Last month , contestants in the Miss USA pageant were "scared to death," according to Fox News. Why were they so terrified? They feared "polarizing questions" asked in interviews taped before the pageant, including “Should evolution be taught in schools?” After the pageant, observers noted that the victor, formerly Miss California, had declared herself "a huge science geek" and enthusiastically endorsed the teaching of evolution. Other contestants were not so enthusiastic, with first runner-up Miss Tennessee taking a rather softer approach, agreeing "evolution should be taught in schools," but clarifying, "Personally that's not my belief but I do think that all ideas should be put out there for people to decide for themselves."
Why should scientists and science education advocates care what Miss USA contestants think about evolution? Scientific research in the 150 years since Darwin published the Origin of Species has consistently re-affirmed the broad explanatory power of evolution in biology and other sciences, and scientific and science education societies have consistently stated that evolution is fundamental to modern science and to modern science education, and that no scientific alternative exists.
Miss USA certainly doesn't set education policy, but the state pageant winners – especially the one wearing the Miss USA crown – have broad reach into households that may not read Scientific American, but who do vote for school boards and press their children's teachers on the coverage of evolution. Knowing how these role models think about evolution is important not just because these women have a bully pulpit, but because they are chosen to represent their states, and it is rare that we can see a national cross-section of how the non-scientist public views evolution (even as self-selected heavily vetted a cross-section as this group of pageant-winners). Indeed, understanding how Miss USA contestants talk about evolution can help us better understand how politicians talk about evolution, and how we can better promote science education.
While there's no scientific controversy over evolution, there's undoubtedly a political controversy, with about a third of Americans rejecting evolution outright, at least another third deeply ambivalent, and the remainder aligned with the scientific community's view. The pageant contestants, each representing one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia, clearly felt trapped in that political landscape, and seemed generally unaware of the scientific landscape. Only nine used words like "science" or "scientific" in their answers, and many of those nine misunderstand the science. A publicist who had previously worked with the Miss USA organizers complained to Fox News that this year’s "pageant officials are intimidating contestants into answering questions a certain way that are deemed 'politically correct' while discriminating against their own beliefs and opinions."
Watching the video and reading the transcript , it is obvious that many contestants were conflicted in their views, and quite a few had to discover their views on the spot. Instead of mocking these women for struggling with the issue, it should be said that most Americans probably go through a similar struggle when confronted with evolution questions by pollsters or by assignments in their children's homework. Veteran pollster George Bishop summarizes the state of public polling on evolution : "what Americans appear to believe about human origins can be readily manipulated by how the question is asked. … American public opinion on this matter would seem to be a lot more malleable than we have heretofore suspected." Subtle cues – whether the explicit mention of religious alternatives, omission of explicit reference to human evolution, or specific reference to the timeframe for evolution – can have substantial impacts on a survey's assessment of acceptance for evolution. This is not to say that Americans have no opinions about evolution until they get that call, only that there are several sets of information and intuition triggered by questions about evolution, and slight changes in circumstance can shift which of those sets will dominate a person's mind at a given moment.
The answers given by Miss USA contestants give us a unique insight into that process, precisely because the stakes are so low (at least for science education), and because they did more than say "true" or "false." They explained themselves, and in doing so laid bare the sorry state of science education, as well as some of the biases and misguided intuitions that make it so hard to talk about evolution in America.
Simply evaluating the merits of each candidate's answer was a challenge. Some, like Miss Connecticut's succinct "I do think evolution should be taught in schools" or Miss Alabama's dismissive "Evolution, no, I do not believe in evolution, I do not think it should be taught in schools, and I would not encourage it," were easy to judge. Others started strong and then faded, like Miss Kentucky, who opened: "I honestly don't think you could ever have too much knowledge on any subject," but still felt, "evolution shouldn't be taught in school … I just personally don't think it's a good topic for school subjects, at all." Others seemed to misunderstand the basic concepts (like Miss Rhode Island: "I believe that evolution should be taught in schools because I think that kids need to know all different perspectives on how the world came to be") or else tried to avoid the question (Miss Indiana: "I don't know. I think that we should leave that up to the government. I don't think… I'm not sure, I think a lot of people would have an issue if evolution was taught in school, I think we should just leave that out of the equation").
Some clearly wanted religious alternatives taught in schools, like Miss West Virginia: "Yeah, I do think that evolution should be taught in schools, but I also don't think that religion should be taken out. If you don't believe in evolution, that's fine, but you should at least be informed about it. And if you don't believe in religion, that's fine, but you should at least be informed about it. So I personally feel like they should incorporate both." Others brought in that same idea of balance, but didn't necessarily think religious views belonged in school, like Miss Idaho: "I believe that evolution should be mentioned in school. The thing is it's all about what you believe in and it shouldn't be pushed on you but again you should be knowledged [sic] about it I guess just different options. Because growing up in a family, you learn to live off of those values and morals and if you don't have other options to believe in that's what you're gonna go by for the rest of your life."
