Why Cut an Evolution Poll From an NSF Report?

A lot of people (including White House officials) are upset about the National Science Board’s last-minute decision to edit out any discussion of public attitudes about evolution and the big bang from the National Science Foundation’s 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators report. (The board oversees the NSF.)
The deleted text, tracked down by Science, shows that just 45 percent of Americans in 2008 said it was true that, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and only 33 percent believed “The universe began with a big explosion.”
Why delete these results? As ScienceInsider uncovers:

The data shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang.
They’re not surprising findings, but the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs.

Many experts have long fretted over the way survey questions about evolution and the big bang have been asked, including Matthew Nisbet, a professor in the School of Communication at American University, who points out:

Consider what a split-ballot comparison in a 2004 University of Michigan survey revealed about the nature of responses to these long standing questions about evolution. In this survey experiment, one half of the sample was asked the following traditionally worded question:

True or false, human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

When asked this way, 42 percent answered true, a result that has been incredibly consistent across surveys since 1985.

The other half of the sample, however, was asked a slightly different version of the question:

True or false, according to the theory of evolution, human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

When asked this way, 74 percent answered true.

The implication is that context matters: Americans are not ignorant of what science says about human origins, in fact, as the second version of the question reveals, 3/4 of the public are familiar with the scientifically correct answer.
But when presented with the traditional version of the question used in the 2010 survey, Americans are asked to choose between what they know to be the scientifically correct answer and their own religious beliefs. Therefore, as a direct measure of scientific knowledge, unlike the other items included in the scale measuring science literacy, the evolution item scores low in terms of validity.

Well, there you go. Still, says Nesbitt, simply deleting the results isn’t the answer. Instead, the board should have included a detailed discussion highlighting these sorts of difficulties. That would have been far more useful.
Chris Mooney, co-author of Unscientific America, also quarrels with the board’s decision, explaining:

The alleged justification for cutting the section, according to Science, is that Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the big bang cannot be easily disentangled from their religious beliefs, making any results misleading or confounded. But I must say, I don’t buy it. I mean, yeah, we get these appalling results because of a certain breed of American religiosity. But that doesn’t make the results any less significant or important to highlight—and this is coming from someone who thinks science and religion ought to get along better, not worse.

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One Response

  1. […] in with the attitudes of the religious toward evolution. There are a large number of Americans—some 30 percent, if you crunch the numbers—who understand the theory of evolution, but they simply reject it […]

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