Friday, June 15, 2012

Comparative US science literacy on evolution (as well as a brief tangent on what "scientific literacy" actually means)

Carl Zimmer presents a chart of science literacy from Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 that reports US figures side-by-side with some other countries' figures.

What Zimmer says is insightful:
We Americans do relatively well on a lot of the questions (although that sometimes means we’re about as bad as most other countries). The one big exception is when Americans are asked about the origin of the universe and of our species.
And he's right: the US is on-par with our "competitors" in terms of providing the correct answer to the questions. (There is some question as to whether the Big Bang can be short-handed as an "explosion", but in some ways, the process of the Big Bang doesn't really fit within the constructs of language as we use it today, so - without first going into a massive verbal description of what the Big Bang is and was - "explosion" is likely a good enough layman's explanation of the process.) However, looking at the question about evolution, we see something rather interesting (as Zimmer points out):

Q. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (True)

USA (2010, n=1932): 47%
South Korea (2004, n=1000): 64%
EU (2005, n=16,029): 70%
Japan (2001, n=2146): 78%
India (2004, n=30,255): 56%
China (2007, n=10,059): 69%
Russia (2003, n=2107): 44%

Interestingly, this value of 47% echoes some of the Gallup polling on this question. In the last survey of Americans, 46% stated that God created humans in their current form, 32% said that humans evolved with God's guidance, and 15% said that humans evolved without God's help. (I wrote previously about how odd these findings would sound if it were related to whether God helped with gravity.) If one were to add the latter two rates (32% and 15%), both of which agree that - whether God did it or not - humans evolved from earlier species, one would get 47%; an interesting piece of corroborative proof.

Just to be clear: the US and Russia answered the question at a rate lower than just random chance would suggest (i.e., 50%). In fact, it is arguable that any answer that significantly diverges from 50% implies that there is literacy about the question. In the case of the United States and Russia, this literacy tends toward answering the question as false. However, even with majorities of India, South Korea, China, the EU, and Japan answering the question as "true", this point says little about the application of such knowledge.

When we think about the question of evolution in the context of the United States - especially when formed in this manner - we may remember the 2005 Dover trial or the much earlier Scopes trial that provided legal tests on the teaching of creationism (or what amounted to creationism under the guise of so-called "intelligent design theory") in public schools. To some level, the question in these cases isn't one about scientific literacy per se but of whether creationism amounted to religious doctrine (which was not allowed to be taught in public schools in the US). The science of evolution wasn't - itself - in question, insofar as whether it was a valid scientific realm or scientific theory, but the trials did show something about how the societies in question (e.g., Dover, PA and the state of Tennessee, respectively) approach the framing of the idea of evolution versus religious doctrine.

If one posits that the science of evolution must conform to the written word of their holy book (in the case of the US, this is almost always the Christian Bible), since it is religious doctrine that the holy book is infallible/the word of the deity/morally good/etc., being faced with a question that flies in the face of the teachings of that book - and of the religion that uses it - makes the whole thing a rather touchy subject. This is a rough outline of what the case of the social situation was leading up to the 2005 Dover, PA trial (and likely what it continues to be today). The literacy of knowing that one thing is a "scientific truth" does not, however, necessarily mean that you accept this scientific truth nor that you understand how to apply it. I would be willing to bet that the number of people who actually accept the above statement as true is likely less than the 47% who reported the that the statement is scientifically true. I would be even more willing to bet that the number of people who understand some of the ramifications of that statement is far less than the 47% figure.

According to some, the importance of whether evolution is true has very little impact on their lives, and this may also color their responses. Kevin Jones over at Mother Jones says, in his article titled "The Fight over Evolution Isn't Actually All that Important":
The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That's why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it's a handy way of saying that they're God-fearing Christians — a "cultural signifier," as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America's top 100 list.

And the reason it doesn't is that even creationists don't take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.
Similar arguments have been made about the importance of learning calculus (or even advanced algebra), learning physics, geology, chemistry, literature, or history. In fact, much of public school education could be shot down with similar logic. Of course, if the utilitarian argument isn't the only reason why we learn things. After all, without being introduced to these topics - and having the opportunity to excel in them - we would be pushing back the learning requirements until the university level. And - to a certain degree - this happens, with many freshmen taking introductory mathematics classes, because they didn't take much past algebra in high school. Perhaps schools could also be offering trades courses (like car repair, appliance maintenance, hair-cutting, cooking, etc.) or preparing people for operating businesses or for entering public service, etc. However, I think that these things are grist for a different conversation; one about the efficacy of our current education system's ability to provide the skills and opportunities for people to excel in the areas in which they find interest.

Going back to the point about literacy, scientific literacy ought to be more than merely being able to correctly answer true and false questions. Like literacy of language, it requires that you understand not only that the letter "C" is actually the letter "C", pronounced as "see", usable as either a "ssss" sound or a "kuh" sound. It requires more than knowing that "cat" is pronounced like "kat" and not "sat". It requires more than knowing that "cat" refers to a type of animal, and more than merely knowing a physical description (and perhaps recognizing a visual representation) of the animal. Indeed, literacy requires that you know how "cat" is situated in the language; to know that it has a particular nuance when used in one situation, "she has many cats," than in another one, "he has many cats"; to understand some of the social complexity that arises from conjoined words like "catnap" and phrases like "the cat's meow"; and to understand social differences between merely "cats" and the Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "Cats"; and so much more (for just this word). And literacy requires a similar knowledge for not just a smattering of words (or even significant portions of a lexicon), but it also requires that you know how and when and where to use them for the exact level of the precise desired effect in the setting of choice and medium of communication.

In a more applicable example of literacy and social impacts (and social constructions), the recent Gallup poll of Americans' views on the percentage of the population who are non-heterosexual showed that a plurality believe that at least one out of every four people in the country aren't heterosexual. As Gallup concludes, " is clear that America’s gay population — no matter the size — is becoming a larger part of America’s mainstream consciousness." Of course, what would be interesting would be the cross-tabs on how many Americans believe that a large percentage of the population are gay or lesbian while also thinking that it is a lifestyle choice (and not genetic). THAT understanding can actually have some say about the literacy of our understanding of things.

In short, the list of statements for which Trues and Falses were given is merely a starting point for scientific literacy, not an end point. But still, even with that starting point, recognizing distinct social trends underlying trends to relatively simple two-choice answers can indicate something about the underlying social condition of a country.

Just to increase your scientific literacy about evolution a bit, here's a good overview video:

UPDATE (2012-06-15): Ed Brayton, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars (and a blogger that I started reading during the Dover evolution vs. intelligent design/creationism lawsuit was taking place) has also weighed into this debate of why Americans fail to answer this question correctly and whether this is a bad thing (and I'm pleased to note that his major points seem to align with the ones I made above):
We aren’t going to “bring the country together” — whatever that means — no matter what people think about evolution and creationism. But there are far better reasons to be bothered by the lack of acceptance of evolution than that it divides us. Because rejection of evolution does not typically travel alone; it is a symptom of a much larger problem of overwhelming ignorance of science.

The second is a preference for religious and political explanations over scientific ones. And this is not limited to evolution, it pervades our political discourse. If science says that evolution is true but your church says it’s not, evolution must be wrong; if science says global warming is real and threatens our future but your political party says it’s not, global warming must be wrong. And not merely wrong but a massive conspiracy by evil and satanic liberals who want to destroy God, grandma and apple pie.

No comments: