The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Majority of U.S. Biology Teachers Don’t Teach Evolution Adequately

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 7, 2011

Sometimes science supporters lament some very stubborn statistics, specifically those regarding the public acceptance of evolutionary science in the United States.  Rather consistently, for many decades, the number of people in the U.S. who are outright ignorant or mistrustful of evolutionary science hovers at around the 40-45% mark, with most of those identifying as Young-Earth creationists (i.e. those who believe the Earth is ~10,000 years old as espoused by certain Biblical interpretations).  Fortunately, recent research has shown this number slowly declining, but it is a really slow decline.

And many times, those of us in the pro-science crowd have wondered why it is that, despite amazing advances in evolutionary science and defeat after defeat for creationism in the federal courts, this blatant ignorance of (or outright animosity towards) evolution still exists to such a large degree?  Well, some recent survey research may provide some clue as to an answer, and it – sadly – involves the nation’s teachers…

13% of H.S. Biology Teachers Advocate Creationism in Class

The majority of high-school biology teachers don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students, mostly to avoid conflicts, and fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance on the topic, a new study finds. Also, 13 percent of these teachers advocate creationism in their classrooms.

“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves,” Michael Berkman, co-author of the study with Penn State University colleague Eric Plutzer, told Livescience. “Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.” …

So it seems that part of the problem is that many biology teachers themselves are not adequately prepared to teach about evolution.  However, this is a problem which can (and should) be corrected by making adjustments to the university curriculum & training for prospective biology teachers, giving them (well, the 87% who are NOT creationist) the appropriate skills & training in the subject matter.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a deeper problem: that of intimidation, either explicit or implicit, of biology teachers who actually want to teach evolution…

… About 60 percent of the teachers polled didn’t take a direct stance on the subject, dubbed by the authors as the “cautious 60 percent.”

Based on respondents’ write-in answers, the researchers surmised that many of these cautious teachers toed the line, weakly teaching evolution without explicitly endorsing or denying creationism in order to avoid controversy and questions from both students and parents.

Often, a letter in support of evolution from the principal or the school board is enough to instill confidence in the teachers, Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. “It would be beneficial for there to be more support from the administration, so [teachers] don’t feel out there all alone,” he said.

Typically, the study found, teachers used three tactics to avoid conflict:

  • Instead of using evolution to explain relationships and development of species, some teachers explained it only in a molecular and genetic sense;
  • Others taught the curriculum so students knew it for the state-wide tests, but didn’t try to convince the kids that evolution was valid;
  • And some offered up both evolution and creationism, without pushing for either, letting the students come to their own conclusions.

These data might go a long way towards explaining the stubborn adherence by so many to creationism over the well-established science of evolution.  I think one of the best ways to deal with the second, and more difficult, problem has to come in the way of community support for teachers who stand up for good science education within their institutions.  If pro-science parents stand up and are vocal about these issues, it will make things that much harder for creationists when they try to intimidate local teachers into either watering down or completely skipping evolution in the classroom.

So, in the spirit of lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness, I have some advice for you:

1) If you are a teacher, discuss this issue with your colleagues and attempt to present a united front on the question to your community.  Also, seek out local allies in both the administration & wider community to help you resist attempts to dumb down evolutionary lessons.

2) If you are a parent, engage with the teachers, administration, and board of your school to be sure that they are putting forth a good, solid scientific program which does not flinch from teaching evolutionary science.  In other words, support your local science teacher!

3) Pay attention to your letters-to-the-editor in the local newspapers.  These can be a good guide to assessing the feel of your community regarding evolutionary science & education, and they are among the most often-read portions of the paper and thus serve as a rough gauge of public opinion.  If you see creationists printing letters in your local paper, take heed & write a letter in response (here are 10 tips on how to write a letter to your local paper on this issue).  If creationists feel as if they can make their arguments unchallenged, then they will also feel emboldened to give the science teachers in your community a hard time.  But if you (and others) stand up and fight back, then your teachers will know that you support them and they’ll in turn feel more confident about teaching evolutionary science properly.

