Hearing What They Want to Hear

Opponents of evolution have reacted with shock and alarm to the release of TFN’s survey of Texas science faculty last week. This is not, in itself, terribly surprising, since the first-of-its-kind survey exploded many of the myths perpetuated by evolution-deniers. Indeed, its definitive rejection of any hint of a “controversy” in the academic community over evolution is devastating to the premise underlying the entire intelligent design movement.

This “emperor has no clothes” moment has left these evolution-deniers only one option – discredit the survey. But their arguments against the survey are as pathetic as their arguments against evolution. Let’s take a look at their criticisms one at a time.

The survey was sponsored by an advocacy group (TFN), so the results are tainted.
We can hardly blame anyone for a healthy skepticism when confronted with research by a group with a stated political agenda. That’s why TFN contracted with an experienced academic to design and administer the survey, as well as analyze the results. The study was conducted by Dr. Ray Eve, professor of sociology and program director for sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Eve took the extra step of having the survey reviewed and approved by the human subjects review board at UTA (though, of course, the findings and analysis of the survey represent his opinion and not the university’s.) So while the survey was sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, the actual administration of the survey was entirely under the supervision of Dr. Eve.

More than half the biologists in the state didn’t respond to the survey, therefore, it’s invalid.
This bit of silliness, peddled by members of the State Board of Education, is clearly the ramblings of those who have no experience with survey work. It hardly needs to be said, but 100% participation in a survey does not exist in the real world. In this case, the survey was sent to every biology and biological anthropology faculty member we could locate at the 35 public universities and 15 largest private universities in the state (a universe of 1,019 individuals). In the end 464 completed questionnaires were returned, providing a reponse rate of better than 45%. Dr. Eve characterizes this return rate as extraordinary, noting that it is “almost unheard of for the remote return of a lengthy questionnaire of this type.” The diversity of the response was also extremely robust, with respondents from 49 different institutions.

All the creationists and intelligent design-sympathizers at Texas colleges and universities were too afraid to answer the survey, so they are not represented.
This is essentially the claim advanced in the recent movie “Expelled” – that there is such an atmosphere of intimidation within the academic science community that creationists are cowed into silence. Problem is, it’s not true in the film (see www.expelledexposed.com) and there is no evidence that it’s a problem in this survey. For starters, survey responses were strictly anonymous – the invitation to participate made clear that responses would be “kept confidential according to current legal requirements.” Thus, 2-5% of respondents did consistently register sympathy toward intelligent design or creationism. These respondents obviously did not feel cowed into silence.

At some point don’t these evolution deniers have to actually produce these mysterious creatures they say are hiding out the academy – the mythic evolution dissidents?!?  I suppose their convenient excuse is hypothetically possible (“you can’t see them because they are too scared to appear”). But isn’t the more likely explanation that they really are a tiny, tiny minority? Say, 2 – 5% like our survey showed?

 

So here, for the record, is a full explanation of the survey’s methodology:

In the summer of 2007, Raymond A. Eve, Ph.D., one of the authors of this report, was approached by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund (TFNEF) to conduct an unbiased survey of faculty who teach human evolution at Texas colleges and universities. TFNEF intended the survey to evaluate faculty views about the level of preparation of incoming college students for college level biology courses and, more specifically, their preparation for courses on evolution. Additionally, the survey asked science faculty about their attitudes toward controversies involving evolution, creationism and intelligent design, particularly pertaining to the affect of that debate on the public school science curriculum in Texas.

With the help of TFNEF staff and graduate students acting as interns, we collectively compiled contact information for all faculty members who teach either biology or physical anthropology at 50 Texas institutions of higher learning. (Physical anthropologists specialize in the study of the evolution of ancient hominids and often teach courses that include human evolution.) The final list included 1,019 individual faculty members from all 35 public universities and the 15 largest private institutions in the state. (See full list below.)

On October 22, 2007, TFNEF sent a 59-question survey to this full list of 1,019 names. An electronic version of the survey (administered by the online survey tool SurveyMonkey) went out to all who did not respond to the initial mail survey.  The survey was closed on January 30, 2008.

