The Dog That Didn’t Bark

Heading for the beach? Be sure to take along some classic beach reading: Chapter Three of our Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation!NCSE TECN excerpt

The National Center for Science Education has posted an excerpt from our book on its website. I hope this brings in some new readers.

Now all you cheapskates out there can get a taste of our book without plunking down twenty bucks to read the whole thing.

In this chapter, I make my case that the crucial period in our twentieth-century battles over creationism and evolution education was not the 1920s with its Scopes Trial, or the 1960s with its flood of young-earth creationist activism. Rather, if we really want to understand the creation/evolution debate, we have to understand what happened on both sides between 1930 and 1960, when the battle moved out of the headlines.

At least, that’s the argument I try to make in this chapter. It’s no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, but I firmly believe that both sides in our current creation/evolution debate will benefit from understanding a little bit more about each other and about the history of their disagreement. And now, thanks to the National Center for Science Education, maybe a few more science geeks and teachers will check out our book.

The Real Intelligent Designer

Does it matter? Who cares if a gold-medal-winning engineering breakthrough came from a young-earth creationist? When it comes to understanding our creation/evolution debates, I think it matters a lot, especially for those of us who want more and better evolution education in our public schools.

Here’s what we know: Recently, young-earth impresario Ken Ham has crowed about the accomplishments of Professor Stuart Burgess. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.

team-great-britian-olympic-bicycle-display

Reducible Complexity

SAGLRROILYBYGTH and others who share my obsession with all things creationist may wonder why we have to bring up this old chestnut yet again. We all know the script here. Young-earthers will trumpet the few engineers and doctors who hold young-earth beliefs. Mainstream scientists will point to the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve. If there are a few science-y creationists, there are bajillions more science-y non-creationists.

We’ve all been around and around this debate before, but I think it’s worth bringing up again. As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand American (and UK) creationism, we have to abandon the satisfying but false notion that creationism is a product of mere ignorance.

Or, to be more precise, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that there are vastly different forms of ignorance. In some cases, people simply don’t know things. In other cases, though, some types of knowledge are blocked by competing types of knowledge.

Creationists can certainly display both sorts of ignorance. Some of them might just have never heard the arguments of mainstream evolutionary science. But the fact that there are any young-earth creationists who have scored big successes in science-y fields helps prove that the real difficulty results from the second type of ignorance. Creationists can be very successful in society, even in science-related fields, even if they “know” that mainstream evolutionary theory is bogus. Even if we don’t want to admit it, Ken Ham is correct in boasting that “Professor Burgess is definitely both a real scientist and a creationist!”

We don’t need to tangle with the endless debate about whether creationism is real science, dead science, or zombie science. We don’t need to gnash our teeth and exclaim that Burgess’s scientific accomplishments happened in spite of, not because of, his creationist beliefs. The point here is different. The fact that engineers like Dr. Burgess are both successful mainstream practitioners and convinced young-earth creationists matters for different reasons.

Why does it matter? Because it reminds us that creationism is not simply the product of isolation from modern knowledge. Creationists aren’t people who simply haven’t heard about evolutionary theory or modern science. Since that’s the case, we won’t spread knowledge of evolutionary beliefs merely by making it available. We won’t successfully teach evolutionary theory to Americans unless and until we recognize the fact that creationism is more than a deficit hoping to be fixed, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a naïve lack of knowledge seeking the best modern knowledge.

As I’ve argued in my recent book (co-written with philosopher Harvey Siegel), if we really want to teach evolution in this creation nation, we need to start by understanding this central fact about American creationism.

The fact that creationist engineers like Dr. Burgess can have outstandingly successful technical careers serves as more proof that creationism is something other than a lack of knowledge about evolution. When we’re designing bike chains, it doesn’t really matter how old the earth is. It doesn’t matter that mainstream evolutionary theory offers by far the best current explanation of the ways species came to be different from one another.

What does matter—at least for those of us who are trying to understand creationism as it really is—is that creationism is not a leftover from hillbilly isolationism. Creationism isn’t the result of a lack of exposure to modern ideas. Creationism, rather, is a different way of being modern.

The Surprising History of Turkey’s Creationism

A devilish Jewish conspiracy? A beloved Christian import? Recent news from Turkey builds on the surprising evolution of creationism in that country.

Here’s what we know: Alpaslan Durmus, the Turkish education minister, denounced evolution as “beyond their [students’] comprehension.” It will be removed from K-12 textbooks. Durmus explained that the government thought evolution was too “controversial;” that students “don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend.”

Turkish education minister cuts evolution

Evolution’s out

That’s not the surprising part. After all, even when Turkish official textbooks did discuss evolution, they were hardly fair, balanced, or free of religious bigotry. According to The Financial Times, earlier Turkish textbooks warned students that Darwin “had two problems:  first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and misshapen teeth.” The books mocked Darwin’s lack of formal education, noting strangely that he preferred to spend his time with monkeys in the zoo.

For a while, then, Turkey’s public schools have catered to popular bigotry about evolutionary ideas. Turkey is hardly alone. Evolution is deeply unpopular in many Muslim-majority countries. According to Salman Hameed of Hampshire College, fewer than a fifth of Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis say they think evolution is true. Only eight percent of Egyptians do. Turkey is no exception. Just as in the United States, evolutionary theory is widely denounced, even if it is not widely understood. Anxious leaders curry favor with conservative religious populations by throwing Darwin under the bus.

It is not news, then, that Turkey’s government is trying to win support among religious voters by eliminating evolution from textbooks. We might be surprised, however, by the history of cross-creationist connections that have long linked Turkey’s Islamic creationists to San Diego’s Christian ones.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

A worldwide flood of creationism

As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421).

