Beliefs about creationism not good test of public’s science literacy

Half of all Americans say they don’t believe in evolution when asked in polls. This fact is often used as fodder to illustrate how ‘broken’ the U.S. science education system is. The number goes well beyond half when you ask about believe in ‘Darwinian’ evolution, according to Dan Kahan at the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition project.

But there are some big problems with using belief in creationism as a measure. First, and most importantly, measuring a believe has nothing to do with science literacy.

People can easily believe in things that they don’t understand, and understand things they don’t believe. Asking people whether or not they are creationists doesn’t test their knowledge of the fundamental principals of evolution: natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance. And many of the people who respond that they do believe in evolution might not actually understand those principals they profess to know.

Want to get better, data? Ask a better question. Kahan explains his research data from based on an experiment from National Science Foundation:

Instead of asking for a true/false response to “human beings, as we know them today, developed earlier species of animals,” Kahan simply added the clause “According to the theory of evolution..” to the question:

As the Figure at the top of the post shows, the proportion who selected “true” jumped from 55% on the NSF item to 81% on the GSS one!
Wow!  Who would have thought it would be so easy to improve the “science literacy” of benighted Americans (who leaving aside the “evolution” and related “big bang” origin-of-the-universe items already tend to score better on the NSF battery than members of other industrialized nations).
Seriously: as a measure of what test takers know about science, there’s absolutely no less content in the GSS version than the NSF.  Indeed, if anyone who was asked to give an explanation for why “true” is the correct response to the NSF version failed to connect the answer to  “evidence consistent with the theory of evolution  …” would be revealed to have no idea what he or she is talking about.

But, Kahan also argues that both these questions just touch on rote memorization of facts, and don’t really touch understanding of the scientific method, which is the most important factor in quantifying the public’s scientific literacy. Even if people chose not to believe in evolution, at least most of them know some basic principles about it.

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5 thoughts on “Beliefs about creationism not good test of public’s science literacy”

  1. “Half of all Americans say they don’t believe in evolution when asked in polls. This fact is often used as fodder to illustrate how ‘broken’ the U.S. science education system is.”

    When creationism is taught as a science – the system is definitely broken – and is not science literacy!

    • I agree that when creationism is taught instead of evolution, it’s a problem. This study didn’t measure that, but rather looked at jumping beyond people’s belief system to access their knowledge about the science of evolution. I grew up in Central Texas and wasn’t taught evolution at all in school. On the day we covered evolution in both middle school and high school biology, we were instructed that we could read the chapter silently to ourselves or do homework, but the teacher objected to teaching the material and said it would not be covered on exams. I would really like to see data about where and how evolution is taught nationally. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I agree with David – creationism can be taught in religious studies, let me teach evolution in science. I also agree with Dan – asking about a belief is not a test of science literacy, as his simple question modification showed. I always tell my students I don’t expect them to believe in evolution – it’s not a religion! Belief/faith is something you have in the absence of evidence. In science, your choice is to accept or reject the evidence – two completely different scenarios. Explaining it this way has generally helped a lot, especially when I taught at a Catholic school!

    • OK. So what do you “do” with the people who reject the evidence? Obviously there’s something wrong with them, right? I have two graduate degrees in a legit biological science. Everyday I work to educate myself so I can confront anti-GM & pseudoscientific biodynamic ag crackpot thinking. But I’m not convinced in the least by the evolutionary “evidence.” In fact, when I go to the museums of natural history and read the panels in their evolution exhibits, I laugh. So what do you do with somebody like me? Just dismiss me, I suppose. Oh well. I guess I’ll have to figure out how to live with the ridicule.

      • Choosing to reject the evidence on scientific grounds is all part of scientific debate. I may not agree with your take on the evidence but at least you have come to an informed decision. All fine with me!

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