In the end, we received 464 completed questionnaires. This represents better than a 45% response rate – almost unheard of for the remote return of a lengthy questionnaire of this type. The diversity of the response was also extremely robust, with respondents from 49 different institutions. (Only Sul Ross State University was unrepresented among the 50 institutions included in the sample.) Presumably this high response rate reflects the sense of eagerness and importance that the respondents attached to expressing their actual opinion on this issue.

The report authors at the University of Texas at Arlington entered all responses into the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). All statistics and accompanying analyses found in this report have been drawn from this data set. While not appearing in detail here, the findings were subjected to advanced parametric and nonparametric analyses, including relevant measures of strength of association and examination of levels of statistical significance. Where these are relevant, they are discussed in lay terms in the body of the report.

It should be noted here that this survey is funded by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. While the research process was reviewed and approved by the human subjects review board of the University of Texas at Arlington, the funding, the actual conduct of the survey and the interpretation of the results are solely due to, and the responsibility of, the authors of this report and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Texas at Arlington.

16 thoughts on “Hearing What They Want to Hear

  1. The study was useful and timely, nicely quantifying the level of support for evolution in the face of pseudoscience. I have seen it proposed elsewhere that, if anything, supporters of creation pseudoscience were overrepresented, because someone with a fringe position would be more eager to respond in an anonymous poll.

    We should not forget the true measure for evaluating “strengths and weaknesses,” however. No one has presented a single piece of data refuting evolution in a peer-reviewed scientific research paper. What secular reason is there to present something in a science class that utterly lacks a body of research?

  2. Dr. Eve was just as biased as TFN, he admitted his bias in the report, and he had previously published on creationism. “He is a co-author/editor of Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past. He is also co-author of The Creationist Movement in Modern America. He has published numerous articles and book chapters on creationism, intelligent design and evolution; generally these adopt the viewpoints taken by either social movements theory and/or relationships to science literacy.” So, did TFN really go to him for an “unbiased survey”?

    What evidence do you have that the survey was reviewed by the UTA review board? The methology part of the report itself only states that the “research process” was reviewed. If so, how did questions which revealed the bias of the authors manage to get into the survey. For instance, the question that finding 3 is based upon is not about unqualified weaknesses such as is in the standards language, but is intead about “weaknesses as advanced by the proponents of creationaism …”. This clear evidence that the survey is biased, increases the risk that those who do bother to respond are also biased. Why would someone volunteer their time to participate in a biased survey.

    The survey also apparently lacked anonymity. The “full explanation of the survey’s methodology” failed to mention how the report could disclose and discuss the sources of the various responses, right down to the particular university. If the respondents knew that their anonymity wasn’t protected, then that would have futher contributed to response bias. Did the UTA review board know that their anonymity was going to be compromised? I suspect not. The report probably violated the UTA’s standards, by gathering and then revealing possibly identifying information.

    To make matters worse, the TFN press release and statements to reporters, have mischaracterized this biased survey as being relevant to the “strengths and weaknesses” language in the curriculum standards. If there was a question about the curriculum standards, it wasn’t among the very small subset revealed in the report.

  3. James F. said (November 24, 2008 at 9:12 pm) —
    –The study was useful and timely, nicely quantifying the level of support for evolution in the face of pseudoscience. —

    The study was too timely — the study was released only 1-2 days before the Nov. 19 hearing of the state board of education, not leaving enough time to debate the significance of the study.

