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Why We Need to Teach the Evolution 'Controversy' in Schools

All good science should aim to convince outsiders that a consensus has been reached without any biases. Even evolution.
The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. (Photo: scalzi/Flickr)

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. (Photo: scalzi/Flickr)

Basketball isn't the only form of March madness. It’s also the month for action on the anti-evolution bills that are introduced, without fail, in state legislatures around the country each year.

This year, there were six bills considered in four states (Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, and South Dakota); last year there were nine bills in seven states. Over the last decade, according to the records kept by the National Center for Science Education, an advocacy organization that supports teaching of evolution and climate science in public schools, anti-evolution bills were introduced in more than half of the states, including New York and Minnesota—places not typically known for religious fundamentalism. The record year was 2006, with 14 bills introduced in 11 states; 2011 took second place with 11 bills in nine states. Most of these bills die with the end of the legislative session, but not always—in 2012, one was successfully enacted in Tennessee.

It's been nearly 90 years since John Scopes was convicted of illegally teaching evolution in Tennessee, and we're still arguing over the role of evolution and creationism in our schools. Why can't we lay this issue to rest?

The most critical problem common to all of these bills is that they mistake a social controversy for a scientific one, and thereby fail to confront the real question: How should we teach well-established science that is socially controversial?

You could blame the Russians. The modern anti-evolution movement was born after the 1957 Sputnik launch sparked a panic over the dismal state of science education in American public schools. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act to beef up science education and research. In the following year, the National Science Foundation initiated a major educational reform effort with a committee called the Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS). The BSCS set about rewriting textbooks and curricula, giving new emphasis to the central place of evolution in biology. As the historian Edward Larson relates, these educational reforms "shattered the thirty-year truce in legal activities enveloping the anti-evolution issue" that had been in place since shortly after the Scopes trial.

As the BSCS began to influence public schools, creationists fought back with "scientific creationism," an effort to show that the Biblical account of the origins of life was supported by hard scientific evidence. Over the subsequent half-century, scientific creationism was thoroughly rejected by both scientists and the courts, and the movement has since evolved to hide its explicitly religious trappings. Today the movement is focused on getting schools to teach "intelligent design" as a scientific alternative to evolution or to teach the "evidence against evolution."

For example, on March 4, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." While this sounds innocuous, the bill is a variation on model legislation proposed by the creationist Discovery Institute.

The purpose of bills like these is to allow teachers to present their students with specious creationist criticisms of evolution, without fear of interference from school administrators. Among the most common form of anti-evolution legislation, these bills often single out evolution as particularly controversial. Other bills, such as one currently under consideration in Missouri, take a different tack: Treat evolution like sex ed, and require schools to notify parents whenever evolution is going to be taught, with the option for objecting parents to take their kids out of class.

The most critical problem common to all of these bills is that they mistake a social controversy for a scientific one, and thereby fail to confront the real question: How should we teach well-established science that is socially controversial? Certainly we should not teach these subjects by lying to students about the science. Because science carries tremendous authority in our society, those who resist a particular scientific consensus tend to attack the quality of the research, even though they are primarily concerned about the implications of the conclusions. Putting thoroughly refuted distortions into the public school curriculum and pretending that they are one side of an active scientific controversy is a terrible idea.

But we shouldn't leave the social controversy out of the classroom. As a matter of good pedagogy and for the sake a healthy relationship between our scientific community and our democracy, scientists and educators need to be transparent about how a scientific consensus is reached. Science is a system of public knowledge that depends on a process of certification, argues the philosopher Philip Kitcher in his 2011 book Science in a Democratic Society, and "worries about the legitimacy of scientific certification undermine trust in the system of public knowledge." People who resist science often do so because they believe that scientists have let their unfounded biases dictate the evidence they consider. Scientists therefore need to not only avoid being biased by illegitimate values; they need to do so "in a way that convinces outsiders that this has been done."

Every scientist makes judgments about what hypotheses should be considered and what evidence is important. Rather than giving our students just the facts of evolution, climate change, or any other socially controversial science, we need to explain how scientists make their judgments and why they reject particular alternative ideas.

And perhaps more importantly, students should be taught how to make their own judgments. As Elizabeth Walsh at San Jose State University and Blakely Tsurusaki at the University of Washington write in this month's issue of Nature Climate Change, failing to address the social controversy "leaves learners with conflicting ideas and without an opportunity to resolve tensions between their previous experiences and those in the classroom."

Anti-evolution legislation is not going to disappear any time soon, and resistance to the solidifying scientific consensus on climate change is giving legislators yet another reason to introduce "teach the controversy" bills. Those of us who care about science, democracy, and a healthy relationship between the two, should agree to embrace the controversy, and then ensure that our students learn the difference between a scientific controversy and a social one.