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.
My latest blog post over at Science Progress is a reaction to the NSF’s new Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report, and in particular, to its famous Chapter 7, which deals with science and the public.
In essence, the new Chapter 7 gives you the choice of whether to view the glass as half full, or half empty, when it comes to the U.S. public and its relationship to the world of science. I personally lean toward “half empty,” but here’s the pro/con breakdown:
On the positive side…the report consistently shows that Americans are not so scientifically benighted as one might think, at least in comparison with the rest of the world. We go to science museums more frequently. We claim a higher level of interest in “new scientific discoveries” than citizens in South Korea, China, and many parts of Europe. And in terms of sheer factual knowledge, we perform pretty much on par with Europe, and ahead of other countries like Japan, China, and Russia.
Through such international comparisons, the latest NSF report suggests that if your preferred standard for judging a nation’s engagement with science is to see how it stacks up next to other comparable (e.g., developed) countries, then the United States really doesn’t fare so poorly. Furthermore, NSF emphasizes that Americans profess to have very positive views about science. They overwhelmingly think science makes our lives better and that it deserves federal funding. And they have an apparently abiding trust in the leaders of the scientific community.
That’s the good side. But here’s the reason I still feel pretty negative in outlook:
As Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 itself admits, seeing how the country fares on science in comparison with other nations isn’t the only possible means of judgment. If one’s standard is more ambitious—emphasizing, in the latest report’s words, “what a technologically advanced society requires (either today or in the future) to compete in the world economy and enable its citizens to better take advantage of science progress in their own lives”—then it is very hard to feel good about the current state of affairs in the United States.
For instance, just 13 percent of the public now claims to follow science and technology news “very closely,” and this number has been on a downward trend for the past decade, ending with the current low. So while Americans may profess great admiration for science in the abstract, they hardly feel compelled to pay it much attention.
Similarly, there has been little apparent improvement over time in Americans’ basic ability to answer factual questions about science correctly. Moreover, the vast majority of our citizens have scant familiarity with key emerging scientific fields that will dramatically shape the future, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology—and it is important to note that these are the only such fields that the NSF report focuses in on. Ask Americans about other coming scientific technologies or quandaries—say, geoengineering, or synthetic biology—and I imagine the responses would be even more dismal.
Anyway, there’s much more to the column, so check it out here–and decide for yourself whether, when it comes to science and the American public, you’re an optimist or pessimist.