Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?