Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A survey of evolutionary education in Oklahoma

I came across an interesting study published nearly a month ago investigating the effects of teaching biological evolution in Oklahoma high schools.  Apparently, officials in Oklahoma were concerned about the number of students entering college that hold "misconceptions" about evolution.  To narrow down the source of these "misconceptions," the Biological Evolution Literacy Survey was given to 35 teachers and their 536 students before the high schools' Biology I course was taught.  The students were then surveyed again after they completed the course.  The surveyors were somewhat surprised to find that the students generally scored lower on the survey after having taken the biology course than they scored beforehand, even though they were more confident that their knowledge of the subject improved.  They concluded that the state high schools must be teaching falsehoods and possibly indoctrinating the students with creationism.

This is something that vexes me about many evolutionists.  If someone does not agree with them, they assume that the person must just not know all the facts.  After all, how could anyone come to a different conclusion after seeing the evidence?  It is not just evolutionists, either.  I've heard creationists say similar things as well.  The problem with this view is that it assumes a level of objectivity that humanity does not have.  We are far from omniscient.  We are limited to our own observations, and we must interpret those observations based on our previous observations.  Calling another person ignorant because he/she interprets observations differently reveals the very closed-mindedness that the other may be accused of.

Enough ranting for now.  Let's take a look at the survey itself.  I will go through each of the 23 questions and include the average scores of the teachers and of the students before and after the biology course.  Respondents could answer with "strongly agree," "somewhat agree,"  "somewhat disagree," "strongly disagree," "undecided/never heard of it," or "no response."  Responses were scored according to agreement with "true" statements and disagreement with "false" statements.  The scores range from 1 (misunderstanding) to 5 ("correct" understanding).  To simplify matters, I will give the "correct" answer to each question as "True" or "False."

1. A scientific theory that explains a natural phenomenon can be classified as a 'best guess' or 'hunch.'

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.46
Average student score before course:2.86
Average student score after course:3.06

Technically speaking, a hypothesis is a "best guess" or "hunch," while a scientific theory has been tested numerous times to prove its validity.  However, I have spoken with numerous naturalists who, from a philosophical standpoint, admit that a scientific theory is just "the best explanation we can come up with" rather than objective truth.  Regardless, the scientific use of the word "theory" is quite different from the colloquial use, which would be closer to a "guess" or "hunch."  The students seemed to have learned this, given their improvement in scores.

2. The scientific methods used to determine the age of fossils and the earth are reliable.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:3.78
Average student score before course:3.68
Average student score after course:3.58

This, of course, is a much more controversial question.  I would even argue that this is more of a philosophical question than a scientific one.  After all, we can't truly know whether the methods are reliable unless we can somehow objectively know the ages of the fossils apart from scientific methods.  Whether the methods are deemed "reliable" depends strongly on one's worldview.  Even the consistency of the methods is debated.  Evolutionists claim that nearly all uses of these methods, properly applied, yield consistent dates, whereas creationists claim that inconsistencies are too numerous to consider the methods to be reliable at all.  It is interesting that students considered the methods slightly less trustworthy after learning more about them.

3. According to the second law of thermodynamics, complex life forms cannot evolve from simpler life forms.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:3.44
Average student score before course:3.21
Average student score after course:3.27

This is based on an oft-used creationist argument which claims that evolution of complex life forms goes against the second law of thermodynamics.  The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system will never decrease.  A superficial understanding of the second law may lead a person to conclude that order and complexity cannot arise naturally, and thus it has been used to discredit naturalistic origins and evolution.  However, there appear to be many problems with this argument, and I discourage my fellow creationists from using it without a very thorough understanding of thermodynamics.  After all, if the second law prevents a single cell from evolving into a complex multicellular creature, then it should prevent a single-celled zygote from developing into a fully-grown human.  Obviously, it doesn't.  Once again, the scores imply that the students have gained a slightly better understanding of this.

4. The earth is old enough for evolution to have occurred.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:4.03
Average student score before course:3.31
Average student score after course:3.43

I think this one was poorly phrased.  Technically, evolution can occur after a single generation, so everybody should agree with the statement.  Then again, maybe that was the point.

5. Evolution cannot be considered a reliable explanation because evolution is only a theory.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.06
Average student score before course:2.62
Average student score after course:2.63

Explanation for what?  I think this is another poorly-phrased question, and it appears to be another philosophical one.  A person's consideration of the reliability of a scientific theory depends on their personal worldview, not on the scientific legitimacy of the theory.

6. Evolution always results in improvement.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.12
Average student score before course:3.43
Average student score after course:3.53

Both creationists and evolutionists should disagree with this statement.  Although the classic view of evolution is the continual, "upward" progression of life, the theory of evolution allows for occasional downfalls.  On the other hand, there is no clear definition of "improvement."  In theory, evolution should always result in "more fit" organisms over time, while genetic drift may go either way.  I do not know whether they are including genetic drift as "evolution."  Then again, there is no such thing as "improvement" in the evolutionary view, only survival.  Perhaps that is the point of this question.