    –I have seen it proposed elsewhere that, if anything, supporters of creation pseudoscience were overrepresented, because someone with a fringe position would be more eager to respond in an anonymous poll.–

    Or maybe a big reason why many of the scientists did not respond was that they were turned off by questions which were loaded, ambiguous, and/or unnecessarily restrictive. For example, in a question in the full report of the survey, the scientists were not simply asked if they thought that the “strengths and weaknesses” language should be dropped — the full report said,

    –The survey further queried respondents about the 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.”–
    from (page 16 of the PDF file and page 11 marked on the document)

    Also, another question, instead of simply asking the scientists if they would object to teaching “weaknesses” of evolution theory, asked the scientists what their preferences were, restricted the weaknesses to creationism and intelligent design (which would have been OK had the survey asked separately about teaching other weaknesses), lumped together creationism and intelligent design (“creationism/intelligent design”), and added the words “as a valid account of origins” (which would have been OK if the survey had asked separately about teaching creationism and intelligent design neutrally and as invalid accounts of origins) — the scientists were asked “if they would prefer to teach ‘just evolution,’ ‘just creationism/intelligent design as a valid account of origins,’ or ‘both.'” (page 14 of PDF file, page 9 of document of full report).

    A lot of people would not have simple “yes” or “no” answers for the above two questions.

    The full report is at —
    https://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/FinalWebPost.pdf?docID=861

    Also, I presume that the science standards-drafting committees consist mostly of scientists and science teachers, yet four of the eight science committees proposed either “strengths and weaknesses” language (first drafts of the chemistry and astronomy standards) or “strengths and limitations” language (second drafts of the biology, chemistry, and physics standards — BTW, the Integrated Physics and Chemistry committee did not participate in the revision of the first draft). I can assure you that the members of the science standards-drafting committees are not hand-picked fundies — otherwise Steven Schafersman would never have been chosen to be a member.

    –What secular reason is there to present something in a science class that utterly lacks a body of research?–

    There are plenty of secular reasons. Teaching criticisms of scientific theories — even pseudoscientific criticisms — serves the following secular purposes: broadening students’ education, encouraging critical thinking, helping students learn the material, increasing student interest, helping to prevent misconceptions, and helping to assure that technically sophisticated criticisms are taught by qualified science teachers. Just spoonfeeding students the strengths of scientific theories is not a good idea.

    Again, I gotta plug my proposal to substitute “strengths and criticisms” for “strengths and weaknesses” and “strengths and limitations.”

  4. Larry,

    Perhaps you and I can find common ground in the fact that intelligent design is a pseudoscientific criticism (there are certainly no scientifically valid “weaknesses,” so let’s also agree to ax that terminology). I would be strongly in favor of having every public school science teacher prepared to address creation pseudoscience during discussions of evolution, but only as a contingency plan if students have questions during class, not as part of the regular lesson plan. That would indeed prevent misconceptions if the issue came up. It also might be interesting in a history class to discuss geocentrism, phlogiston, phrenology, astrology, and the bodily humors along with creationism, but these concepts have no place in a modern science curriculum.

  5. James F. said,

    –Perhaps you and I can find common ground in the fact that intelligent design is a pseudoscientific criticism —

    I don’t feel that ID is pseudoscientific — it is an effort to determine or estimate the probability that the complexity and diversity of life could have been produced solely by natural selection and natural genetic variation. I consider the Second Law of Thermodynamics to be a pseudoscientific argument against evolution.

    –(there are certainly no scientifically valid “weaknesses,” so let’s also agree to ax that terminology)–

    My reason for being in favor of using the word “criticisms” to replace “weaknesses” — and also “limitations” — is that pseudoscientific or otherwise invalid criticisms are not real weaknesses or limitations.

    –. I would be strongly in favor of having every public school science teacher prepared to address creation pseudoscience during discussions of evolution, but only as a contingency plan if students have questions during class, not as part of the regular lesson plan. —

    Public schools should not depend on students to introduce criticisms of scientific theories.

    — That would indeed prevent misconceptions if the issue came up. —

    The public schools should anticipate misconceptions.

    –It also might be interesting in a history class to discuss geocentrism, phlogiston, phrenology, astrology, and the bodily humors along with creationism, but these concepts have no place in a modern science curriculum. —

    Some criticisms of scientific theories are too technically sophisticated to be taught by non-science teachers. Teachers must not only be able to lecture but must also be able to handle questions, and handling scientific questions often requires a great deal of scientific expertise.

