Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


Alternative title: Near Fatal Wound from the La Sierra Biology Survey Provokes Unjustified Apology

Faulty Analysis of La Sierra University Biology Student Survey Provokes Unjustified Apology

For more than two years the biology program at La Sierra University
(LSU) has been in the maelstrom of controversy over the teaching of evidence-based science as opposed to young-earth creationism. This conflict has gone so far, according to an Adventist Review article, that some believe that the university is teaching the “theory of evolution to biology students as the explanation for the origin of life.” i This is an example of conflated polemics that arises when the worlds of science and religion collide and wash over each other. The assumption that one must exclude the other in part has been the failure to adequately analyze the characteristics of diverse ways of knowing. It is apparent that even in matters of religion, scientists enjoy great respect in the modern world. But for science to be respected truthfulness has to be an iron law not a vague aspiration, otherwise it becomes something else. After listening to a welter of allegations swirling around the issues, the LSU Board of Trustees appointed a Creation-Evolution Study Group (hereafter the “Committee”) to summarize their apprehensions of teaching biological science in a faith-based institution. Three allegations emerged and the Committee decided to adopt these allegations and go directly to the students and seek their opinions. A six-level Likert (1932) questionnaire was created and a quarter of students that were in the biology program during the past four years participated in the survey. Sixty-seven percent had only taken freshman General Biology and the well-heeled four-year graduates represented 33 percent. Twenty-nine percent were non-Adventists, but mostly from Christian background. (see Jared Wright. Spectrum 13 May 2011.) The three allegations are important in this report and include: o The Biblical account of six literal consecutive 24-hour days of creation has been discredited and labeled as merely figurative language; o The theory of evolution is taught as having greater scientific merit than the Biblical account of creation and as more accurately portraying the origin and development of life, and

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


o Students who maintain a traditional SDA perspective with regard to creation are marginalized and sometimes ridiculed for holding this position. After the survey was taken, the Committee combined the upper two items (“strongly agree” and “agree”) into one item called, “agree.” The lower two items below the “neutral” response or middle choice (“agree” and “strongly disagree”) were also combined into one item and labelled “disagree.” Then for good measure the “neutral” responses were combined with all the “disagree” responses, except one important difference in question Q6. In this question, the “neutral” was move up into the “agree.” (see below). Students filling out the questionnaire were not told that the “neutral” response would be turned into a “disagree” response. So what would be effect of this non-standard procedure of collapsing the Likert scales into a “yes” / “no” survey and shifting the “neutral” responses into “disagree?” Especially now that we know it was the outcome from the biology student survey which provoked the “Open Apology Letter” from the LSU Board. The apology letter in turn, according the Adventist Review, entered the decision matrix for withholding the Church’s five-year accreditation that was first approved by the Adventist Accreditation Association site visiting team. To analyze possible distortional effects I took the same survey questions the Committee used and also combined the “agrees” together and the “disagrees” for each question. There was one difference. I considered the “neutral” response as neither “agree” nor “disagree,” and nothing more than “neutral.” The “no basis for response” was ignored in the Committee’s report and also in this study (this item was not moved around as was the “neutral.” In the Committee’s report the “disagree” was discussed as a “shortcoming” of the biology program. The Committee conducted no statistical evaluations. ii After calculating the percentage responses for the “agree” and “disagree” items in each question statistical methods were applied in the present study. These percentages make up the bar plots below and the two graphs compare the Committee’s results (red/blue bars) and the present study (green/orange bars). The “neutral” responses do enter this study (but are found in the Committee’s bar graph). The frequency for the “neutral” and “no basis for response” are each shown below the question. For the statistical analyses we only have one variable in each question—the “agree(s)” and “disagree(s)”— and Chi-square goodness of fit can be used to test the null hypothesis for each question. Using this statistical method we can determine whether there is a significant difference in the number of “agree(s)”

