Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

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Do You APPRECIATE Evolution?

HT: MM

I don’t often wish I went to Yale. To my provincial mind, Yale = The Bad Guy from Back to School. Me, I’m more of a Thornton Melon type. But Professor Dan Kahan’s class on the science of science communication at Yale has me wishing I was there.

Indubitably...

Indubitably…

Happily, Professor Kahan is sharing his current syllabus and reading list on his Cultural Cognition blog. This week, he asks probing questions about the relationship between “knowing,” “understanding,” “accepting,” and “believing” evolution. I’m starting to wonder if we need to add a new word to this list: “appreciating” evolution.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are painfully aware, I’ve got a new book on the subject coming out soon. In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue that science teachers need to be aware of Professor Kahan’s questions. Specifically, teachers need to be aware that there can be an important difference between “knowing/understanding” evolution and “believing” evolution.

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

In a nutshell, we argue that teachers must insist on student knowledge and understanding, but remain intentionally and explicitly neutral on the question of student belief. As sharp critics have pointed out, this might be an impossibly delicate task for classroom teachers who have their hands full with more prosaic questions. As a colleague of mine put it, the most common question most real-world teachers ask is not “Am I crossing a line into ‘belief’ when I should be more concerned with ‘understanding’?” Rather, most real-world teachers are asking questions like, “Is Bob sleeping back there?” and “How can I make this more accessible to students?”

Professor Kahan’s blog reminds us of another difficulty with these distinctions. The belief/understanding split has one meaning among mainstream scientists, but it has a very different meaning among the regular joes in K-12 science classes.

Time and again, smart science types have pointed out that NO ONE ought to “believe” in evolution. That’s not how science works. As FrankL commented on Professor Kahan’s recent post (scroll down to the first comment):

I think it’s entirely possible to understand evolution without believing in it. Asking me “do you believe in evolution?” is, in my mind, like asking me “do you believe in your hammer?” or “do you believe in your computer?”. The answer is no, they are just tools. If they work, I keep them, if they do not, I try to fix them, if they are unfixable, I throw them out. The theory of evolution is just a tool, it should not be deified or demonized or “believed in” or not. Part of understanding evolution is understanding its domain of usefulness. I don’t use my computer to hammer nails, and I don’t ask my hammer for my email. That doesn’t mean they are broke, it means that my tools have limited domains of usefulness. Using the theory of evolution to establish or deny the existence of God, or to determine who is “smarter” is so absurdly far from its domain of usefulness that it would be laughable if it were not so sad, because that’s the approach that the partisans take.

FrankL is not alone in pointing out the central undesirability of “belief” in evolution, even among evolution’s most fervent supporters. A few months back, Keith Blanchard offered a similarly smart argument in the pages of The Week:

So if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t.

To my mind, Blanchard and FrankL have offered wonderfully clear articulations of the difficulties of “belief” from the perspective of mainstream scientists. But that is not the perspective in which we are really interested. What we really care about are the resistant students who fill America’s K-12 public-school science classrooms.

What do we want from those students? We agree with Blanchard and FrankL that no one wants to push “belief” in evolution. But we mean it in a different sense. We are concerned about students for whom the central ideas of modern evolutionary theory have an intensely religious meaning. For those students, to “understand” evolution in the Blanchard/FrankL sense would roughly equate to “believing” it. That is, if creationist students “accept” that evolution is simply the truth about what is unquestionably happening, they must wrestle with a theological crisis.

We hope instead to allow students for whom evolution presents a religious problem to sidestep questions of belief.  Or, to be more precise, we want to move those questions of belief out of public schools and into homes and churches. We want students to “understand” what FrankL and Blanchard are saying. We want them to “know” why evolution has become the intellectual coin of the realm in modern science. But we also want to protect their right in public schools to dissent, to say to themselves, “But it’s not really the truth of existence.”

And perhaps for that we need a different word. A recent lecture by a colleague about the history of literary appreciation got me thinking. Maybe we want to push for student “appreciation” of evolutionary theory. The word “appreciation” might be closer to our educational goal for K-12.

After all, we want something more than for students to just parrot back, “Scientists say that species evolved from a common ancestor. [But only because scientists are deluded.]” We want them to “know” why scientists embrace evolution. We want them to be able to “understand” the idea of evolution well enough to see why it has come to dominate modern thinking in biology.

