Friday, April 09, 2010

The NSF censors itself with an astrophysicist's help

Wow, this story (reported in ScienceInsider by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report") is a scandal.

In an unusual last-minute edit that has drawn flak from the White House and science educators, a federal advisory committee omitted data on Americans' knowledge of evolution and the big bang from a key report. 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.
So the claim is that it is unfair to say people who reject evolution or the Big Bang are scientifically illiterate, as if to do so would somehow infringe their religious liberty. What utter nonsense. I'd almost be happier to believe the data was omitted because the terrible response rates are an embarrassment for this country.
The deleted text, obtained by ScienceInsider, does not differ radically from what has appeared in previous Indicators. The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, "The universe began with a big explosion," with which only 33% of Americans agreed.
The sad thing is that one of the religious accommodationists responsible for arguing that knowledge of evolution and the big bang are "flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs," is an astrophysicist: Louis Lanzerotti, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Lanzerotti isn't the only one to blame, as it seems a philosopher called John Bruer was the primary instigator of this pro-fundamentalist pandering.
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."
If your arguments are trivially demolished within seconds of casual questioning by the Science reporter what business do you have being on the National Science Board?
[Bruer] calls the survey questions "very blunt instruments not designed to capture public understanding" of the two topics.

"I think that is a nonsensical response" that reflects "the religious right's point of view," says Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. "Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs."
Miller has it right. Lanzerotti and Bruer should be ashamed of themselves.

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