The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

National Science Foundation Omits Evolution Polling Data from Report

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 11, 2010

I found out recently, through an article in Science Magazine (the official journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science) that the National Science Foundation has released a report which has actually omitted polling data regarding evolution & the big bang.  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot?!!

Needless to say, this story is getting a LOT of attention from science supporters…

From the National Center for Science Education: What happened to evolution at the NSB?

And PZ Myers at Pharyngula chimes in: Let’s hide that embarrassing conflict in American culture

Here is the actual Science article in question:

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report

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.

But why is it this information, which has been part of every previous Indicators report to date, been removed at the last minute without any oversight?  Here’s a clue…

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 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.

“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.”

So what exactly was the offending material deleted from the report?  Here you go…

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.

So rather than report the honest truth about the state of scientific literacy in the United States on these topics, it seems the NSF has chosen to hide the embarrassing facts.  But, thankfully, it didn’t work.  We cannot change the poor state of science education in this country by hiding such information, either to save political face or to kow-tow to religious fundamentalists who push creationism; rather, we must face the challenge head on.

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26 Responses to “National Science Foundation Omits Evolution Polling Data from Report”

  1. craig said

    I do not see how you can consider this to be a case of hiding the “truth about the state of scientific literacy in the United States on these topics.” These questions are not asking people whether or not they understand or have learned about these scientific explanations of our origins, but whether or not they believe them to be true. How does it help your defense of evolution and the big bang to show that the majority of the population does not believe you? Besides, shouldn’t the NSF be in the business of science, rather than public opinion?

  2. How do you “conflate knowledge with belief?” If it’s true fact, then why not believe it? For instance, peruse the material at my blogsite, see what’s up with biblical history.

  3. Joanaroo said

    I’m glad the NCSE sees this as a case of the NSF kow-towing. If only 45% polled believe in evolution then it sounds like the religious have alot of influence how people are taught and how science is perceived. America has been dumbing down more and more since the 80s, akin to the rise of the Religious Right. At this rate we’ll be back to outhouses, segregation and barefoot and pregnant women in no time!

  4. craig said

    Where is the evidence that there has been a “rise of the Religious Right?” If anything, I would think the influence of conservative Christians has diminished over the last 30 years, as they have been more and more demonized by the left. I won’t argue your point that America is being dumbed down, but I think this has a lot more to do with a Federal and Union controlled education system than by the influence of religion – religious influence on education was definitely stronger in our country’s first 200 years.

    (by the way, I personally think outhouses should not be segregated and women should be allowed to wear shoes) :)

  5. As long as the darwinists are unwilling to (and actually can’t) defend darwinism against the opposition, and continue to hide from debate, Americans will continue to smell weakness there, with a more than viable alternative certainly available in the book of Genesis.

    • mattusmaximus said

      So what makes your Biblical version of creationism any more scientifically valid than, say, Islamic creationism? Or what about various Native American creation myths? Then there are non-religious, yet completely pseudoscientific, ideas counter to evolution such as ID as proposed by the Raelians: it wasn’t God (because they don’t believe in God), it was aliens that created life on Earth.

      Should we encompass those ideas in science classes, no matter how scientifically vacuous & unsound, as a way of incorporating a “teach all views” approach?

      • craig said

        Not an endorsement, Matt, but worth noting that ID encompasses all of the theories you mention. ID doesn’t explicitly point to creation by the God of the Bible, it just offers the theory that life is the intentional creation of a creator. The who and why questions are left for philosphers.

      • mattusmaximus said

        I understand what you’re getting at, Craig. But I will take issue with calling ID a “theory”, at least in the scientific sense, because it isn’t testable. If you’re making a philosophical argument, that’s one thing… but to engage in science there must be some kind of falsifiable hypothesis.

        Since you mentioned it, take a few and please explain to me how one could actually test ID and potentially falsify it. That is, how would you go about performing a test which could clearly show there is no “creator” (be it God, aliens, or leprechauns, etc).

      • craig said

        I did not say that ID was a scientific theory (and for the record, you mentioned it first in reference to the Raelians). I also didn’t say it should be taught in science classes – nor do I believe science classes should be teaching that it is not true, because, as you say, this cannot be scientifically tested. ID is a philosophy, which stems from scientific observations and the “how did this happen” question – so is evolution.

