Forget Benedict, It’s the DeVos Option

You’ve heard it by now: Rod Dreher is pushing a “Benedict Option” for religious conservatives. He wants the good people of America to pull back from mainstream society into purer enclaves. When it comes to our long-simmering creation/evolution debates, that sort of BO has never really been necessary. And Trump’s latest executive order makes it even less so. Why would creationists retreat when they’ve already won?

berkman plutzer REAL chart

Traditional schools, traditional teachers, traditional “science”

In case you haven’t seen it yet, President Trump has continued his charm offensive with America’s conservatives. In his latest executive order, he has promised conservatives something they have long yearned for: greater local control of public education. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos will conduct a 300-day study into the issue. She is charged to find ways to limit the influence of the federal government in local schools.

As DeVos crowed, this order gives her

a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached. . . . And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.

Obviously, there are enough dog-whistles in there to win an Iditarod. Conservative activists have long yearned to shackle the federal education bureaucracy. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, since the 1930s conservatives have looked askance at federal control of local schools. Time and time again, distant experts have advocated more racial integration, more evolution, and more multiculturalism in K-12 schools. Time and time again, state and local officials have pushed back, fighting for more religion, more segregation, and more traditionalism.

In the specific case of evolution and creationism, creationists have always worried that outside control meant more evolution. Back in the 1920s, for example, anti-evolution leader William Jennings Bryan railed endlessly about the infamous influence of outside “oligarchs” on local schools. The local hand that wrote the paycheck, Bryan insisted, must rule the schools.

Bryan wasn’t alone. In North Carolina, anti-evolution activists blasted their university president for pushing evolution into their flagship public state university. President Harry Chase, they charged, was nothing but a “damn Yankee,” messing up local schools by importing “modernists, Darwinian apologists, and Northerners.”

In the case of evolution education, though, creationists have always had the last laugh. Yes, conservatives have worried about the influence of outside experts. But in most schools, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, local values dominate. Local attitudes were the most important factor, they found, in determining how much creationism was taught in public school science classes. As they put it,

Traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture (pp. 199-200).

In communities that favor creationism, teachers teach it. In communities that are on the fence, teachers mumble about it.

So why would creationists ever want to retreat to Benedictine purity? They have already won. And, as Secretary DeVos promises even greater local control, creationists have even more cause to celebrate. As young-earth activist Jay Hall put it recently, “we support the efforts of the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice.”

More choice plus more local control equals more creationism.

So, though there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to head for the hills, evolution education ain’t one of em. Local schools have always allowed local creationists to dictate the goings-on in most science classes.

And Secretary DeVos’ new local imperative seems destined to only make local creationist control stronger.

What We Don’t Know about School Is Killing Us

If someone is running toward a cliff, what should you do?  You might grab them.  You might yell at them to stop.  If you had time, you might build a wall to block them from certain death.  What would a school do?  Make available a brochure clearly describing the dangers of falling off cliffs.

It’s a stupid analogy and I’m sorry about that.  But it is not too far from the truth about school and the dunderheaded way we Americans tend to think about the relationship between school and education.  People tend to think school is a place where students line up and receive necessary information.  They think that making information mandatory in school means that they have successfully educated the populace.  That’s not really how it works and our society’s ignorance about it is literally a life-or-death problem.

Here’s the latest example: According to Politico, several states have passed new laws mandating education in public schools about the dangers of opioid addiction.  No one doubts the dangers of such drugs.  Nor do we dispute the notion that government can and should take action to help solve the problem.  We don’t even argue that schools can’t play a central role.

Too often, though, even in these sorts of life-and-death situations, government officials think they can solve problems by simply cramming new mandatory topics into school curriculums.  They think that by mandating school-based classes about opioid addiction, they have successfully educated children about it.

Consider the efforts in Michigan, for example.  Like people in a lot of states, Michiganders are rightly concerned with the dangers of opioid addiction, especially among young people.  State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker has proposed a bill to introduce information about opioids into the state’s required health curriculum.  As she puts it, “Our youth, they need to become educated upon the addictive nature of opioids.”

