Knowin’ Ain’t Believin’

What do we mean when we say we do or don’t believe in evolution?  As we’ve discussed here in the pages of ILYBYGTH, it’s not the simple question it appears.  At his Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan recently rehashed his argument about the utter disjunction between knowledge and belief when it comes to evolution.  The argument has ramifications for both the way we think about the culture wars in general and the specific ways we think about evolution education.

For those interested in issues of evolution and creationism, if you’re not regularly reading Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition blog, you should be.  Professor Kahan argues that culture precedes facts.  Whether the issue is immunizations, climate change, evolution, or other questions of science and public understanding, Professor Kahan insists that “knowledge” is not a simple matter of exposure to facts.  The way people respond to facts is conditioned by their cultural background.

In the case of evolution and creationism, conservative religious folks may know a great deal about education, yet that knowledge tends not to show up on standard surveys.  As Professor Kahan relates, religious people often know a great deal about mainstream science, yet when they are asked about evolution, they seem not to know it.  But the standard survey questions misrepresent how many of those conservative religious types actually know about evolution.

The traditional question asked by the science literacy survey of the National Science Foundation, for instance, asks respondents the following question: “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals, true or false?”  Not surprisingly, among highly religious Americans, the number of people who get this question “correct” takes a huge dive.  This is true even among those respondents who answer many other science questions correctly.

You know it must be true, because it has charts 'n' stuff...

You know it must be true, because it has charts ‘n’ stuff…

But this discrepancy can be fixed by wording the question differently.  When the survey added a simple phrase such as “According to scientists,” then religious people answered the evolution question correctly.  In other words, asking some conservative religious people if evolution is “true or false” is not asking them if they “know” evolution.  But!  Asking conservative respondents if SCIENTISTS SAY human beings developed from earlier species of animals comes closer to testing real knowledge about evolution.  And the simple addition of this phrase—“scientists say”—offers a promise of healing some of the viciousness of our evolution/creationism controversies.

After all, what do we want out of people?  Must we insist that Americans believe evolution to be true, rather than false?  Or rather, do we want to insist that to be educated, one must understand what mainstream science says about evolution?

As I am arguing with co-author Harvey Siegel in a new book about the history and philosophy of evolution education, only the latter makes any real sense.  It makes sense for creationists.  And it makes sense for mainstream scientists and science educators.

Those of us who want public schools to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science  need to be clear among ourselves what it is we are really after.  We do not want to impose religious beliefs on public-school students.  If a student and his or her family finds evolution objectionable for religious reasons, it is not the job of the public school to disabuse that student of those religious beliefs.  It is similarly not the job of a public school to convince creationist students that evolution does not in fact threaten those religious beliefs.  In short, the religious beliefs of public-school students are beyond the purview of public-school teachers and curricula.

But it is entirely proper and necessary for public schools to insist that all students of all backgrounds know the best current science.  And that science is the modern evolutionary synthesis.  Whatever some creationist pundits may say, creation science, intelligent design, and other varieties of creationism are not scientific improvements.  They are, rather, religious objections to mainstream science.

Professor Kahan’s careful distinction between knowledge and belief provides a helpful guide for this vision of proper evolution education in public schools.  Public school science classes must teach evolution and only evolution as the best current scientific knowledge.  Students must be able to identify and define key ideas such as natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance.

But too many science educators implicitly tie knowledge of those ideas to belief in them.  That connection is as unnecessary as it is harmful.

As Professor Kahan points out, this connection between knowledge and belief can be fixed with a simple patch.  In surveys, instead of asking respondents if human evolution is true or false, we can ask respondents if human evolution is true or false, according to mainstream scientists.

The same approach can work in public school science classes.  Instead of implying that evolution is true, teachers can add—either implicitly or explicitly—a notion that evolution is the way mainstream science explains the origins of life.  Students can and must be expected to explain and analyze evolution.  But they can do so with a conditional always in the background.  That is, they can maintain a notion that the mechanisms of evolution are the ideas of mainstream scientists, not some grand explanation of the truth about human life.

Can it work?  According to Professor Kahan, it already does.  Changing the wording of survey questions has an enormous impact on the answers.  And historically, as I’ve argued in both my 1920s book and my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, creationists have not objected to their children learning about evolution.  They have only disputed the way evolution was taught as the simple truth about humanity’s origins.  The same is true today, I’m guessing.  Creationists, I’m confident, will agree that their kids should know about evolution.  They simply resent the attitude of many evolution educators.

This attitude can be seen in the way we talk about evolution education.  Is evolution “true?”  That sort of question is the absolute wrong approach.  It forces evolution skeptics to reject evolution.  It forces dissenters to present themselves as anti-evolution.  And students must therefore get questions about evolution wrong.  Students must try not to “know” evolution.  But if we allow students to add a simple phrase, we might sidestep a world of unnecessary and corrosive disputation.

Consider the world of difference, for instance, between the following two student responses:

  • Scientists say that some speciation arose through the mechanism of genetic drift.”
  • “Some speciation arose through the mechanism of genetic drift.”

There are only three additional words in the first response, yet the cultural meaning of the first response is worlds different from the second.  Many creationists, I’m convinced, would be willing and eager for their children to learn about evolution, if those children had the freedom to discuss evolution with the implicit addition of the phrase “scientists say.”

Am I missing something?  For those like me who want to see more evolution education in public schools—and more effective evolution education in those schools—would this approach help?  And for creationist parents, teachers, and preachers, would the separation of knowledge from belief lead you to support this sort of evolution education for your kids?

