Saturday, July 30, 2011

USA redefines scientific literacy

AAAS Science magazine reports that the USA is changing the way it measures science literacy:
For 2 decades, the survey has included two true-false statements: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and “The universe began with a huge explosion.” Two expert panels assembled last year by NSF have suggested qualifying those statements with the phrases “According to evolutionary theory” and “According to astronomers.” The board has decided to ask NSF to give the new versions of the questions to half the respondents on its next survey and to analyze the results.

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.’”
I criticized Miller before here and here. Some of the question problems are explained here.

The NSF has an interest in promoting scientific literacy, and that means understanding scientific knowledge. It does not mean accepting the leftist-atheist beliefs of prominent scientists.

Take Miller's "recession" example. A recession is commonly defined as two quarters of declining GDP. There are people who do not accept that, and argue that the definition of GDP includes many unproductive and counter-productive components, and GDP can rise while our real wealth declines. Those folks are not illiterate. They simply have different beliefs. For them, it is completely legitimate to qualify the word "recession" by how economists commonly define the term. Miller is just trying to marginalize those who have different beliefs, instead of asking who understands the science.

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