Why Did NSF Cut Evolution and the Big Bang from the 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators?

By Chris Mooney | April 9, 2010 7:57 am

A few months back, when I read Chapter 7 of the latest NSF Science and Engineering Indicators report (PDF), I noticed that the standard section detailing Americans’ dismal views about evolution and the Big Bang was missing. But I wasn’t sure what to make of that fact, so I shrugged and moved on.

But now, Science magazine has investigated, and in turns out a lot of folks are extremely upset at this omission. That includes the National Center for Science Education and even the White House. There are charges of a whitewash–that these data were cut precisely because evolution and the Big Bang are the subjects where Americans appear the most “scientifically illiterate” in comparison with citizens from other countries:

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 alleged justification for cutting the section, according to Science, is that Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the Big Bang cannot be easily disentangled from their religious beliefs, making any results misleading or confounded. But I must say, I don’t buy it. I mean, yeah, we get these appalling results because of a certain breed of American religiosity. But that doesn’t make the results any less significant or important to highlight–and this is coming from someone who thinks science and religion ought to get along better, not worse.

More generally, I did get the feeling that the 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators‘ Chapter 7 presented an overly rosy picture of the relationship between science and the American public. It’s certainly true that not all the data are as bad as folks sometimes say. But omitting the worst data hardly leads to a balanced picture.

Comments (43)

  1. Billingham

    “The universe began with a big explosion” is sort of an awkward way to describe the Big Bang.

  2. GM

    The alleged justification for cutting the section, according to Science, is that Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the Big Bang cannot be easily disentangled from their religious beliefs, making any results misleading or confounded. But I must say, I don’t buy it. I mean, yeah, we get these appalling results because of a certain breed of American religiosity

    Good that you’re saying it, even if it isn’t the direct statement it needs to be, i.e.:

    “If you are religious, you are most likely also scientifically ignorant”

  3. Sorbet

    Well-said Chris. The omission is certainly ridiculous.

  4. 10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer (link)

    When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion. — Robert Pirsig

  5. I don’t know if I’d answer true to The universe began with a big explosion. I’d have to ask the interviewer if there was an option for “The universe began with a big taffy-pulling contest.”

    Kidding aside, “explosion” is probably the wrong word, but I’d venture a guess that most people consider the Big Bang to be just that.

  6. David

    I think that they were best left off.

    You want to find out about peoples understanding of evolution? Ask questions about genetic mutations, selective breeding, and natural selection.

    You want to know peoples understanding of the Big Bang? Ask questions about interstellar distances, and time.

    The questions themselves are pretty poor representations of the topics that they are asking about and push too many buttons.

  7. GM

    You want to find out about peoples understanding of evolution? Ask questions about genetic mutations, selective breeding, and natural selection.
    You want to know peoples understanding of the Big Bang? Ask questions about interstellar distances, and time.

    I think it’s a safe bet to assume that if you think the world was created by an imaginary being in the sky less than 10,000 years ago, then you know nothing about the above

  8. Also David

    Our whole universe was in a hot dense state…

  9. David

    GM:

    There is also very little to be gained at mocking people of faith. A huge percentage of the world practices some kind of faith. You are not going to get them to discard it. Why would you even try? There is little to be gained by shoving unprovable inconsistencies in their faith because by its very nature, faith is based on belief and not fact.

    Many of the greatest scientists have been religious. They somehow reconcile the differences in their faith and their science.

  10. Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
    Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
    The Earth began to cool,
    The autotrophs began to drool,
    Neanderthals developed tools…

    and then smacked themselves hard on their heads with them

  11. GM

    9. David Says:
    April 9th, 2010 at 11:54 am
    GM:
    There is also very little to be gained at mocking people of faith. A huge percentage of the world practices some kind of faith. You are not going to get them to discard it. Why would you even try? There is little to be gained by shoving unprovable inconsistencies in their faith because by its very nature, faith is based on belief and not fact.

    So just because they are many we should refrain from pointing out how wrong they are??? Great strategy…

    Many of the greatest scientists have been religious. They somehow reconcile the differences in their faith and their science.

    And they invariably lived in an era when nothing else was available as an option

    Try something better

  12. Beth SR

    I, too, am disappointed that the NSF removed the sections about evolution and the Big Bang in its recent report. I am also, however, disappointed in the comments people have written here.

