Saturday, July 16, 2005

Science isn’t democratic

Several weeks ago there were stories on the web about a recent survey on the subject of human evolution. One article, in the Washington Times, titled “Majority in poll see God as direct Creator of man” (7/8/2005), started out

“Most Americans believe it all starts in heaven: 64 percent of us agree that ‘human beings were created directly by God,’ according to a Harris poll released yesterday.

“Among college graduates, for example, the poll found that almost half believe in creationism, while 31 percent supported evolutionary theory.”

Yet another survey. (Big sigh.) But something popped out at me. I ran across this article while The New Republic “do you believe” discussion was going full throttle. The Washington Times, not exactly a standard bearer for objective reporting, used “believe in” for creationism but used “support” for evolutionary theory in reporting out the results. Does this mean that they get it … or were they simply aiming to deflect criticism? Hmmm.

Anyway, the results of the poll, which btw I didn’t see reported anywhere except in the religious press, were not surprising. They were just so … so … so what?

Since when is education – especially science education – supposed to be based on what most people believe … or want to believe? Yes, education can help instill values, but it must also inform. And it must prepare students for the real world.

When students used to ask her if she would please, please grade an upcoming exam on the curve, one of my high school teachers used to respond, “Would you want to go to a doctor who got through medical school on the curve?” I would now ask, “Would you want to go to a doctor whose medical education was based on what the general public believed to be true?”

What might that look like? Here’s an example based on a recent news story on common misconceptions about a disease that can kill you “Americans misinformed about cancer” (MSNBC, 6/28/2005):

“More than 40 percent of Americans surveyed in a study falsely believed surgery can allow cancer cells to spread through the body, researchers said.”
“The results show that the American public is significantly ill-informed about cancer, and that most people overestimate how much they know about the disease, the researchers said.”

So, let’s say some misguided, pseudo-scientific “do-gooders” – or outright charlatans –start campaigning about the dangers of cancer surgery in order to promote their alternative “cure.” They need only persuade another ten percent of Americans that surgery could spread cancer. With clever marketing and cooperation from a scientifically illiterate media, they might be able to do it in a few years. Then we could conduct a public opinion poll to determine what medical schools should teach about cancer treatment.

Yes, it’s a pretty ridiculous example, but no more ridiculous than suggesting that science curricula should be based on opinion polls. The real lesson to be taken from the results of the Harris poll is that the general public has a poor understanding of evolution. This is a real problem and it needs to be addressed by better science education, not by watering down content – or perverting education standards – to avoid offending someone’s sensibilities.


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