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


responses compared to the number of “disagree(s)” responses in each question. One degree of freedom was used. The statistical significance of the difference is shown below each question. No assumptions in this study were made concerning any allegations or “shortcomings” in the biology program. That was the interest of the Committee. But consider one more thing about the analysis undertaken in this study before reviewing the results. This was not a professional conceived questionnaire (many have already pointed out its defects and inappropriate assumptions)—surveys are difficult to create and this one has more than its share of shortcomings. But in this analysis the survey questions and response are all that we have, and by working with the survey there are some important insights that can be obtained from the student’s responses. Furthermore, this student survey is what the LSU Committee used to report its findings to the Board of Trustees. If nothing else, we will see the ever danger of motivated reasoning driven by dogma and prejudice to get the desired results even, as in this case, as the data is shifted about to support pre-existing notions. In the present study, the wording in each question was used to assign, as closely as possible, each question to only one of three allegations. This allows us to presuppose, using the statistical results from each question, whether or not the allegation was identified in the question, and did the student’s response support the allegation? Often, there was only a loose fit between the allegations and the survey questions. The Committee seemed reluctant to test its own allegations. Student responses are graphically plotted below each question, along with comments and data summaries.

Results of the Biology Student Survey Allegation 1: The Biblical account of six literal consecutive 24-hour days of creation has been discredited and labeled as merely figurative language. iii
6: Evolutionary theories were taught as the factual explanation of the origin of life.
Present Study

41 A gree % 59% Disagree

49% A gree 49% Disagree

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


Comments: The question is posed in the opposite direction and freshmen biology students might find the question confusing. The question is similar to Q13 and like Q13 it could be attached to allegation 2. This is the only question in the entire survey where the Committee combined thirteen of the “neutral” responses to the “agree” variable, not as in the other questions. Better students might have difficulty knowing how to answer this declarative question because they are taught in biology that evolutionary theories accounts for life’s unity and diversity, and not as the “factual explanation of the origin of life.” There is a difference. The upper two bars (green/orange) represent data from the current study. The lower two bars (red/blue) are comprised from data from the Committee. There is no statistical difference between “agree” and “disagree” responses, therefore the Committee’s interpretation is NOT supported by the students responses in this question. N = 77. Statistically, “no difference.” P = 0.1385. Neutral responses (13). No basis for response (1).

8: The Seventh-day Adventist view of creation was presented in biology classes.

60% A gree 40% Disagree

50% A gree 44% Disagree Comments: In the preceding two years all incoming biology students participated in BIOL 111A, a multiple instructor class involving both biology and theology faculty. So it is surprising that the students did not remember taking a class where the emphasis was on the SDA Church’s teachings on creation. A high number of responses contained the middle option or “neutral” (10/76). Perhaps the students might be confused by the clause “in biology classes” since BIOL 111A was taught as a seminar where the SDA viewpoint was emphasized. The distribution does not show a statistical difference between the “agree” and “disagree” responses. N = 76. Statistically, “no difference,” between “agree” and “disagree” responses. P = 0.0665. Neutral responses = 10. No basis for response = 5.

9: The Seventh-day Adventist view of creation was supported in biology classes.

60% A gree 40% Disagree

40% A gree 53% Disagree Comment: Nearly the same question as above only the word “presented” changed to “supported.” This question drew the largest “neutral” response in the study. When neutral is not included in the “disagree” both questions show the same distribution (this should be expected). N = 62. Statistically, “no difference,” between “agree” and “disagree” responses. P = 0.1275. Neutral responses = 23. No basis for response = 6.