    Several commenters’ posts denigrate religion (I interpret their comments as referring to all religions). This is completely unnecessary for intelligent discussion of scientific illiteracy; furthermore, I believe this type of attitude discourages religious people from becoming involved in science education and advocacy.

    As an observant Jew, I am offended by the discriminatory attitudes that many scientists and science advocates hold regarding religion – namely, that religion is inconsistent with science.

    I offer myself as an example of the many Americans who both believe in G-d and accept the reality of evolution and the Big Bang. Moreover, almost everyone in the synagogue I attend accepts them.

    Please understand that we believers in G-d are not the morons that many science advocates seem to think we are; we’re no different from you, except that we believe in a Higher Power. This Higher Power does not necessarily command us to close our eyes and ignore scientifically-proven facts.

  13. TB

    “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.”
    No they don’t, they ask questions about scientific topics and not personal belief.
    Guess it’s going to take time to root out the influence of the previous administration.
    And GM: you’re broad-brush painting of all religious people just shows your ignorance. Go tell it to the plaintiffs in the Dover trial.

  14. TB

    Josh over at TFK had this:
    “It’s good to see that the White House is upset as well. Spokesman Rick Weiss told Science “The [Obama] Administration counts on the National Science Board to provide the fairest and most complete reporting of the facts they track.” It’s clear that the 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators don’t live up to that standard. The administration will name 10 new members of the 25-member board in May. Lanzerotti’s 6-year term will expire then, while Bruer’s will end in 2012, after the next Indicators report has been issued.”
    Leftovers from the previous anti-science administration.
    They let it go to official review and then censored it afterward so noone could overrule them.
    They should resign now.

  15. GM

    13. Beth SR Says:
    April 9th, 2010 at 12:18 pm
    I, too, am disappointed that the NSF removed the sections about evolution and the Big Bang in its recent report. I am also, however, disappointed in the comments people have written here.
    Several commenters’ posts denigrate religion (I interpret their comments as referring to all religions). This is completely unnecessary for intelligent discussion of scientific illiteracy; furthermore, I believe this type of attitude discourages religious people from becoming involved in science education and advocacy.

    It is quite necessary actually. Even the softest kind of religion spits in the face if the very core principles of science (i.e. thou shall not willingly full yourself into believing stuff that isn’t true)

    As an observant Jew, I am offended by the discriminatory attitudes that many scientists and science advocates hold regarding religion – namely, that religion is inconsistent with science.

    Probably because it is not consistent with science, and scientists know what is and what isn’t consistent with science a little better than the laymen.

    I offer myself as an example of the many Americans who both believe in G-d and accept the reality of evolution and the Big Bang. Moreover, almost everyone in the synagogue I attend accepts them.

    Please understand that we believers in G-d are not the morons that many science advocates seem to think we are; we’re no different from you, except that we believe in a Higher Power. This Higher Power does not necessarily command us to close our eyes and ignore scientifically-proven facts.

    What you fail to understand is that science isn’t the “reality of evolution” or the “Big Bang”. Science is a set of epistemological rules for discovering truths about the world around us, and the things you list are things that we have discovered following those rules. You either follow the rules or you don’t, and you better follow them because they are the only reliable way we are aware of of understanding the world. So it happens that religion is both antithetical to these rules and the answers it gives to questions about pretty much everything range from merely wrong through totally retarded to extremely dangerous nonsense

  16. Beth SR

    GM:

    “Probably because it is not consistent with science, and scientists know what is and what isn’t consistent with science a little better than the laymen. ”

    I am a scientist (a neuroscientist). I’m married to a scientist who studies evolution. My parents are scientists. I am familiar with rigorous science, and I am also familiar with a G-d who is big enough to exist in a world that can be explained by science.

  17. Beth SR

    To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of science advocacy is the lack of support from K-12 teachers, illustrated here:

    “About one-quarter of the [high school biology] teachers devoted at least some time to creationism or intelligent design (18% between 1-2 hours; 5% between 3-5 hours; and 3% between 6-20 hours). Almost half of 30 these teachers agreed with the statement “I emphasize that this is a valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of the species.”

    (From the censured chapter of the 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators)

  18. TB

    When GM says “science” what he really means is ” his brand of atheism,” which ultimately means he’s just plain off topic.

