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.
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?