7. Members of a species evolve because of an inner need to evolve.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.40
Average student score before course:3.03
Average student score after course:3.27

This statement is indeed a popular misconception of evolution.  According to the theory, organisms evolve not because they feel some need to change and try to accommodate that, but because the natural genetic variation in a population will inevitably produce some individuals that will pass on more of their genes than others, either because they survive longer, mate more often, or more successfully raise offspring.  Which individuals do so depends on the environment.  The students appear to have learned and understood this.

8. Traits acquired during the lifetime of an organism - such as the large muscles produced by body building - will not be passed along to offspring.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:4.43
Average student score before course:3.30
Average student score after course:3.60

The idea that acquired traits can be passed to offspring is commonly referred to as Lamarckism, after French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  Because such traits are not genetic changes, they generally will not be passed to offspring, so this survey statement is justifiably true.  However, recent epigenetic studies have demonstrated that certain traits acquired during a lifetime can be passed to the next generation, but these are not permanent changes.

9. If webbed feet are being selected for, all individuals in the next generation will have more webbing on their feet than do individuals in their parents' generation.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:3.63
Average student score before course:3.36
Average student score after course:2.73

I am quite surprised by the low scores on this question.  Anyone who has worked with Punnett Squares in high school biology should be able to understand why this statement is false.  While it may be true that the general trend will be toward webbed feet, the presence of alleles for non-webbed feet, whether dominant or recessive, will provide the possibility of a non- or less-webbed offspring.  I am inclined to believe that this statement was misread by many respondents, thinking it was asking if more offspring would have webbed feet, as opposed to all offspring.

Note: There appears to be an error in the data for this question.  The percentages of responses given by students before the course only add to 70%, including those who did not respond.

10. Evolution cannot cause an organism's traits to change within its lifetime.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:4.31
Average student score before course:2.91
Average student score after course:3.10

This appears to be testing the definition of evolution.  While changes can occur in an organism's lifetime, those changes are not considered to be evolutionary.  Evolutionary changes, by definition, occur over multiple generations within a population.  The students' scores indicate a learned understanding of this.

11. New traits within a population appear at random.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:3.92
Average student score before course:2.95
Average student score after course:2.72

I imagine that the question was specifically referring to genetic traits, as epigenetic and non-genetic traits are not random.  The lower scores may reflect confusion about this definition.  Alternatively, it could be argued that lethal traits will not appear in a population at all, as the organism would die before it is born, so newly appearing traits are not truly random.  Either way, I believe this statement was too vague for the responses to provide any meaningful information.

12. Individual organisms adapt to their environments.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:3.40
Average student score before course:1.83
Average student score after course:2.03

After reading this question, I no longer gave any credence to the Biological Evolution Literacy Survey.  Individual organisms do indeed adapt to their environments, just not by evolutionary means.  In fact, it could be argued that all an organism does is continually adapt to its environment.  Hares change colors according to the seasons, plants grow in the direction of light sources, humans sweat in heat, and even some fish change their salt content in response to changes in water salinity.  Granted, none of these changes are genetic adaptations, but the question did not specify that.

13. Evolution is a totally random process.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:3.23
Average student score before course:3.38
Average student score after course:3.42

This was the only case in which the students scored higher than the teachers.  While the genetic mutations may be (mostly) random, the selection process is not at all random.  Unfortunately, there is a popular misconception that "random" is synonymous with "unguided."  For evolution to be truly random, all individual organisms would have to have an equal chance of surviving and producing the same number of offspring.  However, the whole premise of natural selection is that there is not an equal chance because of genetic variation.  The students appear to understand the nonrandomness of evolution to some degree, and this may explain their responses to number 11.

14. The environment determines which traits are best suited for survival.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:4.28
Average student score before course:3.39
Average student score after course:3.58

I am not too fond of the phrasing for this one either, but both teachers and students appear to have performed reasonably well.  Indeed, the persistence of traits in a population depends on their suitability to the environment, but it is not necessarily for survival.  Traits are passed when a new generation is born; after that, the survival of the parents is irrelevant.  This question is likely a counter to number 7.

15. Variation among individuals within a species is important for evolution to occur.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:4.57
Average student score before course:3.13
Average student score after course:3.32

This one is pretty straightforward.  Without variation there are no choices for selection, and all the offspring will be just like the parents, thus there would be no change.  The students learned this, though the score after the course is still lower than I would expect it to be.

16. 'Survival of the fittest' means basically that 'only the strong survive.'

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:3.54
Average student score before course:2.43
Average student score after course:2.25

I am not surprised with these scores, as this is a popular misconception.  The definition of "fittest" varies by species, situation, environment, and possibly even individual, and need not mean "strong."  "Survival of the fittest" merely states that those individuals that are best suited to their particular situation are more likely to survive to reproduce.  The theory of evolution does not give any generalized prescription for which traits are "better."  I am surprised, however, that the students' scores decreased after the course.  Given the relatively low score of the teachers, this misconception may have inadvertently been taught, or at least remained unclarified, in the class.