  6. If you read the report, notice how many comments and quotes from the professors are identified by particular university. I wonder if these research subjects knew that their responses were not going to be truly anonymous. Were they assured of anonymity which has been violated? Were they asked about their institutional affiliation without assurance of anonymity? Or were the survey’s encoded with the institution of the subject without the subjects awareness that their institution could be identified? Why hasn’t the full survey and methodology been disclosed? If those quoted with their institutions identified without notice or permisssion, there are definite ethical concerns.

    The bias obvious in the questions probably biases who responds. Lack of anonymity would also bias the responses. If the subjects were not aware their anonymity would not be protected, they will be less likely to participate in UTA sponsored research again, unless they agree with the political goals obvious in the survey. Of course, TFN may have to go someplace else next time, if they truly want an unbiased and ethical human research.

  7. TFN, It is far from complete. Do you know whether UTA approved the actual questions or just the “process” that section mentioned? Do you know what the actual questions were? Do you know how the authors knew what institutions the comments were from? Please assume I have read the report.

  8. Larry said,

    I don’t feel that ID is pseudoscientific — it is an effort to determine or estimate the probability that the complexity and diversity of life could have been produced solely by natural selection and natural genetic variation. I consider the Second Law of Thermodynamics to be a pseudoscientific argument against evolution.

    Agreed on the SLoT, of course. But by what measure is ID science? After over a decade, it has produced absolutely no data in peer-reviewed scientific research papers – it has no body of research behind it – and its strategies are patently derivative of old-school creation pseudoscience. It utterly fails to qualify for the high-school level science curriculum. The ID proponents’ goal is clearly to get into public school science classrooms by government fiat, not to produce actual research. It’s pseudoscience through and through.

    Public schools should not depend on students to introduce criticisms of scientific theories.

    Agreed; valid basics of science should form the lesson plan, and ID doesn’t rise to the level of valid criticism. Teachers should be ready if students have misconceptions that might arise from popular mischaracterizations of evolution, however.

    The public schools should anticipate misconceptions.

    Agreed, as above.

    Some criticisms of scientific theories are too technically sophisticated to be taught by non-science teachers. Teachers must not only be able to lecture but must also be able to handle questions, and handling scientific questions often requires a great deal of scientific expertise.

    ID is sophistry, and it can be easily dismissed as invalid. If one wants to get into philosophy and theology, fine, but it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

  9. James F, Is ID sophistry, or is it intrinsic to human intelligence? Human intelligence, across cultures, seems focused on inferring intents and purposes. What did it matter over most of our evolutionary origins, if we understood the behavior of animals and elements through personification, if the personalities that were attributed provided some predictive ability. We understand now that a disciplined scientific approach can through a more nuanced understanding take our ability to control and predict nature to new levels, enabling modern technology, among other things. It appears that intelligence is so successful an adaptive strategy, that it is condemned to abort its development when it is only half evolved. We aren’t logical calculators, consciously subserviant to our genes yet. ID may not be scientific, but I see no reason to dismiss it as sophistry. Religious belief may continue to be the human norm for some time. Given the virulence of some godless religions such as marxism and anthropogenic global warming, perhaps our old religions were more benign than we have given them credit for.

  10. africangenesis Says (November 26, 2008 at 7:53 pm) —
    –If you read the report, notice how many comments and quotes from the professors are identified by particular university. I wonder if these research subjects knew that their responses were not going to be truly anonymous. —

    Identifying only the commenters’ institutions mostly preserved the anonymity of the commenters because the commenters’ names were not disclosed — still, though, IMO it was not a good idea to identify the institutions of the commenters, as this could lead to a suspicion that a particular scientist made a particular comment.

    What definitely caused a loss of anonymity was the full report’s disclosure of the name of the institution that sent in no responses — that disclosure clearly identified some scientists who did not respond. In today’s climate of political correctness, merely not responding to the survey could harm one’s career.