Fair enough.  But Senator Schuitmaker and others like her seem to be stubbornly resistant to the depressing truth.  Putting information into mandatory school curriculums does not equal education.  Just passing a law requiring schools to deliver certain information does not mean that young people have been educated about it.

That’s just not how it works.

The evidence is obvious and irrefutable for anyone who bothers to look.

Consider the case from the world of sex education.  As Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his terrific recent book Too Hot to Handle, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s prompted a uniquely American response.  In Scandinavia, governments embarked on a broad program to encourage condom usage and discourage risky sexual behaviors.  In the United States, in contrast, governments mandated information about HIV be included in school health classes. zimmerman too hot to handle

It didn’t work.  And it won’t, because in spite of what so many of us think, school curriculums are not the same thing as education.  Where do people learn about sex?  Not—NOT—from their fifth-grade Gym teacher.  No matter how comprehensive a sex-education curriculum is, no matter how carefully a state legislature insists that sex-ed classes must include true information about HIV, most young people will learn far more about sex and HIV from other sources.

We could give more examples if we needed to.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found when it came to teaching evolution in public schools, mandating evolution in state curriculums was not the most helpful factor.  Rather, teachers tended to teach what their community believed, no matter what the state-mandated curriculum included.

Evolution Creationism Berkman Plutzer

The same is true with the equally desperate problem of opioid addiction.  Simply cramming mandatory information about the dangers of opioids into health curriculums will not do anything to address the real problem.  It is the equivalent to the stupid analogy I started with: printing up brochures about the dangers of cliffs when someone is running straight toward one.  Mandating that those brochures be made available to every student in every public school.

This does not mean that schools cannot play a vital role in real education about the dangers of opioids.  Consider the much smarter example of West Virginia.  In that state, school-reform efforts take a much wiser view.  How are Mountaineer schools responding to the dangers of opioid abuse?  For one thing, they are paying for programs that will educate more drug counselors and encourage them to stay and work in West Virginia.  They are funding programs that help addicts deal with the full complexity of their addictions.  They are even rehabbing old schools and turning them into comprehensive treatment centers.

Such programs are much more expensive than simply mandating “coverage” of opioid information in public-school health classes.  But unlike fast-and-dirty curricular solutions, such programs actually stand a chance of helping addicts and potential addicts.

When it comes to life-and-death problems such as opioid addiction, simply insisting that schools add new curriculum is a cowardly and ineffective approach.  It only serves to let lawmakers brag that they have addressed the issue, when in fact they have done nothing at all.

Alabama’s Fractured Evolution

So…will kids in Alabama learn about evolution? Depends on who you ask. The state just published its new science standards. If you listen to NPR or read the update from the National Center for Science Education, then the new standards are unabashedly pro-evolution. But if you read the Christian Post, then the new standards offer students a choice. This is more than a question of headlines. It helps us see the tricky nature of teaching evolution and other controversial subjects.

Po-tay-to...

Po-tay-toe…

All parties concerned seem to agree that the new standards require more evolution. And they agree that the new standards will move students away from repeating rote facts. The goal of the new standards will be to allow students to get their hands dirty in the evidence itself. As the NCSE describes, [the new standards no longer seem available online], students will soon be expected to

“[a]nalyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection” and to “[a]nalyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution” (p. 48).

For pro-evolution folks [like me], this means kids in Alabama will learn more evolution. As Alabama science teacher Ryan Reardon told NPR,

“I’m gonna let the data smack ’em in the face,” Reardon says of his students. “I’m gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I’m gonna ask ’em what the ramifications are.”

To Reardon, the message of the new standards is clear: His students will be learning the truths of evolution and climate change. But for the editors at the Christian Post, the new standards mean something very different. The Christian Post reported that students would “Decide If Evolution Is Theory or Fact.” Decide. Allowing students to wade into the evidence themselves does not necessarily mean that they will conclude that evolution happened.

