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Casualties in the New Science Wars: The Nation’s Children

Interview With the Authors of Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms

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Recent surveys suggest that nearly half of all American adults do not accept human evolution and an even larger majority is open to the teaching of nonscientific alternatives in our public schools.

There was a time when such statistics could be accepted without much alarm. After all, one need not accept or even understand evolutionary biology to become an excellent aerospace engineer, a computer scientist, or even a heart surgeon. And besides, isn’t society in the midst of a period of secularization such that advocates for creationism will be an ever-shrinking and increasingly marginal minority?

These two arguments are undermined by recent research on the teaching of evolution, and recent trends in the politicization of science in America. As a result, scientific illiteracy with respect to evolution is better viewed as a symptom of broader weaknesses in science education and we can expect that the tactics used by evolution deniers will soon be applied to other issues such as climate change.

Our recent book on how evolution is actually taught in the nation’s public schools reveals a broader undermining of science that has the potential to breed distrust of sound science in mainstream American culture.

  • We estimate that at least 13 percent of all public high school biology teachers flout U.S. federal court decisions by explicitly endorsing creationism or intelligent design in their classrooms.
  • We find that even in states with very rigorous content standards with respect to evolution, teachers’ coverage of evolution is largely dictated by their own personal values and their desire to accommodate local community sentiment.
  • To avoid controversy, many teachers disassociate themselves from the material—explaining that students need to learn it simply to pass the test.
  • Other teachers who themselves accept evolution nevertheless encourage students to come to their own opinions about the validity of evolutionary biology—conveying the idea that it is just a matter of opinion.
  • Still others focus only on microbiology. Not only do most avoid human evolution entirely but many omit fossil, genetic, and anatomical evidence of common ancestry of vertebrates—leaving high school graduates open to the common creationism argument that there is no real evidence for the emergence of new species.

“There’s nothing wrong with teaching creationism in social studies classes or classes on comparative religion or philosophy. But it’s inappropriate in our view, and in the view of most major scientific organizations, to teach creationism as science in a science class.”

It is not hard to see how these practices produce new generations of citizens who lack an appreciation for the nature of scientific inquiry and whose distrust of science will make them easy marks for those who see the findings of mainstream science as a threat to their profits or ideology (a phenomenon well documented by Oreskes and Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt).

In sidestepping potential controversy, teachers are missing opportunities to explain how science actually works. For example, the field of evolution has many great examples of how scientists gain increasing confidence in hypotheses as replications and convergent evidence from disparate approaches cumulate in favor of the same conclusion. Teachers are missing opportunities to explain how modern science moves forward through the efforts and integrity of thousands of highly competitive individuals, all operating under the scrutiny of peer review.

In short, the current teaching of evolution represents an opportunity lost—the opportunity to prepare the next generation of citizens to play an informed and meaningful role in public debates that hinge on scientific evidence.

If this missed educational prospect was not cause enough for concern, it seems clear that instruction in earth science is likely to become embroiled in similar politics. Increasingly partisan and ideological politicians and activists are linking the two topics. Consider Ken Mercer, a former member of the Texas Assembly and current two-term member of the Texas Board of Education. When asked a question about his stance on evolution, he stated, “what we do have is the right for our kids to raise their hands in class and ask honest questions, especially in the areas of evolution and global warming.” As reported in a recent New York Times article, the joining of these two issues offers tactical advantages to each camp. Evolution deniers can claim that their skepticism of mainstream science is not rooted in religion because they also ask for teaching of “gaps” and “weaknesses” on climate change research, while climate skeptics can gain strength by allying with well-organized networks of socially conservative Christians who seem predisposed to doubt the conclusions of mainstream science.

These two trends—the cultivation of distrust in science generally and the convergence of interests of evolution and climate change deniers—signal a new chapter in the politicization of science. We can expect that mainstream science will be under attack in several venues. These include state boards of education that approve curricular standards, and local school boards that make choices among state-approved textbooks and instructional materials. But our research suggests that the most consequential arena will be the nation’s classrooms and the key players will be the nation’s science teachers. Moreover, the surest way to ensure teachers will not bow to political pressure is to arm them with a rigorous science education to complement their expertise in pedagogy and classroom management. If our research on high school biology teachers generalizes to science teachers more broadly, we can expect that many lack confidence in their ability to respond to politically motivated pressures with cogent explanations rooted in scientific research. Lacking such confidence, the sensible choice is to downplay scientific conclusions that generate controversy.

In this light, policymakers should review the rigor of science education that is typical of newly minted science educators and, where appropriate, elevate the expectations of what background is necessary to be considered well qualified. Such reforms have the potential to reduce the number of children who become casualties of the new science wars.

Podcast interview with Dr. Eric Plutzer conducted by Diana Epstein, a Policy Analyst at American Progress. Article by Dr. Eric Plutzer, professor of political science, and Dr. Michael B. Berkman, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Penn State University Political Science Department. Dr. Plutzer and Dr. Berkman are the authors of the new book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. This article was cross-posted at Climate Progress.

References

Berkman, Michael, and Eric Plutzer. 2010. Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaufman, Leslie. 2010. “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets.” The New York Times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/science/earth/04climate.html).

Newport, Frank. 2010. “Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism.” Gallup (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145286/Four-Americans-Believe-Strict-Creationism.aspx).

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 2005. “Religion A Strength and Weakness for Both Parties.” Washington.

Tuma, Mary. “Q&A | Ken Mercer, Republican Nominee for State Board of Education, District 5.” Community Impact Newspaper (http://impactnews.com/vote10/candidates/8633-qaa-ken-mercer-republican-nominee-for-state-board-of-education-district-5).

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