 

 

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10 Comments

  1. Am I missing something?

    I don’t think so. But then I’m a long time critic if the equating of knowledge with belief.

    For a person A and a statement S, we can consider several possibilities:

    1: A knows S;
    2: A believes S;
    3: A believes S when asked (or assents to S when asked).

    I’m inclined to say that these are all different, and the difference is greatest when the statement S is contentious and peer pressure can play a role.

    For those like me who want to see more evolution education in public schools—and more effective evolution education in those schools—would this approach help?

    Probably not by much. The religious opponents of evolution mostly don’t want it taught at all.

    Reply
    • Great list. But I must disagree with your last point. I think a large proportion of religious opponents of evolution DO want it taught. They simply don’t want it taught to their kids as if it is the only truth about human origins. I’ve seen this both historically and today. Historically, leading anti-evolution activists often insisted they only objected to the teaching of evolution “as fact.” And today, I see curricula at religious schools and colleges that have lot of evolution. For instance, at least in the early 1990s, students at Liberty University were required to take a course in evolution. Students at my state university have no such requirement. Of course, what the Liberty students learned about evolution was that it did not adequately explain the origins of life. But they did learn about evolution. And the administrators of that school did want evolution taught. Sorta.

      Reply
  2. I’m still not clear why we need evolution taught in the first place. Why not just substitute it with an extra unit on biochemistry, molecular biology, or anatomy? Or wait…why not a special unit on bioengineering? I had to wait until my sophomore year of college to take my first engineering class. It would be great to introduce those concepts earlier.

    I would thus humbly submit that it’s not completely obvious kids *need* to learn evolution. From my reading in the public understanding of science, many science education researchers themselves don’t think a prescribed set of facts is that important.

    If the broader goal is critical thinking, applying science to your daily life, etc….then that can be accomplished in many different ways.

    Reply
    • I wonder if the controversy makes evolution necessary. For example, we don’t hear a big hullabaloo that every student MUST learn that chemical structures do not change on Sunday mornings. But there are lots of Catholic young people who learn in church that wine and wafers are transubstantiated into flesh and blood. For some reason, that idea has never become controversial in the teaching of chemistry. But if it had, I can imagine the science-education community would insist that every student must learn that chemical structures are not so easily altered.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  August 26, 2014

        Adam writes, “But there are lots of Catholic young people who learn in church that wine and wafers are transubstantiated into flesh and blood. For some reason, that idea has never become controversial in the teaching of chemistry. But if it had, I can imagine the science-education community would insist that every student must learn that chemical structures are not so easily altered.”

        It hasn’t become controversial in chemistry because transsubstantiation is not believed to be a chemical change. It is believed that the physical attributes of bread and wine continue to be present after the underlying substance has changed; “substance” being used in the philosophical sense.

    • Dr. Laats, the present teaching of evolution is less believable than transubstantiation. At least the wine and wafer can only turn into certain end products (flesh and blood) whereas in [macro]evolution, they could turn into a functional human. Anyway, placing the blame on “controversy” does not answer the question as to the specific pragmatic reason(s) for teaching [macro]evolution. Can you list any such reasons?

      Reply
  3. David Long

     /  August 25, 2014

    “Am I missing something? For those like me who want to see more evolution education in public schools—and more effective evolution education in those schools—would this approach help?”

    I’ll be curious on your take on this exact point post Berkman at SUNY Binghamton. My critique of B&P, as my critique of your and Harvey’s will be that the ideal you set up ( for which you know I agree in principle) does not account for the broad number of rural and red state teachers who either do not have the political cover to stand up for the ideal for which you strive, or those who reject your (and my) liberal positioning. Those for whom you think this will bring relief already do not respect, with the social sanction of their communities, the church state separation you argue from.

    Reply
    • Great point, and one I need to be more aware of. Just like some people tend to assume too glibly that all creationists hate evolution and don’t want their kids to know anything about it, so I tend to fall too easily into the trap of assuming that all–or even most–science educators are gung-ho evolution culture warriors.

      Reply
  4. Warren Johnson

     /  August 26, 2014

    You say:

    “Many creationists, I’m convinced, would be willing and eager for their children to learn about evolution, if those children had the freedom to discuss evolution with the implicit addition of the phrase “scientists say.” ”

    I don’t see that any of the public creationists would buy this. What Ken Ham was saying in his debate with Bill Nye is that ‘my’ scientists say that ‘your’ scientists are wrong (about the age of the earth, etc.) Same with the Institute for Creation Research and for the Discovery Institute; they claim their anti-evolutionary views are *more* scientific that the mainstream view.

    Maybe your formulation would work with more religious folk, who have not made public ‘scientific’ claims?

    Reply
  5. PR

     /  August 27, 2014

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your argument, but it sounds like you’d end up with students being told that the chemical composition of water is H2O, that force equals mass times acceleration, and that *scientists say* that species develop through evolution by natural selection.

    That, in my opinion, would be unfortunate – it singles out evolution for special treatment, and presents it on the same footing as, say, political opinions (or religious ones…). I think it would be analogous to teaching that “historians say the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066”

    I can think of other options, but they run into problems too: you could prefix *everything* in science class with “scientists say,” but that’s just my previous problem writ large. You could teach that “scientists say [evolution] because of the following (mountain of) evidence” (which is what I’d do if I was dictator of the world), but I strongly suspect that would run into objections from creationists too.

    Reply

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