Facing Challenges to Evolution Education

In 1983, The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) was founded to promote excellence in science education, improve public understanding of evolution, and defend evolution education from sectarian attacks. In 1987, when the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana anti-evolution law, many observers thought the "creation science" controversy had been put to an end. Instead, it returned to the local level, where new strategies appeared in countless communities and at the state level, as well.

Here are descriptions of strategies that are commonly used in attempts to force "creation science"or "intelligent design" into public schools, and suggestions on how to respond.

Anti-evolution strategy: Uses of euphemisms or code phrases such as "arguments against evolution" "alternative theories", "balanced treatment," "intelligent design theory", "abrupt appearance theory", "irreducible complexity."

Response: These phrases are code words for an attempt to bring non-scientific, religious views into the science curriculum; no matter what it’s called, it is illegal for public schools to advocate religious views of any kind. Districts that do so are risking expensive law suits that would divert funds from important educational programs. Different members of the public will respond to different kinds of information. Use many approaches, including: (a) Inviting local scientists to explain why "arguments against evolution" (by any name) are not scientific (NCSE can help); (b) calling upon local clergy to expose the underlying sectarian motivations of this approach; (c) reminding Boards of Education to obtain legal advice when considering such policies; (d) providing Board members and administrators with information about the applicable laws

Anti-evolution strategy: Calls to label evolution as "theory, not fact," or claiming that evolution is "only a theory".

Response: Point out that proposals like these are using the ordinary definition of "theory" as "hunch," or "guess," rather than the scientific meaning of the term. Explain the meaning of scientific theory as used in scientific work. The goals are both to make sure that the public and policy makers understand the issues, and to ensure that correct definitions of "theory" appear in curriculum and policy statements.

Anti-evolution strategy: Calls for teaching "both sides" because that's what's "fair"

Response: The "fairness" strategy can be very effective at first because it appeals to a broadly held value. Point out, however, that a fair science curriculum is one that teaches children the most up-to-date, accurate information that is accepted in the scientific community. It's not fair to harm the education of all of the students because of narrow sectarian objections to evolution. A good curriculum also requires science teachers and students to use scientific standards of evidence and inference in classroom discussions, rather than unsupported opinions.

Anti-evolution strategy:Claims that critical thinking skills are enhanced by teaching both evolution and "creation science" (or one of its synonyms):

Response: Teaching critical thinking doesn’t mean presenting irrelevant and ill-founded "alternatives" to basic knowledge that all students need to understand. In the context of science education, it would be appropriate to discuss genuine disagreements within the scientific community — for example, scientific discussions about the pace at which evolution occurred.

Another problem is that teachers discussing "evidence against evolution" would logically be expected to discuss evidence against "scientific creationism." Yet it is impossible to do so without criticizing religious beliefs, which they should not do.

Anti-evolution strategy: Calls to treat evolution as a "controversial issue," by using disclaimers or other methods. Efforts to have school boards adopt evolution disclaimers have become very popular; it may be suggested that a printed disclaimer be inserted in textbooks, or that teachers be required to read aloud a disclaimer.

Response: Point out that evolution is not scientifically controversial, but, rather, the guiding theoretical framework for the modern biomedical and life sciences. Evolution should not be treated differently from other mainstream sciences. The social and political controversies that sometimes arise around the teaching of evolution should be recognized for what they are, social and political controversies, not scientific ones. Of course, there are unresolved questions and open issues within the field of evolution. In this respect, evolution is typical of other scientific fields.

Anti-evolution strategy: Call for "academic freedom" to use "supplementary materials."

Response: Attempts to bring in anti-evolution material is almost always behind calls of this kind. When proposals like these are made, examine the supplementary materials and determine if they are legitimate scientific materials or whether they consist of inaccurate, misleading, or false claims about evolution that circulate in creationist sources. Ensure that local policies were followed in adopting them. References to "academic freedom" are inappropriate in this context. The American Association of University Professors, the chief watchdog for academic freedom, has stated that efforts to teach ID "run counter to the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding evolution and are inconsistent with a proper understanding of the meaning of academic freedom.” By the AAUP’s widely accepted definition, academic freedom is principally the right of college-level scholars to conduct, publish and discuss research. And as the AAUP observes, academic freedom does not carry with it the freedom to misinform students, and that is exactly what happens when ID arguments are taught. Academic freedom, as normally understood, does not apply to teachers in K-12, because they are not researchers. Teachers at that level set the foundation for students to work with active researchers in college.

(based on Facing Challenges to Evolution Education by Molleen Matsumura)