17. The size of the population has no effect on the evolution of a species.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.57
Average student score before course:3.34
Average student score after course:3.38

With more individuals, there is a greater range of possible variation in the gene pool.  As we saw in number 15, variation is important in evolution.  Scores were generally higher on this more intuitive question.

18. Complex structures such as the eye could have been formed by evolution.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:3.06
Average student score before course:2.77
Average student score after course:2.71

Here is another controversial statement.  Initially, Charles Darwin had trouble picturing an evolutionary progression that could form the eye.  Members of the Intelligent Design movement have championed the human eye as an example of irreducible complexity, pointing out that the eye could not be reduced to a simpler form without becoming nonfunctional.  Evolutionists, on the other hand, have provided numerous examples of simpler eye structures found in nature, stringing them together into a cohesive story of the development of the eye.  Whether evolution could actually accomplish such a progression has yet to be proven, however.  I generally avoid the irreducible complexity argument, but it apparently has convinced many of the teachers and students in Oklahoma.

19. Only beneficial traits are passed on from parent to offspring.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.83
Average student score before course:3.52
Average student score after course:3.61

This question had some of the highest scores on the test.  Regardless of your views on origins, it is quite widely accepted that both beneficial and harmful traits are passed from parent to offspring.  In fact, the theory of genetic entropy proposed by some creationists suggests that far more harmful mutations are passed than beneficial ones, even if natural selection removes some harmful traits, making life unsustainable for millions of years.

20. There exists a large amount of evidence supporting the theory of evolution.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:3.57
Average student score before course:2.82
Average student score after course:2.83

Once again, the lack of definition of "evolution" renders the responses to this statement uninformative.  Many people, evolutionist and creationist, agree that there is a large amount of evidence for genetic changes in a population over time.  They do not agree, however, on the evidence for uniting all organisms in a single evolutionary tree.  The lack of change in the students' scores indicates that, as a whole, they were not swayed either way.

21. According to the theory of evolution, humans evolved from monkeys, gorillas, or apes.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:3.32
Average student score before course:2.94
Average student score after course:3.09

The surveyors may have intended this question to trick those without a deep knowledge of the evolutionary tree, but they apparently tricked themselves.  By colloquial definition, humans did not evolve from any of the organisms we call "monkeys," "gorillas," or "apes."  Rather, humans share a common ancestor with these creatures, according to evolutionary theory.  However, technically speaking, the term "ape" refers to the superfamily Hominoidea, which includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, humans, and our supposed evolutionary ancestors.  Therefore, because these ancestors are hominoids and are apes, one can justifiably say that, according to the theory of evolution, humans evolved from apes.  Going back further, hominoids are thought to have diverged from cercopithecoids ("Old World monkeys"), together with which hominoids make up the parvorder Catarrhini.  Catarrhini is a sister group to Platyrrhini ("New World monkeys").  The term "monkey," then, refers to the Platyrrhini and the cercopithecoids, but not the hominoids.  This would also include the ancestral Catarrhini from whom hominoids are thought to have evolved.  We can therefore conclude that, according to the theory of evolution, humans evolved from monkeys and apes, and the survey is wrong.  Props to the students who got it right the first time.

Note: There appears to be an error in the data for this question.  The percentages of responses given by the teachers only add to 90%, including those who did not respond.

22. Scientific evidence indicates that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time in the past.

"Correct" answer:False
Average teacher score:4.00
Average student score before course:3.24
Average student score after course:3.40

While most creationists, particularly young-earth creationists, believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time in the past, it is difficult to argue that there is any scientific evidence directly demonstrating this.  There may be passages from the Bible and certain archaeological artifacts and accounts supporting the idea, but such things cannot be scientifically tested.  That is not to say that they are not credible, just not scientific.

23. The majority of scientists favor evolution over other explanations for life.

"Correct" answer:True
Average teacher score:3.92
Average student score before course:3.16
Average student score after course:3.29

Regardless of your stance on the origins issue, this statement is likely true.  However, the phrase "explanations for life" is quite vague.  Nobody favors evolution as an explanation for the origin of life, only for the diversity of it.

Overall, the students' scores only decreased on numbers 2, 9, 11, 16, and 18.  Number 9 may be an error, numbers 2 and 18 are controversial, and numbers 11 and 16 may represent true misconceptions.  Although the total scores increased after taking the course, the surveyors claim that the number of "misconceptions" also increased (this apparent contradiction may have resulted from more strongly-formed opinions before and after the course).  The authors of the study loosely implicate the teachers as the source of these misconceptions, but they admit that misconceptions could just as easily come from other sources.  I wonder if learning the facts actually caused the students to change their opinions for the "worse" on the controversial questions.  After reviewing the survey in detail, I am inclined to say that the surveyors themselves had numerous misconceptions about the very topic they were testing on.


  1. it was an interesting idea to survey the teachers and students, however it seems it was done poorly.... with some data holes, i would be interested if they tried again with clearer questions and better data collection.

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