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Evolution Education Survey Promotes Discrimination Against Darwin-Doubting Teachers

By Casey Luskin

A January, 2011 paper in the journal Science reports results of a survey of how science teachers cover evolution. Titled "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom," the paper laments that more teachers aren't pushing neo-Darwinian evolution in a dogmatic fashion, even attacking one teacher who dared to suggest, "Students should make up their own minds" on evolution. It even suggests that biology teachers who doubt Darwin should be encouraged "to pursue other careers."

Promoting Institutionalized Discrimination

"Honey, why are you seeking this promotion? Do you really want to swim with us big boys in management? You just stay in your place, sweetie." If such words were spoken to a female employee in any American corporation, she would immediately be entitled to file a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination -- and rightfully so. Such words would also reflect a corporate culture that seeks to marginalize certain employees. This form of institutionalized discrimination would seek to implicitly -- or explicitly -- discourage unwanted individuals from pursuing certain jobs.

With that in mind, what do we make of the fact that the authors of this survey of science teachers quite explicitly admit that they hope to discourage Darwin-doubting student teachers from pursuing careers teaching biology? They write: More effectively integrating evolution into the education of preservice biology teachers may also have the indirect effect of encouraging students who cannot accept evolution as a matter of faith to pursue other careers.

(Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom," Science, Vol. 331:404-405 (January 28, 2011).)
There you go sweetie: if you don't accept Darwinism, we hope you'll "pursue other careers."

Underreporting Darwin-Doubting Teachers

There were other problems with the survey as well--in particular its methodology would naturally underreport the number of Darwin-doubting teachers. The survey forces teachers to fit into 1 of 3 categories: "Advocates of evolutionary biology," "Advocates of creationism," or "Advocate of neither." According to the survey, 28% of teachers are "Advocates of evolutionary biology," 13% are "Advocates of creationism," and a full 60% are "Advocates of neither." (These are the percentages reported in the survey--odd how they add up to 101%.)

According to the Supporting Online Material, to qualify as an "Advocate of Creationism" under the survey, teachers had to meet two criteria: (1) They had to report devoting at least one hour to creationism or intelligent design, in answer to the following question: "Thinking about how you lay out your Biology course for the year, please indicate how many class hours you typically spend on each of the following areas." One of these areas was "Intelligent design or creationism." (2) Teachers had to respond "agree" or "strongly agree" to at least one of the following questions: "When I do teach about creationism or intelligent design (including answering student questions), I emphasize that this is a valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species." Or "When I do teach creationism or intelligent design (including answering student questions), I emphasize that many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to Darwinian theory." To qualify as an "Advocate of evolutionary biology," teachers had to adopt a "pro-evolution stance" including calling evolution a "fact" and the "unifying theme" of the biology course:Advocates of evolutionary biology had to adopt the pro-evolution stance on all of the following three questions [by responding "agree" for questions (a) and (b), "disagree" for question (c)], and adopt the strong pro-evolution stance on at least two [by responding "strongly agree" for questions (a) and/or (b), and/or "strongly disagree" for question (c)]: (a) "When I do teach evolution (including answering student questions), I emphasize the broad consensus that evolution is fact even as scientists disagree about the specific mechanisms through which evolution occurred." (b) "Evolution serves as the unifying theme for the content of the course." (c) "I believe it is possible to offer an excellent general biology course for high school students that includes no mention of Darwin or evolutionary theory." To qualify as an "Advocate of neither," the teacher had to respond to the survey but not fall into one of the other two categories.

The researchers want to push many of the "Advocates of Neither" into the "Advocates of evolutionary biology" category, stating: Outreach efforts such as webinars, guest speakers, and refresher courses--the types of efforts currently aimed at secondary school teachers--could be tailored and targeted for both preservice teachers and for biology and science education professors at teaching-oriented colleges. This two-pronged effort may help increase the percentage of new teachers who accept and embrace the fi ndings of evolutionary biology.This will be more difficult than they realize, and here's why:

The paper seems to miss the two obvious sources of error and bias which would underreport the number of teachers which they shoehorn as "Advocates of creationism." One error comes from artificial selection, and the other stems from natural selection.

Artificial Selection: As noted, the authors of the study are so ardently pro-Darwin-only that they criticized a teacher who dared to suggest that students should be allowed to "make up their own minds" on evolution. Given that this survey was conducted by investigators who are apparently hostile to Darwin-doubters, it's likely that many pro-intelligent design teachers would be hesitant to participate in the survey and risk outing themselves. Thus, many streetwise teachers which the survey would otherwise shoehorn as "Advocates of Creationism" would choose not to participate. They might view participation akin to turning yourself in to the thought police.

