Giving in to denialists

Let’s hide that embarrassing conflict in American culture
Via Pharyngula]

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For many years, the NSF has been producing a biennial report on American attitudes (and many other statistics) about science called Science and Engineering Indicators. This year, as they have every year, they got the uncomfortable news that a majority of our compatriots reject human evolution and the Big Bang (that last one might have been partly because of the dumb way the question is phrased). What’s different, though, is that for the first time the NSF has decided to omit the fact.

This is very strange. It is a serious problem in our educational system that so much of the public is vocal in their opposition to a well-established set of ideas — these ought to be relevant data in a survey of national attitudes towards science. Why were they dropped? It isn’t because of an overt whitewash to hide our shame away, it seems — instead, it sounds like it’s an accommodationist’s discomfort with highlighting a conflict between religion and science. At least, that’s how I read the excuses given. John Bruer, a philosopher who led the review team on this section of the report, is open about his reasoning.

Bruer proposed the changes last summer, shortly after NSF sent a draft version of Indicators containing this text to OSTP and other government agencies. In addition to removing a section titled “Evolution and the Big Bang,” Bruer recommended that the board drop a sentence noting that “the only circumstance in which the U.S. scores below other countries on science knowledge comparisons is when many Americans experience a conflict between accepted scientific knowledge and their religious beliefs (e.g., beliefs about evolution).” At a May 2009 meeting of the board’s Indicators committee, Bruer said that he “hoped indicators could be developed that were not as value-charged as evolution.”

Bruer, who was appointed to the 24-member NSB in 2006 and chairs the board’s Education and Human Resources Committee, says he first became concerned about the two survey questions as the lead reviewer for the same chapter in the 2008 Indicators. At the time, the board settled for what Bruer calls “a halfway solution”: adding a disclaimer that many Americans didn’t do well on those questions because the underlying issues brought their value systems in conflict with knowledge. As evidence of that conflict, Bruer notes a 2004 study described in the 2008 Indicators that found 72% of Americans answered correctly when the statement about humans evolving from earlier species was prefaced with the phrase “according to the theory of evolution.” The 2008 volume explains that the different percentages of correct answers “reflect factors beyond unfamiliarity with basic elements of science.”

George Bishop, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio who has studied attitudes toward evolution, believes the board’s argument is defensible. “Because of biblical traditions in American culture, that question is really a measure of belief, not knowledge,” he says. In European and other societies, he adds, “it may be more of a measure of knowledge.”

I’ve emphasized the key phrases in that summary, and actually, I rather agree with them. These are issues in which ignorance isn’t the fundamental problem (although, of course, ignorance contributes), but in which American culture has a serious and active obstacle to advancing scientific awareness, the evangelical stupidity of religion. That is something different from what we find in Europe, and it’s also something more malevolent and pernicious than an inadequate educational system.

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The National Science Foundation wants to ignore a question it has asked for years because the large number of denialists we have in America makes us look much less literate than the rest of the world. Seems that it forgot that Science is in its name, not creationism. Facts are facts. Many in the US are less scientifically literate because of their denislist beliefs.

If you are going to take a worldwide survey of science literacy, then refusing to ask questions that actually display whether people are literate would seem to undermine the entire purpose of the poll. Why in the world would they want to reduce the usefulness of their own poll?

It appears it is simply to make people feel more comfortable with the lack of scientific literacy in the US. See, if we don’t actually ask the questions that will tell us how literate people are, then we can comfort ourselves with the fairy tale that America has the smartest population in the world. Let’s not make some people feel uncomfortable because their beliefs go against accepted knowledge.

This inability to respect facts, to think that simply believing something makes it true, spills over into way to many aspects of American life, particularly politics. Whole sectors believe things that are demonstrably false. BUt they just do not want to face that.

The NSF is accommodating those that wish to deny facts. Not a good path to follow at all for a group representing science. Where does that path eventually lead?