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NSF Board Draws Flak for Dropping Evolution From Indicators

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Science  09 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5975, pp. 150-151
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5975.150

Americans are less likely than people in the rest of the world to believe that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang. Those findings appear repeatedly in surveys of scientific literacy, and until this year they also showed up in the National Science Foundation's biennial compilation of the state of global science.

But the 2010 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators omits any mention of those two hot-button issues in its chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology. A section describing the survey results and related issues was edited out of the massive volume by the National Science Board (NSB), NSF's oversight body and the official publisher of Indicators. Board members say the answers don't properly reflect what Americans know about science and, thus, are misleading. But the authors of the survey disagree, and those struggling to keep evolution in the classroom say the omission could hurt their efforts.

“Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice,” says Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, California–based nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom. “It downplays the controversy.” The 2008 edition of Indicators, for example, discussed “Evolution and the Schools” along with its analysis of the two survey questions, and the 2006 edition contained an article titled “Evolution Still Under Attack in Science Classrooms.”

NSB officials counter that their decision to drop the survey questions on evolution and the big bang from the 2010 edition was based on concerns about accuracy. The questions were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because the responses conflated knowledge and beliefs,” says Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and chair of the board's Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) committee. John Bruer, a philosopher and president of the James McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, and the lead reviewer for the chapter, says he recommended removing the text and related material because the survey questions “seemed to be very blunt instruments, not designed to capture public understanding” of the two topics.

The board's action surprised science officials at the White House, to whom the board officially submits Indicators. “The [Obama] Administration counts on the National Science Board to provide the fairest and most complete reporting of the facts they track,” says Rick Weiss, a spokesperson and analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In recent weeks, OSTP has asked for and received an explanation from the board about why the text was deleted.

CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): GENERAL SOCIAL SURVEY, 2008; THINKSTOCK

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.

Bruer proposed the changes last summer, shortly after NSF sent a draft version of Indicators containing this text to OSTP and other government agencies. In addition to removing a section titled “Evolution and the Big Bang,” Bruer recommended that the board drop a sentence noting that “the only circumstance in which the U.S. scores below other countries on science knowledge comparisons is when many Americans experience a conflict between accepted scientific knowledge and their religious beliefs (e.g., beliefs about evolution).” At a May 2009 meeting of the board's Indicators committee, Bruer said that he “hoped indicators could be developed that were not as value-charged as evolution.”

Bruer, who was appointed to the 24-member NSB in 2006 and chairs the board's Education and Human Resources Committee, says he first became concerned about the two survey questions as the lead reviewer for the same chapter in the 2008 Indicators. At the time, the board settled for what Bruer calls “a halfway solution”: adding a disclaimer that many Americans didn't do well on those questions because the underlying issues brought their value systems in conflict with knowledge. As evidence of that conflict, Bruer notes a 2004 study described in the 2008 Indicators that found 72% of Americans answered correctly when the statement about humans evolving from earlier species was prefaced with the phrase “according to the theory of evolution.” The 2008 volume explains that the different percentages of correct answers “reflect factors beyond unfamiliarity with basic elements of science.”

George Bishop, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio who has studied attitudes toward evolution, believes the board's argument is defensible. “Because of biblical traditions in American culture, that question is really a measure of belief, not knowledge,” he says. In European and other societies, he adds, “it may be more of a measure of knowledge.”

The scientist who first drew up the survey question thinks the board has made a big mistake. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion,” says Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who conducted the survey until 2001. “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?” Miller asks.

Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, Illinois, which conducts the science knowledge survey for Indicators as part of the NSF-funded General Social Survey, does not believe the two questions are flawed. Prefacing the evolution and big bang statements with qualifiers might degrade the responses, he says, because “that could have the effect of tipping respondents off about the right answer.” He says NSF hasn't asked him to make any changes in the survey, which is now in the field for planned use in the 2012 Indicators.

Not yet, at least. Both Lanzerotti and Lynda Carlson, director of NSF's statistical office that manages the survey and produces Indicators, say it is time to take a fresh look at the survey questions. Last week, after his interview with Science, Lanzerotti asked the head of NSF's Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate to conduct a “thorough examination” of the questions through “workshops with experts.”

Will the 2012 Indicators include a section on evolution? Lanzerotti, whose 6-year term ends next month, would like to see the topic handled “in the proper way,” using the different measuring instrument. In hindsight, he says, the 2010 Indicators should have explained why the two questions had been dropped.

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.”

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