Devising a consistent way to judge these responses wasn’t easy. Rather than imposing my own (somewhat) arbitrary standard on the sometimes subtle distinctions between answers, I decided to open up the judging to scienceblog readers. I posted a survey, linked to it on my blog and twitter feed, and thanks to my own readers, and those of other sciencebloggers who retweeted the request, I soon had 713 responses. Because most of the folks taking the survey were referred by a scienceblog or related twitter stream, it seemed likely that the responses would be generally aligned with the scientific view of evolution, but to check, I included a short science quiz (including a question about the common ancestry of life, a key evolutionary concept).
I also asked respondents to rate the 51 statements by Miss USA contestants on a scale from 1-10, with 10 representing an ideal response (in the survey-taker’s opinion). To give those ratings some context, I added three additional statements from scientific societies, and two more statements from creationist groups. Those statements were from: The American Association for the Advancement of Science : "The contemporary theory of biological evolution is one of the most robust products of scientific inquiry. It is the foundation for research in many areas of biology as well as an essential element of science education"; The Inter-Academy Panel (a global body bringing together over 100 national academies of science) : "in various parts of the world, within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science. We urge decision makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science and to foster an understanding of the science of nature. Knowledge of the natural world in which they live empowers people to meet human needs and protect the planet"; and The Society for Amateur Scientists : "Today, evolution is the unifying principle of biology. Nothing makes sense without it. True, it remains a very active field of research and many subtle and fascinating questions remain to be answered. However, that life has adapted and changed through time is as well established as the fact that the earth goes round the sun."
From the creationist side: the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research : "School boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidences and arguments against evolution in their classes even if they don t wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creation," and the intelligent design creationist Discovery Institute : "Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. … Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. [E]volution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. … [A] curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on." (To avoid confusion, I removed any labels identifying the origin of the 5 statements from societies, including replacing organization names with the first person, and omitted ellipses and brackets, and I randomized the order of questions between survey-takers.)
The ratings given were quite consistent across surveys, which can make us much more confident in picking winning and losing answers. Interestingly, statistical tests showed that people's answers on the science quiz had little impact on how they scored the Miss USA answers, which may simply reflect the science-friendly population recruited to complete the surveys (fewer than a third got even one question wrong).
The statements from scientific societies give us a context for evaluating the ratings of Miss USA contestants. Encouragingly, the three statements from pro-evolution groups all got high ratings, all having average scores above 9 (out of 10). And as we'd expect, the creationist statements were rated lower. The ICR statement – which was issued in 1987 as a reaction to a US Supreme Court ruling that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional – was given an average rating just over 2.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Discovery Institute statement – written with an eye toward avoiding legal challenges, such as the 2005 court ruling that intelligent design is a form of creationism and thus unconstitutional to teach in public science classrooms – got an average rating of 7.29. That rating is essentially the same as that given to "huge science geek" and pageant winner Miss California. Only two pageant contestants' statements rated higher than the Discovery Institute's policy of attacking evolution in the classroom: Miss New Mexico (scoring 8), and Miss Connecticut (8.4). The other 47 contestants were rated substantially worse than the Discovery Institute's policy, while only 5 were rated worse than the ICR statement (Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Nebraska).
To put these numbers in context, I drew on research by Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. They recently gathered a host of surveys asking Americans whether evolution should be taught in schools, and found that (depending on the question's wording) 14-20% said that evolution alone should be taught, 30-51% said that both evolution and creationism should be taught, and 27-38% percent felt that creationism should be taught alone (with slightly different wording, roughly 30% favored teaching only evolution, and 60% favored teaching evolution along side creationism). Berkman and Plutzer used a powerful statistical tool to break those numbers down by state, as well, allowing us to see how well each Miss USA contestant matches the views of the state she represents.
Overall, the correlation between the ratings of each state's Miss USA contestant and Berkman and Plutzer's estimates of statewide support for teaching evolution was 0.5, showing a strong relationship between statewide attitudes and the responses of these candidates (correlation of 0 would mean no relationship, correlation of 1 would mean that the numbers move in perfect unison, and correlation of -1 would mean that the numbers are exact mirror images of one another; correlation of 0.5 is considered quite large for social science research). Thus, it's not surprising that Connecticut's, New Mexico's, and California's representatives to the pageant would be among the most science-friendly: in Berkman and Plutzer's analysis, those are among the states with the highest levels of support for teaching evolution (ranking 2nd, 5th, and 7th, respectively).
Of course, statewide attitudes aren't the only factor influencing the contestants. While Massachusetts is the most evolution-friendly state by Berkman and Plutzer's estimate, Miss Massachusetts gave only the 7th most evolution-friendly answer. New York and New Jersey are the 3rd and 4th most evolution-friendly states, but their candidates for Miss USA gave the 17th and 27th best answers on the evolution question.
