Some have described the survey as shocking. The authors of the report are gloomy about their findings. The perceived problem is this: evolutionists have won court cases bearing on the teaching of evolution in schools; state curricular standards have been revised to reinforce the status of evolutionary theory in biology - but despite all this, "considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America's classrooms". The problem is that only 28% of teachers are forthrightly explaining evolutionary biology. The situation is deemed to "expose a cycle of ignorance in which community antievolution attitudes are perpetuated by teaching that reinforces local community sentiment". The recalcitrant teachers are "hindering scientific literacy in the United States", failing "to explain the nature of scientific inquiry", undermining "the authority of established experts", and legitimizing "creationist arguments, even if unintentionally".
Coffee for US biology teachers (Source here)
The sheer magnitude of the "problem" raises the question: have the authors read the situation correctly? Are these teachers really falling down badly in their communication of biological science? Words of commendation are reserved only for the 28% of biology teachers who "consistently implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council". These are said to be "outstanding, effective educators of evolutionary biology". The rest are made up of 13% "at the opposite extreme" (who are creationists and are willing to present creation or intelligent design in a positive light) and the "cautious 60%" who implement "strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or "teaching the controversy"." John Rennie of Scientific American calls these the "mushy middle". The difficulty I find with all this relates to the value judgments placed on the actions of educators. Should we rather presume that the majority of both the 60% group and the 13% group are committed teachers who seek to promote a love of biological science in their students? It is far more likely that Berkman and Plutzer (and Rennie) are drawing erroneous conclusions from their survey and that their comments undermine and insult the work of thousands of dedicated teachers.
Previous blogs have discussed the merits of "teaching the controversy" (here and here). Also considered are the failures of neodarwinism to address the evidence provided by molecular biology (here, here and here), experimental evolution (here and here), and natural variation (the Galapagos finches, peppered moths and deer mice). The point is this: an uncritical approach to teaching Darwinism is indoctrination, not education. The theory deserves to be critiqued whenever it is not supported by evidence and whenever there are alternative ways of understanding the evidence. Similarly, alternatives to Darwinism also deserve to be critiqued. This principle impacts directly on the nature of scientific enquiry - the testing of hypotheses. Those who want to close down discussion about the ways evidences can be interpreted are themselves undermining the integrity of science. Furthermore, those who advise bowing before the "authority of established experts" are introducing values that are alien to science. The motto of the Royal Society is Nullius in Verba, usually translated as 'on the word of no one'. Science appeals to evidence when testing hypotheses. Concepts like 'consensus science' may appeal to politicians, but they should be allowed no place in scientific discourse.
There is another reason why the analysis of Berkman and Plutzer is deeply flawed. They appear to be oblivious to the teaching approach promoted by Professor Michael Reiss, Director of the Institute of Education, University of London and the Royal Society's Director of Education until September 2008. Reiss has pointed out the need for a culturally-sensitive pedagogy, in the interests of young people developing positive attitudes towards science. He is well aware that many students find a tension between the blind mechanisms of Darwinism and their worldview, which gives purpose and meaning to the natural world. He is also aware that many evolutionists appeal to Darwinism to give scientific credibility to their own atheistic worldview. Further comments on Reiss' approach are here. Reiss' thinking is not just to be found in educational literature, he has also published a paper on the subject in the journal Evolution. He knows that conflict strategies by teachers are counter-productive because students find them threatening. What is remarkable is that this topic has been so little researched. Claims are made about the dangers of "scientific illiteracy", but what evidence is there to back them up? What research has been done shows that the educational setting is the key factor, not the student worldview. There are some answers to these questions, but they do not support the stance taken by Berkman and Plutzer. The settings that adversely impact education are where teachers create an atmosphere of hostility that crushes open discussion. For more on this, go here.
Berkman and Plutzer have written a report that provides a legitimising narrative for traditional evolutionary biology. Professor Steve Fuller has an interesting phrase to describe this behaviour: the authors are acting as underlaborers to science. They portray creationism and intelligent design as anti-science and mourn the failure of 72% of biology teachers to comply with their expectations of how they should treat evolutionary theory. Rather than pondering why, the authors offer a two-pronged plan of action. First, they recommend putting on "outreach efforts such as webinars, guest speakers, and refresher courses" for in-service teachers - to better equip them for their work. Second, they want to target teachers in training:
"More effectively integrating evolution into the education of preservice biology teachers may also have the indirect effect of encouraging students who cannot accept evolution as a matter of faith to pursue other careers. Effective programs directed at preservice teachers can therefore both reduce the number of evolution deniers in the nation's classrooms, increase the number who would gladly accept help in teaching evolution, and increase the number of cautious teachers who are nevertheless willing to embrace rigorous standards. This would reduce the supply of teachers who are especially attractive to the most conservative school districts, weakening the cycle of ignorance."
In my experience, students who are critical of evolutionary theory know much more biology than those who are uncritical. Will discussion and dialogue be permitted in Berkman and Plutzer's preservice programs? It appears not, because they want "effective" programs that weed out the dissenters. How will they guard against this proposal degenerating into an Orwellian 'Big Brother' scenario? Judging from their intemperate language, they cannot even see the problem. It is my hope that the biology teaching profession will take responsibility for their own future - for if they do not, there seem to be quite a few underlaborers to science who will do it for them.
Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom
Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer
Science, 28 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6016 pp. 404-405 | DOI: 10.1126/science.1198902
Summary: Just over 5 years ago, the scientific community turned its attention to a courtroom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Eleven parents sued their Dover, Pennsylvania, school board to overturn a policy explicitly legitimizing intelligent design creationism. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, followed a familiar script: Local citizens wanted their religious values validated by the science curriculum; prominent academics testified to the scientific consensus on evolution; and creationists lost decisively. Intelligent design was not science, held the court, but rather an effort to advance a religious view via public schools, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause. Many scientists cheered the decision, agreeing with the court that the school board displayed "breathtaking inanity". We suggest that the cheering was premature and the victory incomplete.
High School Biology Teachers in U.S. Reluctant to Endorse Evolution in Class, Study Finds, ScienceDaily (28 January 2011)
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