What happened to evolution at the NSB?

A section describing survey results about the American public's beliefs about evolution and the Big Bang was removed from the 2010 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators. According to a post on the AAAS's Science Insider blog (April 8, 2010) and a subsequent report in Science (April 9, 2010; subscription required), although survey results about evolution and the Big Bang have regularly appeared in the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators, its biennial compilation of global data about science, engineering, and technology, they were absent from the 2010 edition.

NCSE's Joshua Rosenau decried the decision, saying, "Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice ... It downplays the controversy." Also reportedly dismayed by the decision was the White House. "The Administration counts on the National Science Board to provide the fairest and most complete reporting of the facts they track," Rick Weiss, a spokesperson and analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Science.

Previous editions of the Indicators reported the data about the public's beliefs about evolution and the Big Bang, and moreover highlighted the discrepancy between the overwhelming acceptance of evolution by the scientific community and the prevalence of doubt among the general public. The 2008 edition of the Indicators featured a sidebar on "Evolution and the Schools," for example, and the 2006 edition similarly featured a sidebar entitled "More Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Science Classrooms."

The lead reviewer of the chapter, John Bruer, told Science that he recommended deleting the section because the questions seemed like "blunt instruments" for assessing public understanding. When asked whether people who reject evolution and the Big Bang could be considered to be scientifically literate, he replied, "There are many biologists and philosophers of science who are highly scientifically literate who question certain aspects of the theory of evolution," but conceded that they would not be likely to regard the statement about humans having evolved from earlier species as false.

Officials at the National Science Board defended the decision. Louis Lanzerrotti, chair of the board's Science and Engineering Indicators committee, told Science that the questions were "flawed indicators of science knowledge because the responses conflated knowledge and beliefs." George Bishop, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati who is familiar with the difficulties of polling about evolution, regarded that position as defensible, explaining, "Because of biblical traditions in American culture, that question is really a measure of belief, not knowledge."

Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University who originally devised the question about evolution, disagreed, however, asking, "If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate?" According to Science, "Miller believes that removing the entire section was a clumsy attempt to hide a national embarrassment. 'Nobody likes our infant death rate,' he says by way of comparison, 'but it doesn't go away if you quit talking about it.'"

The text deleted from the report is available (PDF) on Science's website. It observes that 45% of Americans in 2008 regarded the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" as true, whereas 78% of Japanese, 70% of Europeans, 69% of Chinese, and 64% of South Koreans regarded it as true. It also includes a sidebar entitled "How Schools Teach Evolution," summarizing the results of Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer's important paper "Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait."