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.

Are You a Big Fat Idiot?

Are you like me?  That is, do you believe in evolution?

Or, to be precise, do you think evolutionary theory is our best current explanation of the way species came to be different from one another?

If you do, you might just be a big fat idiot just like me!

peter griffin evolve fish man

He’s big, he’s fat, and he’s an idiot.

It’ll come as no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH* that questions of knowledge and belief are inextricably tangled up when it comes to evolution and creation.  There are plenty of creationists who know what the theory of evolution says, but wouldn’t say they “know” it.  And there are plenty of evolution supporters who think evolutionary theory is the best way to understand things, but they wouldn’t want to say they “believe” it.

That’s why in our recent book, Harvey Siegel and I advocated cutting the connection in our public-school science classes.  Yes, let’s help students understand what evolutionary theory says, but let’s remain carefully neutral about what students might believe.

After all, we know there must be creationist kids out there who don’t want to “believe” in evolution since they think it’s against their religion.  But here’s the kicker: Plenty of us who say we “accept,” “know,” or “believe” in evolution don’t really know much about it.

Exhibit A: Family Guy.  In Peter Griffin’s telling, evolution happened over millions of years.  In this clip, we see ambitious fish turning into to lizards, who stretch their way into dinosaurs.

We also see Family Guy’s vision of creationism (“obligated by the state of Kansas…” ha), in which Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie blinks everything into existence, including a rabbit, a car, and Jesus with a “USA#1” foam finger.

Family Guy i dream of jeannie creationism

Not exactly what Kansas creationists teach, either.

For now, though, let’s focus on the evolution part of Family Guy’s history of the world.  Granted, Peter Griffin really is a big fat idiot.  Nevertheless, his description of evolution is pretty close to what most of us think of as the story of life, evolution-style.

We talk about animals crawling up out of the slime to walk on land.  We talk about animals that are “perfectly evolved” for their habitats.  We imagine a process by which animals and plants get better and better—higher and higher up an evolutionary ladder—and we think we are talking about evolutionary theory.

The problem is, we’re not.  The idea of animals working hard to improve themselves and work their way up the evolutionary ladder doesn’t match what scientists think happens.  We see our comfortable myth of evolution everywhere, though.  In my “Evolving Darwin Play Set,” for example, we see animals working their way up from “fish-man” to “genius.”

evolving darwin play set

From “Fish-Man” to “Genius” in only 380 million years!

If you’re like me, you have a vague sense that that’s the way evolution worked.  The problem is, we’re wrong.

If you ask a friendly science geek, evolution didn’t doesn’t have any sort of goal in mind.  Evolution is not about getting higher up a great chain of being.  Evolution is not about getting better and better until slime becomes scientist.  Rather, we’re supposed to think of evolution as a bushy process, a continual series of slow-motion experiments that don’t move toward anything.  We’re not supposed to imagine animals improving toward a goal, but rather just doing what they can to survive and reproduce, holding on to traits that seem to help.

Is that what you think of when you think of evolution?  If so, congratulations, you’re not a big fat idiot.  But if you really know what evolutionary theory says, you are an unusual person.

Most of us, whatever we say we believe about evolution, don’t know much about modern evolutionary theory.  As Dan Kahan reminds us, people who say they accept, know, or believe evolution can’t do a better job of explaining it than people who say they don’t.

What about you?  If you’re like me, you accept evolutionary theory.  But you don’t really know much about it.  Like Peter Griffin, we have a sense that evolution took a long time and that animals changed from one thing into another.  But the images we carry around in our heads aren’t really evolutionary theory, but rather myths about the origins of life featuring the vague and faceless deity “Evolution.”

Does it matter?  If we want to understand the creation/evolution battles, it matters a lot.  Most important, IMHO, it helps us understand that we’re all a lot more similar than we might think.  The folks who troop into Ken Ham’s Creation Museum might be a bunch of big fat idiots, but so are the rest of us.  When it comes to questions of evolutionary theory, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about.  We trust in the authority of our experts, but in a pinch, we can’t really explain what our experts believe.

*Sophisticated and Good-Lookin Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, natch.

 

Experts Agree…

I’m delighted to report that we’ve got some blurbs up for our new book, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.  I’m thrilled to see such great recommendations from two people who know the most about America’s evolution/creation debate.

glenn branch

You know it’s big when you have your own cartoon portrait…

First, some background.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I have a new book coming out in February, co-authored with philosopher Harvey Siegel.  In this book, we discuss the history of America’s modern evolution/creation debates.  We also explore the philosophical issues involved with teaching evolution and creationism.  Finally, we offer a recommendation or two for teaching evolution in a way that is scientifically credible and culturally sensitive.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

Have you read it yet?

Thanks to the work of our publisher, University of Chicago Press, we now have blurbs from Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education and Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. You may know Branch’s work on the Science League of America blog.  Or you may have read his book Not in Our Classrooms.  In any case, nobody has a better sense of the issues involved in today’s evolution/creation debates than does Glenn Branch.