Do you "understand" this?  Do you "appreciate" it?

Do you “understand” this? Do you “appreciate” it?

When my co-author Harvey Siegel uses the term “understand,” it includes these meanings. Professor Siegel does not argue that students should be encouraged to skate by with a surface knowledge of evolution—one that is enough to pass any state test, but does not properly engage with the idea. Rather, for Professor Siegel, “understanding” evolution must mean grasping the deeper implications of evolution as well.

Perhaps “appreciation” would be a better match for the way most people think of these things. After all, we can all “appreciate” a painting, even if we don’t like it. We can understand where it’s coming from, understand why it has become a famous work of art. We can do all those things—get a profound understanding of the painting—and then say equally truthfully, “I don’t think it’s good.”

Isn’t that what we mean when we say we want students to “know” and “understand” evolution, but not (necessarily) to “believe” it?

Should Everyone Be Forced To Learn Evolution?

I admit it. I love evolutionary theory. I think evolutionarily. Like my colleague David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University, I want to encourage Evolution for Everyone. Does that mean that public schools should force every child to learn evolution? Recently, friend of ILYBYGTH Praj Kulkarni made his case to the 14 billion readers of Dan Kahan’s blog that public schools had no legitimate purpose in shoving evolution down every student’s throat.

I’m a big fan of Kahan’s work. As Kahan argues, much of what people think about evolution reflects who they are more than what they know.

Praj is a big fan, too. But in this recent post, Praj challenges Dan’s notion that our society should insist that every child learn the rudiments of evolutionary theory. As Praj put it,

Not only is it illiberal to insist students profess “belief in” evolution, it may be illiberal to force them to learn it in the first place. It’s not obvious–to me at least–why learning evolution is mandatory.

For folks in the creation/evolution trenches, this might sound like window-dressing for creationism. For decades, as historian Ron Numbers demonstrated so well, creationist pundits have explored disputes between mainstream scientists and philosophers about the nature of evolution. In order to make the case for teaching creation science in public schools, for example, smart creationists have argued that the boundaries of science are not at all clear. And if not, how can public schools rule out one form of (creation) science?

Praj is no creationist. As you’ll see when you read his full post, he’s more interested in figuring out what interest society has in insisting on this particular brand of knowledge for all students. Some things, such as literacy skills or basic mathematics, make a stronger case. Every person in our society needs these things to flourish. Therefore, public schools have a responsibility to provide them.

Does evolution fit into that same category? Praj is most interested in the intriguing possibility: What if it doesn’t?

Dan wants to give Praj an answer. A good answer; one that recognizes the legitimacy of the question. Check out the comments at Cultural Cognition. Do they provide the answer Praj is looking for? Can we offer one?

Conservatives LOVE Science

Or at least they like it very much.  Or maybe they love it, but they’re not in love with it.  That’s the argument coming out of Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition project these days.

Professor Kahan takes issue with the slanted punditry that has latched on to recent analyses of social attitudes toward science. Too often, commentators inflate their claims about the extent to which self-identified “conservatives” have lost faith in scientists and scientific institutions.

Kahan's Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

Kahan’s Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

As Professor Kahan points out, a closer look at those findings gives a much different picture. In a nutshell, since 1974 there has been a noticeable decline in the number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in the leaders of scientific institutions. Some wonks seized on this finding to claim that conservatives were anti-science.

Nertz, says Professor Kahan. The number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in scientists may have declined, but the total number of conservatives who say they feel either “a great deal” of confidence or “only some” confidence in science has remained fairly steady.

Even more compelling, Kahan notes that these same conservatives rank “science” near the tops of their lists of social institutions they trust. Since 1974, only medicine or the military has outranked science as the number one most trustworthy social institution among conservatives. Other institutions, , such as organized labor, the President, the Supreme Court, education, TV, and, yes, even religious institutions and big corporations, have ranked lower on conservative rankings of trustworthiness.

You heard that right.  Overall, conservatives have consistently voiced greater trust in the institution of science than in the institution of religion.  Conservatives since 1974 have evinced more trust in science than in big business.

Check out Kahan’s argument for yourself. He has charts and graphs ‘n’ stuff, so you know it’s true.

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?