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10 April 2010

Shifting the Bell Curve

The NSF is cleverly moving the bell curve of American education from "abject idiot" over to "illiterate redneck" by excluding two primary scientific facts in the survey of our understanding of the universe. As a nation, we're still below "Forrest Gump" but with enough trickery in ignoring reality, I'm sure the average American will eventually be there. Here is what the Squiddy one has to say about it.

Let's hide that embarrassing conflict in American culture

For many years, the NSF has been producing a biennial report on American attitudes (and many other statistics) about science called Science and Engineering Indicators. This year, as they have every year, they got the uncomfortable news that a majority of our compatriots reject human evolution and the Big Bang (that last one might have been partly because of the dumb way the question is phrased). What's different, though, is that for the first time the NSF has decided to omit the fact.

This is very strange. It is a serious problem in our educational system that so much of the public is vocal in their opposition to a well-established set of ideas — these ought to be relevant data in a survey of national attitudes towards science. Why were they dropped? It isn't because of an overt whitewash to hide our shame away, it seems — instead, it sounds like it's an accommodationist's discomfort with highlighting a conflict between religion and science. At least, that's how I read the excuses given. John Bruer, a philosopher who led the review team on this section of the report, is open about his reasoning.

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."

I've emphasized the key phrases in that summary, and actually, I rather agree with them. These are issues in which ignorance isn't the fundamental problem (although, of course, ignorance contributes), but in which American culture has a serious and active obstacle to advancing scientific awareness, the evangelical stupidity of religion. That is something different from what we find in Europe, and it's also something more malevolent and pernicious than an inadequate educational system.

It seems to me, though, that that isn't a reason to drop it from the survey and pretend it doesn't exist and isn't a problem. Instead, maybe they should promote it to a whole new section of the summary and emphasize it even more, since they admit that it is an unusual feature of our culture, and one that compels people to give wrong answers on a science survey.

Maybe they could title the section, "The Malign Influence of Religion on American Science Education".

I also rather like the answer given by Jon Miller, the fellow who has actually conducted the work of doing the survey in the past.

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."

Exactly right. But if we do talk about it, we end up asking why it's so bad, and then we make rich people squirm as we point fingers at our deplorable health care system. And in the case of the question about evolution, we make religious people, and especially the apologists for religion, extremely uncomfortable, because they have been defending this institution of nonsense that has direct effects on measurable aspects of science literacy.

Unfortunately, Bruer has also been caught saying something very stupid.

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."

What was he thinking? The question on the NSF survey is not asking about details of the mechanisms of evolution, so his objection is weirdly irrelevant. I don't know if he's hiding away any creationist sympathies (that phrasing is exactly what I've heard from many creationists, after all), but it does reveal that he's not thinking at all deeply about the issue. And for a philosopher, shouldn't that be a high crime?

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