I'm from Missouri

This site is named for the famous statement of US Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver from Missouri : "I`m from Missouri -- you'll have to show me." This site is dedicated to skepticism of official dogma in all subjects. Just-so stories are not accepted here. This is a site where controversial subjects such as evolution theory and the Holocaust may be freely debated.

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My biggest motivation for creating my own blogs was to avoid the arbitrary censorship practiced by other blogs and various other Internet forums. Censorship will be avoided in my blogs -- there will be no deletion of comments, no closing of comment threads, no holding up of comments for moderation, and no commenter registration hassles. Comments containing nothing but insults and/or ad hominem attacks are discouraged. My non-response to a particular comment should not be interpreted as agreement, approval, or inability to answer.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Biased reports of a biased survey of Texas college biologists

There is a lot of ballyhoo about a report of a survey of Texas college-level biology faculty members in which 97.7% of the ~45% who responded rejected "intelligent design" as valid science. The survey was reported in the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the Houston Chronicle. The Texas Freedom Network posted a short summary of the report and a long summary of the report.

The Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin said of the ~45% response rate to the survey,

"It’s a self-selecting survey. There’s a well-documented culture of intimidation that makes scientists uncomfortable expressing their doubts about Darwinism. This just serves to reinforce that climate of intimidation."

However, the responses of individuals were not published, so I doubt that intimidation was a biasing factor. IMO what was a biasing factor is that the wording of some of the questions -- e.g., the term "creationism/intelligent design," which lumps together creationism and intelligent design -- caused some of the survey's addressees to recognize the survey as a crank survey and they decided not to help legitimize the survey by responding to it.

None of the news summaries of the full report of the survey mentioned the following survey result that is the most significant result in regard to the issue of whether the "strengths and weaknesses" language should be retained in the Texas state science standards (in the full report, page 16 of the PDF file and page 11 marked on the document):
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Our survey sought to learn more than simply what Texas biologists and biological anthropologists think about the "weaknesses" argument. The survey further queried respondents about whether the State Board of Education "should amend the [state's science] curriculum standards to exclude discussion of the 'weaknesses' of evolution as advanced by proponents of creationism and intelligent design theory."

First of all, note that the question was loaded -- the question asks the respondents only about creationism and intelligent design and not about other specific criticisms of evolution theory or criticisms of evolution theory in general. This presumption that creationism and intelligent design are the only criticisms of evolution theory shows great ignorance. Also, no one has actually proposed amending the state science standards to expressly exclude discussion of weaknesses or criticisms of evolution theory, but responses to the above question would give an indication of how the respondents feel about retaining the "strengths and weaknesses" language. The report continues,

Of all respondents, 67% said either that they strongly agree or agree somewhat with excluding such discussions. Another 6% said, "not sure," while 13% replied they "disagree somewhat" and 15% of the respondents chose "strongly disagree."

This 67% figure, though a strong majority, is lower -- generally far lower -- than the percentages that the news summaries reported for pro-Darwinist responses to other questions. For example, the Texas Freedom Network reported,

The survey results are contained in a new report, Evolution, Creationism and Public Education: Surveying What Texas Scientists Think about Educating Our Kids in the 21st Century.

The report highlights five key findings from the survey:

1. Texas scientists (97.7 percent) overwhelmingly reject “intelligent design” as valid science.

2. Texas science faculty (95 percent) want only evolution taught in science classrooms.

3. Scientists reject teaching the so-called “weaknesses” of evolution, with 94 percent saying that those arguments are not valid scientific objections to evolution.

4. Science faculty believe that emphasizing “weaknesses” of evolution would substantially harm students’ college readiness (79.6 percent) and ability to compete for 21st-century jobs (72 percent).

5. Scientists (91 percent) strongly believe that support for evolution is compatible with religious faith.

Note that the title itself of the survey report is biased -- it only mentions creationism and does not mention any of the scientific or pseudoscientific criticisms of evolution theory. Also, the question for item #2 above was loaded -- the scientists were asked "if they would prefer to teach 'just evolution,' 'just creationism/intelligent design as a valid account of origins,' or 'both.'" (emphasis added -- page 14 of PDF file, page 9 of document of full report). Note that they were only asked for their preferences -- they were not asked if they would object to teaching creationism/intelligent design or other criticisms of evolution theory. Also, they were not asked if they would be willing to teach creation/intelligent design -- or other criticisms of evolution theory -- as invalid accounts of origins or without regard to being valid accounts or not.

Also, it is surprising that the 67% figure is significantly lower the 79.6% and 72% figures above (item #4 in the TFN report) -- it seems that those who think that teaching the "weaknesses" would harm students would also want the "weaknesses" to be excluded from the curriculum.

