The National Science Foundation has published the results of a survey it conducts from time to time as an “assessment” of Americans’ scientific knowledge. However, some of the sloppy reporting of the results confuses belief with knowledge.
For instance, ABC News online article completely twists the results. In one paragraph, they report:
“Only 39 percent answered correctly with ‘true’ when asked if ‘The universe began with a huge explosion,’ while only 48 percent knew that ‘Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,’ according to the statement.”
The statement that “only 48 percent knew that” human beings have developed from other animals grabbed my attention. It implies ignorance of a fact, when the statistic probably says no such thing.
The lazy ABC News article can’t take all the blame, as they are “reporting” on a press release about the survey which makes the same mistake:
“For example, only 74 percent of those queried knew that the Earth revolved around the sun, while fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.”
For people dedicated to science, they are woefully ignorant at interpreting the results of what should be a simple survey. If they can get such a no-brainer wrong, how can they be trusted with interpreting more complicated results?
I say all of this because, if the survey is conducted in the same manner it apparently was back in 2004, what it did was ask if the following statement was true or false: “Human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Stating “False” on this statement is apparently being interpreted by many to imply that they are not familiar with popular theories of evolution–as if it is a given that anyone taught the “fact” of human “evolution” would agree with that statement.
However, there are many, well-educated, scientifically literate individuals who are very familiar with the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolution theory who simply disagree that the statement is true. The survey did not measure ignorance about a fact. It measured doubt about an assertion.
Some reporting did get it right. For instance, the Independent Business Times wrote more accurately:
“The questionnaire also found that less than half (48%) of Americans believe that human beings evolved from an earlier species, while 39% said they believe that the universe began with a huge explosion.”
“On two controversial questions, whether the universe began with a large explosion and whether humans are descended from other species, fewer than half in the United States said those are true.”
Actually, kudos to the UPI for the next statement, which–unlike the lazy ABC News “effort”–reflects some actual work performed to help their readers understand the facts they were trying to present (you know, reporting). For instance, the quote above was followed by this:
“The Atlantic said those percentages go up by a significant amount when the questions are rephrased to ask if the big-bang theory and evolution are scientifically accepted.”
Get that? Those surveyed understood that evolution is widely accepted in the scientific community, they simply don’t feel the matter has been proven to them sufficiently. The question measured belief, not knowledge.
(An aside: Some of you out there may think that the only conceivable way one would fail to conclude that humans evolved into their current form from other decidedly non-human species would be if the non-believer is scientifically ignorant, so the interpretations of the results are correct in all these reports. You are free to conclude that. You are also free to tape a rolled up newspaper to your head and declare yourself a unicorn. But don’t confuse the things you are free to declare with reality. Dawkins’ “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked” comment reveals more about Dawkins’ arrogance and boorishness than it does about those who reasonably doubt the standard evolutionary dogma. Moving on…)
Actually, the UPI did much better. Rather than allow their small news item to be yet another “Americans sure are stupid, amiright?” article, it goes further:
“Generally, U.S. residents showed a knowledge of science comparable to those of other countries with high levels of education, including Japan, the European Union and South Korea, the NSF said. In fact, they did better than EU residents on the question about whether Earth moves around the sun.”
So, more people in the European Union stated they believed that the sun goes around the earth than Americans, and the Americans apparently did not do significantly better or worse than Japan, South Korea, or the EU.
Consequently, the article is almost “dog bites man” news–that is, not really news at all.
But that really isn’t true. There really is a story. The fact that one-quarter of the people surveyed didn’t seem to understand that the earth moves around the sun instead of vice versa is really spooky–let alone that apparently our international brothers and sisters faired about the same. (Of course, given the move by some European leaders to make the EU the center of all life in Europe, it is perhaps not surprising that they thought the EU at the center of the solar system, itself.) (Yes, that is supposed to be a funny political joke.) (Yes, I am aware that it isn’t that funny.)
But it is a shame that there wasn’t more real reporting and that what reporting there was–the UPI report being a notable exception–was so lazy and poorly done. Then again, the survey is more likely than not simply a public means for the National Science Foundation to feel important about itself, so, for them, perhaps it is “mission accomplished.”
[UPDATE: A little more from the articles… The IBT article stated, “Almost 90% of respondents said they believe that the benefits of science outweigh any dangers…” You have got to be kidding me. I don’t know which is worse, the confusion of the response or the inanity of the question. Maybe some context can make more sense of this point. Are the alternatives simply “science” versus “no science”? If so, then it’s a little like saying, “The benefits of food outweigh the benefits of no food.” But if the statement is meant to say something significant, then a blanket consideration is not possible unless the practice of science, by itself, is a virtue, which would make the need to evaluate some research from an ethical perspective meaningless. But tell me that some of the experiments done on children during the Holocaust were all OK because it was in the name of “science.” I’m pro-science, but goofy statements like that reflect a lack of sophistication that the science community–like the NSF which presses this dumb survey–normally accuse others of. It highlights the effort as more propaganda than anything. And, for the record, I have a hard time calling the Big Bang an “explosion” and I’ve heard a number of scientists say that they don’t like calling the Big Bang an “explosion.” When space-time, itself, is expanding, “explosion” just doesn’t really cut the mustard. So, yes, I find that question irritating, too.]