NPR wondered why these new evolution-friendly standards passed with so little “pushback.” Why have conservative evangelicals in Alabama seemed so willing to support these new standards? Perhaps the reason is more obvious than it seems. While teachers like Ryan Reardon plan to push students to see the truths of evolution, perhaps other teachers plan to push students to see for themselves the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued, state science standards are not the best predictor of the ways evolution is actually taught.

Alabama teachers like Ryan Reardon will likely guide their students toward a full understanding of evolutionary theory. But other teachers in the state will likely guide students differently. By helping students “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” many science teachers in the state will likely continue to teach a mix of religious ideas in with their state-approved science curriculum.

...po-tah-toe.

…po-tah-toe.

Certainly, readers of publications such as the Christian Post might not see the new standards as an undiluted victory for evolution. If students are allowed to “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” creationists will be able to claim a victory.

Are the new standards better? For those of us who want to see more and better evolution education, they certainly seem to be. But we need to be cautious about our expectations. These contradictory headlines show that teachers and schools will implement the new standards in contradictory ways.

Here’s Why Public Schools Will Never Eliminate Creationism

If the spotlight-loving science pundit Lawrence Krauss really thinks public schools can eliminate creationism in one generation, he’s off his rocker. But he’s in good company. Through the years, all sorts of writers and activists have made grandiose plans to use public schools for one sweeping reform or another. Unfortunately for them, that’s just not how America’s schools work.

The original bus from hell...

The original bus from hell…

To be fair, in the Krauss quotation pirated here by the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, Krauss does not say that this will be a school thing. He only says that we can teach our kids—in general—to be skeptical. Clearly, in the conservative creationist imagination of the folks at AIG, this teaching will take place in the public schools.

This AIG cartoon illustrates the many ideological trends that they think are taught in the public schools. Evolution, homosexuality, abortion, . . . all these ideas are poured down the throats of innocent young Christians in public schools. Furthermore, AIG thinks, Christian belief and practice are banned and ridiculed.*

In culture-war battles like this, both sides made sweeping and incorrect assumptions about public schooling. If the schools teach good science, Krauss and his allies assume, then creationism can soon be eliminated. If the schools teach good religion, AIG thinks, then children will go to heaven, protected from evolution and other skepticism-promoting notions.

As I argue in my recent book, these assumptions are hard-wired into our culture-war thinking. Both progressives and conservatives tend to assume that the proper school reform will create the proper society.

In the 1930s, for instance, at the progressive citadel of Teachers College, Columbia University, Professor George Counts electified his progressive audiences with his challenge. Public schools teachers had only to “dare,” Counts charged, and the schools could “build a new social order.”

Decades later, conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler repeated these same assumptions. Conservative parents, the Gablers warned, must watch carefully the goings-on in their local public schools. “The basic issue is simple,” they wrote.

Which principles will shape the minds of our children? Those which uphold family, morality, freedom, individuality, and free enterprise; or whose which advocate atheism, evolution, secularism, and a collectivism in which an elite governs and regulates religion, parenthood, education, property, and the lifestyle of all members of society?

Professor Counts would not likely have agreed with the Gablers on much. But he would have agreed that the ideas dominating public schools matter. If the wrong ideas leach into the schools, then society will lurch in dangerous directions.

These days, both Professor Krauss and the creationists at AIG seem to have inherited these same assumptions. However, as this screenshot from AIG’s facebook feed demonstrates, public school classrooms are far more complicated places than any of our school activists have allowed. No matter what standards we write about science or religion, public schools will continue to function in ways that represent the wishes of their local community. No matter how daring they are, a few progressive teachers do not have the power to build a new social order.

Similarly, we cannot use schools to eliminate creationism. If we want people to think scientifically, then we need to wage a much broader campaign. We need to convince parents and children that modern evolutionary science is the only game in town.

Because even if we wanted to, we could never ram through any sort of school rule that would be followed universally. Even if public schools officially adhere to state standards that embrace modern evolutionary science, schools themselves will vary from town to town, even from classroom to classroom. The only way to change schools in toto is to change society in toto.

Chicken and egg.

