Saturday, March 08, 2008

How the National Academy of Sciences Framed their Book on Evolution


The National Academy of Science (USA) recently published a book on the evolution/creationism controversy. You can download it for free on their website [Science, Evolution and Creationism].

In an earlier posting I complained about one part of that book. I think the NAS made a mistake by claiming that science and religion are entirely compatible. They mislead the public by focusing on those scientist who were religious rather than state the truth, which is that the majority of scientists are not religious [see National Academies: Science, Evolution and Creationism].

We know why they did this. It was to appease the average religious American and make evolution less threatening. I don't agree with this sort of framing because it distorts the truth. As far as I'm concerned, accuracy is the number one goal of any publication by scientists and it should never be compromised.

Two of the authors of the booklet have published an article in CBE: Life Sciences Education where they explain how they developed their frame (Labov and Pope, 2008).
However, unlike its predecessors, this new edition was shaped to a large extent by a careful program of audience research. This research was initiated to bring about a better understanding of the frame of reference that the intended audiences bring to this issue. The committee decided early in the revision process that its goal was to successfully inform opinion leaders and influentials who could then use this information to help reframe discussions about the evolution "controversy." By presenting authoritative scientific information in ways that address the questions and concerns of those who are unsure about teaching evolution in science classrooms, the authoring committee would provide opinion leaders and influentials (scientists, business leaders, clergy, teachers, members of school boards, policy makers, judges, lawyers, and others) with the tools needed to change the understanding and decisions of other people who comprise the "wobbly middle." They defined the wobbly middle as the large percentage of citizens that various national polls have shown to be undecided about whether or not evolution, creationism, or some combination should be taught in public school science classrooms.
This opens a can of worms. It is very difficult walk the thin line between "presenting authoritative information" and framing that information so that it makes everyone comfortable. I'm not sure that it can be done.

As a result of discussions with non-scientists, surveys of the general public, and selected focus groups, the authors decided to place more emphasis on the compatibility of science and religion. And they decided to take the position that religion was a valid way of knowing. (In spite of the fact that most scientists disagree.)
Compared with the previous two versions, there is more discussion in SE&C about how science and religion differ as ways of knowing and how, for many scientists and other people, acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be reconciled with personal faith. Published statements are provided from various religious denominations and from prominent living scientists declaring that acceptance of the evidence for evolution is compatible with the tenets of their faith.
I'm sure Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney are very pleased about this.

Labov, J.B. and Pope, B.K. (2008) Understanding Our Audiences: The Design and Evolution of Science, Evolution, and Creationism. CBE Life Sci Educ 7: 20-24. [CBE Life Sciences] [DOI:10.1187/cbe.07-12-0103]


  1. Re Kary Mullis

    I'm not sure that Mullis is a bigger embarrassment then Brian Josephson, backer of PK, ESP, and cold fusion.

  2. I agree totally with your take on this. Worst part is, now there is an official concession from the NAS that serves to actually marginalize the majority! (of scientists who believe that science and religion are NOT compatible). This will be brought up at every opportunity. Even if the book tries to present a rational view overall, all that the fundies need is a sound-bite and the NAS gave it to them. Inevitably, the creationists will also use this concession as a foothold to begin "Huckabee-ing" science----"Hey, the two are compatible, even your NAS said it, so now we must shape science to fit in with religion" And this 'logic' will appeal to the fundies---Fitting data to fit their 'facts' is basic protocol for them.
    Really sad.

  3. There are terms which, when I see them, alert me that I'm probably reading nonsense. "Holistic" is one such term. "Paradigm" is another. I've now added "way of knowing" to the list.

    There are few ways of knowing, and many ways of acquiring opinions. Religion is one of the latter, not of the former. If religion was actually a way of knowing, deep differences of opinion among those called "experts" would not persist for millennia, as they have.