The relationship between powerful Turkish creationists and American creationists thrived. In 1992, a Turkish creationism conference invited ICR stalwarts Duane Gish and John Morris as keynote speakers.  Professor Numbers also describes the founding in 1990 of the Turkish Science Research Foundation (Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or BAV).  In Numbers’ words, “For years BAV maintained a cozy relationship with Christian young-earth creationists, feting them at conferences, translating their books, and carrying their message to the Islamic world” (pg. 425).

However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

It’s not shocking, then, that Turkish and American creationists keep one another at arm’s length, in spite of American outreach to Turkey and lavish and expensive efforts by Turkish creationists to woo American scientists.

Here’s the last question: Will Turkey’s recent move finally convince pundits to stop saying that the United States is the only country in which creationism thrives? Will creationism finally be seen as the world-wide conservative impulse that it really is?

HT: V(F)W; JC

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

Why Bill Nye Won’t Save the World

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show with my kid. He’s great. I wish he would call me up and we could go eat french fries together. But he won’t save the world, for two main reasons.

On his new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, Nye repeats the same errors about creationism that he has always made. At heart, Nye seems to believe that the main trouble with America is its lack of knowledge about science, our “science illiteracy.” Nye plans to save the world by clearly explaining real science. It won’t work.

On episode five, for example, Nye gives a quick description of the long history of our planet. He even goes out of his way to ridicule the notion of Noah’s ark. Where did life on this planet come from? We don’t know, Nye clarifies, but possibly it blasted in from Mars.

This sort of approach will have only a negative impact on our continuing creation/evolution squabbles. It will do nothing to bring good mainstream science to the creationist multitudes. Its only effect will be to cement them (most of them, at least) even more firmly in their dissident notion of young-earth creationism.

Why will Nye’s approach be so counter-productive? Not only because it is so hokey and strained. As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the main problem comes from two common and related mistakes.

First, Nye falls prey again to the lamentable missionary supposition. Like many science wonks, Nye assumes that the truth—the scientific truth—is so powerful that mere exposure to it will convince people of its truth.

The notion is so remarkably naïve that it is difficult to know where to start. Consider the similar case of vaccinations. If people are simply unaware of the existence and benefits of vaccinations, then providing information will help. Especially if we do it in a fun, entertaining way. But if people already believe that vaccinations are dangerous, and, more important, if they believe that vaccine-promoters will be targeting them with fun, entertaining falsehoods, designed to confuse and beguile them…then we need a different approach.

Creationism, especially in its American young-earth variant, is not merely an absence of knowledge about evolution. Creationism is not a deficit. Creationism is an alternate, dissenting social system, complete with its own schools, textbooks, museums, conventions, TV shows, and celebrities.

And that brings us to the second, related problem with Nye’s approach. Not only is his show not spreading knowledge, it is actually building resistance. Like a lot of science pundits, Nye heightens the religious stakes by talking about “saving the world.” Instead of presenting this as a question of cool-headed deliberation and policy discussion, Nye’s apocalyptic attitude reinforces religious resistance.

In other words, by talking in all-or-nothing terms, Nye gives credence to religious dissenters who insist that religious people have to choose between their religion and mainstream science.

What should he do instead? He should not water down his I-F*$%&@9-Love-Science message. He should not imply that different views are all equal. He should not truckle to religious sensibilities by suggesting that all scientific ideas—even creation-science ones—have the same merit.

But he should learn more about creationism and American creationists. If he did so, he’d find out that there are plenty of creationists out there who also love science. Real, mainstream science. He should establish working alliances with those creationists to marginalize radical notions about creation and evolution. He does not need to endorse any particular view. All he needs to do is point viewers to religious people who agree with him.

Otherwise, he won’t save the world.

Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

sexual assault at school

A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.

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.

It’s Football Season!

What do football and tattoos have to do with evolution?  We’ll find out tomorrow.  David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution Studies Program at Binghamton University continues its tradition of bringing a cavalcade of experts and celebrities to our humble burg.

evolution education in the american south

Required reading

The roster of nerds and wonks has been impressive.  For those of us obsessed with creation/evolution debates, Evos has hosted heroes such as Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project and Michael Berkman of Penn State, among many others.

What’s on tap this week?  All the way from sunny Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Professor Christopher Lynn will be talking about his work in evolutionary anthropology. Professor Lynn just published a new edited book that SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be interested in, Evolution Education in the American South.

Tomorrow afternoon, Professor Lynn will share his work, in a talk titled “Tattooing Commitment, Quality, and Football in Southeastern North America.”  As Lynn describes it,

Tattooing appears to be a cultural and psychological pattern of behavior rooted in Darwinian processes. It is the result of an evolved tendency to manipulate human bodies in meaningful ways with distinctive benefits. Tattooing can signal group affiliation or commitment through using the body as a human canvas. Tattooing also provides cues about biological quality because it is an injury to the body, and the healing process on the surface of the skin is visible to everyone and impossible to fake. These factors make tattoos costly honest signals, consistent with evolutionary models in multiple species, including humans. I review the functions of tattooing from an evolutionary perspective, outline historic and prehistoric evidence from the North American Southeast, analyze biological implications, and discuss contemporary functions of tattooing among college football fans as a signal of commitment and quality.

For those in the Binghamton area, the talk is free and open to the public.  It will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in room G-008 in the basement of Academic Building A.  Monday, April 3rd, starting at 5:15 PM.

Hope to see you there!

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.