And nobody knows the history better than Professor Numbers.  I’m biased, of course, because Ron was my grad-school mentor and he continues to be my friend and role model.  But you can ask anyone: Ron’s book The Creationists is the first and last word on the subject.

So of course I’m tickled pink to share their blurbs for our new book:

Glenn Branch, deputy director, National Center for Science Education
“What do you get when you cross a historian and a philosopher? If it’s Laats and Siegel, the answer is Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Thoughtful and provocative, historically detailed and philosophically informed, this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the conflict over evolution education in the United States.”
Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design
Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides not only a readable and reliable survey of past encounters but a sensible guide to future practices. Rather than promoting public-school classrooms as pulpits for converting skeptical students to evolution (which has rarely proved an effective technique in any case), they recommend helping students to understand the arguments and evidence for evolution. This book should be required reading for all evolution educators.”

Pshaw!

Creation, Christians, and the Deadlock Myth

Whoops! There it is again—another commentator implying that we have been trapped in an endless deadlock over evolution and creation. It’s just not true, as we argue in our new book. That doesn’t stop it from being a very popular thing to say.

groundhog-day-spring

Six more decades of creationist debate…

To be fair, Pastor Ryan Gear is more interested in Christian attitudes than in educational policy. He laments the fact that so many conservative Christians continue to doubt evolution and climate change. He points out that such skepticism is not necessary, from a religious viewpoint.

Fair enough. Gear goes off the rails, however, when he implies that things have not changed for Christians when it comes to evolution and creation. As he puts it, if Darwin were alive today, “he would observe that Christians have not evolved much in relation to his theory.”

Hold the phone. In terms of both education policy and religious belief, such statements woefully misrepresent the history of the evolution/creation debate.

First, as I argue in my upcoming book, co-authored with philosopher extraordinaire Harvey Siegel, evolution education has experienced radical changes across the decades. Over long decades, evolution education has made enormous advances. In the 1920s, several states banned the teaching of evolution in public schools entirely.

As I argued in my first book, the fight over evolution in the 1920s was a fight—successful in many ways—to make explicit and legally binding the traditional evangelical Protestant domination of American public life.

These days, the goals of creationists are much tamer. Even the most vociferous young-earth advocates insist they don’t want creationism taught in public schools. Intelligent-designers have scrubbed the explicit religious references out of their arguments.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

Have you read it yet?

Also, the very meanings of creationism itself have changed dramatically. As our leading historian of creationism (and my grad-school mentor) Ronald Numbers has demonstrated, today’s popular young-earth creationism was itself a novelty of the mid-twentieth century. In early evolution battles, very few anti-evolutionists insisted on a young earth.

In 1927, for example, fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley insisted, there is not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

Back then, Riley was the hard edge of creationist activism. He was the founder and leader of the World [or World’s] Christian Fundamentals Association. He founded a thriving school in his adopted home city of Minneapolis. He represented, to many contemporaries, the extreme, uncompromising wing of 1920s anti-evolutionism.

And he did not believe in a young earth. He did not think it mattered.

Today, of course, the religious landscape of American creationism is much different. Not only do many Christians in big conglomerations such as the Southern Baptist Convention insist on belief in creationism, but they also believe that real creationism means belief in a young earth and a literal six-day creation.

That is new.

We have not been deadlocked for generations in the same ol’ evolution/creation battles. In terms of public policy and private belief, everything has changed. Utterly.

Why does any of this matter to us? Deadlock suggests a need for drastic action. It suggests a stalemate, one that can only be broken by decisive, radical action. The truth, however, is not quite so exciting.

In the past hundred years, the evolution/creation debates have not been stymied in a go-nowhere morass. Rather, people like me who want more and better evolution education have consistently scored important victories. People like Pastor Gear, on the other hand, have been forced to argue against growing percentages of evangelical Christians who insist on a scientifically outlandish young-earth creationism.

From the perspective of public policy, the prescription is clear. We should keep going with our efforts to improve real evolution education in public schools. Evolution, and only evolution, should be taught as our best current scientific understanding of the way species came to be.

At the same time, we should adopt a determinedly neutral stance toward the creationist debates among evangelical Christians. If young-earth advocates want to square off against evolutionary creationists, so be it. Such religious debates are outside the realm of public-school policy.

This kind of nuanced, non-alarmist policy argument does not make for good headlines. That’s why we will likely continue to see every creation/evolution article and op-ed opened with a lament that things have not changed.

If we really want to move forward, however, on questions of evolution, creationism, and education, we need to get beyond the headlines. We need to get beyond the ahistorical assertion that we are trapped in a never-ending evolution/creation Groundhog Day.

New Evolution Stickers for Alabama

What should they say instead?

Alabama’s famed textbook-warning stickers might be on their way out. The National Center for Science Education reported recently that new science standards in the “Heart of Dixie” make the old stickers outdated.

Watch out!  Learnin' ahead!

Watch out! Learnin’ ahead!

Alabama’s textbooks have carried the warning since the beginning of the twenty-first century. New standards, though, suggest that evolution will no longer be scientia non grata in the state.