As we see in this facebook interchange, one evangelical teacher claims she teaches with the “overwhelming support of parents and administration.” Another says she teaches her children in public schools to recognize the logical necessity of a creator.

These facebook comments are not anomalies. According to political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, about 13% of public high-school biology teachers explicitly teach creationism. Another 60% teach some form of evolution mixed with intelligent design and creationism.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Why do so many teachers teach creationism? Because they believe it and their communities believe it. As Berkman and Plutzer argue, teachers tend to embrace the ideas of their local communities. In spite of the alarmism of the folks at AIG, public schools just aren’t well enough organized to push any sort of agenda. Public schools will never eliminate creationism. They just can’t.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again: Schools don’t change society; schools reflect society.

*(Bonus points if you can explain why AIG is against saving the whales!)

“Enablers of Doubt:” What Do Science Teachers Learn about Teaching Evolution?

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.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

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.

The Creationist Dream, Part II

What should public-school biology classes look like? A couple days ago, I shared an article from an evangelical magazine, c. 1967. It told a story of a creationist high-schooler who bravely stood up to her evolutionist teacher. As a result, the class put biology aside and had a spontaneous prayer meeting.

As one astute reader noted, it sounded like a fifty-year preview to the new film God’s Not Dead.

Whatever your beliefs about creationism and evolution, there was something dead wrong in the story. Something that just didn’t fit with the ways the creation/evolution battle really works. And this something was besides the hokey language and the Leave-It-To-Beaver creationism.

What was wrong? Was it

  1. No teacher really feels that gung-ho about teaching evolution?
  2. No student really cares that much about creationism?
  3. No parents would encourage their kid to publicly preach that way in a public school?
  4. There would never be that sort of religious revival in a public school? or
  5. A teacher would not likely be that clueless about the religious beliefs of her students?

Let’s take them one by one. In the story, the teacher was a mean-eyed evolutionist. She ridiculed creationist belief, while being stupidly ignorant of the fact that most of her students shared those beliefs. Could a teacher really feel that gung-ho about teaching evolutionism? Well, clearly the character was an utter caricature, but I think it is certainly possible for teachers in 1967 or 2014 to feel a passion for enlightening students with the truth of evolution. I would say that most teachers don’t feel this sort of mission, but some do.

What about number 2? Do any students really feel so intensely devoted to their creationist beliefs that they would risk public humiliation to express them in class? Just as with number 1, I think this would be unusual in the real world, but by no means impossible.

Would parents really encourage their kids to preach in a public school? Some would. Again, not likely in the same Richie-Cunningham tone presented in this story, but I don’t find it beyond belief that parents might want their children to stick up for their beliefs in public schools. Some parents likely encourage their kids to see their public schools as a sort of mission field. And there is a literature out there helping parents help their kids to evangelize properly in their public schools.

Could it work? As number 4 suggests, is this sort of religious revival beyond the possibility for a public school? Not at all. These days, for instance, public-school children are encouraged to meet at the flagpole of their schools one day in September. Just like in the story, this strategy promises “amazing transformations” of students and school culture.See you at the pole

So I agree with the sharp commenters who voted for number 5. It is possible, of course, that a teacher might have no idea that her students shared fervent creationist beliefs. But in general, that doesn’t happen much. As Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued in their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers tend to fit in with their communities. As they put it, “traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.”

No, YOU’RE the Weirdo

Do you have a smartphone? Does everyone you know have one? If so, that puts you in a small minority, even though you feel like you’re part of a vast majority. And that sort of presumption of normality has a lot to say about our continuing educational culture wars.

I came across the statistic in this week’s Economist. It seems over 1.7 billion people use smartphones. That’s a lot, but it leaves 80% of the human population phone-less.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

So what? We might notice this as more fuel for the WEIRD fire.  As in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argued a few years back that too many subjects of psychological tests came from this relatively restricted background.  The results of those tests, they argued, should really only be claimed to apply to people of similar backgrounds.

