Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Scopes weeps

(Inherit the Wind screenshot, via Wikipedia)

A century and a half after On the Origin of Species took the scientific world by storm, nearly 90 years after the "Scopes Monkey Trial," 50 years after Inherit the Wind, the teaching of evolution still struggles in American schools. It's just astonishing, isn't it?

There is no scientific controversy about the basic fact of evolution, none whatsoever. The evidence is simply overwhelming. There is plenty of argument about the details - it's still a very vigorous and productive area of scientific research - but Darwin's basic idea of natural selection, made before scientists even knew about genes at all, let alone the structure of DNA, has only been confirmed by a steady stream of new discoveries.

And most mainstream religions long ago gave up their opposition, realizing that no one in his right mind could deny the evidence. Even the Catholic Church gave up on that. Now, they just claim that God "guided" evolution, that it was all part of his divine plan. (Yes, that's easily demonstrated to be false, too, but it takes some real knowledge to understand that.)

So how does evolution fare in American schools these days?
Despite 80 years of court battles ousting creationism from public classrooms, most public high school biology teachers are not strong advocates for evolution.

While vocal advocates of intelligent design and similar non-scientific alternatives to evolution are a minority, more than half the teachers in a nationwide poll avoided taking a strong stance for evolution.

Such teachers “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists,” wrote Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, the poll’s architects, in a Jan. 28 Science paper.

Berkman and Plutzer, the authors of Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, examined data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, a representative sample of 926 biology teachers from across the country. They estimate that only 28 percent of those teachers consistently and “unabashedly” introduce evidence that evolution has happened, and build lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking different topics in biology.

At the opposite extreme, 13 percent of teachers explicitly endorse creationism or intelligent design, and spend at least on hour of class time presenting it in a positive light. An additional 5 percent reported that they support creationism in passing or when answering students’ questions.

The remaining fraction of teachers, who Berkman and Plutzer dub the “cautious 60 percent,” avoids choosing sides. Often these teachers have not taken courses in evolutionary biology and lack confidence in their ability to answer questions from skeptical or hostile students and parents.

Incredible, isn't it? And keep in mind that these are averages. What do you think it's like in Texas, or in Mississippi? How would you like to try teaching evolution there?

Unfortunately, Americans - and that includes all too many teachers - are hopelessly ignorant about science. And fundamentalist Christians are everywhere. They don't believe those "elitist" scientists, because they have faith.

For a teacher, even a science teacher, teaching evolution is just asking for trouble. Most of the time, their superiors don't understand science, either - or simply don't "believe" in it. That includes school principals and it certainly includes politicians, from school boards on up.

So children grow up just as ignorant as their parents - actually, more ignorant, because there seems to be a far more concerted effort (including home-schooling, which was unheard of years ago) to keep them ignorant than when I was a kid. And a lot of school children are encouraged to disbelieve, and to challenge, their teachers on this subject.

Let's face it, even science teachers - even those who aren't creationists themselves - don't know a whole lot about science. Sure, they know enough, in a broad overview, to teach it, especially to younger children. But they're not biologists. Any biologist could easily counter the arguments these kids are primed to make - arguments which have been conclusively settled long ago - but teachers rarely have that kind of scientific background.

And just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so can fierce opposition get schools to tone down or even ignore unpopular facts. Why do you think schools in the South teach that the "War of Between the States" wasn't about slavery at all? Why do you think their textbooks claim, falsely, that large numbers of black troops fought for the South? Most people prefer their fantasies to the truth.

If a teacher refuses to be intimidated himself, his school administration will rarely be that brave. And if they are, then local politicians will certainly prove to be spineless - or just as ignorant as their faith-based supporters.

After all, we've reached a time in America where one of the two major political parties in the nation refuses to accept science. Heck, in 2008, most of the candidates for President during the Republican primary claimed not to believe in evolution (nor, of course, global warming). That's just mind-boggling, don't you think? Even if they were just lying to appease their ignorant base, it's still absolutely astonishing.

Evolution has been established science for more than a century. All of modern biology is based on evolution. How backward can we get as a nation? What in the world has happened to us?


Chimeradave said...

It's funny I don't really remember learning about evolution in High School though I know it was taught at my school. But I do remember reading "Inherit the Wind" and/or wathcing the movie in English class, multiply times. Isn't that funny that I learned more about science in English class?

WCG said...

I always read so much as a child that I don't really know if I was taught evolution in school or not. I do remember being blown away in college by even a beginning Biology class, since they got into details that my earlier education had lacked.

But I understood the basic idea of evolution at quite a young age. Even then, of course, it was established science. I would have been as astonished at hearing Creationists as I would have at hearing Flat Earthers.

I mean, evolution was established science long before I was born, and before my parents were born, too. How backward can people get?

Chimeradave said...

Yeah, I read a lot too, so I definitely don't really remember ever learning much in school (until college) as far as the Humanities. Basically I remember always being bored in school. And this is coming from someone who loved learning stuff, I just never felt like junior high and high school was about learning anything. I did learn math and chemistry and some Spanish. But I remember almost none of it.