Evolution Question and Scientific Literacy

July 21, 1996

* In the essay "Measuring Political Correctness" (Commentary, July 12), Mark Hartwig argues that the question, "Do you think that human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals?" posed in the National Science Foundation survey of scientific literacy "was most likely designed to label unbelievers as scientifically illiterate." There is no issue here. Someone who answers no is scientifically illiterate.

What if the questions were, "Do you think that Earth revolves around the sun?" Or "Do you think that dinosaurs really existed?" Or "Do you think that the Earth is at least 4.5 billion years old?" Each of these questions is increasingly controversial for some segment of the public.

These three questions, as well as the one pertaining to human origins, are "simple scientific facts" in Hartwig's usage, or what I prefer to call universally accepted scientific paradigms. I know of no scientifically legitimate argument against any of these four widely held paradigms. They are not "facts" just because scientists say so, but rather they have been tested over and over, thus withstanding repeated scientific scrutiny. Although extremely well supported, they do have the potential (even if remote) of being overturned--a hallmark of the scientific method.

The danger of Hartwig's logic is that if followed, we should add warning labels such as "according to some scientists" to any scientific idea or paradigm, even if universally accepted by science, because it does not fit the particular belief system of some. This is not merely hypothetical, as various state legislatures have made such proposals. The irony is that this potential sacrifice of scientific literacy is the real measure of political cor- rectness.


Professor of Biology

San Diego State University

* Hartwig gives us a scolding for not maintaining neutrality on the widely accepted theory of evolution. He worries himself sick that test takers will be confronted with their beliefs. All of the other questions on the test pass his muster.

The other questions may have a scientific minority that disagree with the assumptions embedded in them. None of the other scientific ideas tested came into being without someone denying them for some period of time. The denying of evolution still has a long time to run.


Costa Mesa

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