When we look at those three candidates answers, we start to see the other factors influencing these women's views. Miss Massachusetts's answer isn't bad, opening "I do think evolution should be taught in schools," and the state's pro-evolution attitude shows when she says "I was personally taught evolution growing up even in a religious school." But even having studied evolution, she doesn't have a clear sense of why evolution should be taught. "I think it's an important aspect," she says, "and I think it's good because it broadens your horizons. I think any learning possibility is good. And I think people should learn as much as possible about different aspects of different … whether it's religion whether it's whatever it is, I think the more learning you can get, the more educated you are, the more educated you are, the better you come off." Whether this is her religious school background showing through, or simply an attempt to moderate her comments and appeal to a broader audience is impossible to say, but balancing evolution against religion in her answer seems to have hurt her score. She didn't call for religion to be taught in public schools, so her answer wasn't graded down too far.
Miss New York's influences are clearer. While granting that evolution should be taught, she immediately takes the matter out of the realm of science, and places it squarely into the realm of metaphysics, opening her statement: "I personally believe evolution should be taught in schools and I believe religion should be taught in schools." The rest of her answer consists of platitudes and appeals to people's beliefs, whether they are "scientific and as well as um what other cultures practice." It can't help that she grew up in Texas, not a state renowned for its friendliness to evolution in classrooms. Not surprisingly, her answer was rated almost identically to Miss Texas's.
Similarly, it should be noted that Miss California recently moved from New Jersey (she competed to be Miss New Jersey in 2009 and 2010), and her good performance on the evolution question should reflect as favorably on the Garden State as its 2011 representative reflects poorly. Like Miss New York, and many other contestants, Miss New Jersey fell into the trap of treating what's taught in school (and evolution in particular) as a matter of "belief." "I think everything should be taught in schools," she explained, "every single aspect of evolution and anything you can think of. I think they [students] should have the option of learning everything that there is to learn, and then kinda choose what they like to believe."
Half of the contestants used some version of the words "believe" or "belief" in their answers, either to explain their own views, or to explain that children should decide to believe or disbelieve the various things taught in school. It's unlikely that the contestants would have taken the same attitude if asked about topics like gravity, addition, or the germ theory of disease. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Faye Flam recently flayed such talk of “belief” in evolution , showing how common, and how deeply flawed, it is.
In seeing evolution as a matter of “belief,” distinct from other sciences, the contestants were surely representing their states and the American public. For over 25 years, the National Science Foundation has conducted surveys of science literacy, asking Americans various questions including whether they think it is true or false that: "humans as we know them have developed from earlier species of animals." And across all that time, about 45% of Americans consistently agree with that accurate account of this basic finding of evolutionary biology. The remainder disagree or "don't know."
In 2004, researchers at the Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes decided to see what drives that remarkably high rejection of evolution (antievolutionism consistently higher than in European nations other than Turkey). They replicated the standard NSF survey, but only half of the respondents were asked the normal questions on evolution and the big bang. Instead of asking the other half whether it's true that "humans as we know them have developed from earlier species of animals," they were asked if it is true that "according to evolutionary theory, humans as we know them have developed from earlier species of animals." Adding that simple qualification to the beginning of the statement brought the number answering "true" up from 42% to 74%. This shift suggests that the survey-takers were not approaching the question simply as a scientific statement (in which case the preface would have been irrelevant), and may have been reading metaphysical implications into the statement.
This is also how political candidates often handle questions about evolution. Like the Miss USA contestants, most politicians (excluding those on local school boards or state boards of education) will have little opportunity to influence how evolution is taught. In answering questions about evolution during campaigns, their goal is rarely to indicate a clear conception of how science works and why evolution is central to modern biology. Instead, they must alienate as few constituents as possible, keep their base happy, and avoid an embarrassing misstep that could draw harmful national mockery. Because of the widespread perception that human evolution carries implications for the nature of morality, the soul, and other central aspects of personal identity and ethics, candidates tend to skirt the issue. They often call for equal time for evolution and creationism and then rapidly transition to the importance of religion in their personal lives. In many ways, that is also how the Miss USA candidates addressed the same challenge.
Understanding this dynamic, the way that Americans outside the scientific community tend to think of evolution as a metaphysical concept, is an important first step in changing America's longstanding aversion to evolution. A calm and rational explanation of the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution will often have little or no effect because the public sees the issue through the lens of metaphysics, of personal identity and morality. If science advocates do not engage those underlying issues, and engage them in ways that satisfy their audiences, we will remain in the awkward limbo represented in the Miss USA pageant, hovering indecisively between overt creationism and cryptic creationism, with only a few brave souls standing up for the position expressed by my personal favorite response from the Miss USA pageant, Miss New Mexico's: "I think evolution should be taught in schools because evolution is based off of science and I think science is a huge thing that we need to continue to enrich our schools with."
About the Author: Josh Rosenau is a Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit based in Oakland, CA and dedicated to defending evolution in public schools. He first encountered the creation/evolution controversy as a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology in Kansas. That's also where he started his blog, Thoughts from Kansas. He tweets as @JoshRosenau.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.