Saturday, April 10, 2010

Belief, Knowledge and Literacy

There is a mini controversy about the decision of the National Science Board to delete a section of the 2010 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators. The section dealt with the responses in a national survey to two questions:
  1. “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
  2. “The universe began with a huge explosion.”
Apparently the National Science Foundation and its Board deleted the section, which indicated low understanding of science by people in the United States as compared with other developed nations, because of concern with the methodology.

Lets think about this.

I would hope that Americans would understand the theory of evolution and have a general idea of the evidence that supports it. I would also hope that Americans would have a general understanding of modern cosmology.

How well worded are the questions? The wording of the second question draws on the metaphor of "the big bang". I am not sure that the conditions at the beginning of the universe as they are now understood have much to do with anything we would recognize as an explosion either from common experience nor from extreme events such as super nova. On the other hand, the universe seems to be expanding at an increasing rate suggesting that if we use the explosion metaphor, the universe is still exploding. So too, human beings develop from embryos in the most common meaning of "develop". The species of Homo sapiens of course evolved from some other species.

But what if a Christian fully understands the theory of evolution and modern cosmology, but chooses to answer that both statements are false, feeling that that response is more faithful to his religion and his religious community.

In the example, the person would know the scientific theories but choose not to believe them. There are lots of examples in which we know an explanation of a phenomenon and choose not to believe that explanation. There are in fact situations in which we act at times in belief and at others in disbelief. A scientist can teach a currently accepted scientific theory while working hard to find evidence contradicting the theory and working to create an alternate theory.

Consider Einstein during the work to create the Theory of Relativity. He clearly knew Newtonian theory, and equally clearly he thought that there must be some way in which it could be improved. Would he have taught Newtonian physics if asked? I suppose so.

Certainly the most visible promoters of creationism are not ignorant of evolutionary theory, nor do those who believe in a relatively recent divine creation of the universe necessarily live in greater ignorance than the rest of us of modern cosmology.

"Scientific literacy" should be defined in terms of one's understanding of the content of science, not whether one actually believes in the findings of science, and especially not one chooses to believe different things in different settings of his life.

I guess I agree with the decision to delete the section of the report as it was written. On the other hand, I would hope that better methods could be used to allow future reports to tell us how much Americans really know about science. and to better illuminate the difference in beliefs that exist about evolution and creation of the universe.

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