Improving Science Education by Ignoring Evolution? Absurd!

A much-needed report on teacher preparation in the United States has just been released by the National Research Council (NRC). While the attention it focuses on ways to improve the education prospective teachers acquire is of critical importance, a major disappointment (perhaps embarrassment would be a better word) with the report is that it completely ignores the manufactured controversy over the teaching of evolution as a central tenet of biology.

This isn't to say that the report ignored the teaching of science itself. Indeed, science was one of the three areas given primary attention, joined by reading and mathematics. Additionally, the committee writing the report recognized two salient points about science education. First, in a participatory democracy it is essential that citizens achieve at least a basic level of science literacy. Second, national and international studies of students' science knowledge continue to show that U.S. students, on average, fare very poorly.

And yet, probably in a desire to avoid controversy, the report omits any mention of the single issue likely to impact teacher training and student learning more than any other. Fear of facing the dominant problem means that progress is likely to be small at best.

Ignoring the issue, however, isn't going to make it disappear. Rather, ignoring the issue is going to make it increasingly difficult for teachers to understand science fully and to teach it well.

The science curriculum advanced by young earth creationists such as those at Answers in Genesis, the folks behind the Creation Museum-cum-theme-park outside Cincinnati where school kids go to see dinosaurs and humans cavorting, is completely at odds with that of the world's scientific community. And it's important to note that if such an extreme curriculum were to be fully implemented, there would be significant impact on subjects well beyond biology. In fact, significant restructuring of chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, anthropology and linguistics, as well as biology, would have to take place.

That the problem is very real has been strikingly demonstrated by a relatively recent study showing that one in six high school biology teachers could be considered to be a young earth creationist. Given that evolution is the framework upon which all of biology is dependent, and given that the great population geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky so well and so famously said in 1973 that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," it isn't surprising that our students are being poorly educated in science. Even though the NRC report makes a general call for teachers to have a richer understanding of scientific content, it just couldn't bring itself to tackle this critical issue.

Perhaps even more important than the lack of specific scientific information taught to our students is our inability, or our unwillingness, to educate students about the very nature of science. For the most part, we refuse to help students differentiate between science and non-science -- and between non-science and nonsense.

The science curriculum advanced by such creationist organizations as the Discovery Institute makes an already bad situation far worse. They're attempting to have science redefined to include the supernatural and to move away from the well-established concept of hypothesis testing that is central to the scientific method. And they're promoting intelligent design creationism, which has the concept of irreducible complexity at its core -- a concept that calls for the end of scientific investigation once a creationist "expert" declares that further investigation would be fruitless. Remember that Michael Behe, the leading proponent of irreducible complexity, declared under oath in the Dover, PA "intelligent design" trial that by his definition, astrology is every bit as much a scientific theory as is intelligent design.

If science education is going to be strengthened in the United States, something that virtually everyone agrees should happen, people must be willing to stand up and be unafraid to declare that some concepts fall outside the bounds of science. And then, collectively, we need the will to say that those topics will not be taught in science classes -- period. We should be no more worried that creationists will be upset when we forcefully declare their ideas unscientific than we are concerned about the feelings of those who promote astrology.

Accomplish this simple goal and have serious discussions with prospective teachers about the nature of science, showing them how to differentiate science from pseudoscience, and we will make great strides toward educating a scientifically literate population.

Refuse to move in this direction, refuse to even raise the issue in a major national report about improving science education, and instead continue to allow local school boards and state legislatures to promote nonsense as science because of the fear that very vocal religious fundamentalists will be disappointed and the students of the United States will continue to land at the bottom of all of those international science tests.

The choice about how to proceed is ours -- and very clear.