US National Science Board tries to suppress knowledge of Americans’ scientific illiteracy

April 9, 2010 • 9:48 am

by Greg Mayer

Today’s issue of Science contains a news article (first pointed out to me by Matthew) about a clumsy (and now failed) attempt by the US’s National Science Board (NSB) to suppress a finding by a National Science Foundation (NSF) survey that Americans’ knowledge of evolution and cosmology remains poor, and well behind that of European and east Asian industrial nations. I am shocked and disconcerted that the NSB, the governing board of the NSF and official science advisers to the president and Congres, would do this. (Update below.)

Every two years, the NSF issues a report on “a broad base of quantitative information on the U.S. and international science and engineering enterprise”, entitled Science and Engineering Indicators.  Since 1983, the  NSF has conducted a national survey of scientific knowledge, the results of which have been included in the report. Until now. NSB members John Bruer, a philosopher at the James McDonnell Foundation of St. Louis, and Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, successfully prevailed upon the NSB to remove the survey results related to questions on evolution and the big bang. While Bruer has no evident expertise in (or concern for) evolution or cosmology, Lanzerotti spent most of his career at Bell Labs, whose most signal contribution to science has been the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, which is the key empirical evidence for the big bang. The irony– it burns.

The last two editions of the report contained sections on “More Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Schools” (2006) and “Evolution and the Schools” (2008). The equivalent section and accompanying discussion, included in the 2010 report by the report’s authors, were removed by the NSB. Fortunately, the authors, and even the White House (to whom the report was submitted) objected. The report was not revised in light of these objections, but Science obtained the deleted text, and thus the attempted suppression failed. Here’s Science‘s summary.

Science has obtained a copy of the deleted text, which does not differ substantially from what has appeared in previous Indicators. The two questions (see graphic) have been part of an NSF-funded survey on scientific understanding and attitudes toward science since 1983. The deleted section notes that the 45% of Americans who answered “true” to the statement: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” is similar to the percentage in previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). A similar gap exists for the response to the statement: “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

Leaving evolution and the big bang out of a discussion of American scientific literacy and attitudes toward science (especially after the authors of the discussion included them) is mind boggling. These are two of the key issues in the scientific literacy problem in the United States, and one could easily argue they are the issues in scientific illiteracy. Science spoke with Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, who said that, “Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice.” Jon Miller of Michigan State, who had conducted the NSF survey in prior years, told Science that “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, … how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate?” Science‘s final take, quoting Miller again, was

Miller 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.”

Amen to that.

Here’s some of the text of the 2008 report on evolution and the big bang; the full text of the report can be found here.

Evolution and the “Big Bang”

In international comparisons, U.S. scores on two science knowledge questions are significantly lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked. Americans were less likely 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, 43% of GSS respondents answered true to the first question in 2006, about the same percentage as in every year (except one) that the question has been asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were substantially larger: 78% in Japan, 70% in China and Europe, and more than 60% in South Korea. Only in Russia did less than half of respondents (44%) answer true. Among the individual countries covered in the 2005 Eurobarometer survey, only Turkey’s percentage answering true to this question was lower than the U.S. percentage (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto 2006). Similarly, Americans were less likely than other survey respondents (except the Chinese) to answer true to the big bang question. In the most recent surveys, less than 40% of Americans answered this question correctly compared with over 60% of Japanese and South Korean survey respondents.

Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the big bang appear to reflect factors beyond unfamiliarity with basic elements of science. The 2004 Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes administered two different versions of these questions to different groups of respondents. Some were asked questions that tested knowledge about the natural world (“human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “the universe began with a big explosion”). Others were asked questions that tested knowledge about what a scientific theory asserts or a group of scientists believes (“according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “according to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion”). Respondents were much more likely to answer correctly if the question was framed as being about scientific theories or ideas rather than as about the natural world. When the question about evolution was prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution,” 74% answered true; only 42% answered true when it was not. Similarly, 62% agreed with the prefaced question about the big bang, but only 33% agreed when the prefatory phrase was omitted. 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.

Surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization provide similar evidence. An ongoing Gallup survey, conducted most recently in 2004, found that only about a third of Americans agreed that Darwin’s theory of evolution has been well supported by evidence (Newport 2004). The same percentage agreed with the alternative statement that Darwin’s theory was not supported by the evidence, and an additional 29% said they didn’t know enough to say. Data from 2001 were similar. Those agreeing with the first statement were more likely to be men (42%), have more years of education (65% of those with postgraduate education and 52% of those with a bachelor’s degree), and live in the West (47%) or East (42%).

