September 26, 2000

Lerner Report Whitewashes Bad Science:
A Response to Lawrence S. Lerner's "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States" (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, September 26, 2000)


Jonathan Wells and Jay W. Richards
Discovery Institute

The Fordham Foundation's highly touted report by Lawrence Lerner, "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States," recommends increased emphasis in America's public schools on biological evolution--which the report never adequately defines. (1) But the Lerner report fails to point out that students are being systematically misled about the scientific evidence, and it thereby encourages precisely the sort of bad science it pretends to criticize.

Biology students should be taught about biological evolution, because the concept is enormously influential in our culture. But in most of our schools the concept is being supported with "evidence" that scientists themselves have shown to be false or misleading.

For example, most introductory biology textbooks feature drawings that supposedly show similarities in the early embryos of animals with backbones, and these similarities are claimed to be evidence that humans and fish evolved from a common ancestor. But embryologists have known for over a century that the embryos are NOT most similar in their earliest stages. In 1997, a British embryologist called the drawings "one of the most famous fakes in biology." (2) Yet they continue to be used to indoctrinate students in Darwinian evolution.

Earlier this year, Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould called the continued use of these "fraudulent" embryo drawings "the academic equivalent of murder." "We do, I think, have the right," he wrote, "to be both astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks." (3) Obviously, this is a serious problem in biology education. Why does the Lerner report ignore it?

Most introductory biology textbooks also use photographs of peppered moths resting on tree trunks as evidence for natural selection. Dark moths that are better camouflaged than light moths on pollution-darkened tree trunks are less likely to be eaten by predatory birds, so textbooks use such photographs to show why dark moths became more prevalent during the industrial revolution. But biologists have known since the 1980s that peppered moths don't normally rest on tree trunks. The textbook photographs have been faked--many of them by pinning or gluing dead moths on desired backgrounds.

When University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne learned of this problem in 1998--more than a decade after it was announced in the scientific literature--he wrote that he was "embarrassed" to find that the peppered moth story he had been teaching his students for years was seriously flawed. He compared his reaction to "the dismay attending my discovery, at the age of six, that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve." (4) If a professional evolutionary biologist can be misled for so long by such falsehoods, then surely it is time to correct them. By failing to do so, the Lerner report implicitly condones scientific misconduct instead of good science.

(Textbooks misrepresent much of the other basic evidence for evolution as well. See the attached "Evaluation of Ten Recent Biology Textbooks" and the press release announcing a forthcoming book on the subject, Icons of Evolution [Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000].)

The Lerner report also perpetuates the lie that Kansas has eliminated evolution from its state science standards, awarding that state an "F minus" for "removing all references to biological evolution." In fact, the standards adopted by Kansas in August 1999, increased coverage of biological evolution five-fold over the standards that had been in effect since 1995. Among other things, the new standards require that students be tested on the details of Darwin's theory of natural selection. In fact, the wording of the new standards resembles the Lerner report's own recommendations for higher grade levels. What enraged dogmatic Darwinists was the Kansas School Board's refusal to tell students that Darwin's theory explains all major features of living things--something that even respected biologists question. (5

Either Lerner did not bother to read the 1999 Kansas State Science Standards, or he is intentionally misrepresenting them. Whichever is true, Lerner's report appears to be just another attempt to promote Darwinian dogmatism without regard for the facts. Such dogmatism bears a major share of the responsibility for the current problems in American science education.

In the past, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has made valuable contributions to educational reform. In this case, however, the Foundation has obviously allied itself with the wrong people. Foundation President Chester R. Finn laments the tendency of public schools to "brainwash" children. "Instead of teaching children to think for themselves," he writes, "students are purposefully led into certain belief structures of importance to one another group of adult activists. Instead of being presented with accurate information, they are fed opinions and conclusions." (6)

The Lerner report contributes to just the sort of brainwashing Finn criticizes. Lerner wants students to learn Darwinian evolution--without being told that many textbook "evidences" for evolution have been faked. Lerner wants students to be taught scientific misconduct masquerading as good science, instead of being given accurate information and being encouraged to think for themselves.

This stunning failure of the Fordham Foundation to live up to its principles may be due partly to its reliance on the advice of biologist Paul Gross. The high-minded language of Chester Finn quoted above is from the Foreword of a Fordham Foundation article by Gross (quoted in the Lerner report). In that article, Gross claims: "assertions that 'Darwinism is in trouble with the evidence' are propaganda," and the Lerner report follows Gross in implying that only creationists are critical of Darwinism. If Darwinism is not in trouble with the evidence, however, why is the best-known "evidence" for it misrepresented so consistently in our nation's textbooks? And why do non-creationists like Gould and Coyne criticize the textbook evidence? The propagandists in this case are Gross and Lerner, and they have beguiled the Fordham Foundation into promoting bad science. (7)

American science education is in serious need of reform. But the Lerner report is part of the problem, not the solution.

Notes

  1. Significantly, on page 1, Lerner asks: "What do we mean by evolution, and what is its place in the sciences?" His answer: "The universe is a dynamic place at every scale of space and time." Of course no one disputes this, and we did not need Charles Darwin to tell us about it. The ambiguous use of the word "evolution" is a central rhetorical strategy of the Lerner report: since everyone agrees that the universe is a dynamic place, this agreement is misrepresented as a consensus on the major claims of Darwinian evolution.
  2. Michael K. Richardson, quoted in Elizabeth Pennisi, "Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered," Science 277 (1997): 1435.
  3. Stephen Jay Gould, "Abscheulich! Atrocious!" Natural History (March, 2000), pp. 42-49. See also Jonathan Wells, "Haeckel's Embryos and Evolution: Setting the Record Straight," The American Biology Teacher 61 (May, 1999): 345-349.
  4. Jerry Coyne, "Not black and white," a review of Michael Majerus's Melanism: Evolution in Action, Nature 396 (1998): 35-36. See also Larry Witham, "Darwinism icons disputed: Biologists discount moth study," The Washington Times (National Weekly Edition) (January 25-31, 1999): 28; and Jonathan Wells, "Second Thoughts about Peppered Moths," The Scientist (May 24, 1999): 13.
  5. The quote from the Lerner report is on page 16; the recommendations for higher grade levels are on page 4. The 1999 Kansas Science Standards are at http://www.ksbe.state.ks.us/outcomes/science_12799.html. On what really happened in Kansas, see Jonathan Wells, "Ridiculing Kansas school board easy, but it's not good journalism, The [Mitchell, SD] Daily Republic (October 14, 1999), reprinted on the Discovery Institute website, http://www.discovery.org.
  6. Chester E. Finn, "Foreword" in Paul R. Gross, "Politicizing Science Education," a Thomas B. Fordham Foundation publication (April 2000), available at http://www.edexcellence.net/library/gross.html.
  7. Gross's remark is from his "Politicizing Science Education," cited above, p. 12. The Lerner report on pp. 6-9 and Appendix B, 33-36 states that only creationists of various forms doubt the evidence for Darwinism.