  19. TB

    When GM says “science” what he really means is ” my brand of atheism.”
    I wouldn’t waste your time with him, Beth. He’s just off-topic.

  20. TB

    Weird – Didn’t know I posted the first one. Mobile version of this site is a bit wonky.

  21. Nullius in Verba

    When asking a question about “literacy”, should you be testing knowledge or belief?

    A lot of religious people know about the big bang, just as many atheists know the creation stories of any number of religions. If you ask atheists to describe the contents of creationism, they’d probably come out as quite “Biblically literate”. But if you phrase the question as one about belief…

    So rather than asking people to give a true or false to the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” they should instead be asked “The current scientific theory is that human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” That’s something that the religious would know and agree with – they complain about it often enough.

  22. GM

    When asking a question about “literacy”, should you be testing knowledge or belief?

    Neither. You should be testing the ability to work with the epistemological apparatus of science as this is what defines it. If you believe in God, you have demonstrated your inability to do that

  23. GM

    17. Beth SR Says:
    April 9th, 2010 at 3:16 pm
    GM:
    “Probably because it is not consistent with science, and scientists know what is and what isn’t consistent with science a little better than the laymen. ”
    I am a scientist (a neuroscientist). I’m married to a scientist who studies evolution. My parents are scientists. I am familiar with rigorous science, and I am also familiar with a G-d who is big enough to exist in a world that can be explained by science.

    I have had the opportunity to say this many times on this blog and others, I will repeat it once again: a real scientist is a scientist 24/7/365, i.e. he does not compartmentalize his way of thinking into doing proper science while at work, and forgetting about it when going to church. The people who do this are working in science but they do not qualify as real scientists because they basically deliberately commit such acts of breaking the rules of scientific reasoning that if done with anything related to research would have them expelled from the community for research misconduct forever. And they do this every day.

  24. Andy

    @GM: It appears that you have now applied the “no true Scotsman” fallacy to scientists. Let’s face it – scientists are human, and I’ve yet to meet even the most hardcore atheist scientist who doesn’t have some sort of irrational belief or fear. I know otherwise perfectly “rational” scientists who have deep-seated fears of flying or cadavers or speaking in public, purchase faulty commercial products simply because they like an advertisement, support clearly inferior political candidates or ideologies, and behave in all sorts of perfectly irrational, nonscientific fashions. “Awe” at the natural world is a completely unscientific feeling, and yet scientists choose research paths strictly on this irrational basis.

    Scientists are not the spotless high priests of science. All scientists think unscientifically and behave irrationally (myself included). It would be a pretty joyless profession and a boring life if we didn’t.

  25. GM

    Andy @ 27:

    Of course, I don’t deny this, I myself also behave irrationally sometimes. It is the nature of our species. But the examples you listed are not the same as religion. One thing is that as a scientists your job is to work towards understanding the surrounding world, and religious superstition interferes directly with this in a major way. Second, religion institutionalizes irrationality – you can ask all those “perfectly rational” scientists whether their moments of irrationality are indeed that, and I bet the vast majority of them will admit it. In contrast, religious scientists write books about how well-supported by evidence the existence of God is…. Those little moments of irrationality never threaten the integrity of the scientific enterprise. While religion directly does. It is not all the same

  26. bad Jim

    Razib Khan notes that Americans actually do pretty well on most of the other scientific questions mentioned in the report. Their views on evolution are almost certainly strongly influenced by religion.

    There are two components to this. Most obviously, we have a much larger contingent of evangelical Protestants than other developed countries, thus a large group who deny evolution as a matter of faith. The other component appears to be that we have fewer atheists. If we consider only non-evangelical Christians, about 60% of Americans accept evolution, which is comparable to strongly Catholic countries like Ireland.

    It may be a good idea to ask both “what do scientists believe?” and “what do you believe?” given the tension between science and some religions. It lets us measure both what people have learned and what they are able to accept, and both are important.

