Still unsettled: evolution in the science curriculum

Every year, bills are introduced into state legislatures aimed at decreasing the credibility of science, starting with the theory of evolution. That’s not what they say, of course. It’s been some time since anyone explicitly wanted to mandate that creationism be taught in the schools, instead of (or more usually, along side of) the mainstream scientific view. Years ago, “creation science” became the alternative proposed; this was followed by “intelligent design,” and as that lost viability, the anti-evolution advocates decided to urge us to “teach the controversy.”
This was a clever move, for a couple of reasons. First, it removed the hot-button language into the background a bit — it came across as a simple, common-sense plea for fair-mindedness. Second, over the decades, scientific research and development have brought forward other matters that are problematic to a significant proportion of the same people who oppose evolution education: climate change, cloning and some kinds of genetic research… If you merely advocate for “teaching the controversy,” you don’t even have to specify which controversy people need to hear about.
In the past few years, the language as shifted again — we aren’t urged to “teach the controversy” — after all, for climate change and evolution, the two most important targets, there is no controversy. That is, the basic scientific understanding has been long established, and controversies focus on important but subsidiary issues — elaborating, fine-tuning, deepening the power of the theory to make sense of (some aspect of) the world.  Instead, the rationale became “academic freedom,” and “teaching strengths and weaknesses…”  The Discovery Institute developed model legislation which provides protection, and encouragement  for teachers to teach “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,”  especially on questions where there is controversy (read: social/political controversy). This legislation has been used as the basis for a successful bill in Louisiana in 2008, and for numerous unsuccessful filings in Iowa, Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma and elsewhere (with variants in my own state, New Hampshire a few years ago).

This year has seen three such bills filed already, in South Dakota, Oklahoma (again), and (with notational variants) Indiana.  (For more information, links to press coverage,and background information, the best source is, of course, the National Center for Science Education.).

As a biologist, I care that evolution is taught, and (more important) understood.  I want people (students and grownups) to understand why evolution works as the answer to some fundamental questions in biology (I have never been a fan of teaching evolution starting with the evidences, taking it for granted sort of like a geometrical theorem to be proved, rather than the result of a grand inquiry to make sense of a very complicated biological world).   Evolutionary biology, and its intimate relative, ecology, are the two areas of biology of most importance to the most people  in the 21st century (IMHO).

But leaving that aside, the debate about evolution in the curriculum is a debate about the social understanding of science, and also a debate about pedagogy.  It makes no sense to ask students to understand the “strengths and weaknesses” of any theory which, however simple its basic premises seem, is established on the basis of an enormous about of work on myriad systems and organisms, with which students are just not familiar.  Even well-educated teachers are not likely to be prepared for such a task, as stated.

But of course no one really expects students or teachers to have specialist knowledge of all the various controversial topics addressed by the legislation that keeps coming forward.  Perhaps the legislators do not themselves realize how big a task it would be to “understand the strengths and weaknesses” of such a theory (or of climate change, or the big bang, or some other “controversy”).

The persistent impulse to legislate against uncomfortable science reflects the inclination to see science as a matter of opinion, in which anyone’s voice carries equal weight (teachers are familiar with policies and political rhetoric that conveys the idea that teaching is so simple that anyone off the street could probably do as well).  There is much to criticize about the over-valuing, or the “cult”  of expertise, Heaven knows;  yet that does not mean that expertise does not exist, nor that its advice within its own sphere should not be taken seriously.  Beyond the loaded question of expertise, however, is the recognition  that science (like other fields of endeavor) represents the fruits — not final! — of an international, centuries-old community of labor, imagination, persistence, critique, and integrity.

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