4) Get connected with the National Center for Science Education – they are the premier nationwide organization for dealing with the evolution/creationism issue, and they have a wealth of experience in dealing with these problems.  The sooner that you get in touch with the good folks at the NCSE, the better.

5) Recruit others to the cause.  Talk to neighbors, friends, family, and your religious community (if you have one) about the importance of not dumbing down science education.  The more people that you can bring to understand the importance of this issue, the easier it will be for you & the teachers.

So, with that last bit of advice… pass this along! :)

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5 Responses to “Majority of U.S. Biology Teachers Don’t Teach Evolution Adequately”

  1. Curtis said

    Matt, I find it a bit hypocrtical that you think it fortunate that the percentage of people in the U.S. who are outright ignorant or mistrustful of evolutionary science hovers at around the 40-45% is slowly declining. As a skeptic are you not supposed to encourage individual examination and thought? Pehaps those people have examined the data on their own and come to their own decision (Perhaps they have decided to not care). Is that not what you would encourage your students to do? Since Evolution is a theory, not a law of nature, refusal of it is just a vaild as rejecting any other unproven theory. Newtonian Physics was accepted as the way the universe worked. I doubt that you could have found 1% of the population that mistrusted it’s veracity. According to your logic this would mean that teachers were doing a good job of teaching it in the schools. Never mind that it was wrong. If it were not for a few skeptics, who looked at the data and decided that it did not add up, you would have been taught only Classical Mechanics at WKU. Can the same not be said for the theory of evolution. Perhaps there are those out there that look at the data for evolution and have decided that it does not add up, and that creation is the explanation that does. Yes it requires Faith, but so does all of science. As a scientist (BS and MS in Physics) who is also a creationist, I find no conflict in my beleifs. As Dr. V told me at WKU, the job of the physicist is to observe the world, and then attempt to explain what you saw. If your explanation is valid for repeated observations, then you have a good working theory. If your explanation does not then you need to start over. SO until science can combine a bunch of inanimate chemicals together and cause them to live, creation is every bit as valid as evolution (even more so).

    • mattusmaximus said

      Curtis said:

      Matt, I find it a bit hypocrtical that you think it fortunate that the percentage of people in the U.S. who are outright ignorant or mistrustful of evolutionary science hovers at around the 40-45% is slowly declining. As a skeptic are you not supposed to encourage individual examination and thought? Pehaps those people have examined the data on their own and come to their own decision (Perhaps they have decided to not care). Is that not what you would encourage your students to do?

      Yes, when I teach about the big bang and the evolution of the universe, I encourage my students to come to their own conclusions. However, the science is clear – evolution (both biological & cosmic) is a fact, and no matter if 99% of the people said otherwise, the science is still conclusive. You seem to want to have science by vote, which is ludicrous – since when did the universe work according to our wishes, desires, or personal beliefs?

      Since Evolution is a theory, not a law of nature, refusal of it is just a vaild as rejecting any other unproven theory.

      Of course, one could just as easily say that “gravity is just a theory” and it would be just as silly an argument; in fact, I have encountered people (both face-to-face and online) who actually say that about gravity. Interestingly, they attempt to apply the same poor reasoning against basic physics that many creationists employ against evolution. The bottom line is that evolution forms the core of modern biology, and it is more than “just a theory” because we have a lot of modern technology based off of evolutionary science – ever heard of genetic therapies and modern vaccines & antibiotics? Those things are a direct, practical result of our application of “merely theoretical” evolutionary science.

      To be consistent in your stance as a creationist who rejects evolution, are you going to swear off modern antibiotics and vaccines? If not, you open yourself to the charge of hypocrisy.

      Newtonian Physics was accepted as the way the universe worked. I doubt that you could have found 1% of the population that mistrusted it’s veracity. According to your logic this would mean that teachers were doing a good job of teaching it in the schools. Never mind that it was wrong. If it were not for a few skeptics, who looked at the data and decided that it did not add up, you would have been taught only Classical Mechanics at WKU. Can the same not be said for the theory of evolution. Perhaps there are those out there that look at the data for evolution and have decided that it does not add up, and that creation is the explanation that does.