    As I said, I am very disturbed by the timing of the release of the full survey report and the press releases and news summaries, only 1-2 days before the Nov. 19 state board of education hearing and just a few days before the standards-drafting committees make their final revisions (if any) to the proposed science standards (Steven Schafersman said on the Evo.Sphere blog that the committees will have one last opportunity to revise the standards on Dec. 4-6 and that after that the standards can be revised only by majority vote of the SBOE at their January meeting). This obviously did not give enough time to challenge the reported results of the survey.

    James F Says (November 27, 2008 at 12:29 am) —
    — But by what measure is ID science?–

    As I said, IMO it doesn’t matter whether ID is pseudoscience are not — I have given good reasons for teaching pseudoscience in public-school science classrooms. How are students going to develop critical-thinking skills if they are only spoonfed flawless strengths of scientific theories?

    –After over a decade, it has produced absolutely no data in peer-reviewed scientific research papers–

    The courts in particular are not in a good position to criticize ID’s alleged lack of peer-reviewed articles, because the dirty little secret is that most law journals in the USA are not peer-reviewed or even faculty-reviewed but are only student-reviewed! See —

    http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/November-December-2004/review_posner_novdec04.msp

    –The ID proponents’ goal is clearly to get into public school science classrooms by government fiat, not to produce actual research.–

    You Darwinists have arbitrarily decided that PR doesn’t count. It obviously does. And you know the expression, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The wheels for other “pseudosciences” just haven’t squeaked loudly enough yet.

    The “strengths and weaknesses” language (or “limitations,” “criticisms,” etc.) says nothing about creationism or intelligent design, just as this language says nothing about the flat-earth theory, astrology, alchemy, etc.. The creationism and intelligent design stuff is just something that you Darwinists are reading into it. Should the freedom-of-speech clause be struck from the US Constitution just because this clause says nothing about shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre? OK, you Darwinists say that sneaking creationism and ID into public school science classrooms is an ulterior motive of supporters of the “strengths and weaknesses” language. But Steven Schafersman, president of the Texas Citizens for Science, wrote on the Evo.Sphere blog that human evolution should be expressly included in the Texas science standards because “it is impermissible to keep maintaining the pretense that humans are qualitatively different from other animals.” It is obvious that he wants the state science standards to promote his worldview or philosophy of life.

    –ID is sophistry, and it can be easily dismissed as invalid. If one wants to get into philosophy and theology, fine, but it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.–

    Sophistry or not, some criticisms of evolution theory are so technically sophisticated that they should be taught only by qualified science teachers.

    Anyway, omitting the “weaknesses” (or “limitations,” “criticisms,” etc.) language would not necessarily prevent the teaching of criticisms of evolution theory.

    Why are you Darwinists so afraid of criticisms of evolution theory? You are protesting too much.

  11. LarryF, I wish you would leave flat earth theory out of this. It is still a very good and productive local approximation. Most construction and engineering work on this planet is based upon the flat earth theory. Very little takes into account the curvature of the earth. The limitations of flat earth theory were discovered a couple millenia earlier than the limitations of newtonian gravity, but both continue to be productive locally under most conditions encountered on earth.

    Dr. Eve and TFN should fully disclose what their methodology and survey were, and which parts were approved by UTA and what UTA standards they were supposed to adhere to.

  12. Larry Fafarman wrote:

    As I said, IMO it doesn’t matter whether ID is pseudoscience are not — I have given good reasons for teaching pseudoscience in public-school science classrooms. How are students going to develop critical-thinking skills if they are only spoonfed flawless strengths of scientific theories?

    There’s a big difference between discussing pseudoscience in the classroom and pretending that something without any research or data to back it up is science and, even worse, making it part of the science curriculum, which is shamefully dishonest. I have no problem with the former – it is useful for students to understand the nature of science and why creationism/ID is not science, whether it be in a science class or a social studies class. I think the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision would make an excellent case study in a high school-level law class, for example.

    The courts in particular are not in a good position to criticize ID’s alleged lack of peer-reviewed articles, because the dirty little secret is that most law journals in the USA are not peer-reviewed or even faculty-reviewed but are only student-reviewed!

