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.