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Miss-Conceptions About Science

What the Miss USA Pageant Can Teach Us about Americans’ Attitudes Toward Science Education

Alyssa Campanella, Miss USA 2011 SOURCE: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson Alyssa Campanella, Miss California, second from left, reacts after being announced as a finalist during the 2011 Miss USA pageant, Sunday, June 19, 2011, in Las Vegas.

No one knows why the Miss USA organizers thought it would be a good idea to ask the candidates whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, but the outcome of the pageant seems to have generated some good PR for Charles Darwin. The winner of the crown, the self-proclaimed “huge science geek” Alyssa Campanella of California, was the only one among the 51 contestants who explicitly stated that she believed in evolution and one of a small handful who said it should be taught in schools without adding any disclaimers.

Watch “huge science geek” Miss USA 2011 Alyssa Campanella’s response, courtesy of Think Progress:

Meanwhile, the answers provided by the rest of the candidates clearly illustrate many of the confusions and misconceptions that surround evolution. Several seemed to have a poor understanding of exactly what evolution is, while others suggested that schools adopt policies that the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional for decades.

While the opinions of Miss USA contestants will have little impact on what kids learn in school, the statements made by these representatives of America’s future might mean that we haven’t been doing too well in educating our youth in science. Evolution is included in the National Research Council’s national science standards, as well as most state science standards, which means that most of the Miss USA contestants should have learned about it in high school, if not college.  Why, then, did most of these talented young women seem to be so uninformed?

A study of 926 public high school biology teachers found that only 28 percent of them adhere to National Research Council standards in the development of their curriculums. Up to 13 percent teach creation and/or intelligent design, while an additional 5 percent do not explicitly teach these concepts but endorse it in passing or in response to students’ questions. Meanwhile the majority of teachers, who the study authors refer to as the “Cautious 60 Percent” either teach only select evolutionary concepts, teach evolution and creation/intelligent design together, or teach neither. Some teachers in the Cautious 60 Percent choose these strategies in order to avoid controversy, while, more surprisingly, others choose them because they were never formally educated in evolution and do not feel comfortable teaching it.

As easy as it is to ridicule the answers given by the Miss USA contestants, it is important to remember that their responses are, more than anything else, a reflection of their teachers, their schools, and science education in the United States. Recently, Dr. Steve Rissing, a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal Biology at Ohio State University (the alma mater of Miss Ohio, Ashley Nicole Caldwell) told The Lantern, “There’s a growing gap between what [students] are getting in high school and what we expect them to have when they come into college. A great disservice is being done.”

Asking Miss USA contestants to opine on evolution and airing their responses on national television certainly adds pizzazz to the public discourse on evolution, but it should really serve to remind us that public misconceptions of evolution are much more prevalent than they should be. Perhaps the Miss USA interviews serve as a call for us to address some of the common public misconceptions about evolution and the educational problems they create.

Miss-conception #1: Schools and communities can prohibit the teaching of evolution

The government advised us on this issue over 40 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) that an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools was unconstitutional. What’s more, in 1994 the Ninth Circuit  Court of Appeals held that requiring science teachers to teach evolution is completely permissible. So the law is pretty clear: it is illegal for states to prohibit the teaching of evolution in their public schools, though they are allowed to require it. Madeline Mitchell (Miss Alabama) and Kia Ben-et Hampton (Miss Kentucky), both of whom stated that evolution should definitely not be taught in schools, should take heed.

Miss-conception #2: Evolution and creation deserve “equal time”

Seven contestants suggested that evolution and creation should both be taught in public schools. The answer given by one of these contestants, Haley Jo Herold (Miss Nebraska), is eerily reminiscent of mid-20th century creationist “equal time” rhetoric that was used in attempt to rebrand creationism as a type of “science” and insert it into science curriculums alongside evolution: “In public schools you have to give all credited theories equal amount of time, so I think both evolution and creation should be taught.”

“Equal time” legislation has been prohibited since the 1980s on the basis that teaching creationism in schools violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s “Creationism Act,” which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools unless creationism was taught along with it, was deemed unconstitutional.  A few years earlier, an Arkansas District Court ruled in Mclean v. Arkansas (1982) that Act 590, a state law that required balanced treatment of evolution and so-called “creation-science,” was unconstitutional, and that the biblical origins and nonempirical nature of the “creation-science” it advocated makes it religion, not science.

Miss-conception #3: It is only fair if all sides are taught

Most candidates suggested that evolution should be taught in schools along with the “other side,” “all perspectives,” or “every theory” on the basis that students’ education would be optimized if they learn about all ideas in order to make an informed decision. Although the principle behind this opinion is well-intentioned, teaching “all perspectives” in a science class would actually do students a huge disservice when the other perspectives are unscientific.

Most would (hopefully) be hard-pressed to find a biology teacher who would teach Lamarckism, a disproven idea that organisms evolve by passing on acquired, rather than genetic, traits to their offspring. It would be similarly absurd to learn the views of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which hold that everything was created by a spaghetti-and-meatballs deity, in a science class.

Although creationism and intelligent design have a more significant following than these two perspectives, their religious and nonscientific bases render them just as improper for a science curriculum. As is the case with creationism, including intelligent design in science curricula, or even providing materials that cover the topic, was deemed unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court Judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). Given its religious underpinnings, the court considered it to be a version of creationism and determined that it was not science.

Miss-conception #4: Evolution is just a theory

The general perceptions of theories and facts are quite different than the way these terms are utilized in the sciences. Some contestants, like Keeley Patterson (Miss Mississippi), suggested that evolution “should be taught as what it is: theory, not fact.”

Evolution is actually both a theory, which the National Science Foundation defines as a well-supported explanation of an aspect of nature, and a fact, which it defines as an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed. The tenets of evolutionary theory—descent with modification, common ancestry, natural selection, and genetic drift—have been observed, proven, and widely accepted by the scientific community. Lauren Carter (Miss Vermont) astutely pointed out that “evolution exists,” and cited a real life example of it: the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

The truth

Some of the contestants suggested that schools have an obligation to teach students the truth. But what does this really mean? What is true for one person is not necessarily true for another, and truth varies across disciplines, cultures, and even languages.

While there is much concern over whether or not students learn the “truth” of the origin of species in science class, the energy would be better spent on promoting the real obligation schools have to their students: providing the highest standard of education. In terms of science education, this means that science teachers must provide their students with the best and most up-to-date scientific knowledge without conflating science with other disciplines. Evolution is top-of-the line, real science, and is crucial to our understanding of every area of the life sciences, from microbiology to ecology to medicine to bio-energy. It’s about time for all science teachers to fulfill their responsibility and teach evolution the way it should be taught.

Miss USA contestant Brittany Toll (of New Mexico) got it right: “Evolution is based off of science and I think science is a huge thing we need to continue to enrich our schools with.”

Watch all of the Miss USA contestants’ responses here:

Michelle Spektor is a Science Progress intern at the Center for American Progress and is an undergraduate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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