Get Your Copy Today! Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

***Update! Our new book is out.  If you’re interested in issues of creationism, evolution education, culture wars, and education policy, I hope you’ll take a look.  I’m happy to say that a few early readers have given me wonderful, flattering feedback.  But I’d like to hear from all the haters out there, too.  If you have something to say about the book, g’ahead.  Leave a comment below, send me an email, put a sign in your yard…whatever feels right. ******

Clear some room on your bookshelf. I’ve got a book in the works that I hope everyone interested in conservatism, creationism, and education will want to take a look at.

My co-author and I hope to elbow out a little room in the middle of our continuing culture-war debates over creation and evolution. Our argument, at heart, is not mind-blowingly new, but it still needs to be heard.

Because all too often you’ll hear someone in the creation/evolution debates say that creationism is “crazy,” or that it is “child abuse.”  And far too often you hear a creationist complain that creationists are being unfairly victimized for their beliefs.  Public schools must teach students about the flaws in evolution, the claim goes, because otherwise creationist students are being unfairly indoctrinated.

Have we reached an agreement here?

Will creationists take half a loaf?

If either of these claims were true, we’d need to have a very different conversation about evolution and creationism in public schools.  But they’re not.  And we don’t.

What we really need is an unsettling compromise.  Creationists need to admit that their dissident science is not respected outside of their own religious boundaries.  And mainstream scientists and pundits need to recognize that creationism is a form of religious dissent and, as such, has enormous rights in public schools.

There’s plenty in this suggestion for everyone to hate. Many creationists will have a hard time admitting that only creationists think creationism is real science. And many mainstream science pundits refuse to give an inch to creationist demands, worried that any compromise will be a sell-out.

In spite of such complaints, this uneasy compromise is the most promising path forward.

In the upcoming book co-authored with philosopher Harvey Siegel, we lay out the history of creation/evolution debates (my part), plus the philosophical issues involved (Harvey’s part).  Then we offer our big-picture policy suggestions.

The history of creationist protests against the teaching of evolution can tell us one thing, very loudly: anti-evolutionism is not a passing eccentricity; creationism is not a result of a fringe belief. Since the beginnings of the modern creation/evolution battles nearly a hundred years ago, the landscape has changed dramatically. Anti-evolution activists in the 1920s battled to keep evolution out of public schools. These days, creationists fight just to have creationism allowed in. But one thing hasn’t changed: the sorts of opposition to evolutionary theory we see in our public schools come from people with religious and cultural reasons for dissenting against mainstream science. They are not simply kooks who have idiosyncratic reasons for bucking the system. Rather, they are a religious minority—though a uniquely large and powerful one—and as such they have the rights of every religious minority.

Those rights, though, do not include the right to have their religion taught as science. Whatever “creation science” may be, and though it may be famously difficult to define precise boundaries around the nature of modern science, today’s creationism does not meet minimum standards as the best available knowledge. Even if it is some kind of science, as science it is not as good as mainstream options. Therefore, public schools have a duty to refuse to teach creationism as science.

So what are public schools to do?

In brief, we argue that public schools must separate out questions of knowledge from questions of belief. Public schools have a duty to help students learn the best available knowledge. They also have a duty to welcome all sorts of dissenting belief. If students want to believe in a young-earth, or transubstantiation, or faith healing, they have every right to. More than that, public schools have a responsibility to make such dissenters feel not just tolerated, but welcome. Even if their beliefs clash fundamentally with the basic premises of mainstream science.

Public schools must teach evolution and only evolution as science. But at the same time they must recognize the widespread dissent against evolution. Students must not be encouraged to believe in evolution. If students know about it, the schools have done their job.

At this point, you’re probably wondering when you can get your hands on our book. Good question. This summer we’ll be polishing up the index and getting all the ducks in a row. The release, we’re told by our editor at the University of Chicago Press, should be in early 2016.

In the meantime, we welcome all comments and suggestions. In the past, we’ve heard from thoughtful readers who have pointed out important flaws in our argument and raise vital questions we’d missed. For example, in real-world classrooms, how are teachers supposed to walk this fine line between knowledge and belief? Do we assume too much about the strategic flexibility of creationists? Of mainstream science educators?

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19 Comments

  1. John

     /  April 17, 2015

    Hi Adam,

    Your stepcousin here.

    You wrote:
    “And mainstream scientists and pundits need to recognize that creationism is a form of religious dissent and, as such, has enormous rights in public schools.”

    As a biologist, I do recognize it. The problem is that they don’t. They just lie (I don’t use the term lightly) and claim that IDcreationism is science, when the reality is that they lack the faith–both scientific and religious–to put a single ID hypothesis to a single empirical test.

    Here’s what we need to teach public school students:

    1) If you’re doing science, you have a hypothesis that makes empirical predictions (nothing like, “In 30 years, everyone will admit we were right.”). You are eager to devise the most rigorous experiments/conceive of the most rigorous observations that have the potential to falsify your hypothesis. Your eagerness to put your hypothesis to the test is directly proportional to your confidence.

    2) IDers and creationists lack the faith to even put forth an ID hypothesis that makes empirical predictions, much less test one.

    We need to make an example of them for students, and do so in both religious and scientific terms.

    Reply
    • Hello John! Thanks for the comment. Our argument in the book is very similar to yours, but perhaps with small but significant differences. We agree that students in public schools need to learn what we mean when we talk about science, the nature of science, the scientific process, etc. We do not need to rule that ID is not science in order to decide that it is not appropriate for public schools. All we need to do is demonstrate that it is not as good at science as is mainstream science. As you say, predictive power is a big part of that measure. As are other slightly out-of-fashion ideas such as falsifiability.
      However, we need to be very careful with our stated goals for public education. In our opinion, creationists will have a legitimate complaint if public-school educators set out to “make an example . . . in both religious and scientific terms” of the deficiencies of ID. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant, but such religious education must be kept out of the purview of public-school education. This is the heart of our recommendation that public-school teachers must eschew any whiff of religious indoctrination. If students know, understand (and maybe appreciate) evolutionary science, they have every right to dissent from the philosophical or theological implications of evolutionary thinking.

      Reply
  2. John

     /  April 17, 2015

    “However, we need to be very careful with our stated goals for public education. In our opinion, creationists will have a legitimate complaint if public-school educators set out to “make an example . . . in both religious and scientific terms” of the deficiencies of ID.”

    I agree completely, Adam. Put another way, IDcreationist hypotheses DO make empirical predictions. However, in all the internet debates in which I’ve explored this approach, only one IDcreationist (an engineer, of course) has been willing to engage on that level–I pushed it in the context of my field, molecular motors.

    The hypothesis that these motors were intelligently designed makes pretty clear empirical predictions, both to me and this engineer at least. The ID predictions are consistent with the animations produced by scientists, but of course those animations are pretty metaphorical and totally inconsistent with the actual biophysical data–in ways that an engineer and a bright high-school student can understand.

    So to clarify my proposal, the teacher would present the ID hypothesis in a completely secular way (precisely the way that IDcreationists present it when they are thinking politically). The lack of faith would need to be labeled as confidence to keep it secular.

    Reply
  3. I see my problem now. I wrote, “We need to make an example of them for students, and do so in both religious and scientific terms.”

    The “we” in this case refers to those of us in the scientific and political spheres, not public school teachers.

    Reply
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