        Quite a while back, I had a short conversation with you, via your blog, about this issue, and you directed me to a huge amount of information (off site btw) which you said was the scientific proof for evolution. If your objective was to slow me down, it worked, but I eventually got through this information. To summarize it as briefly as possible, this data (I didn’t keep the link) points to common characteristics; common genes; “vestigial” organs; the existence of mutations; color and size variation within species; some organisms’ abilities to become resistant to disease or antibiotics; and interbreeding as evidences of macro-evolution. If these evidences were presented in a court of law, every one of them would be considered circumstantial. All this data shows is that life is very diverse, minor changes are possible within species, and major mutations or interbreeding result in sterilization or death by the second generation. Up to this point, we are still talking about science.

        However, none of this data demonstrates the next level, how whole organs and systems can develop (eyes, lungs, brains, hearts, etc) that were neither existent nor required in previous lifeforms. At this point in the discussion, evolution becomes completely theoretical – where is the “falsifiable hypothesis” for this? How do you propose one could actually test and falsify macro-evolution? Or if evolution has already been proven and is accepted science, what/when/where was the test that proved it? I argue that macro-evolution cannot be falsified through experiment any more than ID can – it is a philosophy, an indulgence into “what if?”, not science.

  6. Just read a few of the short articles at my blogsite (the most recent post a great place to start), then attempt a rebuttal or two, and note the material is like nothing the other religions are putting out, if anything, on the subject.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Fail… You came here, pal. Make your argument here, or not at all. Otherwise, I’ll block any future comments from you so that you don’t spam my blog.

  7. It’s all right there, I’m not going to write a book for you, sorry.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Not asking for a book, just a brief counter-argument to my criticism. But if you cannot articulate that… too bad for you. Consider yourself on notice… cease with the spamming, or I will block you and remove your posts.

      Going to play nice now?

  8. I think you’re skittish about the issues, hiding behind your spamming rap.

  9. Too obfuscative to read a few short posts?

    • mattusmaximus said

      Too stupid & lazy to provide a brief summary here?

      Btw, I’ve already read some stuff at your blog… pretty laughable. I really like your “proof” for the existence of Atlantis – I laughed most of the night :)

  10. Do you really think people can’t see through your spamming rap ploy, to avoid the issues to which you apparently have no cogent rebuttal, proven by your refusal to click on one little ol’ link? Is it that scary?

    • mattusmaximus said

      I’ve read your blog, as I already said. What I’m interested in seeing is you attempting to defend your views here, since you see fit to challenge me here.

      So, are you going to provide a public counter-argument to my criticism, or are you going to keep whining about how I won’t read your blog (even though I already have when you posted about your “the Bible proves the existence of Atlantis” tripe)?

      Last chance… next time you get blocked.

  11. Why don’t you tell everybody what you think is wrong with my Atlantis analysis, just a few of the really funny ones (to you).

  12. Thanks for the airtime, many will come to read now, and maybe they will ask you “what about this, and what about that?” That’s gonna be fun. Toodles.

  13. Joanaroo said

    Religion and Religious Right not a factor in education? Hey, don’t blame the left! You don’t see The Left trying to rewrite history in textbooks to spread falsehoods about religion and the founding fathers and the constitution, and diminishing the role Jefferson played. Who wants Creationism only taught, ignoring science education? What party is passing themselves off as the family values party while doing everything most people don’t consider family values. Religion has no place in a public school. If you want kids brought up with a Christian-only education, home school or send the kids to a Christian school.

  14. Joanaroo said

    And if the Religious Right has no influence, then explain all of the 501s and 527s that have sprung up since the election of Barack Obama to get Republicans elected. So many are linked with religious causes of the Right. If that is the case, no influence, then how about the Tea Party? No matter how racist and critical the signs and comments are, you hear all the God and religion speech from the partiers.

  15. [...] blogged about this particular screwup on the part of the NSF in an earlier post. The thing that concerns me about this move on the part of the NSF is how the influence of this [...]

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