The Cautious 60%
So I am sure that some of my readers will have heard about this already, but there is yet another survey floating around showing that (surprise, surprise) evolution is not being well taught in the nation’s highschool classrooms. Given the general level of scientific literacy on the subject, it is no surprise that we find a flaw in primary education on it. It is very difficult to grow up in modern society without being exposed to the idea, and while it is an elegant idea, it is not necessarily a simple one. So the first exposure any given person receives to it is most likely going to be wrong or only partially true. It falls to the humble science teacher to correct and complete these mis and partial understandings.
But the truth of the matter appears to be that they do not. Why? Well, an article in the current issue of Science (“Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom“) goes into that. We recently all had cause to celebrate the Dover decision, yet the article’s authors state: “We suggest that the cheering was premature and the victory incomplete.”
And they make a pretty good, if depressing, point. Others have focused on the explicit creationists in the school system, and while they are a problem, I have to side with the article’s authors: the so called “cautious 60%” are much more of an immediate concern. Maybe I am biased in thinking that even a 15 year old child should be able to see through the arguments of a dogmatic creationist, or maybe I am just more concerned about a silent majority than I am about a vocal minority (since the latter tends to only thrive in the tacit approval of the former).
So the findings of the study show that vocal evolutionists and vocal creationists make up only a 40% of America’s highschool science teachers. What about the 60% left over? They just want to keep their heads down and teach in such a way as no one gives them trouble, regardless of the consequences to their student’s understanding. The tactics most commonly used to do so are three: (1) Teach evolution solely on the micro scale; (2) teach evolution to the test while giving vocal caveats that the test is structured as if evolution were true and that they are certainly not making any kind of statement on the matter or asserting it as really true (the tactic my particular highschool biology teacher used); and (3) teaching the “controversy”.
Now all three of these are very problematic: (1) Ignores the very sizeable amount of evidence and very important role of macro-evolution. It leaves their students ill-informed and ill-equipped, and undermines the entire theory as a whole. (2) & (3) are even worse. They introduce into the classroom this air of intellectual relativism, to whit an idea that demonstrated scientific fact should have only as much credence as opinion. And moreover that the individual students opinion is more important than the proceedings of the entire scientific community. A very odd and obviously misguided notion. While encouraging free thought is a noble endeavour, encouraging a disregard and disrespect of rational thought and evidence is quite the opposite.
The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.
I think that this silent majority should come under as harsh (or potentially even harsher criticism) than the misguided minority. I have no more respect for the craven than I do for the deluded (and indeed the deluded have a certain air of genuine good-intention behind them, misguided as it is, while the craven only care about their own asses). And after all, I believe someone once said something quite eloquent about planks v. splinters.
Sources & Further Reading
- Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom
- While not directly related, I keep finding myself recommending Dawkin’s new text The Greatest Show on Earth as an excellent primer on evolution, written in accessible language. Although I do generally detest the man’s rhetorical style and patronising attitude.