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.
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.
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.
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?