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


Analysis of Allegation 1: The presupposition that the “Biblical account

of creation has been discredited and labeled as merely figurative language” was not presented or tested by specific questions in this questionnaire. In a court of law the allegation would have no standing simply because no evidence was presented. But the statistical results in this study removes any doubts that the allegation is valid. The Chi-square goodness-of-fit test failed to show a statistical difference between “agree” and “disagree” responses in all of the above three questions. Therefore, by attaching these three questions to this allegation and by assuming the Committee equated the “Biblical account of six literal consecutive 24-hour days of creation” to what they called “The SDA view of creation” the statistical results from the survey help us to decide that we can vacate the allegation. All three questions had a high observed frequency of “neutral” responses. When the “neutral” responses are not included, as in this study, the students opinions in Q8 “presented” and Q9 “supported” was actually 60 percent—not the 50 percent or 40 percent that made its way into the apology letter. These three questions demonstrate that by combining the “neutral” with either the “agree” or “disagree” the results were corrupted and useless. Now the question arises, how can you account for this when the welfare of LSU is threatened? Would the “neutral” responses combined with the “disagree” embrace the prevailing fundamental opinions and deprive the University of energy and vitality? For many, the official “apology” letter and ensuing consequences answers that question.

Allegation 2: The theory of evolution is taught as having greater scientific merit than the Biblical account of creation and as more accurately portraying the origin and development of life.
1: It is appropriate to present evolutionary theories in biology classes at La Sierra University.

95% A gree 5% Disagree 92% A gree 7% Disagree Comment: The student’s “agree(d)” to this question by 95 percent, whatever that

means. The theory of evolution continues to be tested with evidence in biology and students recognize how the theory allows and promotes scientific inquiry in the context of naturalistic methodology. No part of the question asks if the “theory of evolution is taught as having greater scientific merit than the Biblical account of creation. The allegation is incongruous since consilience between science and religion do not overlap as disciplines. The theory of evolution has no power or scientific merit over the Biblical account of creation. N = 88. Statistically this question resulted in a “very significant difference” between agree and disagree. P = <0.0001. Neutral = 3.

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


2: Evolution is presented as a scientific working theory in biology classes.

88% A gree 1 2% Disagree 84% A gree 5% Disagree Comment: In view of the1fact that evolution is always presented as a working hypothesis, it is difficult to understand how 12 % of the students perceived that evolution was not presented as a scientific non-working theory. The student majority underscores that evolution was presented as a scientific working theory. N = 87. “Very significant difference” between agree and disagree. P = <0.0001. Neutral = 4.

3: The differences between theories, facts, and beliefs were explained in my biology classes.

81 A gree % 1 9% Disagree 76% A gree 24% Disagree Comment: It is reasonable to wonder whether a “belief” is really a single phenomenon at the level of the brain. N = 85. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 6.

4: The changing and always tentative nature of even stronglyestablished theories was explained in my biology classes.

82% A gree 1 8% Disagree 74% A gree 24% Disagree Comment: One of the rules of naturalistic methodology. N = 82. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 6. No basis for answer =


5: Data relevant to testing the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theories were discussed in my biology classes.

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


73% A gree 27% Disagree

63% A gree 34% Disagree Comment: Scientific judgments presuppose “epistemic values,” coherence, simplicity, beauty, parsimony, etc. Students understand the nature of scientific theories. N = 79. “Very significant difference.” P =<0.0001. Neutral = 10. No basis for answer = 2.

10: Science is an effective, but tentative, way to understand and explain natural processes.

90% A gree 1 0% Disagree

83% A gree 1 6% addresses Comment: This question only Disagree one side of the allegation. Responses show the students understand methodological naturalism. N = 84. “Very Significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 7.

12: Science and religion are valid but different ways of understanding the world.

78% A gree 22% Disagree

67% A gree 32% Disagree Comment: The first question that approaches a comparison between science and religion, as distinguished between knowing and belief. The statistic shows that the students understood the difference of the two worlds. N = 78. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 12. No basis for response = 1.

13: Science is unable to definitively answer questions about the ultimate origins of human life.

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


75% A gree 25% Disagree

57% A gree 39% Disagree Comment: The “neutral” and “no basis” responses were relatively high in this question. Generally, biologists and the teaching texts do not make an intemperate claim that “science can ultimately answer the question of the origin of human life,” and 75 percent of the students “agreed.” The life,” declarative statement is a claim made by religion, not science. N = 69. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 18. No basis for response = 4.

