Evolution, Creationism, and the 'Cautious 60 Percent'

The recent headlines were disturbing:

13% of H.S. Biology Teachers Advocate Creationism in Class

Troubling: 13% of Biology Teachers Supporting Creationism

13% of US biology teachers advocate creationism: Welcome to 2011

These articles were responding to a commentary in Science by Penn State political scientists Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer ("Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom"; 28 January 2011). Berkman and Plutzer's research -- detailed in several articles and a book--involves large surveys of science teachers. In this most recent study, 926 public high school biology teachers were surveyed, and 13 percent reported "explicitly advocat[ing] creationism or intelligent design."

The 13 percent number is bad -- 1 in 8 public school biology instructors teaches creationism. As the headlines above show, most reporting focused on this 13 percent. But Berkman and Plutzer identified an even greater problem: a "cautious 60 percent" of teachers who, while not preaching creationism, nevertheless fail to be "strong advocates for evolutionary biology."

Berkman and Plutzer write,

The cautious 60 percent may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.

There are more of these cautious teachers, and their reluctance to present evolution forthrightly not only impedes their students in learning biology, but also undermines understanding of the nature of science. They fail to teach evolution in the way recommended by the nation's leading scientific organizations, such as the National Research Council -- as the central, unifying principle of the life sciences.

Why is "neutrality" toward evolution such a disaster for college-bound kids?

Evolution is the foundation of biology. Just as geologists cannot decipher the earth's features without plate tectonics, and physicists cannot understand the interaction of light and matter without quantum electrodynamics, biologists cannot explain the diversity of life on earth without evolution. Trying to teach biology without evolution is like teaching auto mechanics without discussing engines. Teachers should not be neutral toward evolution because scientists are not neutral about evolution.

While creationists promote the mistaken idea that there exists scientific controversy regarding evolution, the truth is that evolution has played a central role in biology for over a century. Evolution has not been controversial among scientists since the Victorian era, when scientists noted the time on gold pocket-watches rather than iPhones, and travelled to work in horse-drawn carriages instead of Priuses.

Though quaint and outdated, anti-evolutionism remains alive and well. Evolution is assaulted daily by groups such as Answers in Genesis, which runs a creationist "museum" in Kentucky and plans to build a full-scale Noah's Ark to complement it, and the Discovery Institute, which promotes the flavor of creationism known as intelligent design.

There are many reasons why so many teachers fail to teach evolution enthusiastically, but there is no doubt that community pressure -- enflamed by anti-evolution groups -- is a major part of it. In North Carolina, for example, a parent disgruntled about the presentation of evolution in his daughter's middle school science class promised the principal, "You might be surprised at how your 'stock' could go up in our community if you choose to deal more harshly" with the offending teacher. According to Berkman and Plutzer, 29 percent of non-creationist teachers (compared to only 19 percent of creationist teachers) reported feeling nervous at "an open house event or meeting with parents." Such social pressure on teachers can be particularly strong in small, rural, religiously homogenous communities, where the teacher may be one of the few people in the community who understands and accepts evolution.

The "cautious 60 percent" is not necessarily or exclusively a failure of teachers. Rather, it is a failure of schools to foster an environment where the best science can be taught. Just as it is hard for children to learn in a school filled with bullies, it is difficult for science teachers to teach in a school surrounded by those who would bully them into downplaying evolution.

The majority of Americans do not graduate from college, so high school science classes are for many citizens the last place for formal educational exposure to science; biology is often the only high school science class students take. Therefore, misconceptions about evolution and the nature of science instilled in a high school biology class can influence a lifetime of thought.

Bottom line: we have to ensure that evolution is taught well in public schools. This means exerting community pressure for, rather than against, integrity in science education. You can talk to your children's teachers and let them know that if they teach good science, they'll have your support. You can talk to their principals and let them know that if they fail to foster a strong learning environment for science, you'll hold them to account. You can talk to your local school board and let them know that if they enact or tolerate anti-evolution policies, you'll remember it come election time. Teacher by teacher, school by school, district by district, we can work to turn this "cautious 60 percent" of teachers into a strong majority teaching the best science possible.