by highly educated scientists who have devoted their lives to detailed research within a narrow scientific domain.

The National Science Board, under the National Science Foundation, is charged with assessing the public's science literacy every couple of years. Something weird happened this year, though. The Science and Engineering Indicators survey discussed Americans' understanding of evolution and the origins of the universe, and then at the last minute the NSB decided not to publish that section.

ScienceInsider has the story. They say:
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.

They're not surprising findings, but the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs.

"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. The story appears in this week's issue of Science.

Board members say the decision to drop the text was driven by a desire for scientific accuracy. The survey questions that NSF has used for 25 years to measure knowledge of evolution and the big bang were "flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs," says Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who chairs NSB's Science and Engineering Indicators Committee.

The explanation doesn't appear to have soothed White House officials, who say that the edit—made after the White House had reviewed a draft—left them surprised and dismayed. "The Administration counts on the National Science Board to provide the fairest and most complete reporting of the facts they track," says Rick Weiss, a spokesperson and analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The deleted text, obtained by ScienceInsider, does not differ radically from what has appeared in previous Indicators. The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, "The universe began with a big explosion," with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

The board member who took the lead in removing the text was John Bruer, a philosopher who heads the St. Louis, Missouri-based James S. McDonnell Foundation. He told Science that 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. Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report

Respondents were asked whether they agreed with these two questions:
“Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
“The universe began with a huge explosion.”

This article says the whole section was deleted, after the White House had had a chance to review the report. It is interesting to see what else the section said:
In the United States, 45% of GSS respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents (figure 7-11).

Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the big bang appear to reflect factors beyond familiarity with basic elements of science. An experiment conducted in the 2004 Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes showed that respondents were more likely to answer these two questions correctly when the questions were prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution” or “according to astronomers.” These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas, even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas (for additional details see NSB 2008).

Recent surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization provide similar evidence. A 2009 survey showed that more than half (55%) of Americans could correctly name evolution or another closely associated term, such as natural selection, when asked which scientific theory they associate with Charles Darwin. However, in a follow-up question, only 39% of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution, 25% say they do not believe in this theory, and 36% do not have an opinion on this subject either way (Newport 2009).

In response to another group of questions on evolution asked by Gallup in 2008, 43% of Americans agreed with the statement that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while the 52% agreed with either of two statements compatible with the theory of evolution: that human beings developed 1 over millions of years either with or without God’s guidance in the process (figure 7-12). These views on the origin of human beings have remained virtually unchanged in nine surveys since the questions were first asked in 1982 (The Gallup Organization 2008c).

For almost a century, whether and how evolution should be taught in U.S. public school classrooms has been a frequent source of controversy. The role of alternative perspectives on human origins, including creationism and intelligent design, and their relevance to the teaching of science, has likewise been contentious (The National Academies 2008a). A recent national survey of high school biology teachers in public schools shows that there is a large variation in how teachers approach the topic of evolution. How they teach evolution, in turn, affects public knowledge (see sidebar, How Schools Teach Evolution).

In other developed countries, controversies about evolution in the schools have occurred more rarely. However, signs of opposition to the theory of evolution are emerging in Europe (Clery 2008, Nature 2006). [From the Insider excerpt linked above]

There is also a sidebar about how American schools teach evolution.

The authors don't give us numbers, but we learn that Americans understand that scientists believe that human beings developed from earlier species of animals, they just don't believe it themselves. These polls numbers then reflect a fundamental disrespect for science and education, a feeling among the public that a bunch of brainy guys with PhD's might have a bunch of theories but they're wrong.

Why was this section removed from the report? Maybe because of the numbers themselves, revealing Americans to be largely ignorant about science and far behind the rest of the developed world -- but these percentages are similar to previous reports, and no surprise. Maybe it was because the questions were not well worded, I could accept that for the big bang question but the evolution question is perfectly clear.

Regarding Bruer's assertion that the section was removed because the questions were "very blunt instruments not designed to capture public understanding," ScienceInsider has this:
"I think that is a nonsensical response" that reflects "the religious right's point of view," says Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. "Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs."