But I also think this is a good example of the culture-war dangers of what we might call “majority myopia.” The things to which we are accustomed sometimes seem as if they are common to everybody. With smartphones, for example, it might seem like an eccentricity these days to go without one.* But despite our perceptions, actually a vast majority of people share that “eccentricity.”

When it comes to public schooling, we see this sort of myopia time and again. When it comes to teaching evolution, for example, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that the most important question to ask–after teachers’ personal beliefs–is what the community believes about evolution. If the community tilts toward creationism, then teachers will, too.

As they put it,

traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.

In other words, there are some ideas that seem universally shared. Why? Because everyone we know agrees on them. With science teachers, they may certainly feel as if they are teaching the ideas that everybody agrees to be true. They are teaching the ideas that everyone in their community seems to share.

This spreads wider than evolution, of course. Back in the late 1960s, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond set out to investigate the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp ruling. In that ruling, an eight-to-one court decided that reciting the Lord’s Prayer and devotional reading of the Bible could not Constitutionally be part of a public-school day.

Dolbeare and Hammond journeyed into four municipalities in an unnamed Midwestern state. They found to their surprise that the Schempp decision had had virtually no effect. In schools that had prayed before, students and teachers still prayed. In schools that hadn’t, they still didn’t.

Most puzzling at all to the political scientists, none of this raised any whisper of controversy in any of the towns. For those who lived there, it simply seemed as if the vast majority of people must share their views about school prayer. Even if they knew what the Supreme Court had decided, their “majority myopia” made them see their own praying public schools as the norm.

I’m sure there are other cases out there. For some religious schools, I’m guessing it must seem as if everyone agrees on doctrines such as a young earth. And at some progressive schools, like the ones I attended as a kid, it certainly seemed as if everyone agreed on the basic principles of secularism and left-leaning social justice.

But as this smartphone statistic shows, even those things that seem most universal can really be part of a very small minority.

*Full disclosure: I’m smart-phone-less myself. Don’t judge me.

Do You BELIEVE in Evolution?

It’s a deceptively simple question and it lies right at the heart of the creation/evolution controversies.  Unfortunately, Keith Blanchard’s recent opinion piece on the subject seems to miss the point.  Not because Blanchard doesn’t understand the issues, but because he deliberately hopes to change the conversation.  But it’s not that simple.  In at least two important ways, we need to wonder more deeply what we mean when we say we “believe” in evolution.

Can you BELIEVE this???

Can you BELIEVE this???

Blanchard writes from the heart of mainstream science.  We shouldn’t say we “believe” in evolution, Blanchard writes.  As he puts it,

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…

Of course, we see what he means.  I even agree with his position.  But IMHO, this line or argument is nearly entirely beside the point.  It puts us evolution-supporters in the silly position of insisting that there is no debate about evolution.  Like Blanchard, we mean that the scientific facts of evolution are not open to debate, any more than is the fact of gravity or the fact of blue.

But so what?  How does that position get us anywhere?

Because there IS a debate about evolution, obviously.  Lots of influential people do not accept the facticity of evolution.  They do not accept that evolution explains the deep history of species on this planet.  Therefore, it matters to say that we believe in evolution.  Saying we “believe” in evolution, politically, means taking a stand about educational politics and cultural politics.

On a more basic level, too, saying that we believe in evolution has a value beyond Blanchard’s knee-jerk empiricism.  After all, in our society, we believe all sorts of things about which we only have a tentative or tenuous understanding.  For instance, when we have a serious medical malady, we trust in what medical experts tell us.  Not blindly, of course, but we talk to several experts and decide on a treatment course that seems to make sense to us.  We don’t necessarily understand every jot and tittle of the medical science.  But we take the life-or-death advice of doctors.  When it matters, we trust our experts.

And that is also the case here.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means something different than saying we understand its meaning.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means we trust a certain set of authorities over others.  Not blindly, of course, but in general outline.  So, for instance, when the National Center for Science Education mounts its Project Steve, I’m convinced.  The sheer numbers of mainstream scientists who publicly announce their “belief” in evolution convinces me.

After all, for educated folks these days, the un-interpreted evidence of our senses has long been suspect.  Blanchard writes that we should all trust the “evidence of [our] own senses.”  If we do so, he concludes, we’ll be convinced about the fact of evolution.  But educated people know that their senses might mislead them.  After all, the intuitive case for creationism is very strong.  Things seem to have been created according to some system, some plan.  Creationists might regularly appeal to people’s senses to prove their point, along the lines of Paley’s watchmaker.

As careful studies have proven, people who reject evolution don’t necessarily have a spottier understanding of science.  Contrary to what Blanchard says, people can and often do understand evolution yet reject it.  Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for example, concluded from their large-group study of science teachers that creationists have an edge beyond the logic of folks like Blanchard.  Even among those Americans who understand that mainstream scientists agree on evolution, Berkman and Plutzer found, a large majority prefers that public schools teach both evolution and creationism.  That’s right: Even those Americans who know what mainstream science says about evolution still want schools to teach creationism.

In a world like that, Blanchard’s argument seems at best irrelevant.  Insisting that evolution is a simple fact, either to be understood or not understood, makes no sense in these circumstances.  On the other hand, if we say we “believe” in evolution, we’re doing something important.  Something with necessary political weight.

But there is one sense in which we should not try to “believe” in evolution.  Not Blanchard’s sense, but a more nuts-and-bolts kind of meaning.  As I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel, public schools need to get out of the belief business when it comes to evolution education.  That is, the goal of evolution education must not be to convince students to “believe” in evolution.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure all students understand it.

In a way, this is what Blanchard is saying, but I wonder if he would recoil in disgust from the implications.  Blanchard wants people to understand evolution.  We don’t “believe” in something that is obviously true.  We don’t “believe” in facts of nature.

In contrast, our prescription for public schools is that teachers adopt the goal of leading students to an understanding of evolution, and no more.  Students should be led to understand the principles of evolution, its mechanisms, and its evidence.  If they then choose not to “believe” evolution, that is an entirely private matter, beyond the realm of public school goals.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this sort of “understanding-not-belief” is not what Blanchard has in mind.

What about you?  Do you “believe” in evolution?  What does it mean to “believe” it, rather than to just “know” it?  Or, from the other direction, what does it mean to “dis-believe” it, even if you understand it?

 

Bill Nye Misses the Boat on Creationism

What does it mean to be a creationist?  Especially a young-earth creationist of the Ken Ham sort?  “Science Guy” Bill Nye argued the other day that creationism represents “striking science illiteracy.”

I like Bill Nye.  I like science.  But Nye’s statement represents a lamentable cultural illiteracy.  In the long run, it doesn’t help the cause of evolution education.  It does not help to bridge the culture-war trenches.

Around minute five of the video above, Nye begins to discuss his recent debate with young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  Nye humbly acknowledges that it might not have been a good idea to debate Ham.  But he went ahead with the debate.  Why?  Because Nye worries about the “striking science illiteracy” represented by young-earth creationism in the United States (around 6:23 in the video clip above).  Without science, Nye goes on, there would be no internet.  There would not be enough food for everyone.  Science and especially science education represent basic building blocks of a just and prosperous society.  Nye hopes that high-profile debates might help voters and taxpayers de-fund and delegitimize creationism in America’s public schools.

For the record, I agree that the “Ham-on-Nye” debate was a good thing for those of us who want more and better evolution education in America’s schools.  I applaud Nye’s bravery and his presentation skills.  But I wish he would not rely on this false notion that young-earth creationism represents a simple lack of knowledge about evolution.  It is not true, and it suggests bad policy approaches to improving evolution education.

Consider, for example, our best recent polls about science literacy and creationism.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman recount in their book Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, creationists are not less scientifically literate than non-creationists.

For instance, one Pew poll from 2005 found that Americans who know about the scientific consensus in favor of evolution still support the teaching of creationism in public schools.  You read that right: Among the 54% of Americans who agree that scientists agree about evolution, large majorities (74%) supported teaching creationism, intelligent design, or some mix of evolution, ID, and creationism in public-school science classes.

