Monday, August 14, 2006

More oxygen: Creationism, gender, and the future of America

A semi-regular theme of TfK's coverage of polling on evolution is the effect of gender on views of evolution. A Pew poll a year ago found that women were much less likely than men to accept evolution, even when they controlled for education, religion, age, and income.

Which is why I was surprised that the major study of views of evolution published in last week's Science found no such effect. Gender does have an influence on religion, but when you control for those sorts of causal interactions (using more sophisticated techniques than I expect Pew attempted), the pure effect of gender is almost non-existent. Men are significantly more likely to accept evolution in a statistical sense, but the difference is so small as to be practically unimportant.

The big headline of course is that America ranked at #34 out of 35 countries in understanding and acceptance of evolutionary biology. While education in general was important in explaining people's views of evolution, how well people were informed about basic principles of genetics was much more important. People who correctly chose which of these statements were true or false were more likely to understand evolution, while educational attainment had essentially no direct effect (other than increasing someone's chance of getting these statements right:

  • Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do.
  • Genetically modified animals are always larger than ordinary animals.
  • Cloning is a form of reproduction in which offspring result from the union of sperm and egg.
  • Today it is not possible to transfer genes from humans to animals.
  • If someone eats a genetically modified fruit, there is a risk that a person’s genes might be modified too.
  • All plants and animals have DNA.
  • Today it is not possible to transfer genes from animals to plants.
  • Humans have somewhat less than half of the DNA in common with chimpanzees.
  • It is possible to extract stem cells from human embryos without destroying the embryos.
  • All humans share exactly the same DNA.
See how you do with those.

And think about what this means. It isn't enough just to provide a lot of education. You have to get key concepts across. People can be highly educated without understanding biology, or without understanding math, history, or anything at all.

William Kirwan, Chancellor of Maryland's university system, has an important piece in today's Post about the role of higher education in improving over-all educational achievement. One point he makes is absolutely vital:
higher education must become more engaged in improving primary and secondary school performance. Colleges and universities need to encourage more students to pursue teaching careers and, in partnership with local school districts, better prepare prospective teachers with the content knowledge and pedagogy skills to succeed.
Teachers who went to college 20 years ago (a reasonable mid-point) never had a class on genetically modified organisms. They never talked about stem cells. Cloning was online in their college books if they read a lot of sci-fi. Their experience with these important topics in a rapidly changing field will be minimal, and that will trickle down to their students. I attribute a lot of modern weakness in understanding of evolution to limitations on its teaching two generations ago for this same reason. Students who were taught that evolution was poorly tested in the '50s would only partly integrate the important advances that happened in the '70s in their teaching, so the teachers today who learned from the first group of students will be decades behind the times, and will still have misconceptions accreted from their childhoods.

This is, as Kirwan says "a national security crisis," and Kirwan is right that "if our country doesn't take immediate action, it could be devastating for the future of the United States." Evolution is a canary in the coal mine, and it shows that our nation's science classes need more oxygen.