According to science literacy experts…

The National Science Board might revise two science knowledge questions that are currently phrased as follows:

1.Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. Is that true or false?

2. The universe began with a huge explosion. Is that true or false?

The Board is considering respectively prefacing the questions with “according to evolutionary theory” and “according to astronomers.” This proposal has generated controversy, as Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reported:

The change infuriates Jon Miller, a science literacy expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and architect of the original questionnaire, which is now used by several countries. “If you are altering the questions in that way, you are doing it for religious reasons,” he says. “We don’t make statements like, ‘According to some economists, we had a recession’ or ‘According to the weatherman, we had a tsunami” (p. 394).

Miller’s examples are not well-chosen analogies to questions about evolution and the big bang: questions about a recession or a tsunami are typically not prefaced with “according to” because these are definitional questions for which there are commonly-accepted definitions; for example, a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters with a decline in gross domestic product.

But questions about evolution and the big bang are inferential questions that involve interpreting a large number of observations to make an incredibly broad summary judgment. Thus, a more suitable analogy to economics might be a question about whether deficit spending necessarily improves an economy in recession. Lack of an “according to John Maynard Keynes” preface to this sort of question would make some Nobel economists look financially illiterate.

This is not to suggest that the uncertainty inherent in economics is commensurate with the uncertainty inherent in science, but it is to suggest that the type of question suitable for measuring knowledge of a definition might not be suitable for measuring knowledge of a disputed inference.

But the dispute over adding an “according to” caveat is misguided because the National Science Board should direct its efforts to developing better measures than the current questions that require mere familiarity with or acceptance of a summary inference.

Perhaps respondents should be asked to cite evidence for the big bang, which would provide a deeper measure of knowledge and would avoid the should-we-measure-belief-or-knowledge issue that the National Science Board is stuck on. Researchers could be much more confident in a person’s level of science knowledge if the person mentioned the red shift or cosmic background microwave radiation or the expanding universe, than if all the person did was agree with the true-false statement that the universe began in a big explosion.

See here and here for other thoughts on measuring science knowledge.


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