Apr 09 2010

Science Education and Literacy in the US

The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, is tasked with assessing periodically scientific literacy in the US, which manifests as their biennial Science and Engineering Indicators. In the 2010 edition the NSB made the odd and controversial decision to omit the data regarding belief by Americans in evolution and the Big Bang. Hiding data is never a good idea. Science thrives on transparency – better to publish the data with an explanation than just sweep it under the rug. As usually happens, the data is now going to get far more attention than it otherwise would have.

Perhaps the NSB did this on purpose, to draw attention to the problem. They would have been exceptionally clever, but I doubt that’s what happened. It is much more likely to have been a bone-headed political move.

The stated reason for the omission is that the results reflect religious attitudes more than scientific knowledge. This is a reasonable inference from the data, but it is not clear how strong each factor is. Further, the NSB should have just released the data with that discussion – which they actually did quite nicely in that section of the report that was deleted. Here are parts of the deleted section.

In international comparisons, U.S. scores on two science knowledge questions are considerably lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have
been asked. Americans were less likely to answer “true” to the following scientific knowledge questions:

“Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
“The universe began with a huge explosion.”

In the United States, 45% of GSS respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents (figure 7-11).

The 45% figure is not different than previous years. The report goes on to discuss, quite nicely, that the way survey questions are phrased greatly affect the outcome. If the question about evolution, for example, is prefaced with “according to the theory of evolution” – then more people will endorse it as true. This does suggest that more people understand at least the basic concept of evolution than believe in it.

The NSB explanation also does not make sense because this section is labeled “Public Attitudes and Understanding” – so why omit data on the premise that it reflects attitudes more than understanding? The report is about both – so publish the data and discuss the complex relationship between the two.

In fact, the very complexity they claim they are trying to avoid is exactly what they should be exploring. They should also endeavor to design a survey in the future that further fleshes out this relationship.

I also think it does a very superficial job of assessing understanding. Knowing that, according to evolution, species change over time is so basic that it does not really tell us much about the public understanding of evolution. How about asking about the evidence for evolution, how natural selection works as a mechanism, or how genetics reflects evolutionary history. Start with the basics, and then see how deep public understanding goes – at least scratch beneath the surface a little bit.

Rather – the federal organization dedicated to promoting science education in this country decided to sweep their most pressing issue under the rug. Fail!

To be fair, the NSF does much that is good. A recent editorial in Nature discusses the fact that most people learn most of their science outside the classroom – so-called informal science education. They also report:

The NSF, to its credit, is funding research into this area, and many others relating to informal learning. It should continue to do so. In the meantime, however, education authorities need to recognize the importance of informal science education and do more to promote it — if only as a way to motivate students in the classroom.

I think this is a huge issue that will only increase over time. You, dear reader, are engaging in informal science education when you read this blog or other science blogs. Science podcasts are also becoming increasingly popular. And science programming has long been a part of television programming. Popular science magazines are still huge, and most are learning to increase their presence on the web. This is all good.

It also reflects what I have long believed about science education – the most important thing to teach people is how to learn, how to assess and evaluate science information, and to instill them with a desire to do so – an appreciation for the power and beauty of science. The ultimate goal is to give people a sound theoretical grounding in science and a working fund of scientific knowledge. But this approach follows the proverb – give someone a fish and you feed them for a day, teach them how to fish and you feed them for life. So my approach has been to teach people how to fish.

And, in my opinion, that should be the primary goal of formal science education – to create life-long self-learners in science. As the Nature article points out, as adults many of the issues that are relevant to us now (genetically modified foods, stem cell research, global climate change) did not even exist or were minor issues when we were in school. We need to be preparing students today for the scientific controversies of tomorrow.

Further, our experience with attitudes toward evolution reflects the fact that if we don’t effectively deal with these issues today they will continue to be problems decades into the future.

I am glad to see that attention is being paid to this issue. Hopefully this snafu from the NSB will inadvertently draw more attention.

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