Those surveys about views on evolution are a terrible guide to “science literacy” (which is itself a silly term) [Weekend update: You'd have to be science illiterate to think "belief in evolution" measures science literacy]You can follow the Twitter thread here but it's not very enlightening.
The article that Ed Yong linked to is by Dan Kahan, a Professor of Law and a Professor of Psychology at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut, USA). He has a B.A. from Middlebury College and a law degree (J.D.) from Harvard.
The issue that upsets Ed Yong and Dan Kahan is a serious one. It's about how one measures scientific literacy and what it means to be capable of using the scientific way of knowing to distinguish between reality and superstition. The specific issue is whether asking people if they "believe" in evolution is a valid measure of scientific literacy.
Before looking at Dan Kahan's blog post, let's review the problem. There are many people who believe silly things like ....
- The universe is only 6000 years old.
- Homeopathy works.
- Aliens regularly visit the Earth in spaceships and abduct people.
- Astrology accurately predicts the future.
- Capital punishment deters crime.
- 9/11 is a government conspiracy.
- Genetically modified food is unsafe.
- Global warming is a myth.
- Human did not evolve from non-human ancestors.
- Vaccinations cause autism.
- Chemicals are bad.
- WiFi causes brain damage in children.
I like to refer to it as the "scientific way of knowing" and I think that it's associated with something called "scientific literacy." We can quibble about terminology but I think most Sandwalk readers will agree that people who believe those 12 things (above) can not be called "scientifically literate."
Now, let's look at what Dan Kahan has to say about this [Weekend update: You'd have to be science illiterate to think "belief in evolution" measures science literacy]. He was upset by a question on a poll where Americans were asked to label the following statement as either "true" or "false."
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.I agree that it's a horrible question. Only 55% of Americans answered "true" to this question and that's usually taken to mean that almost half of the population doesn't believe in evolution. There's plenty of evidence from other polls that this is approximately correct.
When he re-phrased the question the number of people who answered "true" jumped to 81%! Here's the question that Dan Kahan asked in his survey ....
According to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.Ugh! Life on Earth has evolved, and that includes humans. This is a scientific fact that is overwhelmingly supported by scientific evidence collected over the past two centuries. It is not "the theory of evolution," it is the fact of evolution.
The "theory of evolution" (i.e. evolutionary theory) makes sense of the scientific facts but it is not a "theory" that humans evolved from other apes that lived millions of years ago and it is not a "theory" that we share a common ancestor with our cousins, the chimpanzees.
If science were taught correctly, then all high school graduates would understand this basic concept. They would answer "true" to the following statement ...
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.That's the question that should have been asked.
The follow-up question should be directed to those who answer "true" to that question.
Do you, personally, believe that human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.Here's what Dan Kahan has to say about his poll.
As the Figure at the top of the post shows, the proportion who selected "true" jumped from 55% on the NSF item to 81% on the GSS one!I think this reveals a serious lack of critical thinking, which is surprising coming from a lawyer.1
Wow! Who would have thought it would be so easy to improve the "science literacy" of benighted Americans (who leaving aside the "evolution" and related "big bang" origin-of-the-universe items already tend to score better on the NSF battery than members of other industrialized nations).
Seriously: as a measure of what test takers know about science, there's absolutely no less content in the GSS version than the NSF. Indeed, if anyone who was asked to give an explanation for why "true" is the correct response to the NSF version failed to connect the answer to "evidence consistent with the theory of evolution ..." would be revealed to have no idea what he or she is talking about.
The only thing the NSF item does that the GSS item doesn't is entangle the "knowledge" component of the "evolution" item (as paltry as it is) in the identity-expressive significance of "positions" on evolution.
In order to illustrate why this is faulty reasoning, let's look at another set of questions that would probably give similar responses.
A. The Earth is billions of years old.If you don't "believe" that the Earth is billions of years old then you are not scientifically literate because you must be rejecting the very foundations of science. The fact that you can attribute that false (in your mind) belief to geologists doesn't change anything. It just means that you reject the idea that the scientific way of knowing can arrive at the truth.
B. According to geological theory, the Earth is billions of years years old.
That's exactly what Dan Kahan's GSS question tells us. It tells us that 26% (81% - 55%) of Americans "know" that scientists disagree with what they believe is true. That is not evidence of "scientific literacy," In fact, it's powerful evidence that a substantial number of Americans reject science in spite of the fact that they know what science says is true. If we didn't know the results of the GSS poll we might say that many Americans reject evolution because they've never heard of it. That would be the kindest interpretation of the poll results.
Dan Kahan says,
By adding the introductory clause, "According to the theory of evolution," the GSS question disentangles ("unconfounds" in psychology-speak) the "science knowledge" component and the "identity expressive" components of the item.Well, that's one interpretation. Another is that one has to wonder about a Professor of Law who researches evolution without understanding the difference between scientific facts and theory. That looks pretty dumb to me.
Gee, Americans aren't that dumb after all!
So ditch this question & substitute for it one more probative of genuine science comprehension -- like whether the test taker actually gets natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance, which are of course the fundamental mechanisms of evolution and which kids with a religious identity can be taught just as readily as anyone else.Okay, let's forgo the expected rant about misunderstanding evolutionary theory. There's a lot more to evolution than just natural selection and mutation and there's a lot more to understanding the history of life on Earth than just evolutionary theory.
The real question—once we get past the misunderstandings—is whether you can be "scientifically literate" (or whatever) by just memorizing the views of scientists or whether you actually have to accept them ("believe") in order to be scientifically literate.
Imagine that you encountered someone who said.
I know for sure that God created the Earth only 6000 years ago and He created all of the kinds of plants and animals at the same time. This includes humans. I have studied science and I know all of the so-called "evidence" that scientists use to support their belief that the Earth is billions of year old and that life evolved. I reject this evidence, but, if asked, I can accurately recount it on an exam. The scientists must be wrong because their "beliefs" conflict with what God tells us in the Bible.Is such a person scientifically literate? I say "no."
More importantly, is our education system doing a good job if we are turning out huge numbers of people who see nothing wrong with that statement of belief? Is it any wonder that those people will also reject the opinions of scientists about the efficacy of homeopathy, the value of vaccinations, and the reality of global warming?
Scientific literacy is not just about knowing what the scientific evidence says is true; it's also about accepting it as true.
1. Or not, depending on what you think of lawyers.