Analysis of Allegation 2: Many Christian thinkers believe or argue that

evidence gathered by scientific inquiry could not possibly undermine religious faith, for they are two different worlds. Others have a different view believing that some of the tools of science—fact and reason—can even advance the he knowledge of God. But like the first allegation, the second was not directly tested by the Committee. Apparently, the Committee was reluctant to expect the faculty in biology to apply scientific falsification (as is done in science) to the Biblical account of creation, and so did not bring it up directly. It is impossible to compare scientific methodology as having “greater merit than the Biblical account of creation…” which is implied in the allegation. There is no way to scientifically gather data dealing with Biblical creation, then check the validity of God’s creative methods, falsify any hypotheses that might be created and repeat the observations over attempting to falsify a theory of Biblical creation. The results from the survey showed that the LSU biology students understood the methods of scientific inquiry (hypothesisunderst d based science). In all of the responses the statistic for “agree” was a “very significant difference.”

Allegation 3: Students who maintain a traditional SDA perspective with regard to creation are marginalized and sometimes ridiculed for holding this position.
7: My professors presented helpful ways of relating science and religious faith.

79% A gree 21 Disagree %

69% A gree 30% Disagree

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


Comment: Committee recognized that biology professors were doing a good job. You can see for yourself through this section. N = 78. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 11. No basis for response = 2.

11: Science offers an effective way to prove beliefs about God and God’s creation.

68% A gree 32% Disagree 52% A gree 45% Disagree Comment: Students appeared to be confused by this question as there were 20 percent who responded with a “neutral” answer (almost as high as “strongly agree”). Better students would know that “science does not offer empirical evidence for “proving” beliefs about God and God’s creation. Maybe the students thought they could help out their biology teachers by answering “agree,” but science does not reshape the debate over whether there is a Creator God or not, despite what some believe. N = 69. “Significant difference.” 0.0026. Neutral = 19. No basis for response = 3.

14: Biology professors treated my questions and views on issues of origins, science, and religious faith with dignity and respect.
88% A gree 1 2% Disagree 71 A gree % 20% Disagree Comment: A significantly greater percentage of the students (88 percent as opposed to the erroneous Committee calculation of 71 percent) indicated that their beliefs were treated with dignity and respect. The Committee appears to distort the “shortcomings” of the biology program by combining nine “neutral” into “disagree” choice. It has the effect of lowering “agree” and rising “disagree.” You can see these effects in all the questions in this section. All of the questions in this section showed significant separation between “disagree” and “agree” in the answers. N = 74. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 9. No basis for response = 8.

15: Biology professors encouraged my faith in a personal God.

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


82% A gree 1 8% Disagree 69% A gree 24% Disagree Comment: N = 77. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral = 7. No basis for response = 7.

16: Biology professors supported my faithfulness to my religious heritage.
85% A gree 1 5% Disagree 69% A gree 24% Disagree Comments: N = 73. “Very significant difference.” P = <0.0001. Neutral =11. No basis for response 7.

Analysis of Allegation 3: This section was devoted to understanding the
allegation that students enrolled in the biology program and who maintained a traditional “SDA perspective with regard to creation” were marginalized and sometimes ridiculed for holding this position. All of the responses show position “very significant difference” between “agree” and “disagree,” with the percentages more favorable than the Committee’s analysis. If the board has heard that biology students “are marginalized and sometimes ridiculed,” these biology students do not agree (although one disappointed student would be enough to be concerned). But again this allegation was not directly made a part of the questionnaire nor is it stated in such a way as to bring to the surface the allegations. One can say with confidence that the answers to these questions in this section demonstrated a statistical separation greater than P <0.0001. This goes without saying. The majority of the students perceived that they were treated with respect and their faith in a personal God as well as their faithfulness to religious heritage was encouraged. No matter how hard you may try in a classroom environment it is difficult to know when you fail to meet the needs of a student on a particular day, etc. The 42 comments or written responses were not included in the Memorandum.

