Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Poll of Agronomists

The ID folks are crowing about a recent online poll about science education hosted by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA). Read William Dembski's take at his blog here, and Jonathan Witt's take over at the DI blog here.

The poll began: “Should K-12 students be taught in school:” Respondents the had five choices: Evolution, Alternatives (creationism, etc.), Both, Unsure and Other.

This was an online, voluntary response poll. It's day one of any statistics course that such polls are worse than useless, since the results of such polls are often very misleading.

Still, my initial response was that the ID folks had reason to crow. Out of 658 respondents, 338 chose “Both” while an additional 81 chose “Alternatives” (which presumably excludes evolution). Only 221 chose “Evolution.” That's a distressingly high percentage of respondents who favor creationism being taught in science classes.

Happily, even in the blogosphere initial responses don't always reign.

The only way the results of an online poll might be worth taking seriously is if the sample size was a significant fraction of the ASA membership. So I felt better when I noticed that the ASA and its affiliates have more than 11,000 members. If we call it 11,000 even, then 658 represents just under six percent of the total membership. And that six percent is composed of those people who both knew about the poll and cared enough to reply, a sampling that is sure to favor the minority of creationists within the group.

Then there are other issues. Of the 338 who chose “Both” how many actually support creationism? There are many people on my side of this who believe that various forms of creationism should be taught in science classes as a pedagogical tool. They believe that presenting both sides as favorably as possible will lead to students seeing that evolution is much the better explanation. I don't happen to endorse that view, but the people who do certainly have no qualms about evolution or its evidential support.

A few other tidbits. Here's Dembski's description of the poll:

Why is this significant? Consider the following numbers: out of 658 ASA members who responded before the poll results were removed, 33% favor teaching evolution only in K-12, 12% favor teaching alternatives (e.g., ID), 10% are unsure, and a full 50% favor teaching evolution as well as alternatives. It’s this last number that’s shocking. If these numbers are representative of the organization as a whole, half of this professional scientific society does not think that conventional evolutionary theory is sufficiently well supported to deserve a monopoly in science education. As this happens more and more across professional scientific societies, evolution’s monopoly over the teaching of biological origins will disintegrate. (Emphasis Added)

As I've already noted, it is very unlikely that the handful of respondents to the poll represent the society generally, and Dembski has no basis for concluding that the “Both” respondents have any qualms about the evidential basis for evolution.

But it's that bold-face phrase that caught my eye. The actual response option, as I described above, was “Alternatives (creationism, etc.)” Contrary to Dembski's description, there was no mention of ID. Since Dembski usually goes to great lengths to distance ID from creationism, it's rather convenient for him to use them interchangably here. This either reflects Dembski's instinctive dishonesty, or, more likely, it reflects the fact that Dembski doesn't really believe there is any important difference between ID and creationism.

Finally, we should also point out that the official position of the Discovery Institute is that they do not want to teach either ID or creationism in science classes. If we take them at their word (never a good idea), they simply want to teach more about Darwinism. By this they mean they want favorable coverage of the brain-dead, trumped-up anti-evolution arguments they're always going on about. The results of this poll are contrary to the officially stated position of the DI.


At 3:57 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Hi Dr. Rosenhouse,

The poll may indicate that possibly few members were aware of the poll, or that few cared to respond. So I think your take is fair.....

For what it's worth, in case you didn't know, there was this "poll" (not really) of 8 univerisity presidents by Scientific American editor, John Rennie.


For the record, I encourage all the bio majors in my IDEA chapters to study evolutionary biology. Though I do not believe the view of evolutionary biology is correct, I want these biology students to give the case of evolution a full and fair hearing from which they can make their own conclusions. Though I would hope they remain or become IDists, I do not believe indoctrination (even into beliefs which I support) is ever a good policy. Thus, as I've said before, I'm happy to refer them to your writings....

Discovery Institute has a headquarters in DC. I met Stephen Meyers, David Berlinski and others...


At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Tom Ames said...

Also: is it clear that the poll was RESTRICTED to the society membership? Were people prevented from voting more than once? If these controls weren't part of the poll (which appears to have been a light-hearted "entertainment value only" affair), how easy it would have been to freep.

At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a member of ASA, I sent a quick email to ASA.

The poll was informal and open to all. When some members complained, the ASA Leadership said it was not appropriate, and the poll was pulled.

I was not informed about this poll. Usually we are informed by email on anything new on the web page.

Most modern topics of Agronomy (eg. agroecology, integrated pest management, conservation of germplasm) are practical applications of evolutionary theory.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Thank you for the information. The ID folks are so desperate for anything they can spin in their favor, they will even glom on to an obviously worthless, informal online poll.


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