Standing Up for Science: Taking the Evolution Debate to the Next Level

I recently received an email with a headline that made me do a double-take. It read: “Science Education Triumphs in Texas.”

These days, I’m not used to science education triumphing anywhere—but in Texas? The Lone Star State doesn’t have a good track record in this area. Its state school board contains a faction of religious-right activists who favor creationism over evolution and are fond of pushing a far-right social agenda. This is the state, after all, that rewrote its social studies standards to promote “Christian nation” claptrap.

A little background: Texas, like a lot of states, is cutting back on public education funding. In lieu of new science textbooks, the board this year decided to buy $60 million worth of “supplemental” classroom materials that are delivered mostly online.

Advocates of church-state separation and sound science education were alarmed. In Louisiana, creationists have seized on the ruse of “supplemental” material to sneak creationist lesson plans in through the back door. Was Texas following suit?

It sure looked like it. Two of the groups offering material—the infamous Discovery Institute and a group called International Databases—put forth material that questioned evolution. Science educators and the Texas Freedom Network sounded the alarm.

Observers expected a showdown, but it fizzled. The board, the composition of which has become a little more moderate recently, unanimously rejected the creationist materials and adopted lesson plans that include the teaching of evolution. Maybe the creationists knew they didn’t have the votes. Maybe they feared lawsuits. For whatever reason, the creationist bloc backed down.

After the vote, creationists tried to save face by insisting they had scored a victory. They noted that the board offered only conditional approval to some material produced by Holt McDougal that supposedly contains errors about evolution. These “errors” exist only in the minds of creationists, and the board’s solution was to ask the Texas Education Agency to give them a review. The agency isn’t expected to make significant changes.

There are two ways of looking at these results. One is to be pleased that the creationists were turned back. Another is to feel depressed that it’s 2011 and one of our most populous states is still re-litigating an issue that should have been laid to rest with the Scopes trial. And when you add in the realization that no matter what type of textbooks and supplemental materials are adopted some schools in Texas simply aren’t going to teach evolution, the case for being overly optimistic begins to evaporate.

The hard truth is that, while it’s usually possible to stop the overt teaching of creationism in public schools (assuming it is detected), the next step—convincing schools to affirmatively teach evolution—is much harder. Inserting religion into science classes is unconstitutional. Doing a mediocre job teaching biology isn’t.

How widespread is mediocre (or downright bad) science instruction? Earlier this year, two researchers at Penn State University issued a report on their survey of high school biology teachers. Their findings are alarming.

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that only about 28 percent of high school biology teachers said they consistently teach evolution. Nearly 13 percent say they favor teaching creationism or “intelligent design.” Most science teachers, about 60 percent, said they avoid taking a direct stance on the topic of evolution. Berkman and Plutzer called these teachers the “cautious 60 percent.”

“These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally,” wrote Berkman and Plutzer.
Chances are, many of this cautious 60 percent aren’t sympathetic to creationism—they’re just aware that if they teach evolution too robustly, they could spark a community backlash and be out of a job.

Humanists, church-state separation defenders, and advocates of good science education have done great work fending off overt creationism in many states. This year started with a spate of anti-evolution bills in a number of states. All were defeated or never even came up for a vote. That’s wonderful, and I salute everyone who had a hand in it.

Now it’s time to take the next step. We’ve been on the defensive too long. Let’s play a little offense. It’s time our efforts became pro-evolution as much as they are anti-creationism.

We can start by explaining why evolution instruction is essential. Most parents want their children to do well in school, and record numbers of youngsters are going on to college. There is an opening here. Most of these young people will attend public universities or private institutions where evolution is taught upfront and without apology. Do parents really want their sons and daughters to be at sea in Biology 101 because they didn’t receive proper instruction about evolution in high school? Do they want to see their children bomb the AP Biology test? Do they want to see them denied scholarships?

Do parents want their children denied access to certain emerging professions because they don’t understand the basics of evolution? Are parents happy to see other nations overtake the United States in these technologies, resulting in a loss of jobs, status, and economic wellbeing?

We can point out that creationism isn’t taken seriously in any other developed nation. Public schools in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, for example, don’t teach it, and most people in those nations don’t support it. What do they know that we don’t?

It’s a shame we can’t use an argument anchored in the sheer wonder and majesty of evolution. Some knowledge, after all, is simply worth knowing because it enriches your life. But, for better or for worse, more Americans are likely to be swayed by a pocketbook argument: we can teach our kids evolution and prepare them for the jobs of the future, or we can choke off these opportunities and continue to lag behind other nations. The choice is ours.

If we frame the argument right, I’m confident America’s parents will make the right choice.