Creationists have an easy task. They don’t need to disprove evolutionary science. All they really need to do in public schools is create a reasonable doubt in students’ minds that evolution is the best available scientific explanation. That’s the argument, anyway, made in a recent article by political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. More interesting, from their point of view, are the ways science teachers learn to create that kind of reasonable doubt.*
You may remember Berkman and Plutzer from their terrific book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. You may also remember that Professor Berkman will be making a trip up to scenic Binghamton University next month to address our Evolution Studies Program. He’ll be talking about the new research from his new article.
For those who can’t make it up to Binghamton on March 30, you can check out the argument in the pages of The Annals. In evolution education, B&P argue that anti-evolution forces have acted similarly to tobacco companies or climate-change denialists. In each case, they write,
determined political actors have been able to force a stalemate—or even achieve a victory—on an issue by calling into question scientific consensus.
In other words, creationists these days can win merely by playing strategic defense.
In their earlier survey work, B&P discovered that a large minority of high-school science teachers (28%) teach evolution as the only science game in town. A smaller minority, around 13%, teach creationism as science. The big middle group tended to teach a mish-mash of watered-down evolutionary science mixed with creationism-friendly ideas.
Using a new batch of focus-group data, B&P asked new questions:
How is it possible that young people who major in a scientific field and desire to be science educators lack confidence in their understanding of a central principle of modern biology? Where do teachers develop their belief that they are obligated to be “fair” to nonscientific accounts of creation? And how critical is personal faith in the development of the pedagogical choices that they will make over many years in the classroom?
To find out, B&P conducted focus-group interviews at four different sorts of colleges in Pennsylvania. They interviewed groups of students who planned careers as science teachers.
Significantly, B&P found that pre-service teachers had a shaky hold on evolutionary science, even though they often majored in biology. When the teachers looked ahead to possible future controversies in their own classrooms, an overwhelming majority of pre-service teachers expressed confidence that they could handle any controversy by using better classroom management techniques, not better science. As B&P put it,
The impression we got is that classroom management techniques and skills to negotiate controversy were aspects of professional capital that students felt they needed to absorb, internalize, and have at the ready. They understood that the content of science was also critical in any encounter with a skeptical parent or community member, but they did not feel they needed to own the content in the same way that they needed to become masters of management techniques.
Even when they knew the science and wanted to teach it, many of the pre-service teachers B&P interviewed seemed nervous about provoking any sort of controversy. As student teachers and then new teachers, their main goal was often to avoid attracting negative attention.
If a controversy did arise, pre-service teachers imagined they could take shelter behind their state’s standards or their district’s curricula. Without exception, the teachers-to-be insisted they did not want to become culture warriors in their classrooms. As B&P put it,
their primary identification as educators rather than scientists suggests that they are relatively passive recipients of arguments and political communication from elites and groups trying to shape popular opinion.
In short, teachers are people. As B&P argued in their 2010 book, teachers’ values tend to reflect the consensus values of their school communities. If they teach in a town in which large numbers of people are favorable to creationism, teachers will also be favorable to creationism.
Perhaps more important, teachers are people with very public jobs. Contrary to culture-war presumptions that teachers are somehow trying to undermine or subvert students in one way or another, most teachers are concerned with avoiding controversy.
As Professors Berkman & Plutzer conclude in this article, we are stuck too often in a “feedback loop” of evolution education. Student teachers didn’t learn much evolution in school, because teachers tended to avoid controversial issues. They don’t wrestle with issues of faith and doubt at public universities, since such issues are largely seen as religious, not scientific. As pre-service teachers, students are more concerned with studying nuts-and-bolts classroom issues, not basic science. And when they do their student teaching, they don’t often see classroom teachers wrestle with evolution in their classrooms.
Teachers become “enablers of doubt,” in other words, because anything else might stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy. And almost all teachers are more interested in getting along with students and parents than in provoking controversy.
*The article requires a subscription to read the whole thing. If you don’t have access to a university library, ask your local public librarian to scour their databases. Many public libraries these days subscribe to pretty broad academic journal databases. Here’s the full citation to look up: Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, “Enablers of Doubt: How Future Teachers Learn to Negotiate the Evolution Wars in their Classrooms,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 2015, vol. 658 no. 1: 253-270.