The full report of the survey continues,

Even here, we must consider the possibility that some giving a "disagree" answer actually did so because they would wish to be able to include discussion of the "weaknesses" in order to debunk such claims. Indeed, some open-ended comments from those who do wish to include discussion of "weaknesses" indicate that they hope to discredit such claims . . .

Who in the hell cares what reasons respondents had for giving a "disagree" answer? What counts so far as the question of retaining the "strengths and weaknesses" language is concerned is that they gave a "disagree" answer.

The full report continues,

Clearly, the latest shift in strategy from promoting intelligent design to pushing "weaknesses" of evolution has not made any significant inroads into the science community.

As reported above, 13% "disagreed somewhat," 15% "strongly disagreed," 6% were not sure, and only 67% agreed with the idea of amending the state science standards "to exclude discussion of the 'weaknesses' of evolution as advanced by proponents of creationism and intelligent design theory." Those percentages represent "significant inroads." Also, the "strengths and weaknesses" language is not a "shift in strategy" in Texas -- this language has been in the state science-education regulations for about 20 years.

Also, regarding the survey's finding that '[s]cience faculty believe that emphasizing 'weaknesses' of evolution would substantially harm students’ college readiness (79.6 percent) and ability to compete for 21st-century jobs (72 percent)": It is one thing to say that not learning evolution theory in high school leaves students incompletely prepared to study biology in college -- evolution is discussed in a lot of scientific papers in biology and cladistic taxonomy is based on evolution theory. However, it is something else entirely to say that "emphasizing 'weaknesses' of evolution would substantially harm students’ college readiness" -- that's completely ridiculous, as is the statement that such emphasis would harm students' "ability to compete for 21st century jobs." Also, college students not majoring in biology or related fields would generally not be significantly affected by a lack of knowledge of evolution.

Also, the full report says (page 11 of PDF file, page 6 of document),

EXAMINING THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THOSE WHO DO SUPPORT THE TEACHING OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN

What can we say about the small minority of Texas science faculty (2%) who evidence some measure of support for intelligent design/creationism? (For purposes of this analysis, intelligent design/creationist supporters are all respondents who indicated either "Modern evolutionary biology is right about the common ancestry of all extant organisms, but it is necessary to supplement it by invoking periodic intervention by an intelligent designer" or "Modern evolutionary biology is mostly wrong. Life arose through multiple creation events by an intelligent designer, although evolution by natural selection played a limited role.")

The educational profile of this group is revealing. Ten supporters of intelligent design/creationism responded to the question, "Have you taught a course that included a substantial block of material on human evolution?". Of the ten, seven persons replied "no," as compared to three who replied "yes." So we readily see that most intelligent design supporters identified in this survey do not teach courses that address evolution. Even more strikingly, no person in the subsample of those supporting intelligent design reported teaching graduate students about human evolution within the past five years. (Another way of phrasing this last point is to say that there was no person out of the total sample of 464 respondents who said they both supported intelligent design and had taught graduate students within the past five years.) We are therefore safe in concluding that the already thin support for teaching intelligent design vanishes to essentially zero when looking at established Texas biology and biological anthropology faculty who teach at the graduate level.

What does teaching evolution -- or human evolution specifically -- to graduate students within the last five years have to do with the validity of a biologist's opinion about the evolution controversy? Also, there is this non-sequitur: "no person in the subsample of those supporting intelligent design reported teaching graduate students about human evolution within the past five years. (Another way of phrasing this last point is to say that there was no person out of the total sample of 464 respondents who said they both supported intelligent design and had taught graduate students within the past five years.)" (emphasis added) The sentence in parentheses is not "another way of phrasing" the first sentence -- the first sentence talks about teaching human evolution and the sentence in parentheses does not. Finally, without knowing what percentage of all the respondents taught evolution or human evolution to graduate students in the past five years, no conclusions can be drawn about the fact that none of the ten ID supporters are in that group of respondents. To take an extreme example, if only 1% of all respondents taught evolution or human evolution to graduate students in the past five years, it would not be statistically significant that none of the ten ID supporters are in that group.

This was a highly biased survey designed to achieve a desired result -- it is not like a survey by an unbiased polling agency like Zogby, Harris, Gallup, etc..

Anyway, the question of whether to retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language does not require any scientific expertise, so there is no reason to give extra weight to scientists' opinions about that question. Also, the state board of education members are more likely to listen to the general electorate than to biologists, and the two supporters of the "weaknesses" language who were seriously challenged in the last election were re-elected.

Evolution News & Views also has an article about the survey.
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2 Comments:

Anonymous Ballet Who said...

Why don't you conduct your own survey? Surely you would be unbiased.

Thursday, November 20, 2008 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Fafarman said...

>>>>>> Why don't you conduct your own survey? <<<<<<<

I don't have the time, the money, or the interest to conduct such a survey. My own opinions would not be affected by the results of the survey.

>>>>>> Surely you would be unbiased. <<<<<<

Thank you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008 12:26:00 PM  

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