  27. Andy

    To follow-up on #28 and to tie it back in to the original thread, I would clarify this to say that _some_ religious superstition interferes with _some_ aspects of science. As evidenced by the NSF poll, the topic of evolution and the origins of the universe are tied up with a literal view of the Bible; antibiotics’ effects on viruses is not. For those religious believers who have discarded the ideas of young earth creationism, intelligent design, and their related dogmas, there is _no_ direct interference between that aspect of faith and that aspect of science. I also think GM overstates the degree to which religious scientists try to “prove” the existence of God. Most of the ones I know (myself included) say that the existence or non-existence of God is an article of faith, not a matter of scientific proof. (I won’t deny that there have been some misguided “proofs” attempted, in the distant and very recent past)

    I’m in trouble both ways now. . .atheists and Christians alike tell me I’m neither a real Christian nor a real scientist. ;-) Apparently my choice is either to return the Ph.D., repay the NSF dollars, undiscover the new species, and retract the peer reviewed papers, or join a monastery. As I alluded to before, “scientist” is a profession, not a religious order. For proof of irrationality in science, just read any of the peer-reviewed publications and responses on Darwinius, H. floresiensis, or Ardipithecus. Irrational, religious-like beliefs abound in the face of insurmountable evidence (I’m speaking from the trenches on that one)! I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on whether or not one can be a “true” scientist and a religious believer. Or whether one can be a “true” scientist and think that Darwinius is an anthropoid primate. ;-)

  28. GM

    To follow-up on #28 and to tie it back in to the original thread, I would clarify this to say that _some_ religious superstition interferes with _some_ aspects of science. As evidenced by the NSF poll, the topic of evolution and the origins of the universe are tied up with a literal view of the Bible; antibiotics’ effects on viruses is not. For those religious believers who have discarded the ideas of young earth creationism, intelligent design, and their related dogmas, there is _no_ direct interference between that aspect of faith and that aspect of science. I also think GM overstates the degree to which religious scientists try to “prove” the existence of God. Most of the ones I know (myself included) say that the existence or non-existence of God is an article of faith, not a matter of scientific proof. (I won’t deny that there have been some misguided “proofs” attempted, in the distant and very recent past)

    You actually prove my point about religion institutionalizing and legalizing intellectual practices that run against everything that science stands for. There is absolutely no place for faith in science, and if you are saying that religion is a matter of faith and science deal with other things, than yes, you should probably return your PhD.

    FYI there are numerous examples of people being fired for research misconduct when they claimed that “Oh, I was absolutely sure I was right so there was no point doing the experiments”. It is exactly the same with the claim that some things can be believed based on faith and this is somehow OK – it is research misconduct and people should be called for it.

  29. Also David

    By suggesting religion is a matter of faith I believe Andy admits that it is irrational, in which case I see no difference to the other irrationalities mentioned before. If they don’t acknowledge the irrationality then they are the type of religious scientists that Andy admits interfere with science. Good, we have defined a class of belief that we all agree interferes with science, moving on.

    GM argues that “religious superstition” inteferes with understanding the surrounding world. Again I would argue that it is a matter of degree. If you believe God created the universe and let it run, you’re probably not going to be very far off. In fact, just that belief is concordant with science in the sense that it adds an extra bit of redundant information to a hypothesis. Perhaps you will take it further and spend some part of your time thanking him. This then becomes an issue of productivity, but we allow people free time, so if they want to spend it thanking someone they believe in that’s fine.

    Taking it further, you might try to recruit some people to your cause. Now you’re, at worst, going to annoy some people. This is possibly obnoxious, but society again allows people to do this.

    The stage where it becomes a risk to understanding, to my mind, is when you believe that your God can intervene directly in your life (or the world around you). Now you have a problem that you can no longer form a valid (from your perspective) hypothesis without worrying about trying to take into account the impact of God.

    Many scientists I know who are religious do not go to these last stages. They see their religion as something personal which gives them a moral code and a sense of purpose. They don’t believe that God intervenes directly but merely set up the world and told it how to work. This is, perhaps, in conflict with the absolute text that their religion prescribes but they tend to see such a text as a garbled message rather than an absolute decree. Such people can still call themselves religious and also make scientific judgements without bias.

    DISCLAIMER: The Author is not a member of any organized religion, nor considers himself religious. He does talk to religious scientist and likes thinking about the issue. He also thinks atheists who take their cause too far end up being biased.

  30. GM

    The “God set everything in motion and didn’t intervene after that” part makes absolutely no sense when coming from people who claim to follow a particular religion. Because each of those religions is 100% based on God intervening after he created everything. So either they don’t believe in the God of their religion or they are lying.

