In discussing the National Science Board’s latest stand on whether to report evolution literacy, and how to do so, I didn’t get into the details of Jon Miller’s concerns. Chris Mooney quotes that passage from the Science report, and raises some concerns.
Science reported that the NSB will, in the 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, report results of two questions: the standard true/false “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and another version in which people are asked “according to evolutionary theory, human beingsâ¦.” An experiment with that language in 2004 found substantially higher agreement with the latter claim than with the former. Science reports:
The change infuriates Jon Miller, a science literacy expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and architect of the original questionnaire, which is now used by several countries. âIf you are altering the questions in that way, you are doing it for religious reasons,â he says. âWe donât make statements like, âAccording to some economists, we had a recessionâ or âAccording to the weatherman, we had a tsunami.ââ
Iâm sorry, and I know heâs an expert and allâand has pioneered research on scientific illiteracyâbut I think Jon Miller is wrong here. The proposed alterations to these questions are important, because many religious conservatives both know what the evolutionary and Big Bang theories are, and yet also reject themâand the smartest of them can probably generate many arguments for why they do so. It doesnât make any sense, in my mind, to call such people scientific illiterates or ignorant. That would suggest that they lack knowledge, but they obviously donât.
There is, however, a much stronger argument for calling such people evolution or Big Bang âdeniers.â The key point here, though, is to recognize that illiteracy/ignorance and denial are not the same phenomena, because denial is often highly informed and sophisticated. The sooner we recognize that, and separate these two problems, the sooner weâll be able to tackle both of themâindependently.
I think Mooney is right that denial is different than illiteracy or ignorance. But I also think that he’s grossly overestimating the sophistication of the average creationist or climate change denier. “Sure,” a creationist will say, “ ‘according to evolutionary theory,’ humans evolved, but I know that’s false because the bible says so.”
“And besides,” the creationist will likely add, “evolution is just a theory, so it’s not true, and scientists are all atheists whose goal is to destroy religion with their evolutionary lies. They hide all the evidence refuting evolution.”
It is my contention that one cannot call a person who adopts these views “science literate.” And in a chapter aimed at assessing “knowledge and attitudes” regarding science, it is not sufficient to find that someone knows evolutionary biology says humans share common ancestors with other life, or that astronomers say there was a big bang. A person who thinks calling something “a theory” is discrediting is not science literate (having misunderstood key terms and scientific processes). A person who thinks scientists as a community would hide evidence to advance their theological agenda is not science literate (having betrayed a misunderstanding about how scientific claims are evaluated within the scientific community). A person who thinks it is appropriate to set their interpretation over empirical evidence when asked a scientific question is only arguably science literate (having substituted an untestable theological claim for a valid scientific claim; arguably, such a substitution is a value choice, not a matter of science literacy, but either way it is a relevant measure of attitudes toward science).
Science literacy has to be more than abstract knowledge. To be meaningful, it has to be integrated into a person’s view of the world in some useful way. Someone who knows that evolutionary biology deals in common ancestry of life, but who rejects that idea is not able to integrate that knowledge, for instance by connecting new discoveries in roundworms and relate them to their own health, let alone to have a coherent understanding of newly discovered fossil hominids, or other new findings directly related to evolution. Such a person necessarily has an incomplete ability to read and understand science reporting such as would be found in Science Times on Tuesday, or to discuss new research findings and their implications for his or her own health with a doctor.
Mooney is right that this is a different sort of illiteracy than when someone doesn’t know whether an electron is bigger or smaller than an atom. It’s different than when someone isn’t aware that evolution has to do with common ancestry of all life, including humans. But it’s still a sort of illiteracy.
And the alternate wording comes embedded with its own set of misconceptions about science. Framing the issue in terms of “According to evolutionary theory” or “According to astronomers” (for the Big Bang question) could be taken to imply that the truth of science claims has to do with scientific authority, not with the results from testing actual testable claims, or that the scientific claim consists of nothing but an argument from scientific authority. And we don’t want science literacy surveys to promulgate that misconception! I suspect you’d get a different result if you emphasized the evidence and testing of claims: “According to evidence from fossils, biogeography, embryology, anatomy, and biochemistry, humans shareâ¦.” In those senses, Miller’s critique is right; the alternative wording could be misleading, and certainly diverges from the way every other science literacy question is asked (you don’t have “According to physicists, the electron is larger than an atom” or “According to geologists, the continents have moved from their current position over millions of years,” just questions about the scientific position itself).
So I think Miller’s kinda right and Mooney is kinda right, even though Mooney is disagreeing with Miller. That’s what makes this issue tricky. Understanding of evolution is different than acceptance of evolution, and have to be measured differently, and the NSB needs to decide whether to measure only one or the other, or both, and whether they ought also to be separately assessing acceptance and understanding of other concepts (like heliocentrism, the germ theory, whether lasers work by focusing sound waves, etc.). I think singling evolution out for such scrutiny is problematic, and reducing science literacy simply to awareness of scientific claims but not to any sort of deeper acceptance of those claims is also problematic.
I don’t think those questions should be settled on blogs, nor by two small workshops organized hastily by NSF. I think research communities focused on science education, science communication, and public understanding of science probably have some reasonable consensus on where to draw these lines regarding science literacy, and I know the research community focused on acceptance and understanding of evolution is working toward some consensus on these issues. I also know that community had no part in the NSF workshop, leaving its assessment needlessly incomplete.
If the NSB wants to redefine science literacy, and rejigger how science literacy is measured, that’s a fine and worthy goal. I’d rather see that done by commissioning a major report from the NRC, since that’s how these things usually go. The NSF workshops discussed in the last post laid out some interesting options, but by their nature they were assembled quickly, but haste is not a necessity here. The NSB should take the time to get this right, based on a broad consensus of relevant research communities, not just a couple of brief workshops.