      First, you really need to study the history of physics if you believe that only 1% of people reject/question Newtonian physics. Second, I wouldn’t call Newtonian physics “wrong” per se, but I would say that it is more accurate to call it an approximation of the laws of physics within a specific context (on the macroscopic size scale, at low speeds much slower than lightspeed, and under relatively weak gravitational influence). The problem with you making your analogy of the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics which trumped classical Newtonian physics is that we already have the evidence that relativity & QM more accurately describe the universe (though classical physics works well enough for most things we encounter in our everyday lives). Not to mention, your implication seems to be that there’s something better than evolution in the biological fields, but you’re wrong – the scientific community has come down squarely on the side of evolution and against creationism in all its forms (be it young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, or so-called intelligent design). Until such a time as a better theory comes along, evolution is it.

      Yes it requires Faith, but so does all of science. As a scientist (BS and MS in Physics) who is also a creationist, I find no conflict in my beleifs.

      Good for you. But I ask you again, if you really do believe what you believe, then how is it that we can use the science of evolutionary biology to develop the technologies I listed earlier? And, if you wish to adhere to your beliefs that evolution is wrong and maintain consistency, then why not refuse to use those technologies? At least then you wouldn’t be a hypocrite.

      And since you brought up creationism as your belief system, let me ask you this: which version of creationism is correct? Is it young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution, etc? Is is Christian creationism, Muslim creationism, Native American creationism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc? There are many different versions of creationism that are completely inconsistent with each other, even within one religion like Christianity – so which one is correct?

      As Dr. V told me at WKU, the job of the physicist is to observe the world, and then attempt to explain what you saw. If your explanation is valid for repeated observations, then you have a good working theory. If your explanation does not then you need to start over.

      Actually, you need more than simply an explanation for repeated observations, and the fact that you don’t understand this speaks to your basic ignorance of the scientific method (despite your degrees). You not only need to explain the observations, but you must also have a working, testable model which can generate new predictions, for example. Evolution satisfies this criteria quite handily, and it continues to produce new predictions (mathematical in nature, in fact) while tests of those predictions are born out. If your criteria was all that was necessary, then I could invoke anything – such as ghosts, leprechauns, God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster mentioned above – to “explain” the observations.

      SO until science can combine a bunch of inanimate chemicals together and cause them to live, creation is every bit as valid as evolution (even more so).

      Again, this shows that you have a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, as this is a common misconception on the part of creationists. The question that you bring up is related to biological evolution, but not evolution per se – rather it is a question of a related field called abiogenesis or “chemical” evolution, as some call it. The interesting thing is that a lot of recent advances have been made in the field of abiogenesis, and many top scientists in the field think that within a few years we could very well be making life “from scratch” as you outline – time will tell.

      Another problem with your last argument can be outlined by analogy: because we don’t yet have a unified theory of physics which reconciles gravity (general relativity) with quantum mechanics, does that mean that we should just throw out all of 20th and 21st century physics. To stay consistent in your own arguments, you would have to say yes – but I think you’re smarter than that.