In response to another group of questions on evolution asked by Gallup in 2004, about half (49%) of those surveyed agreed with either of two statements compatible with evolution: that human beings developed over millions of years either with or without God’s guidance in the process. However, 46% agreed with a third statement, that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” These views on the origin of human beings have remained virtually unchanged (in seven surveys) since the questions were first asked in 1982 (Newport 2006).

For almost a century, whether and how evolution should be taught in U.S. public school classrooms has been a frequent source of controversy (see sidebar, “Evolution and the Schools“). 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. When Gallup asked survey respondents in 2005 whether they thought each of three “explanations about the origin and development of life on earth (evolution, creationism, and intelligent design) should or should not be taught in public school science classes” or whether they were “unsure,” for each explanation more Americans chose “should” than chose either of the other alternatives (table 7-6table.).

In other developed countries, controversies about evolution in the schools have also occurred, but more rarely. However, signs of opposition to the theory of evolution are emerging in Europe (Nature 2006).

UPDATE. In a different version of the Science news article posted on Science’s website, but not published in today’s issue, Bruer gives a response to Science that indicates he may harbor creationist sympathies:

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.”

(H/t to readers Articulett and Deen for pointing to this version.)

UPDATE II. Josh Rosenau, who was quoted above in the Science news article, provides some further details on the affair at his blog, Thoughts From Kansas.

43 thoughts on “US National Science Board tries to suppress knowledge of Americans’ scientific illiteracy

  1. Whose side are these people on? This sounds like straight out of the previous administration’s bag of tricks…

  2. Greg Mayer stated:

    These are two of the key issues in the scientific literacy problem in the United States, and one could easily argue they are the issues in scientific illiteracy.

    While I’m cognizant you hedged your statement, I’ll still make the argument that American illiteracy regarding our understanding of the climate and scientific predictions because of anthropogenic-caused forcings now distinguishes itself even relative to American ignorance regarding evolution and the origin of the universe.

    I do concede that the enablement of illiteracy on origins created the context which enable the culture and Republican leadership to deny the fact of global warming and avoid acknowledging and confronting the level of scientific consensus and confidence in its predictions regarding anthropogenic global warming.

  3. The bulk of my family are Baptists from the deep South and they hold a literal interpretation of Genesis. They also are aware of Evolution and of the Big Bang Theory but they discount the Science as just so much theorizing by fuzzy headed professors in lab coats. Over the years, I have found that the only thing that persuades any of them to accept that the theories have validity is to relate the cold hard facts that the theories explain. (This has worked for only a few family members and worked much better for the Big Bang than for evolution.) Relating the hard concrete facts – and emphasizing that *they* could make exact same observations, compelled them to realize that the theories were about the real world that was just outside their window and not just some silly set of equations dreamt up by a scientist for the purpose of impressing other scientists.

    (Disclaimer: It is always possible that I failed to persuade anyone and that they only seemed to agree to get me to shut up.)

    1. My experience is that most people will not even listen to facts, dismissing even factual knowledge as “pointless theorizing”. You’re actually quite lucky

      1. Well, our family usually got together for family reunions in the middle of summer in the middle of Texas, where it was too hot and humid to do anything except sit around and talk. Plus, we were out in the sticks with little light pollution and so in the evening we would sit around look up at a night sky that most people don’t see in cities. When the Milky Way dominates the sky, it is easy bring the distant realms of Galaxies into the immediate.

        1. At my family reunions, someone would crowbar any talk about the universe into how great God is to have made it all.

          Still, I think the “gradual enlightenment through science” thing works for many people. It did for me.

  4. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”. As long as such bumper stickers exist in the USA, the chances of enlightenment are about as low as those in Iran or Afghanistan. Ironically, many US intellectuals have a strong libertarian bias, so they end up at least indirectly supporting parents’ “right” to indoctrinate their children with arbitrary garbage (home schooling).

    1. It’s actually not that hard to solve the problem – draconian state mandated educational standards will do the job, especially in these days when there is no need for any human being involved in the examination. Ban homeschooling, compile a set of very high level educational standards in science, then have everyone take a computerized test (of course, tests that actually measures something, not the jokes of an examination that current tests are) so that you cut out the middleman (i.e. the creationism-leaning teacher), and whoever has the desire to learn and learns, passes, whoever prefers to stay in the Bronze Age, fails. It’s not that complicated, what is complicated is making it happen. There is nothing worse than letting people who should not be allowed to do so graduate from school and even get bachelor and doctoral degrees

      1. I sympathise with your aims, but can’t agree on the means of assessment. mechanizing or computerizing assessment simply transfers the bias from the human marker to the questioner and can give anomalous results.
        For example, I can’t think of the Big Bang as a literal ‘huge explosion’. I’m no cosmologist, but Hoyle originally meant it as a pejorative epithet. If I had answered the rather trivial question honestly, I would have been recorded as being ignorant of some very basic science. The chance to have discussed my answer, verbally or in writing, would have avoided the error in assessment.

    2. I will respectfully request that you both understand that not all homeschoolers are fundy xtians teaching their children creationism. Many of us are secular, even athiest, and we do teach our children about evolution and the big bang. In fact, I’d bet my 10yo daughter knows more accurate information about both subjects than many high school graduates. Please do not paint all homeschoolers with the same brush. It’s unfair and inaccuate.

      1. The fact is that the majority of them are fundies. Anyway, in a working school system, there would be no need for homeschooling of the kind you describe

        1. Actually, that’s incorrect. The percentage of homeschoolers doing it for religious reasons is around 35%, hardly the majority. A statistic quoted in a recent article was extremely misleading as the survey question was poorly worded. As for your idea of a working school system eliminating homeschooling, not necessarily so. I don’t homeschool for just academic reasons and neither do most other homeschoolers. There are usually multiple factors involved in the decision.

          1. I will repeat what I said – a working school system give nobody a reason not to send his children to school. You can do all the additional education you want in addition to what is being taught in school, I don’t see any problem doing this. The important thing is to stop religious brainwashing

            1. Do you really think those parents won’t talk to their kids at home about what should and should not be believed? Not all fundy xtians homeschool. The ones who don’t cover creationism and bible after school. That’s not going to change. Like I said, I don’t homeschool for just academic reasons. I don’t agree with many aspects of the public school system. The poor academics is just one of them.

      2. As someone else pointed out, the majority of homeschoolers are religious fundamentalists. Even if that were not the case, however, the libertarians standing up for the right to homeschool in general automatically make it possible for religious fundamentalists to homeschool.

        1. As I pointed out above, they are not a majority. As for the libertarians standing up for homeschooling leading to fundy xtians homeschooling, it also gives many others that opportunity as well. These are our kids and, yes, we have the right to choose how they are educated. I don’t agree with many of the things the fundy xtians are teaching their children, but I will defend their right to choose homeschooling over public school lest someone take away my right to homeschool as well.

          1. I don’t buy it at all the the number one reason isn’t for religious reasons. Neither do surveys:

            “Traditionally, the biggest motivations for parents to teach their children at home have been moral or religious reasons, and that remains a top pick when parents are asked to explain their choice.”


            For most I’d venture a guess that “Can do a better job at home than public school” also boils down to religion.

            There are certainly other likely valid reasons but make no mistake, for many it is to keep kids from being exposed to secular viewpoints.

            1. “Top reasons cited by parents (could pick more than one):
              • Concerns about the school environment (including safety, drugs, peer pressure): 88%
              • A desire to provide religious or moral instruction: 83%
              • A dissatisfaction with instruction at other schools: 73%
              • An interest in a non-traditional approach: 65%”

              That is from a sidebar of the article you posted. As far as the moral OR religious one, I would have checked it. I think many modern morals my child would be exposed to in public school are deplorable. It’s definitely one of the reasons I homeschool. But I’m not religious at all. That’s not why I object to them. I think that survey did a huge disservice linking the two together like that. One can be moral without being religious. Also, that survey is already 3 years old. Many people have come to homeschooling since then for reasons other than religion. An additional note, most fundy xtians use a very traditional, school-at-home type of approach. You’ll notice that the percentage homeschooling in order to use a non-traditional approach (something from my experience the strictest fundies won’t do and therefore they wouldn’t have checked it) is 65%. I would bet that number has increased in the past 3 years.

      3. “Many of us are secular, even athiest, and we do teach our children…”
        Please also teach them how to spell “atheist”. Nobody is athier than anyone else.

        1. Wow, I suppose you never, ever make a typo? Sorry, I was a product of the public school system and I’m still trying to get over it.

  5. Only 33% of Americans marked “true” to the question whether the Universe began with an explosion. Good for them, because it didn’t. Who writes these questions?