Natural Selection: The survey purports to report the mental states and behaviors of teachers as regards evolution and intelligent design. But mental states and behaviors may be very different things. The Darwin lobby works hard, with some success, to make it illegal--or at least very dangerous--to favorably teach intelligent design. Thus, few teachers are bold enough to spend an hour on, say, teaching intelligent design. Likely, there are far more than 13% of teachers who would like to favorably mention ID, but they are naturally afraid to do so out of fear of their jobs.

There is a very high chance that a good portion of the 60% who are "Advocates of neither" would favorably mention ID if the legal environment were not so hostile towards such pedagogy. This survey fails to take into account that its surveyees exist in an environment that makes it very costly to choose some of the survey choices. It thus naturally underreports the number of teachers who would like to engage in behaviors which the survey would call "Advocating Creationism."

The survey did not identify these sources of potential bias or error. It does not note that the legal environment may have a significant impact upon teacher choices. It does not note that many teachers may be afraid to report their actual or preferred behaviors due to fears for their job caused by that legal environment. Given that the survey's combined response rate of valid returned questionnaires was only 48% (926 out of 1942 teachers), it seems that a lot of teachers chose not to respond. It also seems likely that nonresponsive teachers were more likely to fit into their category called "Advocates of Creationism" than would be "Advocates of Evolution."

Much to the chagrin of the researchers, it seems likely that there are far more teachers who are partial towards intelligent design than the survey reports. If the authors wish to push "Advocates of Neither" into becoming "Advocates of Evolutionary Biology," they probably have a lot more work cut out for them than they realize.

Survey Promotes Dogmatism

What's ironic about the survey is that someone who follows the advice of a different paper published in Science last year could never qualify as an "Advocate of evolutionary biology."

In 2010, Science published a paper by Jonathan Osborne titled, "Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse," which found that students learn science best when they learn "to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive) or that is simply indeterminate." According to Osborne's paper, it's vital to teach students what scientific critique looks like:Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.

(Jonathan Osborne, "Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse," Science, Vol. 328 (5977): 463-466 (April 23, 2010).)
In fact, Osborne's paper warns about presenting science as a "monolith of facts" or an "authoritative discourse":Typically, in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised. Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent. Students then emerge with naive ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself.... All of this of course flies in the face of the teaching method endorsed by the survey, which recommends authoritatively telling students that "the broad consensus" is that "evolution is fact." If a teacher qualified as an "Advocate of evolution" by the criteria used in survey, they could never take the scientific approach recommended by Osborne's paper

Incredibly, this new Science survey claims that teachers who "teach the controversy" will "fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry." The reality is precisely the opposite: teachers who teach evolution dogmatically as fact will fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry.

The authors of the survey even go so far as to criticize a teacher who felt that "Students should make up their own minds" on evolution "based on their own beliefs and research." Their reasoning is that students would not be able to think through the issues:But does a 15-year-old student really have enough information to reject thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers? This approach tells students that well-established concepts like common ancestry can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.

(Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom," Vol. 331:404-405 (January 28, 2011).)
Here are just a few reasons why their argument for dogmatism fails:
  • It's false to pretend that dissenting from the Darwinian consensus requires "rejecting" all peer-reviewed science or that dissenters simply have "opinions" but not evidence. There are peer-reviewed scientific papers which dissent from the majority viewpoint on topics like the efficacy of natural selection or the tree of life.

  • Evolution education deals with a fundamental question of humanity--"Where did we come from?" Yes, modern neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology is the majority viewpoint and students must learn about this viewpoint. But there are significant numbers of scientists who dissent from that viewpoint. From a purely humanistic standpoint, it seems unconscionable to withhold from students the fact that there are credible scientific views that dissent from the majority viewpoint on this fundamental question of humanity--even if those views happen to be in the minority right now.

  • If students can learn the evidence for a particular proposition of modern evolutionary theory, there's no in principle reason they could not learn about evidence against it. Students don't have to sift through thousands of scientific papers to learn about the debate. A well-trained teacher can synthesize the material, spend a couple weeks explaining the standard neo-Darwinian consensus view, and then cover the scientific controversy over neo-Darwinian evolution in one or two lectures. If Osborne's educational theories are valid, students will understand the topic better under this approach.
  • As we've seen, science education theorists find that students learn science best when they study different sides of a scientific debate. Scientific elites praise the importance of inquiry-based science education -- with all of its critical thinking, skepticism, and consideration of alternative explanations -- but unfortunately jettison such beneficial educational philosophies when it comes to teaching evolution.