Conclusion: Despite the fact that the student survey revealed incompleteness in what the Committee had set out to determine, it is a treasure chest of insightful information. The students actually passed along important information about the biology program at LSU. But then through the lens of fabrication, valuable insights were misread,

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


overlooked or lost. In this family feud, the survey said—that the LSU biology program was performing as it was expected in a university, and in fact expecting the professors to don the hat of a pastor too, they stepped out and according to the survey were consistent in supporting student’s religious pilgrimage. Judging from this survey, as with most surveys when used as a tool for gathering opinions, the results can be said to have not achieved perfection. This is one reason for turning to statistics. How confident are we in the findings? The trouble is that individuals who already had their minds made up, possessing motivated reasoning, will not be able to see or understand these results. As the celebrated psychologist Leon Festinger pointed out. “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” Many students enter a biology program in preparation for medicine and dentistry, and other health professions. Science professors in Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities introduce these students to critical thinking (as in other secular universities) and they begin by explaining that all scientific theories face potential disturbances, although much of what they will learn is factual and based on hard evidence (truth without certainty). This can all change by an ugly little fact or observation. The scientific method adheres rigidly to a set of rules (think of a game of chest) based on the success of gaining and the growing accumulation of reliable knowledge. Students learn the sequence of creating hypothesis, gathering data or evidence, testing the validity of the ideas and attempting to falsify observations or the experiment. And they learn biology through the man-made rules of naturalistic methodology and inductive reasoning. Creationism (in the broad meaning that a supernatural force created) by its very nature cannot be falsified. This supernatural force is God, and thus special creationism is a theological doctrine, which through deductive reasoning becomes a belief. The case study here is a classic example where a fundamentalist wedge of the church seems to be suffering from the “curse of the cult of certainty.” History is replete with similar examples of individuals who are convinced they know the truth and they must act as selfappointed “swords of the Lord.” Of course now it is too late to unwind the damage by the Committee’s distortion and faulty interpretation of the student survey. This should remind us that people in contested issues sometimes may push faulty information and data out on the table and make supposedly sound

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey


declarations (but you already knew this). However, seeing this out in the open reminds us how beliefs rooted in emotions often treat facts as irrelevant. This constant nagging on the part of the fundamentalist is destructive and incredibly non-productive for LSU and the biological sciences in other Adventist educational institutions (look at the past debris fields created in every college in the Adventist educational system beginning with Battle Creek). Church sponsored educational institutions can fail because they place too much emphasis upon controversial doctrines. Also, the tendency to indoctrinate rather than enlighten (educate) could cause Adventist education to lose intellectual respectability. What we see here is a case study of what appears to be an agenda-driven group in the Committee trying to forge a negative image of the science program at LSU by employing outright data biasing to serve a particular purpose or ambition. At the end of all of this conflict, we are likely to admire how these science teachers stood up to this challenge and maintained a strong naturalistic methodology in teaching science to students where a good education made all the difference for success in the world.
T. Joe Willey received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in neuroscience and was a postdoctoral fellow at New York University in Buffalo and the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. He also taught neuroscience at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Walla Walla and La Sierra Universities.

T Joe Willey © May 17, 2001 Written for Spectrum Blog.

Willey, T Joe

LSU Biology Student Survey



La Sierra University Gains Window to Show Faithfulness to Church’s Creation Belief. Adventist Review. April 28, 2011. The suspicion that the origin of life is being taught at La Sierra, highlighted by the critics in the Adventist Review, is absolutely false.

It should be noted that Provost Steven Pawluk in his Powerpoint presentation in Jared Wrights article also did not combine “neutral” with either “disagree” or “strongly disagree.” Pawluk was careful to exclude “neutral” in his presentation.
None of the questions in the survey addresses the important issue whether or not the biblical creation story was “labeled as merely figurative language.”

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