Friday, July 30, 2010

Science literacy in Australia and the US

A survey (pdf) commissioned by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies of Australian science literacy has somewhat mixed results.

(Update: See also an ABC News (Australia) report on it here. )

The report on the survey, which was conducted just over a week ago by Auspoll, seems show some disturbing results, though others are mildly encouraging.

For example, 30% of Australians think humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and 39% don't realize it takes a year for the Earth to orbit the Sun. On the other hand, I found that 13% of people knew that 3% of the world's water was fresh surprisingly high.

The survey replicates a survey conducted in 2009 by Harris Interactive for the California Academy of Sciences. The press release (which contains all the information I can find online) only describes a brief subset of the results, but I have compared everything I have information on.

Steve Novella commented on the US survey last year; his questions and criticisms would apply to both surveys.

Summary of the results of the Australian poll (correct answers underlined):
Q1: How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
One Year: 61
One Day: 28
One Month: 2
One Week: 1
Not Sure: 8

Q2: Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
False: 70
True: 30
Not Sure: 0

Q3: What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered by water?
0-25% : 0
26-50% : 2
51-60% : 4
61-69% : 9
70% : 41
71-80% : 33
81-100%: 6
Not Sure: 6

Q4: What percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water?
0% 0
1% 5
2% 5
3% 13
4%-10% 23
11%-25% 19
26%-50% 9
51%-60% 3
61%-70% 1
71%-80% 0
81%-100% 0
Not sure 22

Q5: Do you think that evolution is occurring?
Yes, I think evolution is currently occurring: 71
No, I do not think evolution is currently occurring: 8
No, I do not believe in evolution: 10
Not Sure: 11

Q6: Do you think that humans are influencing the evolution of other species?
Yes, I think humans are influencing the evolution of other species: 77
No, I do not think humans are influencing the evolution of other species: 7
No, I do not believe in evolution: 9
Not Sure: 7

Q7: In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?
Absolutely essential: 42
Very important: 38
Somewhat important: 16
Not at all important: 2
Not Sure: 2

One highly amusing outcome of this survey is that even though only 71% of people think "evolution is currently occurring", 77% think that "humans are influencing the evolution of other species". Presumably at least six percent of people think humans are affecting evolution while isn't happening. The cognitive dissonance must be astounding.

Here's the corresponding information I was able to pull out of the Calacademy press release:

- 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.

- 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time

- 47% of adults can approximate (within 5%) the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water.

- 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%

- Less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet's water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%).

- Science eduction: Essential or Very Important to the US economy: 77%

The Calacademy press release didn't mention the evolution questions, but we can do a comparison with another Harris Interactive poll (pdf) which suggests that rates of "do not believe in evolution" and "not sure" in Question 5 above are about half of the equivalent rates in the US, roughly consistent with other figures I have seen.

Here's a graphic showing a comparison of the corresponding the percentage of correct answers from the two surveys on Questions 1-4 and the percentage rating science education as "essential" or "very important" for the national economy:

(Graphic generated in the free statistical package R)

Australia is outperforming the US (pretty handily on some questions), but that may not be saying a whole lot.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The fruits of accomodationism?

PZ and Jerry Coyne have both discussed the PLOS paper on a survey of high school biology teachers in the US.

The graphic I want to discuss is here:

If we remove those who failed to express an opinion (the same in both surveys - 9%) we can do a "triangle plot" or Ternary plot, showing the three other percentages:

On this plot, moving up is "more creationism", moving (roughly) southwest is "more acceptance of evolution" and moving southeast is "more acceptance of ID".

We see that the general public (in blue) and the high school biology teachers (red) are not in the same place. We can't from this tell for sure whether it's the training of biology teachers and the materials and curricula that they have to work with that makes a difference or whether those who might become biology teachers are a priori different from the rest of the population, but numerous anecdotes (which attest to the fact that education does change people's opinions) suggest that training and the teacher's available teaching materials (like textbooks and so on) and curricula will have a substantial impact on what positions they will endorse. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful motivator.

Since training at a university level will generally tend to be based directly on evolution rather than be ID-oriented, while school-level teaching materials and curricula will tend to be more influenced by (for example) NCSE policy, one has to wonder at the overall effect of the two.

If we attribute the shift between the red and the blue points largely to effects other than pre-disposition, we must say that these have produced a shift away from Creationism... but not even slightly shifted toward the position of actual biological science relative to ID.

The suggestion that I take away from this is that this may be in part to the effectively accomodationist stances of influential organizations like the NCSE - by openly tolerating, sometimes even advocating unscientific positions like ID (that God "guides evolution", rather than the scientific position of evolution operating by natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift and so on is basically ID), they merely succeed in replacing one load of unscientific nonsense with another.

