Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology

A new article in PLoS Biology (April 18, 2006) discusses the state of scientific literacy in the United States, with especial attention to the survey research of Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School.

To measure public acceptance of the concept of evolution, Miller has been asking adults if "human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals" since 1985. He and his colleagues purposefully avoid using the now politically charged word "evolution" in order to determine whether people accept the basics of evolutionary theory. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of Americans who reject this concept has declined (from 48% to 39%), as has the proportion who accept it (45% to 40%). Confusion, on the other hand, has increased considerably, with those expressing uncertainty increasing from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005.

In international surveys, the article reports, "[n]o other country has so many people who are absolutely committed to rejecting the concept of evolution," quoting Miller as saying, "We are truly out on a limb by ourselves."

The "partisan takeover" of the title refers to the embrace of antievolutionism by what the article describes as "the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party," noting, "In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Missouri, and Texas all included demands for teaching creation science." NCSE is currently aware of eight state Republican parties that have antievolutionism embedded in their official platforms or policies: those of Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas. Five of them -- those of Alaska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas -- call for teaching forms of creationism in addition to evolution; the remaining three call only for referring the decision whether to teach such "alternatives" to local school districts.

A sidebar to the article, entitled "Evolution under Attack," discusses the role of NCSE and its executive director Eugenie C. Scott in defending the teaching of evolution. Scott explained the current spate of antievolution activity as due in part to the rise of state science standards: "for the first time in many states, school districts are faced with the prospect of needing to teach evolution. ... If you don't want evolution to be taught, you need to attack the standards." Commenting on the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, Scott told PLoS Biology, "Intelligent design may be dead as a legal strategy but that does not mean it is dead as a popular social movement," urging scientists and educators to continue to resist to the onslaught of the antievolution movement. "It's got legs," she quipped. "It will evolve."