      1. It’s written in the colloquial. The number would have likely been lower if they had said something like “The universe began with a rapid expansion of a singularity” as

      2. It’s written in the colloquial. The number would have likely been lower if they had said something like “The universe began with a rapid expansion of a singularity.”

        People know what is implied, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Big Bang cosmology can connect the dots.

        1. Finding anyone with a passing familiarity with Big Bang cosmology sounds pretty much like what the question was intended to reveal.

          1. But a person who actually knows more about the “big bang” than what the name implies, would have to answer “no”, skewing results towards the seemingly unscientific side.
            Just add “or expansion” and I’d be happy to tick “yes”… But then I’m European 🙂

            1. Only if they were sufficiently pedantic and arrogant as to prefer to be right than to be understood.

            2. I must say that I would have hesitated to write “True” for that one, since it was not actually a big explosion. We all know there was something called the Big Bang. So mightn’t the question be a trick – testing whether we fall for the misconception that it was just a big explosion? Or so I’d reason.

              Yes, in the end I’d probably have said “Yes”. If I knew it was testing a very basic level of scientific knowledge, I suppose I’d feel more confident that it was the answer wanted. But they really shouldn’t ask things that can be interpreted as trick questions.

  6. The only thing I think it might have been misleading is related to the fact that people who were in their prime in the 70s remember there was a scientific controversy between the Big Bang model and the no-boundary model. It’s hard to tell how much this has really altered the answers, but I’d venture to assume that it did not affect the people who are too young to have lived then and the ones too old to be have been included in the survey. Also, the ones receptive to this type of polemics had better than average education, which further restricts the possible effects stemming from the design flaws in the questionnaire.

  7. What’s interesting about this is that the NSB’s bizarre decision is drawing equal ire from folks as diverse as Rosenau and Coyne. We may differ about the best way to respond to this problem, but for people like Bruer to content that it’s not a problem…?!? WTF???

  8. As an agnostic (I don’t know whether God exists, but I don’t care, either) engineer who firmly believes in the scientific method and evolution, I am worried more about the indoctrination of young people in the public schools in the new “green religion”, than in the fundamentalists home-schooling their kids. The home-schoolers are relatively rare, while the green religion is being fed to a much larger, captive group. And it is being done using political methods derived from business marketing techniques that do not teach students to think critically about what they are told, and to use the scientific method, instead of relying on some “consensus” presented by a slick-talking head.

    Instead of learning math and real scientific principles of testing hypotheses with real data, they are taught to follow their instincts and feelings, which are supposedly even less “racist” than the application of scientific methods and logic.

    We are never going to eliminate religion from life in the US, and we should not be trying – it is too difficult, and it is best to just let the religious follow their faith, as long as they don’t try to force us non-believers to change our ways to accomodate theirs. But we should not be helping any new religions to develop by giving them a pulpit in the public schools.

    1. “…relying on some ‘consensus’ presented by a slick-talking head.

      Instead of learning math and real scientific principles of testing hypotheses with real data, they are taught to follow their instincts and feelings, which are supposedly even less “racist” than the application of scientific methods and logic.”

      This doesn’t seem like sound teaching, but how is any of it “green”?

        1. Consensus science isn’t propagated, it’s taught. What do you recommend rxc, that we teach something in opposition to the overwhelming consensus of experts, or just ignore the whole issue altogether?

          Oh, I know, we should “Teach the controversy” right?

          1. If there is a consensus, it is not science. Science is about making falsifiable, measurable predictions of events. Newton’s mechanics was accepted for hundreds of years before an experiment by Michelson and Morely shattered the consensus. This was replaced by relativity, which is still being tested with experiments, more than 100 years after it was proposed.

            We should be teaching students that science is always about questioning the results of experiments and hypotheses, and looking for ways to challenge them with facts. Not words, which is unfortunately what has emerged. The post-modern movement has taken the scientific method and twisted it into word-knot. I think it is the way that they justify their existence, but they are not just confined to the philosophy and Engligh departments at universities, but have taken over too much public discourse.

            I wonder whether environmentalists would accept the argument that the vast consensus of practicing nuclear engineers is convinced by their scientific analyses that nuclear power is safe, reliable, and economic? Or that the vast consensus of practicing genetic engineers is convinced by their data and scientific analysis that GMO foods are safe? I sort of doubt it, but when it comes to something they believe in, consensus is the last word.

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