April 11, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Evolution as “Scientific Literacy” Dropped by NSB; Sets Off Firestorm

Can you be called scientifically literate if you deny that humans evolved from lower animals?  What if you deny the universe began with an explosion?  American students have typically scored low on those questions, leading to charges that they are scientifically illiterate compared to other countries in Europe and Asia.  But now, the National Science Board (NSB) decided to drop those hot-button questions in the 2010 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators, a biennial compilation of the state of global science, on the grounds that they don’t accurately reflect students’ knowledge of science, but rather their beliefs.  The decision set off angry protests in certain quarters.
    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reported on this issue in the April 9 issue of Science.1  He quoted Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) calling it “intellectual malpractice” to discuss scientific literacy without mentioning evolution.  “It downplays the controversy,” he said.  Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State, conducted the survey until 2001.  As the one who added the survey question in the first place, he thinks the current board is making a big mistake.  “If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, … how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate?” he asked.  Bhattacharjee said, “those struggling to keep evolution in the classroom say the omission could hurt their efforts.”
    But the NSB defended its decision to drop the “value-charged” question on evolution as a misleading indicator:

NSB officials counter that their decision to drop the survey questions on evolution and the big bang from the 2010 edition was based on concerns about accuracy.  The questions were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because the responses conflated knowledge and beliefs,” says Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and chair of the board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) committee.  John Bruer, a philosopher and president of the James McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, and the lead reviewer for the chapter, says he recommended removing the text and related material because the survey questions “seemed to be very blunt instruments, not designed to capture public understanding” of the two topics.

Bruer noted that 72% of Americans answered the question about humans evolving from earlier species correctly when the question was prefaced with the phrase, according to the theory of evolution.  This shows that the questions “reflect factors beyond unfamiliarity with basic elements of science.”  The controversy over Indicators thus boils down to the question whether a student needs to believe, rather than simply know, the facts of a theory to be considered scientifically literate.  Critics of the change, however, see the preface as biasing the answers students will give.
    Bhattacharjee ended by showing signs that the controversy over inclusion of evolution questions in Indicators will undoubtedly surface again in the next round.  Lanzerotti feels the board should have explained why the questions were dropped, while “Miller believes that removing the entire section was a clumsy attempt to hide a national embarrassment.”


1.  Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “NSF Board Draws Flak for Dropping Evolution From Indicators,” Science, 9 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5975, pp. 150-151, DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5975.150.

Well, now, it sounds like the NCSE has flip-flopped on whether there is a controversy about evolution.  Their talking points used to say that “there is no controversy over evolution.  Any putative controversy is one concocted by creationists and the Discovery Institute.”  Now, NCSE rep Josh Rosenau got uptight about Indicators because “it downplays the controversy.”  What controversy?  The controversy over whether there is a controversy?  Does he think now we should teach the controversy?
    If students have to believe rather than understand a scientific theory, then science has become a religion.  According to the radical Darwinists, a scientist could have a PhD, earn international honors in science, publish hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed journals, and save millions of lives through his or her discoveries, and yet, if a Darwin doubter (roster), could be judged scientifically illiterate.  Do you want radicals like that influencing education policy?  Do you want them requiring recitation of a pledge of allegiance to Darwin?  Do you want them forcing science curricula to say that to understand science, you must believe that “nothing” banged and became everything by an unguided process?  The only “national embarrassment” is the ill-named National Center for Science Education itself.  Let’s call it what it is: the DODO Dogma Dictatorship.

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