As You Likert

William Jennings Bryan (1902)

Do you know those questionnaires where you are presented with a statement and asked whether you (1) strongly agree, (2) agree, (3) neither agree nor disagree, (4) disagree, or (5) strongly disagree? The responses themselves are supposed to be symmetrical and balanced around the neutral position (whether or not it is included). In the trade, these statements together with the ranges are called Likert items, and the sum of the responses is called a Likert scale, after the psychologist Rensis Likert (1903–1946)—which is pronounced LICK-ert, not LIKE-ert, making a mockery of the Shakespearian title here. (I also considered “Some Likert Hot.”) Likert is credited with developing the apparatus on the strength of his paper “A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes,” published in Archives of Psychology in 1932. And yet, as I recently discovered to my surprise, a couple of sociologists were using such a questionnaire in 1923—and doing so in order to give a hard time to a leading creationist.

In 1923, Stuart A. Rice (1889–1969) and Malcolm M. Willey (1897–1974) were both young instructors in sociology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, both having recently received their doctoral degrees at Columbia University. When they learned that William Jennings Bryan (above) was coming to their college to give a talk on “Science vs. Evolution,” they thought that it would be interesting to ascertain what the effect, if any, would be on the students—especially because, as they wrote in the January 13, 1924, issue of The New York Times, “Dartmouth is one college in the country where every undergraduate is required to take a course in evolution and where a department of evolution has a place of equal importance with the departments devoted to the classics, the social sciences[,] and the rest.” They prepared a questionnaire to administer to 136 sociology students, all of whom had taken the required course in evolution in their first year at the college. The sole question was a Likert item avant la lettre.

With reference to the doctrine that man evolved from lower animal forms, in harmony with general principles of organic evolution:

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

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