Another poll that Berkman and Plutzer summarize found that general scientific literacy was not correlated with belief in evolution.  That is, whether or not one was aware of general scientific information had no relation to whether or not one evinced a belief in evolution.

As Dan Kahan noted recently, even the National Science Foundation has considered removing a question about evolution from its science-literacy poll.  Why?  Because there is no correlation between general scientific knowledge and beliefs about evolution.  What people know or don’t know about evolution does not give us any information about whether they believe it or don’t.

Knowledge is distinct from belief.

Bill Nye’s assumption that young-earth creationism represents a lack of scientific knowledge is more than just an embarrassing ignorance on Nye’s part.  The educational and political tasks in cases of naïve non-knowledge are worlds apart from the educational and political tasks in cases of intentional or constructed non-knowledge.  In the case of evolution education, if creationists were simply unaware of evolutionary science, then outreach programs would have a good chance of success.  The task would be simply to spread information.  But in reality, evolution education must recognize that many students and families are not simply ignorant, but resistant to this form of knowledge.  Educational efforts must strive first to understand the reasons for this resistance.  Only then can evolution educators hope to develop effective strategies to teach evolution.

Consider an example from outside the world of evolution education.  Imagine your task is to deliver polio vaccine in a rural area.  If the people in the area did not know about the vaccine, you could simply publicize the benefits and the location of the vaccination clinic.  Then people would bring their children to receive the vaccine.

But if the people in the area thought that the vaccine was dangerous, you couldn’t simply put up posters and distribute flyers.  You would have to engage in a very different task.  You would have to understand why people thought the vaccine was dangerous.  You would have to get to know the reasoning involved in order to offer counter-arguments that would be convincing.  Only if you could convince people that the vaccine was helpful and not dangerous could you ever hope to vaccinate large percentages of the population.

Bill Nye is talented.  Bill Nye is brave.  Bill Nye is smart.

But he continues to display a puzzling ignorance about the contours of creationism in America.  Instead of using his considerable influence to suggest pragmatic policies to spread evolution education, he continues to misdirect evolution education policy.  He needs to learn about creationism if he wants to debate it intelligently.

 

Schools and Science: Good News for Creationists

Whose science gets taught in America’s public schools?  A new study of Oklahoma high-school students finds that students emerge from their Biology classes with a creationist-friendly understanding of evolution.  This study suggests once again that we can’t just ask HOW MUCH science education young people receive.  We must also ask about WHOSE DEFINITION of science is taught.

Looks like more evidence that science in public schools might be far friendlier to dissenting visions of science than we might think.  Communities that include large numbers of creationists may take solace from the implication: Science in schools might mean very different things to different people.

The findings were published recently in the pages of Evolution: Education and Outreach.  Researchers Tony B. Yates and Edmund A. Marek surveyed students at thirty-two Oklahoma high schools.  They administered tests before and after the students took a course in Biology.  Taken as a whole, the students expressed 4812 misconceptions before they took the class.  Afterward, they had 5072.

Yates and Marek pulled those misconceptions from a list of twenty-three common ones, including the following:

According to the second law of thermodynamics, complex life forms cannot evolve from simpler life forms.

And

Evolution cannot be considered a reliable explanation because evolution is only a theory.

Though the students had more misconceptions about evolution after their classes, Yates and Marek claimed, they also came out more confident in their knowledge of evolution.

What’s going on here?  Yates and Marek blamed the teachers.  As they concluded,

teachers may serve as sources of biological evolution-related misconceptions or, at the very least, propagators of existing misconceptions.

Of course, for creationists, this must be a cause for celebration.  What Marek and Yates call “misconceptions,” creationists might call “critical thinking” about evolutionary “dogma.”  In spite of conservative worries that public schools have become godless institutions, hostile to religious belief, this study provides more evidence that teachers represent the beliefs of their local communities.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued in their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers most often teach the values of their communities.  In the case of creationism and evolution, we see more evidence here that teachers do not challenge the religious beliefs of their students.  The science on tap in these Biology classes seems accommodating to skepticism about mainstream evolutionary thinking.