So here’s a puzzler for the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If the old stickers are out, what should new stickers say instead? Of course, smart-alecks will suggest that we leave science textbooks sticker-free. That is the smart answer, but it leaves us with nothing to talk about on a Tuesday.

So let’s make up new stickers. A few ground rules:

1.) The language has to be readable and straightforward. No jargon.

2.) Maximum 250 words.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve been working on a new evolution/creation book with my co-author Harvey Siegel.  For years now, we have wrestled with this big-picture question.  In short, we want science teachers to teach evolution and nothing but evolution in their public-school science classes.  But we need to help teachers, students, and families understand that learning evolution does not need to impinge on any sort of religious belief.

Our simple prescription: Students need to know about it.  They need to understand it.  But they do not need to believe it.  Students need to be able to explain intelligently what scientists think about evolution.  If they choose not to accept it, that is their business.  More than that: It is the public schools’ business to make sure students and families feel welcomed, whatever their religious beliefs.  It is the schools’ business to encourage students to be who they are.

With all that in mind, here’s my entry:

These textbooks include information about evolution. Evolution is our current best scientific understanding of the ways species came to be different from one another.

Science encourages you to be skeptical about evolution and every other idea. If you choose not to believe that evolution is the best explanation of the origin of species, you have every right to doubt it.

You need to know about evolution. You need to be able to explain how scientists think it worked. You do not have to agree with these scientists.

Okay, okay,…it’s a long way from perfect.  Can you do better?

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.

Will I Go to Hell for Learning Science?

Those of us who want to get more and better evolution education into our public schools have our work cut out for us. Evidence keeps piling up that Americans still get nervous when it comes to mainstream science.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book about creationism and evolution education, public schools don’t have a credible option. They must teach real evolutionary science—and ONLY evolutionary science—in their science classes. Anything else does a grave disservice to students.

Even creationist students. Those creationists, though, should not be forced to mouth vaguely religious platitudes as they learn about evolution. Rather, public school teachers must make their goal to teach students to know and understand evolutionary theory. If they choose not to believe it, that is their fundamental right.will i go to hell for learning science

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, my humble blog has wrestled with these issues of creationism and evolution education for years. Every once in a while, we get a glimmer of the harsh reality out there: People really don’t like evolution.

In the editor’s board of the blog, I can read some of the search terms that brought people to the blog. In the past, we’ve seen plaintive requests such as “Can a creationist and evolutionist be in love?”

Today we get another humdinger. In the search terms today we see, “Will I Go to Hell for Learning Science?” As David Long and other scholars have argued, learning evolution is profoundly disconcerting for some students. For those like this searcher, it is more than just a lack of knowledge that is the problem. Many students have deep worries that science these days is nothing but a lure of the devil.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

By Adam L.

I hope you choke on your sunscreen. While you are out and about doing summer fun stuff, I’ll be in the office putting together the index for my upcoming book.

Okay, okay, I’m being a little melodramatic. I actually enjoy the process of writing an index. It helps me get into the manuscript in a detailed way. It helps me think over what the main points are. And it helps me imagine what future readers might be looking for.

If you poke your head out the window and crane your neck, you still can't see the beach from here...

If you poke your head out the window and crane your neck, you still can’t see the beach from here…

Not to mention the fact that writing an index has its own share of intellectual challenges. For example, I’m wondering which subheading to use under “Darwinism.” Should I list anti-evolution protests as “Darwinism: equated with atheism, 7, 14—15”? Or should it be more general: “Darwinism: critiqued by anti-evolutionists, 7, 14—15”?

In any case, enjoy your dog days at the beach, or the mountains, or wherever it is that normal people spend their summer time. I’ll be festering in air-conditioned office comfort. When the snow flies in January, this book should be ready to share.

So Jesus WAS on a Dinosaur…?

We just don’t know what we’re talking about.

Could've happened...?

Could’ve happened…?

A new poll inspired by the hit movie Jurassic World suggests that Americans don’t know much about much. Thanks to the ever-watchful folks at the National Center for Science Education, we see some startling responses to a simple question: Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?

As YouGov explained,

YouGov’s latest research shows that 41% of Americans think that dinosaurs and humans either ‘definitely’ (14%) or ‘probably’ (27%) once lived on the planet at the same time. 43% think that this is either ‘definitely’ (25%) or ‘probably’ (18%) not true while 16% aren’t sure. In reality the earliest ancestors of humans have only been on the planet for 6 million years, while the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.

Ouch.

For evangelicals, the numbers are even more skewed. A clear majority (56%) of evangelical Protestants think humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Only 22% of evangelicals thought that dinosaurs and humans did not.

...doh!

…doh!

As the National Center for Science Education points out, there are a couple of possible wrinkles in this poll. Most scientists these days consider birds to be dinosaurs. Is that what the respondents meant? The NCSE charitably suspends judgment, but it seems obvious to your humble editor that most of us just don’t know what we’re talking about.

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.