    It’s especially pitiful when you see someone like Francis Collins come out and repeat that mantra, then say “I’m an evangelical Christian”. Well, you either are an evangelical Christian or you don’t believe in a God that never intervenes because the two are absolutely incompatible. Why are you praying to him if he never intervenes? How does Jesus fit in the non-intervening God story? How does the whole Bible fit there? What about sin and all the other basic tenets of Christianity? Hell and heaven? It makes no sense and if someone comes out saying “I see no contradiction” then the reasoning abilities and/or intellectual integrity of that person are under very serious doubt.

    My personal suspicion is that most of the time when this claim is made it is with the purpose of not making one look foolish, i.e. let’s hide God where science can’t touch it in from of the public while in private we’re going to believe whatever nonsense we want

  31. TB

    GM: “You actually prove my point about religion institutionalizing and legalizing intellectual practices …”
    Now that’s an interesting way of putting it.
    Are you in favor of making certain intellectual practices illegal?

  32. GM

    Intentionally falsifying, fabricating, and plagiarizing data is already illegal in science, so I don’t see what your point is

  33. TB

    There is a seperate legal system for science crimes? Where are the lawbooks, with infractions listed and punishment codified? When someone submits a paper for peer review, are they read their Miranda rights?
    But more to the point, even if they don’t submit a paper for peer review but think about something unscientifically, is that just a traffic ticket or can they be prosecuted for a felony?
    But even more importantly, are you suggesting that thinking about the world through a religious prism should be prosecutable?

  34. John Kwok

    @ Dave -

    If I have to guess, I would surmise that you are a Militant Atheist judging from your replies to GM and Beth of which this is a notable example:

    “Many of the greatest scientists have been religious. They somehow reconcile the differences in their faith and their science.”

    Your response was this:

    “And they invariably lived in an era when nothing else was available as an option”

    “Try something better”

    Some of the most rational people I know are religiously devout scientists who can clearly distinguish between their steadfast commitment to sound science and their own personal interest in having some kind of devout faith (Oddly enough, some of the most irrational people I have dealt with tend to be militant atheists. It’s really sanctimonious for them – and for you – to claim that you are morally superior to religiously devout scientists, when your own behavior speaks volumes against such superiority. One recent example of course is how one poster at a famous Militant Atheist blog “joked” that Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney should be raped and killed, along with their supporters, including presumably myself.).

  35. GM

    How is the above an argument against the incompatibility of science and faith?

    I am talking about philosophical incompatibilities, you are giving me examples (from “personal experience” on top of that) of people supposedly being able to hold two contradictory views at the same time.

    Too many times discussion about these, and may other things is getting derailed by basic inability to understand what is actually being argued for and against.

  36. Andy

    Too many times discussion about these, and may other things is getting derailed by basic inability to understand what is actually being argued for and against.

    I completely agree, but probably not for the same reasons. Basic inability is the key phrase here.

  37. Matti K.

    Mr. Mooney: “But that doesn’t make the results any less significant or important to highlight–and this is coming from someone who thinks science and religion ought to get along better, not worse.”

    Well, at least such pussyfooting around “sensitive” questions is not the fault of “new atheists”. Or is it?

  38. Zak

    TB said:
    “There is a seperate legal system for science crimes? Where are the lawbooks, with infractions listed and punishment codified? When someone submits a paper for peer review, are they read their Miranda rights?
    But more to the point, even if they don’t submit a paper for peer review but think about something unscientifically, is that just a traffic ticket or can they be prosecuted for a felony?”

    No and don’t be stupid you knew exactly what he meant. Scientists who break the scientific rules of observing, coming up with a hypothesis, and testing it lose their credibility. If you want to play scientist you use the scientific method.

    “But even more importantly, are you suggesting that thinking about the world through a religious prism should be prosecutable?”

    Yes if you are going to use that as an excuse to mix it with science and then teach it as science. I have no problem with you offering a course for that crap but it has to be called theology not science. The religious belief is for sunday school, proven facts are for science class. I would love to see what would happen if we suddenly decided to teach astrology and say it is an alternate view of astronomy. Maybe Health class should stop teaching sex ed all together and teach the stork method instead.

  39. TB

    GM can argue his own position, Zak, as can I. Neither one of us need you to stumble in and misrepresent what we’re saying.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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