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!)

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.

“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.”

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

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.

Save the Date, Evolution Wonks!

Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton!  Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work.  It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning.  Clear your calendars.

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS).  The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work.  I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.

Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers.  Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution.  Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science.  But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through.  This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.

But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught.  And teachers tend to fit in with their communities.  When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us.  But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists.  In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants.  Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.

As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.”  They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards.  Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented.  In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science.  Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).

So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening.  The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic.  Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences.  Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue.  Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.

I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then.  These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required.  I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out.  For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.

Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

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.