  2. Curtis said

    Matt, You write that the “science is clear evolution is fact”. With that you join other great scientists like AL Gore (the science is settled, global warming is fact). You as a scientist and teacher of science should know that nothing in science is absolute (quantun mechanics teaches us that). Also since science is based on the inductive method one cannot know anything inductively with absolute certainty. The inductive method gives us knowledge that is only probably true. Science, therefore, cannot be certain about anything in an absolute sense. It can provide a high degree of confidence based on evidence that strongly justifies scientific conclusions, but its method never allows certainty.
    You seem to proceed from the paradigm that you can only be a creationist if you reject all of creation. Since I believe that the universe was created, I cannot believe that creation can adapt to better itself. How nice it must be to compartmentalize in such a way. Your argument is as ludicrous as saying that if I beleive that Ford (which I do not) is the best automaker in the world then I would be a hypocite if I were to drive a nissan, and I must reject all inventions of other automakers. Yes I believe that the universe was created but I also believe that it was set up with definite laws that the created would follow (which science studies, describes and uses). I also believe that the created can adapt and change (evolve if you will) to exterior stimuli to better themsleves and to survive. Thus I can accept science and scientific developments while attributing them to the genius of the Creator. You seem to think that my Christian Faith requires me to remain in the garden and never leave. That speaks to your lack of knowledge in any religious creed. Perhaps you should also study the history of science and those scientists that were also persons of faith (Gregor Mendel perhaps since you kept mentioning genetics). Apparently, you as a scientist stand on the shoulders of numerous hypocites.
    If the science is clear (as you espouse)that evolution is real and correct, please explain how it is that all we see came from nothing. Because when you get right down to it that is the part that no science can explain. You can say that eons ago all the universe was a tiny ball of superheated plasma/ gas/ matter, but that still had to come from somewhere. Your own beloved theory (or fact as you put it) says that everything had a begining before which there was nothing, so how did this nothing beget something. Kind of violates all the “laws” of physics (that pesky conservation of matter/ energy). That is where the faith in science comes in, and it takes more on your part to beleive that then it does for the “misguided” creationist to believe in a Creator.
    You repeatedly contend that if I am to be “genuine” in my beliefs, then I must reject all that follows from science. That being the case, you as a skeptic and scientist, must reject all that cannot be described, predicted, or quantified by science. This would include such things as preference, and love. You would also have to put only scant belief in medicine since persons that should die, by all scientific thought, manage to survive while others that should live wither away and die. Since science cannot accurately predict and describe these, you must reject medicine, preference, and love by your own “logic” or be in jeopardy of being a hypocrite.

    • mattusmaximus said

      So exactly which version of creationism do you cater to, Curtis? You never really addressed that particular question. Are you a flat-earther, geocentrist, young-earth creationist, old-earth creationist, progressive creationist, intelligent design proponent, theistic evolutionist, or deist? The fact that there are so many different kinds of creationism, many of which are mutually exclusive, speaks volumes. It also speaks volumes that so many creationists are ignorant of the other kinds of creationism.

      Which one are you? And what do you have to say about the other Christians who cater to a different, mutually exclusive version of creationism than you? In fact, what do you have to say about other Christians who fully accept both biological and cosmic evolution (including the big bang)?

      You seem to want to employ a false dichotomy in implying that one cannot have some kind of a belief in God yet still also accept all of modern evolutionary science. This is clearly wrong, as there are plenty of people who do both. They may just believe in a different kind of God (or a different version of the Christian God, to be specific) than you. I know these people exist, because I interact with them all the time.

      So what do you make of them, Curtis? And which kind of creationist are you?

      BTW, on a separate note, synthetic lifeforms may have already been created in the lab: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-synthetic-life-form

  3. Curtis said

    Matt. You were the one employing the false dichotomy in proposing that if I beleive in a creation, then I am bound to reject all “evolution” (adaptaion) has accomplished, and everything that comes from a scientific application (To be consistent in your stance as a creationist who rejects evolution, are you going to swear off modern antibiotics and vaccines? If not, you open yourself to the charge of hypocrisy.). I simply followed your lead. So it is gratifying to hear that you acknowledge that there can be people that do embrace both (and the possibility that you may be one of them). I know plenty of them as well, since I am one of them. You may also find it difficult to beleive that I am a skeptic, in that I do not automatically believe everything I read or am told until I can prove it to myself.
    If you had to put a name on what I beleive, it would best be described as a YEC, and yes I am well versed in the other options (a poor beleiver I would be to follow without understanding what I beleive and the options). Despite that name, I am not one that believes we can pin down the exact age of the Universe (as those that say it is 10000 years old), just that it is much younger than conventional science tells us it is.
    As to the “artifical life” Negative Ghost Rider… From what the article mentions, this is no more than sophisticated genetic engineering, the scinetist did not build the cell along with the organells, they simply built a portion of DNA and inserted it. Yes it is artifical in that it does not occur in nature, but it is not creating life, just modifying what is already there, no more than Gregor Mendel did with his Plant. More sophisticated to be sure, but no different.
    Greetings to your wife (Carmen I believe). Have a wonderful and blessed day.

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