Posted by jlwile on October 19, 2011
Since 1979, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been producing a study entitled Science and Engineering Indicators. It is a quantitative review of science and engineering progress in the United States and the rest of the world. One chapter from that report is called “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” and it attempts to assess how the people of the United States view and understand science compared to the people in the rest of the world. The way they try to gauge the public’s understanding of science is to produce a survey that asks questions such as, “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?” and “True or False: The center of the earth is very hot.”
For 20 years now, two of the True/False questions on that survey have been:
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
The universe began with a huge explosion.
According to the journal Science, two expert panels formed by the NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board, have suggested changing these two true/false questions to:1
According to evolutionary theory, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
According to astronomers, the universe began with a huge explosion
The National Science Board has decided to ask the NSF to make that change on half of the surveys given out next time to see what effect it has on the results. This suggestion has infuriated some, but I see it as a very positive step for the NSF.
Why did the expert panels suggest the change? Because there are plenty of people (and plenty of scientists) who understand evolutionary theory very well but do not think it is correct. We look at the data and see that it argues against evolutionary theory. Thus, while we understand what evolutionary theory says about human origins, we know the data well enough to understand that what it says is not correct. As a result, while we would answer “false” to the original version of the question, we would answer “true” to the modified version. Since the NSF is looking for “true” as the correct answer, the modified versions of the questions are better gauges of a person’s scientific knowledge of those subjects than the original versions of the questions.
As I said, the proposed change has infuriated some people. For example, the Science article I referenced quotes Dr. John Miller, a science literacy expert at the University of Michigan as saying:
If you are altering the questions in that way, you are doing it for religious reasons…We don’t make statements like ‘According to some economists, we had a recession’ or ‘According to the weatherman, we had a tsunami.’
In fact, Dr. Miller’s statement shows that he doesn’t understand evolutionary theory very well. We don’t need to say, ‘According to the weatherman, we had a tsunami,’ because a tsunami is easily verified. We can look at the data and quickly decide whether or not a tsunami occurred. Things aren’t so easy for evolutionary theory. The data must be heavily interpreted, and they often provide evidence against the theory. This, of course, is why the panels didn’t suggest qualifying other questions, such as the one about how long it takes for the earth to go around the sun. The fact that it takes the earth one year to orbit the sun is easily verified by many observations. Thus, no qualifier is needed. Since the same statement cannot be made about evolution or the beginning of the universe, scientific statements regarding such topics need to be qualified.
The reason I think this is a step forward for the NSF is that the survey is designed to gauge scientific knowledge, and you don’t measure that by finding out how many people mindlessly believe what they are told to believe. Instead, you measure it by finding out how much the people actually know about science topics. I know more about evolution than many who believe in it, and that knowledge makes me realize that the data speak heavily against it. If the NSF really wants to see what people know about science, it needs to word its questions so that critical thinkers who are willing to evaluate what they are told are not penalized for their critical thinking.
I expect the NSF will find that when they review the surveys with the modified questions, they will see a measurable increase in the number of correct answers to those two questions.
1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “New NSF Survey Tries to Separate Knowledge and Belief,” Science 333:394, 2011.
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