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."

It is revealing how Bruer chose to answer that question. Of course there are details in evolutionary theory to work out, that's not what he was asked. The survey asked people whether they agreed with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” which is not under question by any biologist or anthropologist. If there is a scientific fact, this is it. This doesn't ask about any subtle detail of the theory of evolution, people were simply asked whether they agree that we are descended from other species, and the correct answer, the scientifically literate answer, is yes.
Miller, the scientific literacy researcher, believes that removing the entire section was a clumsy attempt to hide a national embarrassment. "Nobody likes our infant death rate," he says by way of comparison, "but it doesn't go away if you quit talking about it."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this article. I agree that this is something we should be aware of. I would be interested to know more about your source. What is ScienceInsider?

April 12, 2010 11:03 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) publishes the journal Science once a week. Online they also have other publications including ScienceInsider, which discusses breaking issues in science policy as reported in Science and elsewhere.


April 12, 2010 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say, "why not?"

She's probably more centrist than anyone else Obama is likely to nominate and, at her age, she'll have a relatively short term:

"(April 12) -- Even in a town full of heady resumes, Hillary Rodham Clinton's stands out. The secretary of state is, of course, a former presidential candidate, U.S. senator and first lady. Now she may be in the running for yet another impressive seat: U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Speaking about the possible names floated to replace outgoing Justice John Paul Stevens, Hatch said on NBC's "Today" show this morning: "I heard the name Hillary Rodham Clinton today, and that would be an interesting person in the mix. I happen to like Hillary Rodham Clinton. I think she's done a good job for Democrats in her secretary of state position." Hatch, R-Utah, is a longstanding member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is in charge of the confirmation hearings process for federal judicial nominees.

Clinton is an experienced lawyer, graduating with honors from Yale Law School in 1973 and going on to a professorship at the University of Arkansas School of Law and advising the House Judiciary Committee on proceedings related to the Watergate scandal.

In 1977, she joined the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., the third oldest law firm in the country, later becoming its first female partner. At Rose, she worked on intellectual property law and children's rights, helping to establish the group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The next year, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the board of the Legal Services Corp., "the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation." In 1988, the National Law Journal named her one of the country's "100 Most Influential Lawyers," a distinction she received again in 1991."

April 12, 2010 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

given that the 0bama seems to be paying no attention to hillary as secretary of state (when indeed for all the anti-Hillary action I would SOOOOO have preferred Hillary as president given what we know now...)...

I think it would be a great position for Hillary. Unless he appoints someone radical as S of S.

which of course he would.

April 13, 2010 12:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put the speculation to rest today, saying, "The president is going to keep [Clinton] as his secretary of state."

April 13, 2010 8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Come to Boston Common tomorrow morning when Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express roll into town. What I’m really looking forward to is seeing the gathering of hate-spewing, anger-crazed lunatics.

Or as they’re more commonly known, “Massachusetts liberals.”

What - you think the Tea Partiers are angry? You obviously haven’t picked up the latest copy of the Weekly Dig, a local “progressive” publication that invited readers to design signage to welcome Palin and push back against Tea Party hate speech.

Among the signs published are several featuring a word very similar to “witch,” a couple of swastikas, a Hitler mustache and - in an odd move by anti-Second-Amendment liberals - one with an American flag, a bleeding tea bag and numerous bullet holes.

Stay classy, Boston liberals!

The problem with Palin is that, as everyone knows, she’s stupid.

For example, she didn’t support President Obama’s $860 billion stimulus which has created so many great jobs . . .

She ignorantly opposed the Obama administration’s decision to try 9/11 terrorists in Manhattan . . .

She made the idiotic claim that Obamacare would raise taxes on those less than $200,000 . . .

Anyway, Palin and the Tea Party movement are nothing but name-calling dolts, and so the only responsible, progressive thing to do when they come to Boston is to show up at their rally, wave idiotic signs and call them names.

