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On the 8th day: Public opinion polls?

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: Opinions

I recently read an article by the BBC that surveyed people in 10 developed countries about whether Darwinian evolution should be taught in science classes. Unsurprisingly, a substantial portion of the respondents were in favor of teaching either evolution and creationism side by side, or for the teaching of creationism and the exclusion of any other explanation. What I found the most surprising was the sheer number of people who feel this way, ranging from 38% in Spain to 68% in Argentina, with a total of 53% of people surveyed in favor of some form of creationism taught in science classes.

These figures are shocking to me. Even in the most developed countries of the western world, somewhere between four and seven out of every 10 people would prefer that we lie to children in school. I should say upfront that I don’t know if the story of creation in Genesis is true or a myth, (although the whole part about a person created from a spare rib seems to weigh in fairly heavily on the “myth” side of the equation), and I don’t believe that everyone who believes or recounts the story is lying. The lie would be representing this story as science to children in school when it most certainly is not science, nor is it scientific. There have been debates about creationism, intelligent design, evolution, and the role of science before, and there surely will be many more in the future. My question here is far simpler than the origins of the cosmos: Why did the BBC, and why do we as a country, bother to ask these people for their opinion in the first place?

The honest answer is probably democracy. We have a public school system that is administrated by elected officials and funded publicly, but the system still leaves much to be desired. This is an area of decision making best left to experts, not to the general populace. The framers of the United States Constitution envisioned a system where the citizens make informed decisions about their leaders, but this is clearly a case where the system falls apart. The people being asked to make decisions are not well informed enough in this matter, and allow their opinions and beliefs to influence their judgment about a discipline that should only be based on facts.

The idea that the best information can be obtained by taking the average opinion of a large number of people, regardless of their capabilities, is a logical fallacy. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, proved this by imagining a country whose emperor was never seen by any of his people, and stayed walled off in a secret palace. Feynman posited that a traveling salesman who wishes to know the length of the emperor’s nose could traverse the whole country asking every citizen for his or her opinion, and then take an average of the answers. In theory, the answer should be very accurate because it is the average of a large sample. Unfortunately, every person who participated was taking a guess, and not working from any real information, rendering the survey inaccurate. The salesman knows nothing more about the emperor’s nose after the survey than he did before.

The analogy holds in this example. We can go and ask all 308 million people in the United States for their opinion on this matter, but most of them are not informed enough to make this decision effectively, and we won’t be any closer to the goal of educating schoolchildren about science. We don’t poll the general public for their input on the curriculum of medical school, and I think we would all prefer our surgeon to be trained by a surgeon instead of by plumbers, policemen, or politicians. Simply because we have a democratic system does not imply that the public at large should make the final decisions about every issue, especially when they are not equipped to use the correct decision-making calculus. Most people in America can not make informed decisions about biology, because they are not biologists.

Beyond the inability of people to make an informed decision, the question itself is flawed. The BBC is asking for a public opinion about an issue where opinion does not matter. Science does not care what anyone believes, nor should science education. We would think it illegitimate for me to ask that the caloric chemical theory be taught alongside the laws of thermodynamics in chemistry class, or that instead of gravity in physics as the explanation for why objects tend to fall toward the ground, we tell children that the earth sucks. Our educational system teaches astronomy instead of astrology, chemistry instead of alchemy, psychology instead of phrenology, and meteorology instead of magic. Each of the former fields represents the scientific conclusion of reasoned experiment and trial and error that have come to replace the latter beliefs once the phenomenon they attempted to explain was better understood. In each case teachers cast aside what they may believe, or even what sounds plausible, in favor of what is consistent with experimental data.

More important than any single fact about a particular discipline of science are the overarching principles that make chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy, and distinguish them from the supernatural. The scientific method of forming hypotheses, testing them, and drawing conclusions based on experimental data is the most important concept taught in science classes. By even positing that something non-scientific could be taught in a science class, the BBC is perverting the perception of science to the public at large. The idea that it is debatable whether or not we should accept the talking snake as a scientific fact is ludicrous, and should have no place in rational conversation.

Therein lies the final problem with the BBC’s poll: it fuels the argumentation, and legitimizes the idea that schools should welcome a vibrant debate over the relative merits of creationism and evolution, or that biology teachers should “teach the controversy.” Every time a news story is run about the public’s beliefs on this issue, it lends credibility to the idea that the public has a legitimate role in determining what is or is not science. Each poll reinforces the mindset that teaching the controversy is acceptable. Presenting creationism side by side with evolution as co-equal scientific theories locked in a brilliant scientific debate does a disservice to children eager to learn. Instead of educating them about the workings of the universe, we say that the facts can be tailored to make us feel better. Instead of exploring the real questions posed by natural selection and their profound implications, we brush over one of the most thrilling and significant scientific discoveries in history, backed up by 150 years of experimentation and scrutiny, and lend equal weight to a story that has no testable warrants. Even if a philosophical debate about the merits of each theory is warranted, certainly high school classrooms are not the correct forum for this discourse.

It is important for the public to understand science, and to appreciate its merits. Rational people who grasp the importance of scientific discovery should encourage the BBC and other news organizations to be careful with their influence, both direct and indirect. Science is a wonderful discipline of which we should all partake, but it is important to realize that our beliefs do not constitute science. We should therefore be careful in our discourse to remove belief from the context of science education, and should recognize that the voter does not necessarily hold the correct answer. Hopefully, next time, the BBC will instead ask the more important question: how many people understand the theory of evolution?