Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Teaching Evolution

A recent article in Science Daily has received a lot of attention, mostly because it has revealed some surprising statistics about American high school biology teachers. The article, or rather the research the article reports, implicitly raises a lot of questions, most of which are left unanswered. I'd like to make some of those questions explicit because I think they're important. The article begins with this paragraph:
The majority of public high school biology teachers in the U.S. are not strong classroom advocates of evolutionary biology, despite 40 years of court cases that have ruled teaching creationism or intelligent design violates the Constitution, according to Penn State political scientists. A mandatory undergraduate course in evolutionary biology for prospective teachers, and frequent refresher courses for current teachers, may be part of the solution, they say.

"Considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America's classrooms," write Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, professors of political science at Penn State, in the January 28 issue of Science.
Well, how are supporters of "reason itself" and "scientific methods" losing battles in America's classrooms? The article never says. It simply implies that since a lot of biology teachers are refusing to indoctrinate their students that therefore reason and science are taking a beating.
The researchers examined data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, a representative sample of 926 public high school biology instructors. They found only about 28 percent of those teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred, and craft lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking disparate topics in biology.

In contrast, Berkman and Plutzer found that about 13 percent of biology teachers "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light." Many of these teachers typically rejected the possibility that scientific methods can shed light on the origin of the species, and considered both evolution and creationism as belief systems that cannot be fully proven or discredited.
There's something wrong with this? Evolution can be fully proven? Creation can be fully discredited? What do these words even mean? What is meant here by the words evolution, creationism, proven and fully discredited? The article doesn't tell us. It just allows the reader to wander in confusion through this thicket of imprecise and undefined terminology.
Berkman and Plutzer dubbed the remaining teachers the "cautious 60 percent," who are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives. "Our data show that these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy," they said.

The researchers found these teachers commonly use one or more of three strategies to avoid controversy. Some teach evolutionary biology as if it applies only to molecular biology, ignoring an opportunity to impart a rich understanding of the diversity of species and evidence that one species gives rise to others.
More vagueness. What is a species, exactly? Is the evidence that species, whatever they are, evolve into other taxa unambiguous and dispositive? Is there no reason to question it? We're not told, but the answers to these questions matter if we're to properly assess the significance of the statistics the researchers are reporting.
Using a second strategy, some teachers ... "tell students it does not matter if they really 'believe' in evolution, so long as they know it for the test," Berkman and Plutzer said.
How many teachers do that? Many of them or just one?
Finally, many teachers expose their students to all positions, scientific and otherwise, and let them make up their own minds.

This is unfortunate, the researchers said, because "this approach tells students that well established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions."
Do the authors mean to say that we do our students a disservice when we show them both the pros and the cons of a particular explanation in science? What are the well-established concepts the researchers have in mind here? The concept that evolution is a purely natural process? The concept that evolution has been "fully proven"? The concept that change happens? What?
Berkman and Plutzer conclude that "the cautious 60 percent fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments." As a result, "they may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists."
This claim about undermining the authority of experts leading to hindering scientific illiteracy is very odd. Studies have shown that it's precisely those students who have strong beliefs in creation or intelligent design (they're not the same thing despite repeated attempts by the media to conflate them in the public mind) are often the students in any biology class who also have the best understanding of Darwinian evolution. The students who simply accept the evolutionary point of view without question often know the least about it.
Berkman and Plutzer say the nation must have better-trained biology teachers who can confidently advocate for high standards of science education in their local communities. Colleges and universities should mandate a dedicated undergraduate course in evolution for all prospective biology teachers, for example, and follow up with outreach refresher courses, so that more biology teachers embrace evolutionary biology.
Does this mean that deviant biology teachers will be subjected to some sort of aversion therapy, like the sociopath Alex in Clockwork Orange, or "reeducation" such as Winston Smith was forced to undergo in 1984? What if this doesn't work, do Berkman and Plutzer think we should employ electroshock treatments to correct the thinking of recalcitrant educators?
"Combined with continued successes in courtrooms and the halls of state government, this approach offers our best chance of increasing the scientific literacy of future generations," they conclude.
Indoctrination of students doesn't lead to scientific literacy. It merely makes them uncritical parrots of whatever their masters want them to say. What leads to scientific literacy is teaching them to impartially evaluate evidence, which is precisely what these researchers don't want. Perhaps they know that the more students are encouraged to sift the evidence and subject it to critical analysis the less inclined they are to buy into the Darwinian paradigm.