    “Alleged?” No, it is a simple fact, not a legal opinion, that ID proponents have not presented any data in favor of ID or refuting evolution in a single peer-reviewed scientific research paper.

    You Darwinists have arbitrarily decided that PR doesn’t count. It obviously does. And you know the expression, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The wheels for other “pseudosciences” just haven’t squeaked loudly enough yet.

    What exactly do you mean by the “Darwinist” epithet? If it’s someone who accepts evolution, you’ve just spoken dismissively of the entire scientific community (minus a handful of cranks), the mainstream media, and vast numbers of educators, clergy, and people from all walks of life. If you’re using it as a synonym for an anti-religious person, the use is not warranted here. PR makes it a social issue, not a scientific one. No amount of squeaking will produce a body of research.

    The “strengths and weaknesses” language (or “limitations,” “criticisms,” etc.) says nothing about creationism or intelligent design, just as this language says nothing about the flat-earth theory, astrology, alchemy, etc.. The creationism and intelligent design stuff is just something that you Darwinists are reading into it. Should the freedom-of-speech clause be struck from the US Constitution just because this clause says nothing about shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre? OK, you Darwinists say that sneaking creationism and ID into public school science classrooms is an ulterior motive of supporters of the “strengths and weaknesses” language.

    “Strengths and weaknesses/criticisms” is championed by the same people who support creation pseudoscience, from YEC to ID, with the same goal, to mislead students into believing that evolution, among scientific theories, is weak or controversial. It is utterly dishonest (or at best, naïve) to support this tactic.

    But Steven Schafersman, president of the Texas Citizens for Science, wrote on the Evo.Sphere blog that human evolution should be expressly included in the Texas science standards because “it is impermissible to keep maintaining the pretense that humans are qualitatively different from other animals.” It is obvious that he wants the state science standards to promote his worldview or philosophy of life.

    I’m not going to speak for Dr. Schafersman, especially without seeing the quote in context. I will only say that from a legal and pedagogical standpoint, science is taught with the neutral philosophy of methodological naturalism.

    Sophistry or not, some criticisms of evolution theory are so technically sophisticated that they should be taught only by qualified science teachers.

    Please name a scientifically valid criticism of evolution.

    Anyway, omitting the “weaknesses” (or “limitations,” “criticisms,” etc.) language would not necessarily prevent the teaching of criticisms of evolution theory.

    Keeping the language in invites the use of non-scientific nonsense, however. That’s the point.

    Why are you Darwinists so afraid of criticisms of evolution theory? You are protesting too much.

    It’s not a matter of being afraid, it’s a matter of being responsible and defending science from invalid, pseudoscientific dogma.

  13. “Please name a scientifically value criticism of evolution”

    Evolution leaves too much to chance. Evolution tends to find local instead of global optima. Evolution made a mistake by using the same genetic code for different species making transpecific disease transmission too easy. Evolution shouldn’t have abandoned the capability to synthesize vitamin C in the primate line, nor the capability to regrow limbs. Evolution allows too much junk to be retained in the genomes. Evolution definitely has its weaknesses.

  14. africangenesis,

    You’re making philosophical judgements about the merits of biological evolution. These aren’t scientific weaknesses; none of them point out any flaws in the tenets of the theory, i.e., that the diversity of life arose through common descent with modification by natural selection, genetic drift, and other biological mechanisms.

  15. James F, I think these are weaknesses of evolution that should be taught. Obviously Intelligent Design would be better, that’s the point. These weaknesses are strong evidence for evolution and a challenge to Intelligent Design. You won’t find many Christians or others for teaching Dumb Design, but that is what we have, and evolution fits this data well. This is why it is embarrassing to have self stylized “darwinists” running in fear from the “strengths and weaknesses” language. I warn the Christian fundies away from the evolutuon debate all the time, there is nothing there for them. But what you don’t understand is that this isn’t about evolution, it is a culture war, and the Christians are on the right side of that, because they are for freedom and school choice. You should realize that they are allies in the war against the multi-culturalism, post-modernism and the progressive/marxism being taught in the schools and propagated in the media.