No, really. According to several “progressive” Web sites, local libs are organizing to do just that on the Common tomorrow. “Nitwit central is headed our way, Boston,” warns one left-wing site bemoaning the “hatred being generated” by Tea Party protests. The Web site is urging followers to make their own signs parroting the “extremism” liberals expect to find there. So if you see a wildly offensive racist sign in downtown Boston - thank a liberal!

Why don’t supporters of Obamacare, the stimulus and other failed policies just have their own rally supporting their ideas? Other than because, well, they haven’t actually worked, I mean?

Because that’s not good enough for our irate liberals. Palin is “bringing her big hair . . . and legion of racist militia members to Boston,” complains Another online site screams “We can’t allow Sarah to take a big Alaskan Husky dump in our back yard!”

Like I said, “classy.”

The goal here, as it’s been from the beginning of Team Obama’s assault on the Tea Party movement, is to intimidate concerned citizens into silence. But it’s not going to work.

Voters and taxpayers are going to show up tomorrow and keep doing what we’ve been doing for a year now: Make arguments and ask questions. How do the economics of Obamacare make sense? Who’s going to pay the $3 trillion in new debt? Why should we tell our enemies in advance when we will or won’t use nukes?

And the left will keep responding with insults instead of answers. But at least they’re entertaining. There’s nothing funnier than a liberal protesting right-wing hate by waving a “Palin Is A Nazi Bitch” sign."

April 13, 2010 11:36 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Anon, I don't know where you copy and pasted that from -- can you please show us a link to a picture of someone with a "Palin is a Nazi bitch" sign, or a quote where someone says they heard someone say that?

I will have to put some kinds of limits on the flexibility of the truth in these comments. If there is some substance to what you say, I won't delete your comment.

Please support it with links. It's noon now. If there is no support by one, it's gone.


April 13, 2010 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no problem, Jim

it was Michael Graham in the Boston Herald:

from the context, I don't think I'd assume he actually saw such a sign but was just trying to conjure an example of the kind of thing he's talking about

I think he's just saying, the reaction to Palin is as extreme as what her detractors are decrying

agree or not with Palin, but you have to admit Graham has a point

April 13, 2010 12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

let's try that again:

April 13, 2010 12:34 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Let me repeat this. You posted a comment here, pretending it was your writing. You talked about liberals carrying "Palin is a Nazi Bitch" signs. Do you have any evidence that that has actually happened?


April 13, 2010 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't pretend it was my writing

I put it in quotes

I thought you were acknowledging you realized that when you said:

"I don't know where you copy and pasted that from --"

April 13, 2010 1:01 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Anon, if I don't see some evidence that any liberal at any time in history has ever carried a sign or uttered a statement saying that "Palin is a Nazi Bitch," I am deleting the comment in ten minutes. That's granting an extension of fifteen minutes past what I said.


April 13, 2010 1:08 PM  
Anonymous keep on smilin" said...

looks like if you google the phrase, you get a lot of hits from bloggers

maybe one of them made a sign that Graham saw

here's a video of Betty White calling Palin a "crazy bitch":

Palin hatred is clearly bringing out the worst in our leftist fringes

April 13, 2010 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am deleting the comment in ten minutes."

OK with me

I told you the source

as always, I'm just trying to make the blog fun

April 13, 2010 1:17 PM  
Anonymous razzle dazzle said...

What would you do if your pollster told you that you have only six months left with huge congressional majorities? How would you spend your time? Would you try to improve your chances of recovery or take out your bucket list -- the dream items you've always wanted to pass but never had the time to try -- knowing this could be your last chance to make them a reality?

Those are the questions facing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House as they map out the rest of the 2010 legislative calendar and see foreboding mid-term elections waiting for them in November. It's all but certain that Democrats will lose a lot of seats in Congress, making the job of passing their top priorities all the more difficult as time goes on.

April 13, 2010 1:21 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Not close enough.


April 13, 2010 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Side note:
on Hillary
"At Rose, she worked on intellectual property law"

To do that, she would have to have a degree in engineering or science and I don’t think she does. Intellectual Property Law is Patent Law!

April 13, 2010 3:27 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...


April 13, 2010 3:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

culture: Three Stooges :: TTF: Robert

April 14, 2010 10:05 AM  

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