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.