This is not science education.

Enough with accomodationism. Let's advocate actual science, and get everyone's favourite god(s) out of biology class.

Even though I am in Australia, this sort of thing has particular relevance for me because the Australian school curriculum in under review right now... and while the science curriculum is safe, look what's in the senior History curriculum:

UNIT 2A, pg 8


Students develop their historical skills in an investigation of TWO of the following controversial issues:

a) human origins (e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution and its critics).

b) dating the past (e.g. radio-carbon dating, tracing human migrations using DNA)

Yep. Maybe if we looked at the controversy itself as historical, this would count as 19th century history. But this is the Ancient History curriculum... as if human origins and radio-carbon dating are actually substantially in doubt now as being useful for informing us about the past - as if we don't really know these things quite well, and as if actual human origins (and carbon dating, for crying out loud) were at issue.

If these are controversies, why not look at the flat earth/round earth controvery, and while we're at it, germ theory too?

I think accomodationism is poisoning our education, by trying to make us accept as equally reasonable points of view that have nothing to do with the actual science.

I think it's insidious. I think it ruins everything it touches.

If it doesn't work, try something else.

Here's an idea - why don't we try NOT being accomodationist for a decade or so. Try actually insisting on science as science - no holds barred. Actually advocate for science. Insist that we teach the accepted scientific positions (and even the parts where there's some actual scientific disagreement if you like) as is. Without trying to fit in everyone's pet unscientific ideas as well, just because it makes them feel all warm-and-fuzzy.

Let's see what happens.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Too old for Santa

Too old for Santa?

Telling someone that there's no god is not like
telling a small child there's no Santa.
It's like telling an adult there's no Santa.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Banging my head on yet another brick in the wall, part III - debating theists

I've had some ongoing health issues and some additional illnesses - I'm still somewhat invalid, and as a result my brain really hasn't been up to much intellectual work.

So instead I've had a number of discussions with theists.

Many of those discussions have had a somewhat similar character, and one in particular sums the whole experience up. This is a brief summary of the course of that typical case.

At the beginning, in response to a comment I made about modern apologetics, a very pleasant theist (let's call him Michael) tells me that William Lane Craig is a "really clever guy" with "persuasive arguments", and I "really should read his book" (they generally mean Reasonable Faith, but sometimes it's another book).

I respond that while I haven't read his book, I have seen video of him debating, and I have seen detailed reviews of his book that discuss some of Craig's arguments and I have had some of his arguments presented to me before, and that I am inclined to doubt the assertion that Craig's arguments are actually very persuasive.

I ask Michael to present to me what he thinks of as one of Craig's best arguments. His response is "the Kalam Cosmological argument".

Well, let's leave aside the fact that he only named the argument, he didn't actually present it - but instead left me to find the argument (I've seen it before, so it wasn't all that hard to find again, but I find it interesting how I always seem to get left with all the heavy lifting in these things - I have to locate the argument, check that this is really what my opponent means and then explain why it's wrong).

(Let's also leave aside the fact that the Kalam scholars were busy establishing the existence of the god of Mohammad, not the Christian god of the New Testament that Michael worshipped. If his argument went through I wasn't going to make him change religions.)

So anyway, I present Michael's argument to him and he says, yes, that's completely convincing, the conclusion definitely follows form the premises and the premises are "obviously true".

So I take him carefully through an analysis of the premises. Fortunately my correspondent is an extremely honest debater, so this only takes us several days.

Long story short - he ultimately agrees that in fact the premises consist of multiple sub-premises, not all explicitly stated, and that none of the sub-premises are actually established. Not one.

Indeed, he comes to agree that at best one of them is "probably true", and is reduced to arguing that the other premise is "not definitely established to be false".

After some prompting he agrees that yes, he does actually need to have them both be "definitely true" before he can try to apply the argument, and that's not the case.

So Michael's choice of "best argument" from Craig turns out to be a house of cards.

We end the discussion amicably. Michael departs with the suggestion that I still go read Craig's book "because some of his other arguments are really good".

I can't clearly apprehend quite how the cognitive dissonance doesn't make his brain explode into pink mist, but I am satsified that at least (given hours of effort and an honest counterpart), I can actually show one person that one of their "best" arguments for god isn't an argument at all.

(I have come to find that this is about as good an outcome as any such discussion is going to get.)

So, at least slightly satisfied, I return to the discussion from where our little debate originated.

What do I find? Another earnest Christian telling me that I "should read the book by William Lane Craig" and that it has "really good arguments".

I resist the temptation to spend several more days - if I am lucky - removing just one item from this new guy's list of "really good arguments".