Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?


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  1. So, as a parent of kids in primary and secondary school, I should give one fat check to the FFRF and one fat check to the local gun store – ’cause it’s on? To turn the critique of historians and philosophers back on itself, what’s the upshot of this analysis?

    • *Editor’s Note* I’ve pasted Keith’s response below, in order to make reading the interchange simpler:
      Having read the anthropologist’s response, I think there is a serious problem with his conclusion. He seems to maintain that though historians and philosophers may lack the moral authority to ‘split the loaf’, such authority may lie in the hands of a sort of social dialectic. That contention contains the notion that the truth of statements lies in how they are taken, not at all in how they are meant, which is an unsustainable idea. I’m reminded of a friend’s complaints (he is an anthropologist as well) that his students want to deconstruct the current knowledge but have no material to work with because their entire careers have been spent on learning the methods of deconstruction.
      Like it or not biologists determine the contents of biology. That is a normative statement within biology, nothing more in fact. If students wish to creatively destroy those contents then they must understand what the biologists mean, not just what the students interpret, when biologists make statements about the subject. If the social dialectic splits that off, what remains is circular bullshit – a substance which may feed the vegetative needs of the society but which does nothing if we are at all concerned with biology itself.

  2. David Long

     /  March 15, 2014

    My apologies Keithnoback for a slow reply as I have been away for work without time to post a response. I’m keen to respond to your recent post as I see it a good vehicle to expand a conversation that I care deeply about.

    My critique of historians and philosophers should not equate with distrust nor dislike of their work. My gripe, as a former public school science teacher and now researcher of science education problems is the distance from the practical fix. In my current work, I see science being eliminated (in elementary schools) from the curriculum due to the politics of high stakes testing. Scholarship about the role of science and belief is great—it just sometimes grates me as painting the walls while the house is on fire. Except Adam. He’s awesome and should keep writing.

    As for the detail of your response, it helps me to directly respond to how you frame your claims. “Like it or not biologists determine the contents of biology.” Uhh, OK? I don’t understand what work this claim does. If I were to point out that “like it or not, Creationists determine the content of Creation science”, I’d be no further along. It accomplishes the same thing. While I get how and why you are using the idea of deconstruction, I think such sentiment is most often used out of the mouths of scientists as a boogeyman. Maybe not in your case. You can tell me that. The point: what one learns in anthropological training is to radically listen and come to view that the diversity of people on earth are not buffoons. Even better, attempt to portray differences in how the world is viewed. Pragmatically, cultural diversity is a set of answers to social problems and even larger set of produced material culture—spandrels of idiosyncrasy. In this way, culture isn’t right or wrong. As social scientists, both anthropologists and sociologists are out to describe what is across the social landscape.

    You go on to make some claims that just do not correlate with lived life. “If students wish to creatively destroy those contents then they must understand what the biologists mean”. Really? It’s not a matter of wishing and mandatory understanding. Students assemble understanding of the world from all kinds of input experienced in their lives. The different ways that this presents itself is what social scientists like myself study. By your measure, you insert some kind of invisible arbiter who will police whether students voice opinions that demonstrate a very specific kind of understanding. There’s no arbiter. In my mind, schools are our best candidate for one, but what they can do (or should) to standardize understanding is limited. Adam, your thoughts?

    Your claims about society and the role of understanding biology within it just seems a bit under thought. Let me demonstrate: “If the social dialectic splits that off, what remains is circular bullshit – a substance which may feed the vegetative needs of the society but which does nothing if we are at all concerned with biology itself.” To me this reads as you saying that all of social life that is not informed by, nor chooses to pay attention to biology is circular bullshit?…and ‘vegetative’? Are you serious? This seems really disdainful of forms of social life that have chosen not to see science as the most virtuous thing to be done, or listened to. I get your concern, but it is precisely this tone that turns many people off from science.

    In the end, you do wrap up by giving us the option of forgiveness in your if/then qualification, “…if we are at all concerned…”. The point we likely agree upon (and it probably much more than that), is that many people show little interest in biology or the detail of science in general. There are many reasons to be bothered by this. What many scientists either forget or have never thought through is this: Unto itself, just because the corpus of scientific knowledge exists, does not compel people to be interested in it. Furthermore, there is little we can do to stop science knowledge being appropriated in weird, scary, and sometimes wonderful ways into people’s understanding of the world.
    You started your response by saying that the conclusion I drew bothered you; that I was punting in the name of some kind of vulgar relativism. That’s far from accurate. I care deeply about improving science education in the U.S. and work hard to ferret out political action in schools that compromises science. I just find it hard to listen to well intention people make logical leaps of claiming *!science!* as self-evident truth and then thinking social behavior and thought in predictable way necessarily follows. It’s not that easy.

    • Let me work backwards. What is the outline of a solution to this problem as you see it? You seem to imply that there is one short of a knock-down-drag-out. I’m interested, and not in the, internet, waiting for ammunition way.
      I certainly don’t imagine that creationism or any other ‘weird, scary and sometimes wonderful’ appropriation of scientific knowledge will, or should, wither in the light of truth, mostly because I don’t think there is such a light. But what is at stake here isn’t fact, but method, a psychological skill which allows people to understand a subject within its own context. That’s what I see being split off. The ‘circular bullshit’ remaining is the broader interpretation of the subject minus the narrow interpretation. The remainder is not a useless substance, but it serves needs passively – how people nurture relationships with those holding similar and opposing beliefs in the current example.
      What did the fellow in the book say, “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”? That’s the mode of interpretation available to people who are limited to broad integration minus understanding within the terms of a subject. And that mode of interpretation would seem to be the default arbiter, because we are social animals and we just might be biologists. Worse, that’s what passes for deconstruction in discussions of evolution and other controversial subjects (sex education?) and I think that’s why deconstruction has become such a useful boogeyman; it’s pre-caricatured.
      I wouldn’t ask that anyone arbitrate a student’s understanding of the world. However, I think that students should have something more substantial than token constructions from which to assemble their view of the world, and they should have learned the ability to distinguish a theoretical explanation from a rationalization. At the very least, that allows them to recognize that we all employ both in the course of our lives and I think a person who can’t grasp that (as well as the difference between the two) is doomed to be a very limited independent learner and an impoverished world-builder. So, there’s my sales pitch for being interested in biology, physics, philosophy or any other form of theory, for itself, regardless of the place it ultimately occupies in anyone’s worldview. Does my pitch do any work?

  3. Donna

     /  March 17, 2014

    “It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.”

    I would replace a lot with one. Certainly it is an important reason, but I think one can miss the big picture by suggesting it has mostly to do with religious reasons. I think homeschoolers, whether they are conservative or not, have some reasons in common.

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