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Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report

Sat, 04/10/2010 - 6:22am
Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

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 USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sun.

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.”

I completely agree. People have the right to their opinions. But those opinions which are related to scientific knowledge (whether it is about evolution, the origin of the universe, cancer, the speed of light, polio vaccinations, multi-factorial designed experiments, magnetic fields, chemical catalysts, the effectiveness of antibiotics against viral infections, electricity, optics, bioaccumulation, etc.) are part of their scientific literacy. You can certainly believe antibiotics are affective against viral infections but that is an indication you are scientifically illiterate on that topic.

2006 NSF chapter that included the results

Americans were less likely than residents of other countries to answer “true” to the following scientific knowledge questions: “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “the universe began with a huge explosion.” In the United States, 44% of the respondents in an NSF-sponsored survey answered “true” to the first question in 2004, about the same level recorded in every year (except one) that the question has been asked. In contrast, 78% of Japanese respondents answered “true,” as did 70% of the Chinese and European respondents and more than 60% of the South Korean and Malaysian respondents. Only in Russia did less than half (44%) of respondents answer “true.”

A recent study of 20 years of survey data collected by NSF concluded that “many Americans accept pseudoscientific beliefs,” such as astrology, lucky numbers, the existence of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), extrasensory perception (ESP), and magnetic therapy (Losh et al. 2003). Such beliefs indicate a lack of understanding of how science works and how evidence is investigated and subsequently determined to be either valid or not. Scientists, educators, and others are concerned that people have not acquired the critical thinking skills they need to distinguish fact from fiction. The science community and those whose job it is to communicate information about science to the public have been particularly concerned about the public’s susceptibility to unproven claims that could adversely affect their health, safety, and pocketbooks.

More Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Science Classrooms

In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education decided to delete evolution from the state’s science standards. The action received widespread press coverage and sparked an outcry in the science community. Most of the public also disagreed with the decision, which was reversed after board members who had voted for the change were defeated in the next election.

Thus began another round of attacks on the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms. Similar eruptions have been occurring since the landmark 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. Although Tennessee teacher John Scopes was convicted, science ended up being the true victor, according to the history books and thanks to the play Inherit the Wind. The next milestone occurred in 1987 when the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that prohibited the teaching of evolution unless equal time was given to creationism.

Evolution is fundamental to understanding life. Ignorance about this fundamental principle makes understanding biology, nature, health care, medicine… possible. Without an appreciation of evolution it is next to impossible to make sensible scientific decisions about anything related to life and science. Science requires the open discussion of topics and criticism of faulty thinking. People are entitled to their beliefs. They are not entitled to having their beliefs put blinders on science discussion and science education on critical fundamental topics.

If a huge percentage of people really didn’t like string theory, given our current understanding, I could go along with saying we just avoid teaching about it in school – I would rather us teach science, but it is true we exist in a society and avoiding some topics could be acceptable to spare some people’s feelings. But some topics (evolution, atoms, photosynthesis, molecules, infectious disease, gravity, organic chemistry, human nutrition, correlation and causation, weather, genetics, the scientific method, cell theory, algebra, entropy, …) are too fundamental to avoid. People are free to decide they don’t believe in science in whatever areas they choose. That is their right. But condemning a society to scientific ignorance on fundamental scientific topics is a bad idea. That ignorance will not remain segmented and will damage the scientific literacy overall of any such society. Any society that does so will suffer due to limiting the understanding of scientific knowledge.

I don’t really think many would argue that ignorance on fundamental scientific topics will result in scientific illiteracy. So I would think the debate would come down to if evolution is actually a fundamental scientific concept. To me it is absolutely so. But I could be wrong.

Related: NSF governing board spikes evolution from science literacy reportUnderstanding the Evolution of Human Beings by CountryThere’s More to Science Than EvolutionScience Knowledge Quiz8 Percent of the Human Genome is Old Virus GenesIllusion of Explanatory Depth

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